One day, at the age of 24, I was sitting on the balcony washing my clothes by hand. The next door neighbours were having a girls’ night in and chattering away to each other. The topic was a friend of theirs who happened to be around my age.
At the time I too was a virgin. Fast-forward 8 years and I still am. In fact, I’ve never been kissed. But this feeling of shame was not something I could identify with then and it still isn’t, although it seems to be a common thing.
I wonder whether people believe that all those who get to 30+ and haven’t had a relationship feel like this.
Because it’s certainly not the case.
At 32, I’m in a reasonable position to share a perspective on what it feels like to have no sexual experience at an age when most people do. I also want to reflect on how I might have got to this position. It really is a curious thing, even for me.
Let’s address shame first. I don’t feel shame because I don’t think there is something inherently ‘wrong’ with being a virgin or with me. Therefore, there’s no shame in it.
If, on the other hand, I had cheated, lied, mistreated a sexual partner or was generally a lousy human being, then I would feel shame. By that measure, there are many non-virgins who should feel shame.
I don’t worry that I’m not worth liking. It seems other people don’t either. On the odd occasion that someone asks about previous relationships and finds I haven’t had any, they generally respond with a combination of disbelief and surprise. My favourite comment so far was ‘Serious? But you’re a such a good package!’ What a compliment!
In general, however, I don’t throw the information about my lack of experience around. But if people ask me about my experience in the right context, I honestly answer the question. There’s a reason why I don’t tell everyone in every situation. Sometimes, the surprise people feel is followed by what seems to be pity.
I can do without that because I don’t pity myself. Or, on one occasion, I honestly answered a person’s question only to have them greet me a year later at a social gathering with ‘Oh, it’s The Virgin!’. I can deal okay with my private life being shared to a room of people, but it’s not a situation I want to walk myself into on a regular basis.
The most annoying reaction so far is to be told that I must be too picky. No one who actually knows me well has ever said this. It’s the people who don’t know me and never stopped to ask any relevant questions who draw this conclusion.
Which brings me to the second point. How did I get through 32 years without having these experiences? It’s very hard to pin the reason down, because I don’t know myself, but I’ll try my best. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I, like many people, definitely want to find a person to love and respect who will reciprocate that.
It’s also not that I haven’t been attracted to anyone. I have been on many occasions – to both guys and girls.
So why did nothing happen?
Firstly, let’s put aside the people who already had girlfriends. I’ve been attracted to a number of people who, it turned out, were already taken. I’m really not sure of the protocol for telling someone in a relationship that you like them and it’s not my intention to break up another relationship, so I have never told any of them.
Let’s also put aside anyone I wasn't attracted to. I probably could have forced myself into a drunken tryst or one-night stand just for the sake of experience, but the idea of it was always so unappealing to me and still is. Kind of like going for an internal medical exam, but without the health benefits.
What about the single people I’ve been attracted to? For example, the people that I have run into at an event or in a cafe, talked to for a while and thought were kind of nice? I can count the ones I’ve met up with later on one hand (or actually three fingers). I don’t regret it, but it didn’t lead to anything. I either found there was no spark on my side, or not enough spark on their side and then that was it.
What about dating apps? I’m not dismissing them entirely and would actually use them again. But they’re a bit of a stab in the dark. I’m yet to meet someone via an app that I’m actually attracted to, but I’ll admit that I’m not a very active user.
What about the people who have had a recurring presence in my life – usually as friends, colleagues or acquaintances? It’s in this circle that I’ve found the people I’ve been most strongly attracted to. But because they are already part of my circle, I admit to worrying whether telling them would make them feel uncomfortable.
Since high school, I’ve only told two of them. The first experience in my early twenties had a very negative effect on me and I worried for a while that this would happen with every other person I liked. But I’ve realised that I’m relatively resilient when it comes to not being liked.
What I wasn’t resilient to that first time was realising the person I thought was wonderful actually wasn’t. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to like people who seem to be genuinely great people.
When I was rejected the second time in my late twenties, I could definitely see the positives – being rejected helps you know where you stand and stops you wasting time wondering.
Are there barriers for a person like me to start a relationship? For sure. First, finding someone who’s also single. Second, working up the confidence to share feelings. Third, trusting them enough to move forward into the unknown. But these barriers are not insurmountable. And while the process can be difficult and a bit scary, it isn’t tinged with shame.