Virgin Shaming Is Real And Here’s Why It’s Ridiculous
“I’m a virgin,” Alicia*, an English major at Syracuse University, says to Charlie, a guy she’s been flirting with all night. They’re sharing a couch in the common area connected to Alicia’s freshman dorm room, where they’ve been talking for the past half hour. Charlie winces at the proclamation before telling Alicia that he is also a virgin, and that he hates it.
“I wouldn’t want to be with someone who’s also a virgin,” Alicia recalls Charlie saying. “I want someone with experience.” Alicia’s face scrunches in anger for a split second, hurt that someone had just rejected her for her sexual inexperience. Her roommate Hannah comes in from the hallway and passes the couple on the couch to get to her bedroom. She closes her door and Charlie starts telling Alicia about how much he actually likes Hannah and how he’d rather be with someone like her — someone who’s had sex.
Three years have passed since this encounter, and Alicia, now a senior, is still a virgin. While she tries not to feel bad about holding onto her V-card, she’s all too familiar with virgin shaming. Virgin shaming is basically the little sister of slut shaming: it criticizes people for choices they make in their sex lives, but instead of the criticism being aimed at women who have “too much” sex, it’s targeted at people who haven’t had sex at all.
Dr. Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a psychologist and author of The Book Of Sacred Baths, believes that even though there isn’t any shame inherently tied to being sexually inexperienced, virgins still can’t seem to erase the negative stigma tied to their virginity. “The shame comes in comparing yourself to others,” Sherman says. “Shame is a very destructive emotion because it makes you feel as though there is something wrong with you that you need to hide or keep a secret. The experience of shame can cause low self-esteem and also cause people not to date and even stay away from associating with friends.”
Chelli Pumphrey, a licensed professional counselor and host of Voice America’s talk show, “Destination Love,” believes that being ashamed of your virginity can also affect your future sex life. “Sex is one of the most vulnerable and intimate experiences we can have as humans,” Pumphrey says. “When we attach shame to our sexuality, it makes it difficult to open up to a partner in this vulnerable way, and can prevent a person from being able to enjoy sex.”
While a lot of virgin shaming is internal, female virgins do experience criticism from other people. Janelle, a senior marketing major at Syracuse University, says that she’s experienced two different kinds of virgin shaming. The main form comes from comments made by men. “They’ll say stuff like, ‘you might as well get it over with,’ or ‘how long are you trying to wait? There’s not going to be any perfect person so I don’t know what you’re waiting for,’” Janelle says.
Another way that Janelle has experienced virgin shaming is through jokes her friends make about her virginity. Even though Janelle thinks her friends do a good job at making her feel comfortable about her sexual experience, they’ll still tease her about it from time to time. “They make a joke that guys won’t keep talking to me,” Janelle says. “They’ll be like, ‘you’re never going to get any.’”
Part of the reason women feel ashamed about being virgins is due to the societal expectation that you’ll lose it by a certain age. David Routt, a licensed professional counselor at Totius Therapies in Caldwell, Idaho, believes that a lot of the negative stigma surrounding virginity stems from cultural values. “Our society and culture seems to put a lot of stock into having a sexual relationship at a fairly young age,” Routt says. “This does not seem to be helping us in the least because relationships, especially deeply intimate ones, are difficult and most people are not prepared at young ages for the rigors and stress that is placed on a person when you are trying to work harmoniously with someone you have deep feelings for.”
Societal expectations can weigh heavily on a person, according to Antonia Hall, MA, a psychologist, relationship expert, and author of The Ultimate Guide To A Multi-Orgasmic Life. “Cultural norms can have a deep affect on our self-esteem,” Hall says. “When other’s opinions get to you, it can cause anxiety, stress, and even depression.”
When Alicia went abroad to London for the fall 2015 semester, all of her friends expected that she would finally find someone to have sex with. When she finished up her time overseas, she headed back home to San Juan, Puerto Rico where her friends waited with baited breath to hear all about her foreign love affairs — except she didn’t have anything to tell them. “How could you spend an entire semester in London and still be a virgin?” One of her friends asked. “OK, come on, don’t lie to us,” said another. Alicia didn’t know how to respond to her friends’ demands for a story. “They thought I was lying about being a virgin,” Alicia says. “But when I was in London, I realized some things are universal. Men are still men no matter where you are in the world. And I still didn’t feel comfortable exposing myself to someone at that point.”
This idea that someone can be too old to be a virgin is visible everywhere in our society. From movies that focus solely on the concept of being an “old” virgin like The 40-Year-Old Virgin to the infamous “you’re a virgin who can’t drive” line in Clueless, we are constantly bombarded with the idea that there’s an age at which it’s no longer acceptable to possess a V-card. While promoting her new memoir Scrappy Little Nobody, actress Anna Kendrick told Playboy about a diary she kept as a teen, where she wrote about her insecurities surrounding her virginity. She says that she wrote, “at what point will it be too late, and I’ll be a virgin forever because you can’t lose your virginity past a certain age?”
While Janelle and Alicia both hold the same value that since they’ve waited until their 20s, they might as well keep waiting, they also both think they’re getting too old to still be virgins. “When I turned 20 it felt like 20-year-old virgin is the new 40-year-old virgin,” Janelle says. “I was like, dang, maybe I just got to lose it this year. I always have those dumb thoughts, but it never actually plays itself out. But as I’m getting older I’m thinking maybe the perfect situation is not the perfect situation.”
Not having sex, like all sexual experiences, are choices that can result from many different factors. Kali Rogers, the CEO and founder of Blush, an online life coaching company, says that sexual experiences are related to everyone’s unique individual values, and none of those choices are wrong. “If a girl has a lot of sexual experiences, she probably values connecting with others, openness, and experiences, whereas if someone has less sexual experience, they might value conscientiousness and deep relationships,” Rogers says. Alicia and Janelle are virgins for different reasons and have different levels of sexual experience. Both are virgins because they feel like they haven’t met the right person, but Janelle also identifies religion as a factor in her decision, while Alicia just hasn’t felt enough of a connection with anyone yet.
Even though Janelle is a virgin, she’s proud of the fact that she’s not closed off completely from men. “I had a really close friend who barely talked to guys, and I felt like, at least I’m a step above that,” Janelle says. “She doesn’t even talk to them. She just shuts everyone down, and I’m like, ‘I let them get this far.’” Janelle’s comparison of her own sex life to her friend’s, however, is likely just another way of coping with feeling bad about her virginity.
Jane Bogart, the director for Columbia University’s Center for Student Wellness, says that someone comparing their sex life to someone else’s gives into the idea that there’s a right and a wrong way to have sexual relationships. “There is no ‘should do’ or ‘have to do’ when it comes to sexuality,” Bogart says. “There is a socially created narrative that suggests that any deviation from some supposed arbitrary standard of sexual behavior is a problem.”
Karen J. Helfrich, a licensed certified social worker and former sexual health educator for middle and high school students, says that the social construct that being a virgin is abnormal simply isn’t the case. “It is a popular misbelief that most people have had sex by the time they graduate from high school,” Helfrich says. “The Online College Social Life Survey” designed by Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University, collected data about students’ sex lives. The survey was conducted at 21 four-year colleges and universities across the United States between August 2005 and Spring 2011. It found that about 29 percent of the 24,131 college students surveyed are virgins.
While more than one in four college students haven’t ever had sex, many people still believe virgins in college are an anomaly. Janelle used to feel better about her virginity when the majority of her friends were also still virgins, but she started to feel more insecure about it as her friends started having sex. “I just felt like, dang, we were all in the same boat, and now I’m the only one in the boat,” Janelle says. “As I get older there’s less and less people that I think are still virgins, so I’ll look up stuff to find what percentage I’m in.”
Alicia sits at a corner booth in a bar on campus. She’s surrounded by five of her friends; all squished together on wooden benches against graffiti walls. One of the girls sitting on the opposite end of the table asks everyone how many people they’ve had sex with. The boy next to her starts to count on his fingers while another guy, Ben, looks at her and holds up his hand, which he cups to form a 0. “I’m the only virgin left. I hate it,” Ben says. The girl immediately points to Alicia and says, “No you’re not. Alicia’s a virgin too!”
He turns to his left and speaks over the person between him and Alicia to discuss their shared experiences over being virgins at 21. “I don’t want to be the virgin! I hate being the virgin!” Alicia yells through laughter. “It’s the worst! I just want to do it just to get it over with,” Ben tells her. Their friends around them focus on other conversations, while the two of them tell each other how good it feels to know they aren’t the only virgins left.
*Names have been changed
Being a virgin isn’t the only thing women can feel insecure or ashamed about. Some girls feel ashamed about their lack of a romantic relationship as well. Katherine, a senior journalism major at Syracuse University, says that even though she’s had sex, she’s experienced shame, both before and after losing her virginity, for not having ever been in a serious relationship. “When I would talk to guys, they’d ask about previous relationships and I’d tell them I hadn’t ever been in one,” Katherine says. “I realized afterwards that they’d start treating me differently and act more distant. It made me feel bad about myself because I was suddenly less desirable to guys due to my lack of experience with boys in general.”
Bogart says that worrying about your lack of a relationship is a universal concern for many people. “Sometimes people think that they are innately ‘unlovable’ or that they will ‘never’ meet someone or that ‘everyone else is in a relationship except for me,” she says. “Truth is that there are so many people who are not in relationships or in between relationships or who don’t even want to be in relationships.”
Here are Bogart’s three tips on how you should deal with shame over not being in a relationship:
1. Date You
“Start to focus on the things that you want to or like to do and treat yourself to those things,” Bogart says. “You’ll start to find your own sense of self, and, in the process, meet people and find new ways to connect.
2. Cultivate Your Friendships
Your friends “will be the people who are there for you in case the relationship you have in the future doesn’t work out,” Bogart says. Friendships can be just as fulfilling as a romantic relationship, so focusing on them can help you cope with any shame you have for not having a romantic relationship.
3. Know That A Romantic Relationship Isn’t The Be-All-End-All Of Relationships
“Being in a relationship is not a magic cure for feeling alone or lonely,” Bogart says. “Many people feel that way even in relationships.” Focusing your energy elsewhere, like on yourself, your friends or your career, can help give you the satisfaction you’re craving from a romantic relationship.