In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about how to talk to a friend who's upset about not having had sex yet.
Q: I have an older friend who is still a virgin. (She's 35.) She seems upset about it, but I'm not sure what to say.
Our culture makes a big deal about virginity. We tell each other stories about when we “lost it;” we create entire movie franchises about it (see: all of the American Pie movies); we simultaneously fetishize and scorn it. And so achieving an age that’s just over twice that of the average age people “lose their virginity” without having intercourse can feel overwhelming, upsetting, or even shameful.
But here’s something not many people know: Virginity is made up. “But wait!” you might be thinking. “I know what a virgin is! It’s a person who hasn’t had sex!” And, sure, you’d be right — that’s the story that we as a culture tell about “virginity.” But it begs the question: What is sex?
Is sex really just a penis going into a vagina? What about oral sex? What about anal sex? What about two people who have penises? Are they virgins even if they get intimate every night, but never with a person who has a vagina? I think you’re probably starting to see the gaps in this whole “virginity” idea.
I bring all this up because it could be a good place to start with your friend. (Assuming, of course, she is open to talking about it with you, which she may not be — and it's important to respect that.) She may be feeling all of that cultural baggage — and remembering all of those movies and conversations — even if she doesn’t have a name for it. And so dismantling the entire idea of virginity could be a good place to start dismantling her negative feelings about not having “lost” hers yet.
Historian Hanne Blank writes about exactly this ambiguity and the weight it carries for individuals in her book Virgin: An Untouched History. “This isn’t to say that virginity is relative and therefore irrelevant,” Blank writes in the book’s opening chapter. “To the contrary, we have more than two and a half millennia of written history that make it abundantly clear that virginity is relative and therefore immensely relevant. It is precisely its relatively that makes virginity so troublesome and so fascinating.”
But that’s pretty high level stuff. And while I personally find history and academic theory to be really comforting when I’m trying to work out a personal issue, I know that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. So for your friend, if she's open to hearing your suggestions, you might want to broach the topic of how she can increase sexual intimacy in her life, maybe even up to the point of penis-in-vagina or vagina-and-vagina or vagina-and-mouth sex — or whatever sex act she defines as “virginity."
Generally the first step when you’re seeking sexual intimacy is a date. I say “generally” because obviously there are other ways to hook up: you can pick someone up at a bar or hook up with a friend or join apps and services that help connect people for sex only, for example. But for someone who maybe doesn’t have a lot of experience with sexual intimacy, I’d recommend trying to go a more traditional route and starting with a date.
Why, you ask? For one really important reason: If your friend has taken this long to have sex, however she defines it, then going on this journey of sexual intimacy may be more fulfilling (and potentially less fraught) with one partner who she trusts. So: Go on a date. Probably go on a lot of dates, because that’s how dating works. And then, once she finds someone she clicks with, start with kissing! As she gets more comfortable with that person, she can decide whether she wants to include other sexual activities, ranging from breast-touching to hand jobs (of both the hand-on-penis and hand-on-vulva/vagina variety) to oral sex to intercourse.
I’d also recommend that she tell the person she’s doing this with that she’s figuring stuff out. Believe it or not, it’s way less awkward to be like “This is a thing I’m doing!” than it is to not tell and then just act uncomfortable and have the person wonder WTF they’re doing wrong. If that person isn’t down to be her sex guide, then it’s time to say goodbye! And that’s a good goodbye, because that wasn’t the right person for her.
On the flip side, she could also just find someone to hook up with, have sex with them, and get it over with. That way she can at least let go of this hangup that she’s "still a virgin" at 35.
Those are two very different options. And she might not like either of them or she might still be freaked out, even if she picks one. Either way, you can also recommend that she get into therapy to help her work out why she’s stayed away from this specific type of sexual intimacy for as long as she has — again, if she asks for your opinion. Even if there’s no trauma in her background, our cultural fixation on virginity may have also put a zap on her head, so it’s definitely worth unpacking with someone she trusts — a date, a therapist, or a good friend like you.
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