In the movie Clueless, the character Tai, played by the late Brittany Murphy, famously spews this cutting quip at Alicia Silverstone’s Cher: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.”
For any young woman who came of age in the ‘90s, Tai’s message was clear: Being a virgin was bad, one should lose their virginity by sophomore year of high school, and anyone still hanging onto it by their Sweet 16 had to be a total loser.
The truth is that many women have sex for the first time not only after high school but after college—some more than a decade later. But in the same way that our culture shames women for having too much sex, it also shames women for not having sex, labeling them “frigid” or “prude.” For this reason, women in their twenties and thirties who want to have sex but haven’t yet often feel too embarrassed to talk about their dilemma. This further contributes to older virgins’ sense of isolation—and like a cruel cosmic joke, makes it harder for them to actually lose their V-card, since broaching the topic with potential partners can feel daunting.
In her new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, journalist Rebecca Traister calls out this predicament:
Too few people talk about this, but it happens. All the time. It happened to me. I was twenty-four when I lost my virginity, though I happily would have been done with it as a teen. The actress Tina Fey has said that she was twenty-four as well, joking that she “couldn’t give it away.” One close friend was well into her thirties by the time she first had sex; I’m less sure about others, now heading into their forties, because, as time has worn on, these brilliant, sexual, beautiful women find it ever harder to talk about their virginity.
So let’s talk about it. As with any choice a woman makes about her body, choosing not to have sex until she feels physically and emotionally ready is pretty rad. There is no “right” time to do the deed; only what’s right for her. And so, in an effort to start this conversation, I spoke with several women who found themselves virgins well into their adult lives for a host of reasons—from not being comfortable in their own skin to not feeling ready for a relationship—who shared what they wish the world knew.
(Before we dive in, a note: For the purposes of this story, we will look specifically at women who identify as straight and consider “losing their virginity” to be engaging in penis-in-vagina intercourse. But many of the issues they raise apply to all genders and sexual orientations, and we will explore the unique challenges genderqueer folks face in future coverage.)
While the plight of the ignorant, sheltered, older male virgin has been forever immortalized by Steve Carell in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, straight female virgins with knowledge, but little experience, have enjoyed little popular attention.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that, three years ago, when a Reddit user revealed why she was still a virgin at 26 years old, the conversation stuck a chord. In a post titled “Not all virgins are waiting for something other than just a decent man,” the user, who called herself throwawayvirginmary, detailed in frank terms what it’s like to be a woman who hasn’t lost her virginity by her early twenties for reasons other than religion, lack of sexual comfort, or trauma.
“I am not bothered by the fact that I waited, and I don't ascribe any magical aspect to the first sexual encounter (though I am very happy with my memories of that whole time),” she wrote, “but I AM bothered by the fact that people like me are not shown to exist.”
Her story elicited a slew of replies to the tune of, “This is exactly how I feel” and “This is my story.” But these confessions were made under the protection of an anonymous social network, perpetuating a veil of secrecy and shame around the topic.
The Redditor continued: “I was attractive and cute. I felt I was sexual. I masturbated regularly and loved my body. I simply wanted to wait until I found a guy I was comfortable enough with as a person (and whom I was also attracted to on a physical level. And I admit my requirements there are high.) … to explore this very personal aspect of myself with. Not even a guy that I was 'in love' with but just … saw real potential in. Can't a girl just be picky?”
She touched on a theme I heard often from the women I interviewed for this piece: Sometimes, a girl just has very refined tastes. To quote Clueless’ Cher (again), “Searching for a boy in high school is like searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.” As if!
However, for the women I spoke with, being “picky” about who they chose to have sex with for the first time also went hand-in-hand with fear—fear of rejection, fear of being traumatized by finally doing something they’d heard so much about, fear of giving themselves over to another person in such an intimate way. This type of fear is enough to keep a woman who is physically and intellectually ready to have sex from taking the monumental step of actually doing it.
“It becomes normalized. When you don’t know another way, it’s scary to make a change,” Sherry Amatenstein, a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, told me in a phone conversation. “You get stuck, and then you feel really bad about yourself for being so stuck.”
Amatenstein said that she’s seen her patients’ doubts about their desirability and attractiveness become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Some women feel like they’re waiting for true love, that they’re waiting for something. Then they turn around and don’t know what they’re waiting for.”
On top of feeling insecure about their attractiveness, some women also feel a reluctance to date (or date seriously)—which, for them, can make physical intimacy feel like a pipe dream.
Katie lost her virginity at 30. While she initially told me that her decision to wait was related to “both choice and circumstance,” she eventually revealed the root of her situation.
“I struggled with my lack of physical perfection and never felt like I was ‘good enough’ to ever be truly loved,” she told me over email. These feelings made it difficult for Katie (who asked that I change her name to protect her privacy) to enter into a serious romantic relationship for many years.
As she entered into her fourth decade, however, Katie moved to a small town for a job opportunity and signed up for some dating apps. That’s when she met a man she felt a rare connection with, with whom she chose to lose her virginity to after six weeks of dating, and who she’s still with today. Everyone’s timeline is different.
Rachael Berkey, a New York-based internet writer, also lost her virginity at 30. Now 33, she recalled that before her first time, those who knew her were surprised to learn of her virgin status. “People were always saying ‘you’re so confident, you’re so outgoing,’” Berkey told me in a phone conversation. “But I was incapable of putting myself out there, and trying to date, or anything else that came with dating.”
This had little to do with Berkey’s upbringing—her mother was a registered nurse and lactation consultant—and she doesn’t even remember the first time she talked about sex, she was so young at the time. “I grew up in this very open household where it was totally okay to talk about that kind of thing and it was totally okay to ask questions and it wasn’t something that was frowned upon,” she said.
But the combination of attending an all-girls high school and spending most of her free time horseback riding made dating next to impossible as a teenager—and left her ill-prepared for the sexual minefield that is most college campuses.
“I didn’t feel in the moment that I was missing out on some milestone,” she said. It wasn’t “until later [when] I realized that it’s like, oh, I’m the only one who hasn’t done this.”
When she got to college, she got the sense that she was somehow behind. “That was kind of when I put that together.” Still, several more years would pass before she would have her first real makeout with a guy—the same guy with whom she’d lose her virginity a few months later.
“I wasn’t necessarily waiting for the perfect moment,” she told me. “It more like waiting for the moment to present itself and being comfortable going with it.”
While we all have various hangups—emotional and physical—for some, these insecurities go much deeper. Take Delia, for example. Delia grew up with a chronic illness, and the many treatments she received over the years left her body covered in scars, stretch marks, and keloids. Even today, she keeps most of her body covered—an impulse that, for many years, made the idea of baring it all for someone else almost unfathomable.
“My body doesn't look like an average 20-something's body because of my illness,” the 27-year-old graduate student (who also asked that I change her name to protect her privacy) told me in an email.
“My body's been through a lot and it's been seen by a lot of medical personnel, much of which was out of my control. So now that who sees it is in my control completely, I'm a little picky about it—and a little wary about a guy's reaction to it, too.”
The impact of Delia’s illness stretches back to before she was even starting to consider having sex. It kept her from going to overnight camp, she said, where many young people have their first sexual awakening, and she spent a lot of time around other kids with the same illness. Her comfort with herself and with people of the opposite sex outside of this safe community was stunted.
So when her peers in high school and college began making out and eventually having sex, Delia abstained. That is, until a second date last year (on the heels of a breakup with a guy who was uncomfortable being the one to “deflower” her), when she decided it was time.
“[It] started as an innocent walk through the zoo and ended with (pretty drunk) sex on a mattress on the floor of his efficiency studio,” she told me. “He wore all black, had a septum piercing paired with tattoos inspired by Rushmore, dropped out of college to tour locally with a metal band, and at the time, worked as a manager at Whole Foods.”
Basically, she told me, he was “not exactly future husband material” in her mind—but he made her feel comfortable and turned out to be losing-your-virginity material. “I found someone who I could never possibly feel that way about (just in case that whole sex=love was actually a real thing), and it was great, and I never saw him again.”
Along with the pressure many women feel internally to “lose it”—a phrase that, let’s be honest, feels unnecessarily fraught with loss and judgement—our culture pressures women, too.
The Redditor who wrote about losing her virginity at 26 years old says that people who knew her started to assume she was gay when she hadn’t had sex by a certain point. “Because that's the only reason you'd not bone all your male friends, right?” she writes. Pressure from men is no surprise, but what about the pressure from other women?
Writer Amanda McCracken knows what it’s like to be attacked by women for her virgin status. In 2013, she penned a New York Times op-ed titled Does My Virginity Have A Shelf Life?, in which she laid bare what it was like to be a 35-year-old virgin. “[I] was willing to give up a certain sense of pleasure to avoid feelings I feared: betrayal, emptiness, the loss of dignity and control,” she explained in candid prose.
The piece initially inspired a torrent of angry messages from men who accused her of being “selfish” and “a tease”—a response she recounted in a follow-up post for Al-Jazeera America. She refers to the main perpetrators of these messages as “incels” (shorthand for “involuntarily celibate”), men who blame society for their lack of sexual activity and believe women owe it to men to give themselves over. But more surprising was how much criticism she received from women, whose messages, she said, were “equally vicious.”
“They talked about entitlement and suggested that it is my human right to have sex,” she wrote. “By abstaining, they said I was relenting to pressures set up by a patriarchal society.”
In a piece for Cosmopolitan, writer Laura Beck called McCracken “naive,” writing that “holding onto your virginity like it's some magical talisman that wards away evil and keeps you pure and safe is not only a lapse in logic, but brings up the important question of why virginity is such a valuable commodity.” Despite the peanut gallery’s protests, McCracken has remained firm in her resolve. At 37, when she wrote her follow-up piece for Al-Jazzeera, she remained a virgin.
As McCracken’s story, and the stories of all of the other women I spoke with, illustrate: Having sex has no timeline. It’s a deeply personal choice, and one that every woman must navigate for herself.
“Do whatever you feel comfortable with,” Sherry Amatenstein advises her patients. “Make your own decisions—not based on peer pressure, but what feels comfortable for you.
“We’re so pushed into reaching these benchmarks. And really, why should any of that matter?”
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.