What being a virgin in my 20s is teaching me

Ink stain with outline of women on top, virgin

At Candid Orange, we continuously advocate deconstructing the notions that heterosexual sex equates to penetration, and that virginity is something to be “lost”. This piece is first and foremost a personal account which seeks to outline one experience that some people are able to share.

Anonymous

“When did you lose your virginity?” “How many people have you slept with?” “Are you a virgin?”

The inevitable but dreaded questions I receive when getting to know someone. Questions that I used to think had binary responses, a right or wrong answer that reflected who I was as a person.

In the lead up to my twentieth birthday, I had a nagging feeling about the fact I was still a virgin. Partly, I was frustrated that I was going into my twenties with my virginity intact, but I was also angry that I was letting such a medieval and silly concept get me down. On the one hand, virginity feels like this outdated idea that never had much meaning in the first place beyond misogyny, yet on the other hand I know in my gut that it still means something to me – if it didn’t, wouldn’t I have lost it by now?

How did Catholic school change my relationship with sex?

Growing up and going to an all-girls catholic school, I was far more self-aware of boys and sex than I ever would have been if I’d attended the local mixed comprehensive. Sex and boys were mystical but dangerous. If a girl had gone to a party over the weekend and given a blowjob (and, God forbid, it had come out as public knowledge), she would dread coming into class the following Monday. And yet, if she had been the one receiving the sexual favour it still provoked the same sense of scandal and shame – how could you? I remember being both fascinated and confused when girls would always ended up the embarrassed ones whilst my male friends paraded into school to tell the lads about their sexual conquests.

With my sex education at school swapped for anti-abortion lessons and sermons on how God accepts homosexuals, so long as they do not actually practice gay sex, I was left rather bewildered about sexuality. This confusion spiralled further the second I left catholic school for a local mixed college, where matters of sex and religion were spoken about far more objectively, free condoms were given out by the nurse, and most shockingly for me – boys not only existed, but weren’t shockingly different to girls.

On reflection, my circumstances at school cemented my ideology around sex and sexual shame far more than I had realised, because as I grew up and it became my turn to be exposed to a new world of experiences, something in me felt a strong sense of ownership to my virginity. The phrase ‘losing your virginity’ spun around my head, but what exactly was I losing? To me, giving it away would be a loss of power, self-worth and dignity – I’d feel tainted. There was a conflict between the catholic bubble I had been in at school and the liberal atmosphere I felt at college.

After having my first kiss at 17, I decided sexual matters might not have to be so terrifying and decided to draw a line in the sand. On the one side, I could have careless fun and, on the other, was virginity-defying sex that would lead to that shame and loss of power. The thing I never really decided, however, was when it was going to be alright to cross that line.

A social construct

After deciding to reach out to some other women who are yet to have sex, I spoke to Anna*, 29, to see how our experiences compared. I was particularly interested in talking to someone who is at the other end of the spectrum in ‘twenty-something virgins’. I wanted to know how her view of virginity has changed over time and why she thought virginity as a concept still prevails in sexual discourse in a society that is surely past such archaic ideas.

Both Anna and I grew up with religion as a guiding factor on identity and sexuality (or lack of). “Both my parents were elders in a church, and I grew up in a culture of modesty and purity,” Anna told me. “I grew up being taught that all romantic connections were to be saved for inside a marriage.”

Anna was very involved in her religious community growing up, and she was never exposed to a different culture other than the church. Though I went to catholic school and the odd Sunday service, religion was something I took part in but never considered it part of my culture or identity, as it was never really taken too seriously in my family.  Whilst Anna grew up being told romance was to be saved for marriage, I grew up with a more liberal but equally precise notion: sex happened when you were in love.  I hadn’t realised this until speaking to Anna, but perhaps this is what has stopped me from ‘going all the way’ without the idealised reassurance I had been preached by both school and parents. The commitment of ‘love’.

Anna similarly came to a conflicting crossroads with her virginity when she fell in love at 24. She reflects on the relationship, saying “he was not a part of my religious community and it felt wrong and right…. the relationship ended but left me with more questions than answers. Was I someone that just didn’t want to have sex or was I having my sexual desires suppressed by the church?”Since then, Anna says she has reached a positive stance within her sexuality and is more critical of her upbringing.

“At 29, I realise how consuming purity culture can be, and I’m not interested in ‘waiting’, but there is still a blockage as I struggle with vulnerability. I have a better overall attitude about myself now but actually doing it is a different story.”

It seems for both Anna and I, the conflict between empowerment and respect creates this ‘blockage’ in our virginities.  It’s interesting how we have had quite different experiences with religion, and still come to the same conclusion. When I asked Anna what she thought about the concept of virginity, she said “I think sexuality is meant to be this beautiful and empowering thing. Unfortunately, people, religion and corporations fuck it up a bit. It’s like we keep adding these rules for it to be perfect, when sex can never be perfect!”

When is the right time?

I found this particularly interesting to think about, as I always find myself coming back to the thought of – what am I waiting for? Some magical cherub-singing moment where the sky opens up and I am deflowered? Anna certainly had a point in that we let too many exterior sources determine how we feel about our sexuality, which makes us feel like we’re doing everything wrong, when there wasn’t a right way to do it in the first place.

And I think it is that notion – there is no right way to do it – that I will carry on with for now. Twenty years of trying my best to feel empowered and not settle on anything that doesn’t feel right is too long to just drop it all now over societal pressure. Like Anna, I am certainly critical of the values preached to me when I was younger, and it takes time to shed these. Taking away the idea of a loss of power in ‘losing your virginity’, and seeing it as simply the first time I have sex still makes it a thing to be done properly for me. So, for now, I’m still very much a twenty-something virgin.

*Names have been changed for anonymity