This piece was written in response to the testimonies on Wesleyan Survivors’ Instagram page referencing the pressures that exist on campus in regards to virginity and hook-up culture. It aims to shed light on the prevalence of prude-shaming amongst students, normalize virginity in college, and hopefully, start a conversation.
During the fall of my senior year at Wesleyan, a couple students and I went out to Main Street to celebrate our friend’s birthday. At some point during the evening, the student sitting next to me at the dinner table started telling a funny hook-up story. Although I can’t remember the specific details a year later, the story was entertaining and amusing enough that I kept asking questions throughout. By the time they had finished their story, the student turned to me and asked: “What about you Lucie, what’s a funny hook-up story of yours?” I looked at them and casually replied: “Actually, I don’t have any. I’ve never had sex with anyone.” Ideally, that conversation would have ended there. I had answered the question; there was nothing else to add. But this is not an ideal world. At least, not for me. Before I knew it, everyone at the table was staring at me. One second went by, two seconds went by, three… Silence. I didn’t want to add anything—I shouldn’t have to. Yet, I did: “I’ve just never really met anyone who made me want to wake up to them the next morning.”
In that specific moment, justifying myself in front of eight other college students—most of whom I barely knew—as to why I still hadn’t had sex yet was the only way to finally interrupt a silence so loud, I was forced to give up my right to privacy just to ease someone else’s discomfort. I’d like to say that this was the first time I ever encountered that silence, but it wasn’t. Nor will it be the last. Although I filled it out unwillingly that night, this is the silence I want to make visible. This is the silence I want to publicly fill out so that I, and every single “late-in-life” virgin out there, are so normalized in the first place, that we are never made to feel like we owe anyone an explanation ever again.
I realized pretty quickly after arriving at Wesleyan that being physically intimate with someone I didn’t know wasn’t fun for me, nor particularly pleasurable. It made me feel like I was being treated (and treating the other student) as a body, rather than a person. I understood I needed to have some kind of emotional connection in order for me to feel sexually attracted to a person, and to make me feel comfortable enough to have sex with them. The problem is that finding someone who desired the same thing I did on a college campus, where most people are focused on figuring out sexual compatibility before even considering emotional compatibility, was like trying to find a needle in a hay-stack. It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely difficult to find.
Not only was I looking for something not often found at Wesleyan and had no plans on settling for anything else, I was also a walking taboo—and that didn’t feel right. Why should I feel ashamed for knowing what I want? Why should I be stigmatized for not having found someone I liked enough yet to want to have sex with them? The answer is simple: because I was now past society’s due date, and my inexperience was no longer deemed acceptable. Apparently, when you’re a virgin over 18, that means there’s something wrong with you.
By the end of freshman year, I had already noticed how the conversation around virginity was practically nonexistent on campus. I couldn’t understand why—especially, since I knew I wasn’t alone. Everyone tells us that sex in college will be better, meaning a lot of us graduate from high school as virgins. Yet, when we actually get to college, everyone expects us to have already had sex in high school. Where and when are we supposed to get our experience then, if no one wants to sleep with us because we don’t have the experience? It was like dealing with one of those job applications where the employers ask for 7+ years of experience for an entry-level job. On top of that, I knew for a fact that, while some of us are into hook-up culture, many of us aren’t. So, why was no one talking about this?
As you can tell from the beginning of this piece, I am no stranger to speaking openly about taboo topics people often feel uncomfortable addressing. I grew up in a family in which I was taught that talking freely and honestly about sex was considered healthy. Virginity wasn’t going to be any different. Thankfully, by the time I had arrived at Wesleyan, I had grown secure enough with myself and what I wanted for me to know that societal pressure wasn’t going to be strong enough to destabilize either of these things. There was nothing wrong with me and I knew it—why should I be embarrassed about it? So, I began opening up about it.
My virginity wasn’t something I would bring up out of nowhere; it was, however, something I would always casually talk about whenever the topic of sex, or hook-up culture came up. Usually, the other person would give me a concerned look—one that often screamed “Oh no, there’s a problem with her”—which would quickly disappear after I told them I knew what I wanted, and that it simply hadn’t happened yet. As always, providing reassurance was needed to ease someone else’s uneasiness about my own virginity.
Despite my grievances with the societal norms that stigmatized my virginity, I still consider myself very lucky. I was never ostracized by any of my friends for my inexperience, nor did I ever feel judged for it. In fact, my friends and I talked about sex all the time. Whether it was to talk about our favorite kind of porn, the best ways to effectively communicate with a sexual partner, red flags to look out for, or recommending sex toys to each other, I always felt included and able to actively contribute to conversations about sex. Looking back, I definitely believe the main reason my friends were so open about their own sex lives with me was because I was so open about the lack of mine. Knowing they regularly hooked-up and I didn’t, never made me feel self-conscious. We all have our preferences, and my friends’ desires being different from my own didn’t invalidate mine—the same way that mine didn’t invalidate theirs. It just meant we were into different things, and that’s perfectly fine. Although I was never personally stigmatized by any friends, that didn’t mean they didn’t have some deeply problematic comments to say about virginity every now and then.
So, I ask again: why was no one talking about this at Wesleyan?
Because when I was a sophomore, a guy who was trying to impress me at a party spoke about a girl he used to have a fling with, mocking her for being a virgin when they first started hooking up. Because when I was a junior, a crush of mine stopped actively flirting with me the day I mentioned that I had never had sex with someone else. Because when I was a senior, one of my closest friends—who knew I hadn’t had sex yet—said he wouldn’t have casual sex with this girl he was seeing on campus if she told him she was a virgin.
This is the kind of culture that is perpetrated on campus and that pushes people into feelings of shame and secrecy. This is the kind of culture that pressures students to force themselves into sex even though they may not want to or feel ready to. This is what teaches us that the only thing that makes us worthy of pursuit is how much sex we have had.
People talk about “virginity” as if it’s a personality trait; as if it defines the way you are, the way you think, the way you interact with others. Some believe they can “recognize” a virgin from a mile away. Some people think that being a virgin means you reject sex, don’t know anything about it, and are not open to exploration or kinks. Others believe being a virgin means you’ve never had any opportunities. I once had a friend say to me: “You still haven’t had sex?! But you’re so pretty and confident!,” as if there’s somehow a correlation between attractiveness and how much sex you have. Others treat virgins as if they have some kind of disease: you mention you’ve never had sex with anyone and poof! Suddenly they stop talking to you. Lastly comes the students who don’t want to hook-up with you because they say you’ll get “emotionally attached.” Ninety percent of the time, what this person is really saying is “I want to be able to treat this person like shit without feeling guilty about it afterwards”—as if being sexually active and participating in hook-up culture suddenly warrants being disrespected.
Unfortunately, the sex positive discourse that exists on campus does very little to nothing to help. As someone who identifies as sex-positive herself, I fully recognize how important it is to cultivate sex positivity and discuss sexuality to ensure empowerment and safety. However, its specific discourse that exists at Wesleyan is one that speaks exclusively to those who are sexually active. Sex positivity should focus on sex itself yes, but it also includes empowering individuals to make their own decisions in regards to sex—regardless of what those are—and teaching other students to accept and respect those. Yet, in my four years at Wesleyan, never once was virginity mentioned during any of the sexual health awareness interventions I attended, or addressed in any of the general discussions students had about sex positivity. Nor was abstinence for that matter. This is the kind of restrictive approach that implies that sex is imposed on us, and that teaches us that sexual empowerment can only be achieved through sexual experience. For a campus that prides itself on acceptance of all and that works tirelessly to destroy the harms of slut-shaming, Wesleyan falls terribly short in tackling its silent opposite: prude-shaming.
So, what happens when your experience isn’t represented in the day-to-day conversations surrounding sex, and you find yourself continuously being the butt of jokes? You internalize the judgement, the shame, and societal expectations. Reading some of the testimonies on Wesleyan Survivors’ Instagram page makes it clear that a fair amount of students who haven’t had sex yet feel alienated on campus. People feel so ostracized by their peers that they are ready to accept a sexual situation where they may not be comfortable, just to get it “over with” and fit in. Even then, most do everything in their power to keep their virginity a secret during their first time—neglecting open communication all just to avoid the possibility of embarrassment, mockery, or rejection.
When you’re a virgin, people assume what sex means to you based on outdated, sexist, purist clichés and stereotypes. People assume that if you waited that long, it “must” be because you want it to be with someone special. People assume, but no one ever takes the time to ask. That’s the problem. Never once was I asked by anyone at Wesleyan “What does sex mean to you?.” Instead, people thought they knew what I wanted based purely on their own prejudice. Assuming how I want to have sex for the first time without asking me means robbing me of my agency. It tells me that, because of my age, my ability to decide what I want will always be overpowered by the unspoken assumptions of society and my future sexual interests. We are so focused on policing each other’s bodies and what we should do with them, that we forget there is a human standing in it.
Being a “virgin” does not define you. In fact, sexual experience is not a prerequisite for being sexually mature. Some virgins work in the sex industry, some own sex toys, some watch porn regularly, and some love educating themselves about sex. Sex itself doesn’t define you either. You don’t “lose” anything when you have sex for the first time. You do just that: you have sex for the first time. The only reason one might perceive themselves differently after becoming sexually active is if their sense of worth is dependent on sexual validation.
What defines “losing” your virginity anyway? Is it when you first experience penetration? In that case, I lost mine to my gynecologist when I got my first pap smear. Some will tell you that no, penetration has to be of a sexual nature. Then, I guess I lost mine to myself the first time I ever masturbated. Now, you might say that it has to be sexual penetration with someone else. Okay, let’s talk about foreplay then. Let’s talk about queer sex. Is foreplay not sex? Is queer sex not sex? If you have sex with someone without penetration, have you not “lost” your virginity yet? My point is that sex means different things to different people and there is no right or wrong way to do it. Virginity was historically built by heterosexual, cis-gendered men in order to make you believe that their dick singlehandedly had the power to change you. Virginity always has been, is, and always will be a cultural construct.
On top of that, sex does not have the same importance for all of us, and not everyone grew up viewing it the same way. Some associate sex with intimacy, and others don’t. Some virgins are into hook-up culture, others are into friends-with-benefits, and some are into relationships. Others believe sex is for marriage. Some get emotionally attached; others don’t. In fact, whether or not someone gets emotionally attached after hooking up has everything to do with the individual themselves and how they approach sex, and nothing to do with whether or not they’ve actually had sex before. The “messiness” of emotions doesn’t suddenly disappear when you become sexually active. Some virgins haven’t had sex yet because intimacy makes them uncomfortable, and some haven’t met anyone who made them feel safe yet. Some are still healing from past trauma; others are suffering from health issues. Some want to wait for their first love, and some want to wait until their faith allows them to. Some don’t experience sexual attraction, and some simply don’t feel ready yet.
Although the stigma surrounding virginity made going through college without having sex difficult, there were a lot of benefits to it that I am incredibly thankful for today. Being by myself physically and emotionally for 22 years has allowed me to fully focus on myself. It has given me the time to learn how to love myself, build high self-esteem, and develop a deep understanding of what I want, in what context, and with whom.
In addition, despite the sex positive discourse on campus not being as inclusive as it should be, there are a lot of a great aspects to it that I decided to adapt and apply to myself to validate my own experience. Even though I’ve never had sex, I feel sexually empowered. I have stretch marks, cellulite, tiny boobs, wide ankles, a horrendous tendency to slouch, and yet I’ve grown to love every single inch of my body (okay maybe not my ankles, but at least I’ve accepted them). The sex postive discourse on campus also taught me what kind of treatment my partner and I both deserve: respect, pleasure, safety, and active communication – and you bet I’m going to make sure we both get it. I also learned how to make my own choices, allowing me to take ownership over my sexuality. I know that hook-up culture, personally, makes me feel like shit – which is why I made the choice not to partake in it. Making your own decisions and respecting your desires is empowering. Different things may be sexually empowering to you but they may not be for others, and vice versa. We all have different ways of reaching sexual empowerment that are unique to us. Sexual experience can be part of it, yes, but it also doesn’t have to be – and that’s what we desperately need to normalize.
While I was researching for this piece, I quickly realized that almost every article I found online about the subject was either focused on asking students what they thought about college virgins (as if we should even care), or written by people who have already had sex. It seems clear that no one is down to tell you being a virgin at a later age is okay while they’re still a virgin themselves. People wait until they have sex to tell you that. Well, to those of you out there, I just graduated from college, I haven’t had sex yet, and I want you to know that you are perfectly normal. In fact, there are way more of us than you think. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, 20% of the 24,000 American college students involved in their study graduated college without ever having had sex. That is 1 in 5 students, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking you’re alone.
There is nothing wrong with you; there is something wrong with the culture we perpetuate. We fit ourselves into what society says we should be and should do, while neglecting what we actually want ourselves. That is absolute trash and we all know it. So why are we so afraid of college virgins? Why is there still such a stigma around it? Because we, as a community, are still adamant on regulating and embarrassing others when we think they’re doing things differently.
My decision to be open about my virginity was both personal and political. I understood that if I wanted students on campus to start talking about it – free of any misconceptions or judgement – I needed to be part of that process. I needed to normalize it myself. It was also a way for me to guarantee that my virginity would never be used against me: if I was open about it, it meant I could never be shamed for it. In doing so, I took ownership over my own narrative, and had full control over how I was perceived by those around me. In a way, being honest about my virginity also made it easier to spot the shallow students who obviously weren’t worth my time. Talking openly about my virginity felt right to me but it may not be for everyone, and that is very important to recognize. Sex is not only personal, it is also private, and it is a choice.
If you want to wait until you feel ready to have sex, and then have a one-night stand with a stranger as your first time, do it! If you want to wait until you’re with your first romantic partner, go ahead! If waiting until your wedding night is what makes you feel empowered, then do that! If that’s what you want, then you’re doing it for the right reason: you’re doing it because you want to – not because your friends, your partner, your family, or society says you should. Find what works for you, and don’t settle for anything less. People will judge no matter what you do with your body, so you might as well stay true to your desires and do what makes you happy.
If anyone ever shames you, laughs at you, or rejects you because of your inexperience, that is direct feedback that this person is not worthy of your company. You want to be around people who understand, respect, and accept that you don’t have to do what everybody else does just because everyone else is doing it. Most importantly, if anyone ever pressures you into having sex, or makes you feel like you somehow owe them your virginity, I hope you’ll be kind enough to yourself to walk away. That is manipulative and toxic, and you deserve way better than that.
No matter what you decide to do, remember that you don’t owe anyone anything. Sex is not a competition. Regardless of your age, your gender, your race, or your sexual orientation, you owe it to yourself to do what’s best for you. If you are not in place to go through with it, or if the person you’re with does not make you feel safe, then wait until you are 45 years old if you need to. There is no age limit to have sex. You deserve to have sex the way you want to have it, when you want to have it. You are beautiful, you are worthy, and you are in control.
So, what does the ideal world look like for me?
My ideal world is one where I am never made to feel like I owe anyone an explanation for my virginity because of my age; one where, instead of encountering silence, I am met with someone saying “thank you for being so open and honest”. I want to reach a point where my virginity no longer matters more to everyone else than it does to me. I want to get to a place where it is not my job to ease your discomfort about my sex life; it is your job to work on your own issues since you’re the one who’s prejudiced.
This is the culture we need to actively work towards on college campuses, as well as everywhere else. The narrative that feeds slut-shaming is the same that enables prude-shaming: they work within the same discourse and they fight the same war. Having too “little” sex? You get attacked. Having too “much” sex? You get attacked as well. It’s a fight we simply cannot win when we condemn one but not the other. Same goes with toxic masculinity. We encourage men to break away from harmful “masculine” ideals, yet we shame them when they don’t fit into some kind of “playboy” mold. It’s hypocritical. We need to be as adamant to call-out prude-shaming as we are to call-out slut-shaming and toxic masculinity. Sexual liberation is about freedom of choice; it’s about feeling confident regardless of whether you want to have sex or not, no matter how much or how little you have, and regardless of how or when you have it. You cannot claim to be sex-positive if you exclude or judge others for not having sex.
It starts with every single one of us, and it is not exclusive to one gender. If you hear your friend or anyone making harmful comments, criticizing, or ostracizing someone because of their virginity or inexperience, it is your responsibility to call them out for the culture to change. In case you’ve forgotten, you were a virgin too at some point.
The best four years of my life were spent at Wesleyan and not a single second of it was spent having sex. I’d be lying if I said dealing with the stigma was easy. However, not having had sex doesn’t mean you can’t participate in Wesleyan’ social life. You can dance your ass off on a table at a party, wearing your sexiest outfit, and still be a virgin. You can go back to someone’s room after a night out and still be a virgin. You can get into Burlesque and participate in Wescam and still be a virgin. Being a virgin doesn’t mean you can’t feel sexy or be sexual. Take it from a virgin who did all of those things, and enjoyed every single one of them. Being myself, doing what I liked, and hanging out with those who respected me ended up making my whole college experience so much more fulfilling than if I had forced myself into having sex with someone I didn’t trust, simply because of the pressures of hook-up culture.
Sex seems incredibly fun and I look forward to having it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do it just because people say I’m too “old.” I deserve to wake up next to someone I have built a real emotional bond with, and I don’t care what anybody else has to say about it. If I ever get those urges, I can take care of them perfectly well by myself. In the meantime, my sexy 22 year old virgin self has a career to start, creative projects to create, friends to hang out with, and a life to live. At the end of the day, sex isn’t everything.