Looking for a place to start this article and overwhelmed by the weight of the subject matter before me, I do a quick experiment and type “virginity” into Google; I’m curious to see the most popular searches. “Virginity statistics, virginity auction, virginity quotes, virginity pledge” reads the list. The list doesn’t help much except to reestablish what I don’t want this article to be about. This isn’t an article about creepy father-daughter purity balls, or about girls auctioning off their virginities to strange and wealthy men on the internet, or even about the familiar narrative of observant religious people abstaining from sex until marriage. This article is about the huge negative space that exists around those familiar, exaggerated stories and what it’s like to be a college student occupying that space. I wanted—I want—to present here some kind of cross-section of college virginity, a range of experiences beyond the flatness of a comfortable stereotype.
The very first girl I interview is perhaps the best example I encounter that virginity is a concept that is too one-dimensional to possibly be meaningful to everyone. Chelsea* is a freshman, warm, funny and articulate with sparkling eyes and a complicated romantic life. She tells me about her long-distance girlfriend (she qualifies their relationship by telling me “I don’t consider myself gay at all, and I’m not attracted to girls except for her”) and the challenging period during which they opened their relationship. From the beginning of our conversation, she’s blunt about her skepticism toward the legitimacy of the idea of virginity. “I just think it’s so limiting to say this is what it means to lose your virginity, to have a penis go into your vagina, like somehow now you’re different,” she says. Chelsea definitely doesn’t fit the stereotype of female virgins as sexually passive. In talking to her, there’s no mistaking the fact that she is a deeply sexual being, one that knows herself well and possesses a rare combination of introspection and a refusal to take herself too seriously. An almost impish smile spreads across her face when she tells me, “I’ve done way crazier dirtier stuff with my girlfriend that I think are a much bigger deal than just having sex.”
At times, Chelsea speaks in such goal-oriented terms that if I didn’t know better, I could easily think she was talking about her grades or summer job prospects. “I definitely did see it as something I wanted to accomplish,” she says of losing her virginity while she and her girlfriend were in an open relationship. “I can’t get away from it. I still feel this pressure like it’s something I should do in my life, which I’m not really fine with.” Especially when she talks about the dynamics of her relationship with her girlfriend, she speaks of virginity loss like it is a prerequisite for something; she tells me with not a little sadness that she feels she needs to have sex to be “on equal footing” with her girlfriend, and about the time she almost had sex, a time she sees as “damage” that’s made her shy away from certain kinds of sexual situations. Even her most confident statements are followed, a few minutes later, by acknowledgements of doubts.
Chelsea introduces me to Stephanie, also a freshman. Stephanie carries herself with a sureness that is a little intimidating, and even though its ten o’ clock on a weeknight when she comes to my room in Whitman for our interview, she’s impeccably dressed. For Stephanie, abstaining from sex is about control; immediate control over her body and, more abstractly, control over the way she is able to regard herself. “I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I just had random sex with people,” she says. Though Stephanie tells me she is religious and values her relationship with God, she is quick to qualify this by telling me, “I wouldn’t say that I am saving myself,” and that “I would’ve had sex in the past if the circumstances had been a little different.” This is a feature that recurs in many of my interviews. Almost everyone has a slightly defensive need to explain to me what kind of virgin they are not, as though they are responding to and dissociating themselves from popular assumptions about virginity before those assumptions are even brought into our conversations.
While Stephanie says she doesn’t judge her peers who choose have casual sex, there’s a little pity in her voice when we talk about the inequality in expectations between boys and girls when it comes to oral sex and she notes how some girls “feel like its their duty” to give blowjobs, and she’s unsparing in her criticism of boys who demand too much from casual hookups.
Eloise, a pretty sophomore who alternates so quickly between sarcasm and startling earnestly that the shifts can be easy to miss, expresses the same dissatisfaction with going home with boys, and tells me its something she made a conscious choice to stop doing because of the way she felt afterward. Her tone is wry but firm when she says, “I at least wanted [losing my virginity] to be with a boyfriend, not just a dude… This is kinda why I stopped going home with guys, I couldn’t think of a really good reason not to have sex. I don’t want it to be with someone who I can’t refer to with a noun.” She describes to me with frustration her freshman-year attempts to make herself have a crush on a boy she hooked up with repeatedly and the inevitable realization that they had nothing in common; his “What I Be” photo, she says, told her more about him than any conversation they ever had. She’s made a conscious choice to stop seeking or expecting continuity from encounters on the Street. “Now,” she says, “when I make out with someone it’s purely like, I’m gonna make out with you on this dance floor for twenty minutes, and then I’m going to go home.”
The way Eloise talks about her meaningless makeouts reminds me of a comment Chelsea made in passing in our conversation, one that stuck with me even though she didn’t linger on it. She told me that when she and her girlfriend were open, she made out with people on the street, but said it was “nothing that I would even call sexual.” There’s a weird disconnect here, one where the separation between the sexual and emotional becomes so pronounced that it leads to a separation between even the sexual and physical. This compartmentalization isn’t unique to conversations about virginity, but it certainly confuses them. It confounds any conversation about intimacy, expectations, and sexual satisfaction. The last of these is important; it highlights a unifying theme in the conversations I have. No one just wants to have sex. Everyone wants to have good sex— whatever that might mean— and bad sex might be worse than no sex at all.
“Just because you had sex doesn’t mean you pleased the woman,” Stephanie points out when we’re talking, a little sassily. This observation (obviously a valid one) also feeds into an anxiety that surfaced in every one of my conversations with male virgins. Tom, a sophomore I spoke to, is not a virgin, but tells me that sometimes he wishes he were, because he has only had sex once and feels as though the experience— one that occurred under the influence of alcohol with a near-stranger—did nothing to make him more comfortable with sex and was only productive in its enabling him to “get it over with.” He tells me it makes him uncomfortable that he no longer has the label of his virginity “to hide behind,” even though he feels no more experienced than he did before that night last year. He worries that when he finds a girl he really likes and wants to sleep with her, he will struggle to accurately explain his level of experience, and will inevitably disappoint.
Fear of disappointing future partners is definitely a prevailing motif among the males I speak to. Mark, a freshman from the Midwest, is crammed with this kind of performance anxiety. Mark is classically good-looking and not very good at keeping his emotions from showing in his face. He blushes at regular intervals but ultimately seems relieved to be talking about his fears. “I guess there were times in high school when I could’ve had sex, a couple times,” he says. “But I never wanted to be aggressive and be the asshole. Now I think I keep it from happening because I feel weird about it, because it hasn’t happened yet. Every time I hook up with a girl, it’s like, is this gonna be the time? And if I just do it to get it over with I don’t know how to tell the girl that.” Mark talks about losing his virginity like it’s only a matter of time, and the certainty of it adds both excitement and fear to the conversation.For Richard, another boy I interview, things seem bleaker. Richard is a senior and has not has a girlfriend since early high school. Of everyone I interview, he is the most resistant to talking; he tells me the topic of his sexual and romantic life makes him deeply depressed. “Every year of college, it was like, okay, you still have time,” he said, “but I’m about to go out into the world and I can’t say that anymore.” He talks about searching for a girlfriend in his life after Princeton with the kind of existential dread I’ve heard most seniors reserve for talking about their employment prospects. “I don’t really feel confident in my appearance,” he says, “and I think that affects the way I approach girls. But I don’t want to commit too much to changing it. If it really bothered me, I’d do something about it, right? But I guess if I did that I wouldn’t be able to blame my looks anymore.”
The connection between an individual’s perception of his or her own desirability and virginity is one raised by all but one of the girls I talk to. “I feel like I come across as this nonsexual entity,” Eloise says. She sounds tired. She tells me, “When I was twelve my mom started telling me about all the boys that would want to date me… A lot of times I’m like I don’t care—when I really think about the word ‘virgin’ it doesn’t mean anything to me, but my whole life I was raised to think this will happen to you, and when it doesn’t all the connotations are really frustrating.” Linda, another sophomore I interview, echoes the sentiment. “People act like as a girl you’re just constantly getting hit on but that’s not what I’ve experienced here,” she says. Chelsea, too, expressed frustration at the dissonance between the way college sex culture is described and the way she’s experienced it. “It’s almost hurtful when people talk about the hookup culture, because it’s like, I don’t hook up with anyone. I don’t think a culture where everyone’s hooking up all the time even exists here. It’s hurtful that there’s these expectations, like I don’t have the ability or I’m not hot enough.”
It isn’t hard to see the “hookup culture” buzzword pisses Chelsea off when it inevitably surfaces in our conversation. She explains that she hates how people use it to avoid accountability. “It has this weird assumption that there’s something we can’t change, that there’s this system beyond your control. But really you are the hookup culture and what you do determines it,” she says. The sense that individuals control and have responsibility for their place within a sexual culture, the sense that virginity is something someone is to blame for, drives a lot of the discontentment I observe; Richard touches upon it, and so does Eloise when she tells me “If you are really that unhappy about something you do something about it. I let the ball drop and I don’t take risks because I’d rather be comfortable than get this over with, I think.” She tells me about the time she came close, in the backseat of a car on prom night. She tells me about the arc she’d like her life to follow, one where she’d like to be “a sexually competent female by mid twenties.” Everything seems to contain small traces of fear of making the wrong choice. I hear it from Linda too, who tells me that in the heat of the moment, she’s considered lying about being a virgin, but decided “I’d feel too shitty afterwards.” She doesn’t try to mask her restless sadness when she tells me that, even though she can’t explain exactly why, “It just seems like it would be freer not to be a virgin, somehow.”
* * *
I talk to a lot of people, male and female, with a range of sexual experience levels, preferences, and backgrounds, about this article; I’m curious to hear the thoughts of my friends. One thing that gets expressed to me with a frequency and uniformity that would be surprising if feeling weren’t so familiar is a longing for sex that is comfortable and secure—a longing, really, for something like intimacy. College allows us to start over. We leave behind the people we were in high school and whether we felt wanted. But this reinvention, and the interpersonal possibilities it opens, means we also are left to navigate weird interpersonal turf with fewer limits than before. Like an episode of Lost, there are more questions than there are satisfying answers. Are conquests liberating or just an easy way to feel empty? What are the expectations we create and standards we set when we talk about “saving ourselves,” couching sex in the language of salvation or conservation? I don’t have answers. I’m not even sure I have the right questions. It’s hard to navigate these landscapes that are defined by desiring and feeling desired; those are things that extend to the deepest parts of us.
The clearest recurring theme in all my conversations with the virgins I spoke with for this article isn’t one that’s specific to virgins at all; its an expression, to varying degrees and in different shapes, of confused loneliness. The technical fact of virginity means less than its ability to act as a reminder of the conditions that have sustained it. It’s made worse, for all people, I think, by a lack of frank conversation about sex based on fear of the assumptions that get brought into those conversations.
Silence doesn’t do anything for us, and neither does trying to write about hookup culture or relationships or love without writing about the real and actual fact of sex. We make each other suffer because we are too afraid to acknowledge things that are stupidly obvious, things like: sex can be messy and awkward and disappointing, and sometimes sweaty chests make noises that sound like farts and that moment makes you want to crawl into a hole and die; sometimes you wake up next to someone you like a lot and are paralyzed with fear that you have ruined everything; sometimes you feel a million things and sometimes you feel nothing and sometimes you feel like crying; sometimes you have good sex with someone you don’t respect and sometimes you have bad sex with someone you love; sometimes you get bored but sometimes even when you’re sweaty and smell weird and you know you look stupid, you think stuff like, wow, I am glad you exist and I’m glad you’re here with me. Sometimes for a minute the noise in your head actually stops and sometimes its all you can hear. Sometimes it’s the best and sometimes it’s the worst, and in that way it is just like everything else that’s even a little worthwhile.
* * *
Once, when I was in seventh grade, the chaperones at a school dance shepherded our class from the gym to the cafeteria and, against the backdrop of fluorescent lighting and primary-colored linoleum, asked us to write notes to our future selves on index cards. They told us they’d seal our cards in envelopes and give them to us when we were seniors. I forgot about the whole thing almost immediately, and forgotten it remained until five years later, when seventeen-year-old me opened her envelope to be greeted by a little note from a younger self, expressing first and foremost her hopes that I had found a “hot boyfriend.”
As a feminist and just generally as a more developed human being than I was in seventh grade, I’m embarrassed by this little anecdote, but if I’m honest I can’t say I’ve divorced myself from the impulse that led the twelve-year-old me—unattractive and lonely and craving something— to write that to her future self. Because I think that impulse is always there in everyone. I want to thank the people I interviewed for this article for being honest enough— being brave enough— to remind me of that.
* All names have been changed.