Uh, what hookup culture?
Despite many a think piece bemoaning the death of dating, the internet was recently stunned to learn that millennials are actually waiting longer than their parents did to have sex. According to a University College London study, one in eight millennials, or 12%, said they were still virgins at the age of 26. It’s a similar story on this side of the pond, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12% of females and 14% of males aged 20–24 are virgins in the US, though that number drops to below 5% as these individuals reach ages 25–29.
But while our narrative around “late” virginity often hinges on religion—think, every stereotype about women who “save themselves” until marriage—it turns out that’s not actually the most common reason young women are waiting. Yes, a 2013 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour did find that participation in religious events during adolescence is associated with lower odds of sexual experience in females, and this “religious tension” in regard to sexuality may be a factor in why some young women remain virgins into adulthood. But the study also reveals that oftentimes the decision to hold off on having sex has nothing to do with religion at all. In fact, it may not even be intentional.
The main reasons respondents said they remain sexually inexperienced as adults are, a) the inability to attract a sexual partner, or b) the fact they had little interest in sex. And these results are not only limited to adults—a study by the Guttmacher Institute finds that while 40% of teenage girls who have not had sex said doing so was against their moral or religious code, the remaining 60% said it was because they didn’t want to get pregnant or hadn’t met the “right person.”
We were curious about the experiences of those other 60%—so we asked three Canadian twentysomethings to get real about why they waited to have sex. Here’s what they said.
“Being sexually assaulted when I was younger made me associate sex with something ‘bad’”
“I’ve never been sexually active in the past—nor am I currently. For me, it’s not necessarily about waiting for the right time, but the right person. When I was younger, I assumed that I would wait until I was married because my mom was traditional and would constantly tell me that if sex happened before this marriage, I would be considered ‘impure’ and ‘dirty.’ As I’ve gotten older, my perception has shifted. I’ve realized that having sex does not make you dirty or impure nor does it take away from who you are as person. You don’t ‘lose’ anything if you do choose to engage in it—it’s more about sharing an experience with someone else. It makes you human. I’m not waiting for a particular moment. I plan to wait to have sex until I find the person I truly connect with, however long that may be.
More than anything, however, my decision to wait to have sex until I find the person I trust comes from being sexually assaulted when I was seven years old by a close relative. After the assault happened, I remember feeling violated, invaded, disgusted and dirty. Because of that experience, I grew up associating any act of physical intimacy as a form of violation. My mind would always bring me back to the assault.
I’ve never felt badly for still being a virgin, but I can’t help feeling a little self-conscious, especially when I’m talking to men that I’m interested in. Sometimes I fear that they will hold misconceptions that I won’t be ‘good’ at having sex or will assume that I will become overly attached and ‘clingy.’
Despite these challenges, when I do choose to have sex for the first time, I will definitely have an honest and open conversation. It’s important to me that my future partner knows about my sexual assault and the insecurities, doubts and fears that have resulted from it—and how it impacts how I feel towards sex to this day. Finding the ‘right person’ to have sex with for the first time means finding a partner who knows that I have hesitations and emotions that others who haven’t experience sexual assault may not have—and I want my partner to understand where they come from. That may take a while, but that’s okay.”
“Being insecure with my body made me uncomfortable having sex with my partner”
“When I started dating my boyfriend of almost two years in high school, he was much more experienced than I was and had multiple sexual partners before dating me. I felt really intimidated when he first expressed that he was interested in sex. When that conversation came up six months into the relationship, I decided that I simply wasn’t ready. I couldn’t really pinpoint why I wanted to wait—it just didn’t feel right for me at the time. I could definitely tell that he was a little frustrated and getting impatient with me as the relationship progressed—but even after years of dating, I still didn’t feel like I was in a place to have sex with him.
Looking back, I think I was hesitant because I wasn’t comfortable with my own body. Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been really self-conscious about things like body hair, my stomach and the way I look. Being so young, I also hadn’t had a chance to get to know myself or explore my sexuality. I never had any prior experience with sex and wasn’t even very familiar with it—my sex education was very limited and my mother never talked much about what sex means, other than to not do it.
I am still a virgin—but I’m still unsure if I’ll wait until marriage. It’s tough for me, because sometimes I think, I just want to get it over with, especially as I reach my mid-twenties. But as long as I’m in a committed relationship with someone that I have a good emotional connection with and I feel safe, comfortable and respected, that’s the most important thing.
My body insecurities are something that I’m still trying to overcome, and that’s something I’ll have to consider when I feel ready for my first time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% comfortable with my body, but I want to take the time to get to know myself and find a partner who is going to appreciate my body and make me feel confident and accepted”
“I didn’t have sex with my boyfriend because I was still figuring out my sexuality”
— Sofia*, 22
“When I was 15, I met my first and only boyfriend and we got really close. I was brought up in a religious household and my family always put me in private Catholic schools, so part of the curriculum was, ‘Don’t have sex because it’s bad and you will die!’ But when I started dating my boyfriend, who was also from a religious background, I began to question: ‘Do I really have to wait until marriage, or can it just be with somebody that I really love?’
A few months into the relationship, my boyfriend and I talked about having sex—but in the end I still didn’t want to. Later, I realized it was because I just didn’t want to be with a guy. When I accepted my my queerness and decided to have my first sexual experience with a girl, it felt so easy. Those same hesitations weren’t there.
I waited until I was 20 and in my second year of university to be intimate with a girl. Like a lot of people, my first time wasn’t great—but it was with the person I was seeing and I have no regrets. A lot of people think I am actually a virgin because I’ve only been with girls. There’s this misconception that ‘losing it’ has to involve two people of the opposite sex. When my friends were talking about sex when I was a virgin (before I came out), they would be like, ‘I’m sorry Sofia, you won’t be able to contribute to the conversation.’ And I still face the same feeling of being left out of the conversation about sex when I’m in a room with all heterosexual people, even though I’m not a virgin anymore. People will say, ‘you’re not actually sexually active now, you just fooled around with a girl.’
After waiting to have sex until I accepted myself as queer, part of owning my sexuality was realizing that I wasn’t a virgin anymore. That happened when I got together with my current partner. I realized how big being intimate with someone is to me after waiting to have sex and that it’s not just ‘fooling around.’”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy
“I Wish I Hadn’t Lost My Virginity Before Marriage:” Millennials Talk Sex & Religion
Ask AnnieThing: “Should I Feel Badly for Still Being a Virgin?”
Let’s Talk About First Times: An Alternative Look at Sexual Milestones