The 30-year-old virgins

It was once a badge of honor. But to the surprising number of adult women today who have not had sex, virginity is nothing but a curse.

Published September 6, 2006 10:32AM (EDT)

When Amanda was 26 years old she found herself in a familiar but awkward situation: She was still a virgin and the guy she had been dating for three months didn't know it. She wasn't ready to sleep with him yet, but she was close, real close. One night they were at his house, making out on the couch, when he asked her, "When's the last time you had sex?" The question was blunt and unexpected. She didn't know how to answer, and she didn't really want to. "One year? Two years?" She didn't respond. "Don't tell me you're a virgin?" he blurted as he abruptly pulled away. "No offense, but most people do that in high school," he told her. He acted like a victim, she says four years later, telling her that none of his friends would ever sleep with a virgin, that he'd already slept with two and would never do it again. About a week later they went to the movies together, and afterward, he walked her to the car. She leaned in to kiss him and he backed away, "like I was some disgusting object."

"It made me scared to date, scared to talk to guys. It was like, 'Oh my God, they're all going to do this,'" she says. She still tried, occasionally, and after about a year she met another guy, someone else from work. But then he also didn't know she was a virgin, and one night when they were practically naked together in bed it happened again, almost in the exact same way. He asked her about former lovers, and while she laughs nervously now as she retells the story, it wasn't funny then. It reminded her of the last time and she started to cry. But this guy was actually nice about it, telling her things like "That guy was such an asshole" and "You should say you just haven't found the right guy; be more self-confident." It made her feel better, and when he left he said he'd call her the next day. But he didn't call until the following week and things went downhill from there. "He never really said it was because I was a virgin," Amanda says. "But that was the point when everything shifted."

Some people may think Amanda is unique, maybe even a freak. But the fact is, there are a surprising number of women -- smart, savvy and attractive women -- who still haven't lost their virginity into their 20s or 30s. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 7 percent of unmarried women between ages 25 and 29 have never had sex; neither have 5 percent between 30 and 34 and 4.3 percent between 35 and 39. It's hard to say how many of these women are actually waiting until marriage, but it's safe to assume that quite a few aren't. This month Jane magazine is sponsoring a contest to get a 29-year-old virgin laid, a cheap publicity stunt that misses the bigger point: Why does a "funny, gorgeous" virgin need to place what is essentially an ad for sex at all? There was time when virginity was a prize, a treasure to be guarded and a badge of honor, but now, it seems that for the modern career woman virginity is nothing but a curse. What's worse, the longer she waits the harder it is to find a guy -- not just the right guy, but any guy -- to do the honors. Which prompts the question, Has the sexual revolution ironically made it impossible for a mature woman to get laid for the first time?

These days virginity is for kids, something to outgrow during the experimental teenage years. Of course, being a virgin late in the game is nothing new; but in a hypersexualized culture, in which teenage girls are starting to have sex at progressively younger ages and spin the bottle seems to have been replaced by the blow job, to be a virgin in her mid- to late 20s suddenly seems extreme. (According to the CDC report, 44.4 percent of girls between 15 and 19 had sex by the time they were 17, compared with 35.5 percent of women more than 20 years older who lost their virginity at the same age.) Sure, we have young people who are encouraged to wait until marriage no matter when that might be. We have born-again virgins restoring their hymens with plastic surgery, teenagers with promise rings and a government that promotes abstinence education. But most of those people are religious conservatives who are pretty much doing what they always did. The phenomenon of involuntary virgins, on the other hand, exists underground in liberal America, where sophisticated career women are supposed to have active sex lives and gyms offer pole dancing and stripping classes as a kind of aerobics. Where the proliferation of online dating fosters a culture of freewheeling, uncommitted hookups. Where anyone who isn't doing it is too unhip to know better. "The culture is getting more and more permission to be sexual at any age," says Shirley Zussman, a sex therapist in New York. "It's almost a directive from the culture: movies, books, magazines, TV programs. Everybody is saying "Look, this is what's going on. What about you?"

At parties, especially college parties, conversations tend to revolve around sex, and about the last thing any virgin wants is for her sexuality to be the hot topic or, worse, to risk the chance that someone in the group will talk down to her, as if all she knows about sex is the birds and the bees. Laura, a virgin until she was 25, remembers parties where friends and strangers would trade personal sex stories. "You're kind of sitting there like, 'All right, I've got nothing to contribute.' So I would just physically remove myself. Leave, walk around and hopefully people wouldn't notice." When she was just 23, Laura went to a New Year's Eve party where a discussion about sex quickly turned into a contest: Who has slept with the most people? Who has slept with the oldest person? Who was the youngest when he or she first had sex? And so on. So Laura went to wash the dishes. "I remember thinking, 'What an idiot. I'm washing dishes at a party because I don't want to be involved in this conversation.'" But it was probably for the best. "I remember one of the guys saying, 'Man, if I was 24 and a virgin I think I'd go crazy. I think I'd die.' Then some other guy said, 'You know the Unabomber was a virgin," and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, they think I'm going to turn into a sociopath because I haven't had sex at the age of 23.'"

On the men's lifestyle Web site, relationship correspondent Lawrence Mitchell wrote a column in 2002 called "Should You Date a Virgin?" which advises men to stay away from virgins unless they're ready for a committed relationship. "When we think virgin, we either recoil or go wild," he writes. "If you must date a virgin, keep in mind" that in his opinion, "as soon as you invade her space so to speak, her emotions will intensify. She will exact certain expectations on you, whether you know it or not." He goes on, "An obese thirty-something career woman virgin, for example, is not on the same level as a naäve [sic] 18-year-old virgin with a strict background who has never dated before," reinforcing the stereotype that there's something physically or psychologically wrong with a woman who is 30-something and still a virgin.

Mitchell's assessment rang true one recent night to a 37-year-old California editor, who found out that his very hot date, a lawyer with "bad girl's body," was still a virgin at 28. They met at a party and left early so they could be alone at a bar. When he asked her about old boyfriends, she said she was into hard-to-get bad-boy types, the kind who drive race cars and date women for their looks. They sounded like crushes at best, not exactly real boyfriends. Her views on love and sex were so adolescent, so "totally out of the loop," that even before the cocktails came he figured it out. "Are you a virgin?" he asked. She burst into tears. "I was flabbergasted, astonished and intrigued. I didn't think it could happen in 2006. I thought it was some cosmic joke, a comedy of errors, that she hadn't lost her virginity. She thought it was tragic." He talked her through it and she thought they had a connection. But at the end of the night he wouldn't sleep with her. "I knew she already had a little crush on me, and if that happened, she'd have an unmanageable crush on me that would be difficult for both of us and end in tears for her."

So what ever happened to the idea that a man's ultimate fantasy is to deflower a virgin? Well, if she's a young, nubile girl the fantasy is still out there. But can you imagine a 30-year-old virgin as the star of Internet-porn spam? What about as one of the 72 virgins waiting for the jihadists up in heaven? University of Texas psychology professor David Buss, author of "Evolution of Desire," says that one reason an older virgin becomes essentially untouchable is because "people infer that there is something psychologically wrong with the person who substantially exceeds the cultural norm in age and is still a virgin. Perhaps she has deeply rooted sexual hang-ups or some other deep psychological problem." Or perhaps they just think she's asexual or frigid. Of course, in many cultures, including those in China, India, Indonesia and parts of our own country, a virgin is still a prize when it comes to finding a wife. Before the advent of birth control, having a virgin bride was the best way a man could make sure that any children she bore would be his own, especially since a virgin was considered less likely to stray later, Buss says.

According to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, most people in Western society assume that a people in their mid- to late 20s have already experienced dating and sexual experimentation, an exploration that, for the most part, started when they were teens. Involuntary virgins, on the other hand, may have missed that dating phase in high school (perhaps they were buried in their books) and probably missed it in college too, so once they enter the real world, one with more adults, they start to feel left behind, according to the study by Georgia State University associate professors of sociology Denise Donnelly and Elisabeth Burgess, who surveyed 34 male and female involuntary virgins. A woman who has never had sex can start to feel alienated, like a social pariah, and the last virgin on earth (at least among her peers). This feeling can turn into a barrier to meeting a lover, and the chance that she'll ever have an intimate relationship starts to fade away.

Donnelly and Burgess' study found that a big part of sexual development comes from dating as a teenager and that involuntary virginity is a combination of shyness, body-image issues and getting a late start. The problem is, it seems, that kids, teenagers and young adults no longer date -- at least not in the traditional sense. "I remember thinking when I was in high school, 'Yeah if I had a boyfriend I would sleep with him,'" says Katie, a journalist in New York, who didn't lose her virginity until she was 28. "I thought when I got to college I would have this garden of eligible candidates to choose from. But people didn't really date. It was a hookup scene I was never really comfortable with."

Today, women are supposed to give good head, be on top, take it from behind, experience orgasm for an hour; they're even supposed to experiment with other women. That's a lot to swallow, so to speak. Performance anxiety can set in, which may make a woman with little to no experience avoid the situation entirely, says Jonathan Berent, a social anxiety therapist who has seen a number of virgins in their 20s and 30s. "In their early 20s they can rationalize it: 'It'll happen soon.' But when they get to their late 20s their caution light is on big time. They get down on themselves and they tend to obsess," he says. "The deal with sex and intimacy is that people will do anything to avoid being noticeably nervous. And going into a sexual scenario, if you haven't already had one, you're going to be noticeably nervous."

Much depends on the sexual norms of each individual's social circles when assessing what's a "normal" age to still be a virgin. For example, a 23-year-old virgin with sexually active friends could feel ancient, but to the man she is dating her virginity might be curious, yet still reasonable. Among the women I spoke to, many started to lie about their sexual status (or at least withhold the whole truth) somewhere in their early 20s, right after they left college. According to Berent, as a virgin approaches her 30th birthday she tends to obsess. "There's no written rule, but I think that when the woman gets to be in her early 30s, if she doesn't do it, it's a tremendous hurdle. But I have seen women lose their virginity at 40," Berent says.

Amanda finally lost her virginity at 30, but didn't tell the guy until after the fact. "I couldn't take the slight chance he'd back out," she says. They were dating for a month before they had sex. When she finally told him it was her first time, he mentioned that it was something he'd actually wondered about. Eventually, their relationship ended, and while Amanda says this one has been harder to get over than most, she doesn't regret it. In fact, she's all the better for it. "I feel much more self-confident in dealing with men and dating," she says, "although now I've moved on to worrying about whether I'll ever find a lasting relationship."

By Yael Kohen

Yael Kohen is a reporter at New York Magazine.

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