Being a virgin later in life can be, perhaps above all things, an incredibly isolating experience. Not only is it a highly stigmatizing label—only reinforced by media tropes that suggest that older virgins are merely punchlines—it’s also rarely discussed openly, honestly, or with any level of compassion.
I talked to about 40 people who remained virgins until they were at least 22 (five years after the average age at which Americans lose their virginity, according to the CDC) to see what it’s like to be a "late"-in-life virgin—why they waited, the obstacles they faced, and what sex was like when they finally had it.
Of course, even asking people why they “waited” implies some level of universal experience, some nonexistent "right time." The reasons people gave for losing their virginity later were all over the map. Some people grew up in religious communities or single-sex schools, which made sex more elusive or taboo. Other people felt unattractive or insecure growing up. Struggles with health, sexual orientation, and gender dysphoria were also common.
For almost every single person, the biggest worry was not being good at sex, a very normal concern no matter when you lose your virginity. The longer you wait, the more experience potential partners likely have—and that disparity can heap on more pressure. The people I spoke with also opened up about the social stigma of being an older virgin and the emotional toll it can take when you’re not experiencing something that it feels like everyone else is doing (and talking about) all the time.
GQ: So, why did you wait?
"I was raised religious and Jewish, so no sex until marriage and barely any organic interaction between the sexes, either." —Daniel, 34, Philadelphia, PA
"Lack of appropriate partners was a big factor for me. Growing up in rural upstate NY really limited the amount of interaction I had with other gay men, especially ones that I was attracted to. I was one of the only queer people in my high school, so my pool was almost nonexistent to begin with. I went to a very liberal college with a large queer population, but during that time I (very slowly) came to the realization that I am in fact a trans woman, so I was more focused on that than trying to lose my virginity." —Amy, 27, Albany, NY
"I didn't wait by choice. I wanted to start having sex when I was a teenager, but it just never worked out somehow. I didn't find the right boyfriend, I always had trouble relating to boys I liked, and I had a weird panic reaction that set in whenever a boy I liked showed interest." —Sarah, 46, Chicago, IL
"A big part of it was being raised Mormon and assuming I’d stick it out and eventually marry a Mormon guy. I've never really fit the Mormon mold (it’s very conservative and I’m very not conservative), so I mostly just didn’t date at all in my early and mid-20s. Once I decided to try dating guys who weren’t Mormon, I found my boyfriend and lost my V-card relatively quickly. So it was kind of my choice to not lose it." —Lydia, 27, Boise, ID
"I guess I never got laid because of some combination of being a massive nerd, not being out, and also probably being an asshole, in hindsight." —Seth, 28, Manchester, U.K.
"I’m still a virgin, and I think that the big reason that I haven’t lost it yet is because I always put a ton of pressure on myself to have it be this big moment. I’ve had a couple of opportunities, but it just never seemed to live up to my expectations. Then I kind of removed myself from even trying to date, because I lost a ton of confidence in my early 20s." —Ron, 25, Lincoln, NE
What was your biggest fear around losing your virginity?
"Being on 'woke' Twitter, you see many (warranted) tweets just ruthlessly dunking on men who don’t know how to make women orgasm or who don't know their way around a vulva or are just generally bad in bed for whatever reason, and it’s hard to believe I wouldn’t be one of these men in the bedroom." —Leonard, 23, Dallas, TX
"My biggest fear was not being prepared. Anal takes a lot of prep work, and I was just generally nervous about the situation in general." —Amy, 27, Albany, NY
"I don't have any sort of sexual worries like I'm gonna find out, 'Oh, no! My penis doesn't work!' But the worry I do have, and this is something I have run into as I've attempted to date, is that telling a potential date that I am a virgin will be a dealbreaker. And, honestly, it's understandable if it is. I mean, I'm 31; being a virgin at my age can absolutely feel like a red flag, or at least a hurdle most women may not be interested in dealing with." —Cory, 31, Atlanta, GA
Did you feel pressure to lose your virginity?
"I don't think anyone ever wanted me to feel pressure to lose it, but I also think it's impossible not to. The few times I was with people and explained the situation, they would tell me not to feel pressured, but then I could also see they didn't quite know how to meet me at my level. But I think more than anything, I put pressure onto myself. I always said that I would be fine not having sex for the rest of my life, but the fact that I'd never had it made me feel like I was in some way behind. Especially because it hadn't been an active choice, on bad days it could certainly feel like a personal failing." —Hamish, 29, Alberta, Canada
"I feel some pressure to lose it. My friends and most people I follow on Twitter talk about getting laid like they talk about grocery shopping, so it seems embarrassing to have such a hard time losing it." —William, 22, King of Prussia, PA
"I think the only pressure I felt was from myself. I'd been desperate for romantic attention from women for years and wanted a relationship, sex and all." —Gary, 33, Lansing, MI
"I never had a sex talk. My friends and I never talked about sex, and still don’t to this day. I put all the pressure on myself because of some high school assholes, and I wish I could tell my old self not to sweat it. The time I spent wondering if I was going to be good enough or big enough or whatever enough makes me cringe. It was years of frustration that built to a few minutes in my car. It’s silly when I think about it that way." —Ferdinand, 30, Pittsburgh, PA
"Throughout my 20s, I lied to close friends about it. I started teaching college at the age of 25, and whenever the subject of sex came up during class, I felt like a fraud while talking with my students. I felt really ashamed of being a virgin and for lying about it. It wasn’t until I was 32 that I came out as a virgin to everyone important to me in my life—first in private with my closest friends and family, then publicly on social media. That was terrifying, because I imagined everyone ridiculing and abandoning me, so I felt tremendous relief and gratitude by how supportive everyone was." —Lawrence, 39, Ontario, CA
"Most people are surprised, and then assume that I must be unhappy and/or there’s something wrong with me. I don’t have any regrets. It'll happen when it happens. Most people put more weight on my virginity than I do." —Greg, 25, Portland, OR
How did you feel when you had sex for the first time?
"I felt incredibly self-conscious. I went in worried that I would finish immediately, like a scene from a bad comedy, but instead I just couldn't finish at all. I've since learned this isn't super uncommon for men who masturbate regularly but don't have P-in-V sex—your body is used to a different stimulus. So for a while that became its own stigma and the thing I worried about. But the more I was able to let myself be in the moment and to take some pressure off myself, the better the experience of sex got." —Hamish, 29, Alberta, Canada
"Relieved. Ecstatic. It was on a weekend away, and my friends put signs up at my house saying 'Welcome Home' when I got back. It was funny." —Tony, 39, Norfolk, U.K.
"Disappointed. First, because after seeing how crazy it made everyone, I expected more. And second, because I did it to get it over with, and probably that’s 90 percent of why I hated it." —Rachel, 26, Los Angeles
"I felt great about losing my virginity. I'd had a while to prepare, and I had a good guy. It was actually a little underwhelming. I was worried I'd regret doing it or regret waiting so long, but I ultimately felt very at peace with my decision." —Lydia, 27, Boise, ID
"I felt relief, less because I'd finally had sex and more because it meant to me that I finally had the connection with a woman that I'd wanted for many years." —Gary, 33, Lansing, MI
"The whole experience of not just losing my virginity but learning about sexuality really highlighted to me how woefully inadequate sex education is and how badly we as a society prepare adults to be sexual beings. I'm forever grateful to my younger self for taking so much time to learn and try and fill in blanks—it made things so much easier and made the learning curve a little less steep." —Sherman, 43, Adelaide, Australia
"I lost it when I was 32, I think, maybe 33, with an escort. It felt overhyped, like, 'This is what everyone says is so great? Really? This is why people destroy their entire lives when they cheat or do something else insane and risky?' I don't get it." —Joel, 37, Philadelphia, PA
What else should people know about what it's like to be a virgin?
"It really bothers me that other people are so predisposed to treat someone's virginity as a quality to mock? I know it's hard for certain 'socially aware' people to 'think of the poor virgins,' since the loudest, most obnoxious virgins are incels and their ilk, but jokes about people's virginity punch down at asexual people, disabled people, trans people, intersex people, and probably a bunch of other people I'm not thinking of." —Nicole, 30, New York, NY
"A virgin shouldn't be any more ashamed than a student driver... I really wish people wouldn't go on and on and on about sexual compatibility as the be-all, end-all of a relationship. I'm not even sure I believe in such a thing. Like everything else in a mature relationship, both people need to adjust the dial and tune in to each other. I wish people would stop glamorizing the First Time and using stupid terms like 'deflowering' or 'popping the cherry.' It's fucking stupid. Let sex be sex." —Daniel, 34, Philadelphia, PA
"I'm divided on how honest you should be about [being a virgin]. On the one hand, it could be important for the other person to know what it will mean to you; on the other hand, it can really weird people out, and it's basically your own business. I was honest with someone in a more serious relationship about how little experience I had, and it sort of threw a wrench in things; lying about it (I don't volunteer unless people ask) has ultimately proved to be better in relationships, just because it doesn't call attention to it at all." —Eddie, 26, Los Angeles
"I wish that we as a society would do away with it altogether and stop putting so much weight and meaning on whether or not someone has had sex, and instead start putting more emphasis on teaching comprehensive queer and sex-positive sexual education and the ethics of consent." —Alex, 28, Phoenix, AZ
Originally Appeared on GQ