From Nia Vardalos’ and Drew Barrymore’s painfully awkward characters in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Never Been Kissed, to Clueless’ oft-quoted zinger, “You’re a virgin who can’t drive,” cinema has been way harsh to late bloomers. While these adult characters may go through transformative journeys, their lack of relationship history or status not only serves as the butt of each comedy’s joke but often presents them as outcasts. By the end, when they eventually get the guy or girl, they can officially toss aside their oddball label and be like everyone else. Only the presumption that these characters are lone oddities among the masses couldn’t be farther from reality.
According to a 2020 report from Pew Research, 35% of never-married single adults have yet to be in a committed romantic relationship. A 2022 survey conducted by the Kinsey Institute and Lovehoney revealed that 1 in 4 Gen Z adults has never had partnered sex. And in 2018, YouGov reported that 19% of younger millennials said they have kissed zero people. But if you’re on TikTok, this rise in late blooming probably isn’t too surprising. Over the last year, more millennial and Gen Z women have been sharing their stories about lacking or having later-than-expected romantic and sexual milestones. On the app, they share advice, talk about their insecurities, and participate in viral song trends about “falling behind.” Whether they haven’t had their first kiss or relationship, TikTokers are breaking through the silence and shame — and challenging the stigma surrounding late bloomers.
“[The movies have] made it so isolating, like it's just this one girl who has this problem,” Mia C. tells Bustle. The Utah-based TikToker went viral in April for posting a video about being 40 years old and never being in love or in a relationship. “What TikTok has shown me is that there's so many people who feel the same way.”
Allora Dannon Campbell also discovered there were a lot more late bloomers out there when her TikTok about her “most embarrassing secret” blew up in December 2022: She was 31, had never been kissed, never had a boyfriend, and wanted advice on how to start dating. “Besides my very best friend and my sisters, nobody knew this about me,” Campbell tells Bustle. “When I decided to make that first video, I just wanted to take the power of that fear and stigma away.”
Overnight, the marketing professional based in Rochester, New York, had thousands of new followers and comments, ranging from dating advice to people sharing that they are in the same boat as her. That community of over 37,000 followers has since rallied behind the now 32-year-old TikToker as Campbell updates her “Late Bloomer” series with videos about dating, intimacy, and her first relationship.
“I loved the dialogue we had with people bouncing ideas off each other. A lot of my first videos were asking TikTok for advice, like how do you kiss someone? What questions do you ask on a first date?” she explains, adding that she created a Facebook group for the community to answer each other’s questions in long form. “When you have zero experience, all questions are good questions, but sometimes you're too embarrassed to ask the people in your life who are closest to you.”
TikToker @wojlife, aka Ane, seems to feel similarly; she shared on the app how she wants to see more stories about queer people who haven’t met any romantic milestones. Late blooming may be a common experience with LGBTQ+ people, especially as the percentage of LGBTQ-identifying millennials (11.2%) and Gen Z adults (19.7%) continues to rise each year, but their stories are expectedly different because they often involve coming out and stigmas that are intertwined with queer stereotypes. One TikToker expressed frustration when she asked her fellow “late in life lesbians” (#lateinlifelesbian is a popular hashtag) what to say when people question if she’s just going through a phase. Other creators have chimed in with similar experiences about battling assumptions people make, especially if they had dated members of the opposite sex before.
As Ane noted in her TikTok, many of the stories she comes across are about lesbian late bloomers and people who have had sexual experience but not with a same-sex partner, and yet, she couldn’t quite relate to either scenario. In the same video, the 23-year-old opened up about telling her ex about her lack of romantic history. “I think there was some confusion because I think they assume[d] that I didn’t have much experience with women specifically,” she said. “When I clarified like, ‘Wait no, like, I don’t have, like, experience at all,’ I think there was a level of judgment that came in there.” Many of the commenters chimed in to say they related to Ane’s story and appreciated her openness.
Sharing personal stories with strangers on the internet is not a new phenomenon. But TikTok, in particular, with its uncanny algorithm that rewards entertaining and engaging content over high follower counts (unlike Instagram), has boosted such vulnerable conversations. “We begin to normalize these things, and then validate it, and then actually really own it,” says Catalina Lawsin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationship and sexual concerns and shares advice as @theintimacydoc on TikTok. This can have meaningful ramifications on people’s mental health; a 2023 Emerging Adulthood study reported that heterosexual adult virgins were more likely to devalue themselves and think they were less attractive than their “on-time” peers.
Showing power in numbers is essential to creating new norms that don’t pressure people to have their first sexual experience by college, find a long-term partner before 30, or reach any milestone at any age. It’s about emphasizing “that what we do with our bodies sexually is an individual choice,” says Lawsin, adding young people are often spending more time exploring their sexuality and want to get to know their partners better before engaging in intimacy.
But this change in the tides is still slow. That’s why it's important for late bloomers to speak out: It helps to relieve other people — younger and older — from those quiet pressures and educate everyone else. While everyone might not be comfortable with the idea of their story blowing up on TikTok, even the comment section is where people can find their voice. On one of Mia’s recent videos, a commenter said she loved her page, adding that it made her feel “less alone.” Mia responded in kind, saying that it’s “amazing people like you” who remind her she’s not the only one, too.
After all, those comments are what empower late bloomers to keep posting on TikTok. “I just know if I had heard [something like that] as a younger person, it would have totally changed my life,” Campbell says. “It literally thrills me beyond belief because [late-blooming TikTokers are] coming from such a place of fear. And it's not that you're not afraid, it's just knowing you're not alone.”
Lehmiller, Justin. “Gen Z Aren’t Having the Sex You Think: Here’s Why.” Lovehoney US, Lovehoney LLC, 18 Sept. 2023, www.lovehoney.com/blog/gen-z-are-having-less-sex-here-is-why.html.
Leroux, A., & Boislard, M. A. (2023). Exploration of Emerging Adult Virgins' Difficulties. Emerging adulthood (Print), 11(1), 121–132. https://doi.org/10.1177/21676968211064109
Twenge JM, Sherman RA, Wells BE. Sexual Inactivity During Young Adulthood Is More Common Among U.S. Millennials and iGen: Age, Period, and Cohort Effects on Having No Sexual Partners After Age 18. Arch Sex Behav. 2017 Feb;46(2):433-440. doi: 10.1007/s10508-016-0798-z. Epub 2016 Aug 1. PMID: 27480753.