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"You're a virgin who can't drive"
Tai virgin shaming Cher in Clueless

What’s wrong with being a virgin?

In a society that is rightfully beginning to combat slut shaming, why are people still being shunned for retaining their virginity?

There's a moment in Clueless where Tai says to Cher, “Why should I listen to you, anyway? You're a virgin who can't drive”. It is the most scathing put-down in the whole movie, which highlights several issues. There seems to be a stereotype that inexperience is undesirable and, as a catch 22, inexperience is due to someone being undesirable. While we know this isn’t necessarily true, stereotyping of virgins still persists. Society is rightly beginning to condemn “slut shaming”, but those who don’t want to put out can still face criticism.

Away from the fabricated world of television, I've heard someone who revels in her consistently active sex life, shaming another, much younger, girl for being a virgin. She called her “frigid” despite only being 17. Even on the popular reality tv show, Love Island, the cameras capture a moment when a contestant shames a woman for refusing to have sex, labelling her a “frigid bird”. While this isn't specifically “virgin shaming”, it's an example of abstinence being seen as negative. As a teenager, I watched as girls around me felt pressurised to lose their virginity, one even claiming, “All of my friends have had sex and I'm still a virgin,” like her self-worth was therefore lower than those who had fucked someone.

For most, losing your virginity is a rite of passage, a vital step in everyone's coming-of-age experience, like kissing a stranger in a dark club, getting pissed for the first time, or falling for a fuck boy (or girl). But, in a society where we're trying to have more open conversations about sex, the other end of the spectrum with sexuality seems to have been forgotten. What about those that don’t feel ready, or don’t want to?

It’s easy to forget in this ‘sex sells’ world, that there are those who choose to abstain from having sex. Far from being worthy of your pity, many find abstinence empowering – even liberating – because it exercises an individual's right to have that choice. We asked adult virgins whether they think we live in a pressure cooker environment where people feel that they have to be having sex to be "legit".

PAULA, 25

Have you consciously made the decision to abstain from having sex?

Paula: Not as such – I was never interested in relationships in my teens, and during my early 20s I suffered quite badly with depression and anxiety. I wanted to sort that out before I got involved with anyone, which I did pretty successfully, but as a result skipped the 'experimentation' period people usually go through. Now I’m older I want my first time to be with someone I can trust.

Has your upbringing influenced your thoughts on virginity in any way?

Paula: When I was seven, my parents “found Christ” and it was pretty intense. I got the firm impression that sex before marriage was something only bad people did, and as a bit of a nerdy 'good-girl' I thought it would ruin my life if I did it. That played a big part in abandoning Christianity in my late teens. Also, I’ve witnessed several friends and family members (not my parents, thankfully) getting into a string of abusive relationships. I just assumed, for a while, that you had to have 'completed' a certain number of bad relationships before you can have a good one, and I was too afraid to start the chain.

Do you talk about being a virgin openly with others?

Paula: Not openly. My closest friends know, and I only tell people I trust.

Do you ever feel like you can't talk about it with others?

Paula: There is a part of me that dreads the moment when I have to tell a future partner. I’ve tried to 'fill in the gap', so to speak, by doing a lot of reading and research about how to have healthy relationships and a healthy sex life, so I’m not naïve – just inexperienced in the practice. However, I know that won’t be enough for some people. And of course, there are the inevitable circles of people that form at parties, and someone pipes up with something like, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in bed?” If I can’t leave the circle, I’ll just say something vague. It isn’t worth the cries of “OMG WHAT REALLY” to tell them I’ve not slept with anyone.

Why do you think being a virgin is seen as such a “socially horrendous” idea?

Paula: It has come about as a patriarchy-driven idea, I think – a 'she won't give out, she's frigid' kind of thing. That was certainly what was going on when I was called frigid at school. There has always been this expectation that while a girl shouldn't sleep around, she should know how to please her man. However, I do think that with this new generation of women who are learning to be comfortable with their bodies and having as much sex as they please, there is an element of 'but you're missing out!' – I've heard that before too.

Even some of my most level-headed guy friends talk about "showing" a woman good sex, as if they assume there is this thing that happens when a woman is in bed with a man that she absolutely cannot have access to. Like the man will know more about her body than she does just because he's a man! It's these kinds of assumptions - that virgins don't love their bodies, that virgins don't know how to have fun, or that virgins just haven't found the right person yet because virgins need this mysterious mind-blowing sex thing revealed to them – that makes it so shocking for someone to say, for whatever reason, that they haven't yet slept with someone.

“It's these kinds of assumptions - that virgins don't love their bodies, that virgins don't know how to have fun, that virgins just haven't found the right person yet” – Paula

Have you ever been virgin shamed?

Paula: Something that has really saddened me recently is that with the rise of shooting down slut-shamers and celebrating women who enjoy their sexuality freely, we’ve taken being a virgin to mean that you don’t love yourself, you aren’t living your life to the fullest, and you’re not in control of your body. I read a wonderful article by a woman recently defending the fact that she enjoys lots of sex with multiple partners, but then she rounded it off by saying the fact that she’d been with more people made her “more lovable” than women who hadn’t had any, or many, partners. She actually used those words. I felt like I’d been punched. Here was another woman trying to empower herself by telling me that her promiscuity made her more lovable than me. Reading that really knocked my confidence when it came to meeting new people. I just kept thinking: will you love me less if I don’t want to jump into bed (with you) straight away Another time, a friend of mine – on telling her I’d dated both men and women – said, “You’ve got both genders to pick from, and you still can’t find someone to be with?” I felt so ashamed, like I can’t do this thing that everyone else seems to find so simple.

Do you think there is some sort of pressure then on young people to have sex and to lose their virginity in their teens?

Paula: Enormously. When I was 16, my dance teacher said, “You should all have had an orgasm by now”. I hadn’t at the time – I was only 16! And I know some people will look at that and think even 16 is late, but I disagree. I really don’t go in for the 'well, kids are doing things younger these days' argument, because our sexual education is so shocking. We were taught the anatomy of a penis, the anatomy of a vagina, and how not to have a baby. There is nothing to suggest that sex can be a freeing, healthy, fun, and pleasurable thing to do. Being ready for sex isn’t so much about age than it is about knowledge. Does this young person have access to the information that will help them to be healthy and happy in their sex lives? At 16 – absolutely not.

Also, I was severely depressed at 16. I had no desire to pleasure myself, let alone have someone else do it. When I went on antidepressants a few years later, they prevented me from having an orgasm. Some people are perfectly happy and healthy, and sex just isn’t for them. The idea that virginity should define your worth, whichever way you look at it, is not only nonsense but deeply damaging.

NAOMI*, 23

Has being a virgin been a natural course for you or did you decide to not have sex?

Naomi: I think a bit of both. Due to the fact that I feel I haven't met the 'right one', I haven't felt ready to lose the V card. I have had plenty of chances to lose it but I have always stopped, no matter how shit drunk I was. I just don't want to share such an intimate moment with someone I can't look at and feel what I can only describe as 'real' love. Until I meet him, I'm more than happy to keep that box unopened.

Would you say any aspects of your upbringing, family or culture have tied into your decisions too?

Naomi: Yeah, definitely. I think being African has played into it quite a lot. Sex is regarded as being quite sacred, so doing it casually is a big no-no. Plus, my parents were quite strict regarding boys. But to be honest, I feel like I would have ended up the same even if they weren't strict because that's just how I feel about it all. 

“I just don't want to share such an intimate moment with someone I can't look at and feel what I can only describe as 'real' love. Until I meet him, I'm more than happy to keep that box unopened” – Naomi*

So have you ever felt any sort of peer pressure to sleep with someone?

Naomi: No. To be honest, I'm quite sure I want to lose it to the one. No one could convince me otherwise. Plus, there has been countless times where I almost did with various people but I always held back. 

Do you talk about being a virgin openly with other people then?

Naomi: Only to a select few, generally with some girls. If I'm with a boy, the subject won't even come up because they often assume I'm not a virgin.

CELINE, 27

Did you consciously decide to refrain from having sex?

Celine: Yes, but I haven't been too strict on myself. I think I am scared of having really deep and serious relationships with others except friendships. When some guys have popped the question and tried to have a relationship with me, I couldn’t focus on them – only on my work. All of my friends have said that I have no interest in relationships and sex, not even romance. However, I am sure of my sexuality being heterosexual.

Do you talk about being a virgin with others?

Celine: Yes, I do. Because being a virgin or not, it is my decision and not others. It's nothing particularly special, so I don’t care at all. Is there any reason to hide?

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t talk about it?

Celine: I've met people who think adult virgins have big problems, such as a mental illness, or a strong sense of self-regard. Although I cannot understand why they think that, or why that is so important for us. It doesn’t matter to me.

Has your upbringing, culture or family influenced your decision to stay a virgin?

Celine: My parents never talked to me about sex at all. I have a sister who's ten years older, who doesn't want to get married and loves her single life so much. When I see her, I long for her life, and her freedom. I know sex and marriage are different things. Besides, nobody can be sure of their future and whether they should keep to these decisions or not. For me, however, sex is related to unnecessarily investing your emotions in someone. 

“Because being a virgin or not, it is my decision and not others. It's nothing particularly special, so I don’t care at all. Is there any reason to hide?” – Celine

Do you think there is some sort of pressure on young people to lose their virginity when they’re teenagers?

Celine: Being a teenager was the period where that pressure had the strongest influence on me, from my friends, in my life. I think (teenagers) definitely have had more pressure on losing their virginity in recent times. As time goes on, I find it's getting worse. Yes, I used to feel this pressure very much when I was a Uni student. As you know, girls love to talk about this issue.

Have you ever felt like you've been shamed by others for being a virgin?

Celine: Not at all, even when others are trying to make me appear as a weird or poor woman. People who know me well understand me and respect my decision like I respect their decisions.

You’ve mentioned to me before, outside of this interview, that you know some guys who are virgins too and they don’t like to talk about it. Do you think virgin shaming exists more with certain genders?

Celine: I knew a couple of guys who were looking for girls to only then show off to their friends and share how and what to do during sex. How pitiful! Normally, in my country (South Korea), men think more about virgin shaming. For example, if a young woman in her early 20s said she had not experienced any sex, others think ‘oh, her family is quite strict and she is very pure’. On the other hand, if a man is the same age and in the same situation, others think a totally different way, like 'this guy must have a specific problem with his body or he must just be an idiot’. Yes, it's illogical and it sounds very odd, but it's true that people think this way.

ANDREW*, 22

Did you consciously decide to remain a virgin?

Andrew: No, I have always been open to it (sex). However, I do not want to have 'meaningless' sex, so I'm waiting for the right person. That way I am abstaining from casual sex without a relationship. I am currently just living my life until I meet the right person who I feel will be worth the effort.

Do you talk about being a virgin openly with others?

Andrew: Of course not. When I say that I have never had a girlfriend, there is only one question that comes next: why? Which is ridiculous because I can't even answer that question. Is it because I am ugly, too shy, too awkward, too unattractive? Normally I'll just say that I haven't met the right person yet which is really the most honest thing I can come up with, but I'd always just get a doubtful look like I was hiding something. Even from my family.

“I am currently just living my life until I meet the right person who I feel will be worth the effort” – Andrew*

Most people say that I just have to approach girls and be myself, but that's not how it works for me. I don't want to have a girlfriend just for the sake of it or to have sex. If I ask a girl to be with me, it's because she's special and because I want her. I've not felt that attraction towards any girl yet.

Do you think there is some sort of patriarchal pressure on teenagers to have sex?

Andrew: Yes, there is this pressure if you are in a group that is talking about sex often, which is usually at parties. I have never been drunk at a party like some of my peers were just before they had their first experiences because I do abstain from drinking alcohol and I don't like parties. I am a bit introverted, but I don't feel that I need to impress other people so I feel immune from this social pressure.

*names have been changed