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Adult Virgins

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Adults who also think of themselves as virgins are far from a monolithic group. There's no check list or medical test that can tell you if you are or are not an adult virgin because there is no universal definition of either adult or virgin. How you define either term (let alone both) has everything to do with the time and place you live in, how you were raised, and what communities you find yourself in and surround yourself with.

But if you do think of yourself as an adult virgin, and you live in the West, chances are one of the things you feel is left out.

Feeling left out may be the one defining characteristic of adult virgins because it is the way most of society thinks of them. Or more to the point, the way society doesn't think them at all. Aside from the occasional gasping headline about 40-year-old virgins, this is not a topic that you hear about much or see represented very often in media or in research. Social scientists are primarily interested in people who are not virgins. As a result, we don't have a lot of research on how different people define the term, how many people could be included in the category, or what it's like to live in a society that seems to judge one's sexual worth by one's sexual activities.

If there's no single definition of adult virginity, and if most people don't want to talk about it, where do we start a respectful and thoughtful conversation about the topic? And what if you call yourself an adult virgin and are struggling with that label?

Before looking at statistics, we need to back up a bit. When you read the term adult virgin some image likely comes to your mind. Think about that image. Who is it? How old are they? What do they look like? And now ask yourself this: what is that image based on?

What Makes an Adult?
There is no one legal definition of adult. What defines one as an adult in the eyes of the law changes not only from country to country, but sometimes from state to state within a country. And even in the same community, what makes one an adult depends on whether you are talking about ability to vote, to make health care decisions for oneself, to drink, to drive, to consent to engaging in sexual activity. The same can be said for how medicine and education thinks of adults. Most of the time they use chronological age. But sometimes, for example when they want to exclude disabled people from participating equally in society, they will say that someone whose chronological age is usually considered adult really isn't an adult, because of the way they think.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't or can draw a line between adult and chid. But we need to recognize that the line moves, and is conditional on many things. When the topic is virginity, being an adult virgin usually refers to someone who hasn't had sex long after most of the people around them have.

What Counts as Sex?
In order to determine when people around you have had sex, you need to have a definition of sex. Or put another way: what does someone have to do to no longer be a virgin?

The standard answer to this question is intercourse, and more specifically penile-vaginal intercourse. This heterocentric assumption - that "real" sex is heterosexual sex, and that the act of intercourse is the only real sex there is - simply doesn't make sense since it leaves so many humans out. A definition of virginity for humans should account for all of us.

Does Choice Matter?
If we are interested in thinking about adult virgins not as an abstract concept but as people with experience and feelings and value, we should also consider a person's relationship to having or not having sex. Does it matter if someone hasn't had sex because they didn't want to? People who identify as asexual, for example, describe an absence of interest or desire for sexual contact with others. This is not the same thing as saying they don't have sex or haven't had sex with someone else. Someone who is asexual is not necessarily a virgin, and someone who is a virgin may or may not identify as asexual.

Another distinction that can be confusing is between sex that one chooses and sex that is coerced or forced. Many sex educators as well as counselors who work with people who have experienced sexual violence, make a clear distinction between sex, which is consensual, and sexual assault or rape, which is not. People whose only experiences with sex have been forced or coerced may or may not think of themselves as virgins.

These are only a few questions that we could ask about the term, but hopefully it helps to begin to see how the image you may have had of the adult virgin when you started reading this article is far from complete.

The Numbers
Social scientists are great at narrowing their focus in order to study something. Unfortunately once they do this an then report back what they found, we often lose sight of the fact that what they are describing is just a snapshot of a sliver of a part of human experience. When it comes to counting virgins, most researchers define it as someone who has not engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse. So for the purposes of science, gay, lesbian, bi, and queer people don't really count (unless they are acting straight).

Researchers are not immune to the assumption that almost everyone has had sex by a certain age. This may be one reason why there is practically no research on adults who have not had sex. The most recent study to consider this group was in 2009 and published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The authors drew from the National Survey of Family Growth, to examine what they consider to be adult virgins.

The definition of virginity was based on heterosexual intercourse. Men were asked if they had ever had sexual intercourse with a woman, and women were asked if they ever had intercourse with a man. Here are some of the findings from that study:

  • 14% of men 35-39 and 16% of men 40-45 reported being virgins
  • 9% of women 35-39 and 13% of women 40-45 reported being virgins
  • overall for people 25-45 years old, 14% of men and 9% of women reported being virgins

What Counts as Sexual Experience?
Science offers one way to think about adult virgins, but it remains a relatively narrow and cold calculation. Another way to approach the subject is to consider the question of what we mean by sexual experience. After all, someone could have intercourse with 100 people and not enjoy it. You could have the same kind of sex with many different kinds of people, but if you aren't paying attention and connecting in some way with your partners, what are you learning? What is gained?

We can also think of sexual experience not as a measure of observable sexual behaviors but rather as what it is, a form of experience. A flirtatious encounter with a stranger may be a sexual experience. If you wake up from an erotic daydream, or a sexual dream during sleep, you may feel as if you have just had a sexual experience. And we shouldn't forget the most common and frequent sexual experience on the planet, masturbation. For some, masturbation may be nothing more than a physical release. But for others masturbation can be a portal to sexual exploration and discovery. If you thought about your solo sexual experiences as experience that has value, that counts, how might that change the way you think about adult virgins?

It's Not Them, It's Me
Adults who think of themselves as virgins may be making a choice not to engage in sexual behaviors. Others may want to have sex with someone but may not have access to partners. While the saying "there's someone for everyone out there" may be true in some ways, it denies another reality which is that societies tend to value a very narrow set of attributes when it comes to desirability. In the West this usually means thin, white, heterosexual, and non-disabled. Each community has it's own standards (so for example some communities won't value being white) but there are two things that you can count on. First, is that there will be rules and they must be strictly adhered to. And second, that ableism almost always excludes people with disabilities from categories of sexual and desirable. If one doesn't fit the category and/or if one is disabled, finding a sexual partner becomes much more difficult.

There are other forms of social difference - the way we communicate, our ability to interact in crowded social settings, to name two examples - that can make it difficult or impossible to find a sexual partner.

It is easy for someone to tell themselves the fault lies with them. If only they could be more this or that, more "normal," then they would be able to find a partner and have sex. Society sets us up to blame ourselves. But it is just as reasonable, and actually a lot more accurate, to point out that it isn't you and it IS them. These ideas about what is and isn't desirable are not fixed or natural. And far from being a small inconvenience, they can adn do prevent people from ever connecting with each other on a level that might allow for interest and desire to flow.

What Next?
If you are reading this because you consider yourself to be an adult virgin, hopefully it's given you some food for thought. You may want to take time to really question the value of that label. If it's something you are happy with and proud of, then that's great. If it is a label that contributes to a feeling of lack of worth and/or shame, you should know that it's a label you can reject. When we reconsider sexual experience as what that term really means, there are few if any of us who have no sexual experience. And if virginity is defined by having or not having had a sexual experience, then you may want to re-think how applicable the term is for you in the first place.

If you are reading this because you are curious about adult virgins or because you may have someone in your life who you think is a virgin, hopefully you now have some new ways of thinking about, and questioning, what the term means in the first place and who it serves.

Sources:

Eisenberg, M.L., Shindel, A.W., Smith, J.F., et. al. "Who is the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Where Did He/She Come From? Data from the National Survey of Family Growth" Journal of Sexual Medicine Vol. 6, No. 8. (2009): 2154-2161. 

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