The sadness of living without sex
Last week we published the story of "Joseph", a 60-year-old man who wrote about his regret at missing out on sexual experiences until the age of 37. Many readers wrote to say that his story struck a chord with them - echoing his point that society aggravates the problem by unfairly portraying lonely people as strange or inadequate.
Here is a selection of their emails.
Robert: I am 61 and still waiting and I am probably too late to start now. I have always been too worried about being laughed at and ridiculed. I finally realised I was unlikely to get anywhere when turned down by a prostitute when in my 30s.
I particularly hate comments like: "It's overrated, you aren't missing out on much"; "You can't miss what you've never had"; "Never had a woman! What are you gay?" If I thought it still possible I wouldn't know how to find or approach a woman. While I would still like to lose my virginity it is the physical affection I miss most.
Joy: Reading this story, I felt many emotions. I recognised myself, as it is the story of my life in many ways. Only, I am female and 35. I have never even kissed a guy, never been on a date. What I would like to say is that people like me are not as rare as one might think. Popular culture will have you believe that everyone has a love life, and that is simply not true. Another thing to note is that no-one goes around telling people, "Hey I'm in my 30s and still wonder what kissing feels like." On the other hand, people who do have a boyfriend/girlfriend, or are actively dating, are usually quite vocal about it. This adds to the impression that everyone dates. A part of the story I can strongly identify with is the strong sense of shame. I used to live in constant fear that people would find out that I have no dating experience. I felt I was living with a deep, dark secret. But as I got older I stopped caring about what people think.
Alex: I lost my "virginity" - (a woman loses her virginity, I suggest - a man just has penetrative sex for the first time, but that's another story) with a prostitute at the age of 47. I can relate to Joseph's account of first-time sex - far from being fumbling and unsatisfactory it was actually really good.
I have suffered, and am suffering, all my life from debilitating love shyness, which has completely ruined any chances I may have had of having a satisfying and intimate family life and fathering any children. I've no doubt that love shyness is a real condition and is not simply a part of social anxiety disorder. I can be quite brave in many social situations but if there is someone I fancy I am completely clueless as to what to do to take it to the next level. It is as if some power has hijacked your brain and your desires and just wants you to stay where you are - single and lonely.
I am pleased for Joseph that he overcame his shyness and at least enjoyed a relationship for part of his life. Many do not achieve this.
I remained a virgin until my late 30s. I have no idea how unusual that is but I experienced a sense of shame, and I felt stigmatised. I was a terribly shy and anxious person, but not isolated. I always had friends but I was never able to translate that into intimate relationships. At school and sixth form I was surrounded by girls and women, but I never made the kind of move that is probably quite a normal one to make. By the time I reached university, my pattern was set...
The responses to his story have helped Joseph to make a change in his personal life. He has decided, after three years on his own since losing his wife, that he is ready to have a girlfriend, and has joined a few dating sites.
Ian: I am a 35-year-old white male. I lost my virginity at the age of 31, almost 32. It was something that I rarely talked about and still rarely talk about. Occasionally a female friend would flirt with me, but I would become so flustered that I would try and keep as much distance between myself and them, for fear of someone else discovering my shame. There was an instance when a friend of mine kept attempting to put a move on me and in order to keep that separation I, knowing that she was allergic to peanuts, began carrying around Snickers bars and making a great show of snacking on them. I began self-identifying as an asexual.
The woman who chose to engage with me, I didn't tell about my sexual history, or lack thereof, until after we had sex a few times. It was such an odd conversation. I still feel alone in that experience, of feeling unable, unattractive, unloved, unwanted, and not knowing what I bring to any relationship.
K: Reading this story really hit me hard. I am a 32-year-old woman, and I am still a virgin. So much of this man's story sounds so similar to my own. But then, most the time, I feel just fine with my single life. I mostly think I would like to have had sex just to be "normal". To get it over and done with. So it's not such a Big Deal any more; because the longer I wait, the more of a Big Deal it becomes. I honestly don't know if I will ever lose my virginity. Which, I have to admit, is pretty depressing if I stop to think about it... which is why I usually try not to.
Unhappy Soul: I wish I'd lost my virginity at 37. I'm 54 and still waiting for something I know will never come. About 10 years ago I remember sitting with a group of friends over a drink and the subject came up of losing your virginity and I just fled the room when it came to my turn. One of the others came out to find me and they'd assumed I'd had a bad experience of some kind. It didn't occur to them that I had no experience to recount. All I ever wanted from life was to be a husband and a dad.
Lennart: I am now 60+ and retired. I have never kissed a girl and certainly never had sex. I have been interested in a number of girls/women over the years and made some unsuccessful attempts. I also have backed away when I have noticed a woman showing what I have interpreted as some interest in me. I have reacted in the same way you do when you pull your hand away from the fire - but it was the opposite of what I wanted. I have always, every day, longed for something that I have succeeded in avoiding my whole life. And I certainly don´t blame the women.
The closest I came a woman I liked was maybe 30 years ago. She was about 10 years younger and we were seeing each other for a period, as friends. We were sitting on my sofa talking about something and I put my arm around her shoulders and she didn't protest. I thought I was dreaming. It couldn't be true. But she wasn't interested in me in that way, so we just stayed friends.
Chris: I'm 42, and still a virgin. I get told (often it is turned in to a joke) that I can just go and pay for it. Get it over with. But to me, that lacks any affection, there's no emotional intimacy in it, not even just simple caring. And I would like at least that. I feel like I am different from other people. Excluded. Often made fun of by people who know. To be blunt, sometimes it makes me feel like I must be a monster. I work and do volunteer work as well, go to classes and interest groups, but meeting someone who accepts me, even meeting someone to talk with, just never happens. I just feel extremely alone, and, I guess, forgotten, in this world.
David: I am 45 years of age and still a virgin. I do not advertise the fact in general, so there are not many people who know it. I feel like the assumption is by this point that of course you will have lost it. I still remember when the film The 40-Year-Old-Virgin come out, and I was mortified by it then, only being in my 30s. The advertising and premise of the film (I never saw it) made it sound like it was an absolutely enormous deal - like the titular character were some astounding aberration.
I sympathise deeply with Joseph's story of not being touched for 15-20 years. My diet of touch is limited to handshakes and the very occasional hug from friends who are comfortable doing so. I live over 500km from my nearest relative, so family touch is limited to once or twice a year. By this point, I feel like a number of women (possibly most of them!) assume that if I haven't been married by 45, there must be something wrong with me. At times, I wonder that about myself.
Ikram: I can relate to this story. I am 35 years old and still struggle to talk to girls. I am still a virgin but the difference is lately I have tried to break this barrier and approached a few girls but I always get brutal rejection. I don't know why. And that sends me into another cycle of "No-one wants me," and then I am like, "I am OK... I don't need to have anyone." I blame my ethnicity, my religion and, when all else fails, my weight and my face. It's not easy to be not wanted by anyone.
David: I'm 58 and have never had a girlfriend bar a couple of tentative platonic friendships which never even progressed to hand-holding never mind anything else. In my teens, 20s and 30s it made me thoroughly miserable and incredibly lonely as it didn't seem like an unreasonable thing to want, yet seemed as improbable as winning the lottery. The skills required appear to be something learned in adolescence and if for some reason you don't acquire them, the whole area of relationships becomes an alien world. I sometimes see it as looking into a fish tank.
There is an irony in that my entire career was spent in a female-dominated professional environment. I liked working with women and had a huge respect for their abilities, which frequently surpassed mine, and got on well with nearly all of them. Despite this no-one seemed willing or able to come near. I'm quite open about my situation and it usually provokes surprise when mentioned. In one or two cases I've suspected women of being put off by it, any interest being shut down. As one ages I suspect it increases the difficulty of a relationship ever happening, as essentially I'm still a 70s teenager, whereas potential partners will have all the experience of 40 or more years.
Where to get help
Eric: Almost 40 and just found my first girlfriend six months ago. I find it very disturbing the way men who have had to no success with women get treated on the internet. There's so much mocking and scorn, and the general consensus is that any failure in that area must be due to the guy being extremely awful in some way or another. Why people would take such pleasure in kicking people who are already miserable and living without any kind of sex, affection, or intimacy is beyond me.
As "Joseph" said, it's not an issue that garners much attention or is treated very seriously and I do hope that it will be taken more seriously in the future. I certainly wasn't given any direction or taught anything about how to date, and many of the places a guy can go to find help in that area are toxic and misogynistic.
Matt: I recently turned 26 and just finished my first year of grad school. I believe I am in decent physical shape and relatively intelligent, but I have also had zero intimate relationships with the opposite sex. I have never held a girl's hand, kissed, or had sex. With the rise of the Me Too and Incel movements I have become even more fearful of trying to look for a partner should I be seen as violating someone's personal space. The latter movement has me worried that if I ever was to admit my status as a relationship-less virgin to anyone new I would be lumped in as an angry time bomb waiting to seek vengeance on others for my loneliness. I know that there is something wrong with me I just do not know what exactly it is and as time continues I feel a little more helpless and hopeless.
There is a large community out there that is profoundly hurting and believes that society views them as nothing more than a freakish joke. I have experienced first-hand that stigma and there is no-one to stick up for this community. Most people are too shy and awkward to come forward with their stories and share their experiences with one another. The other extreme, in the shape of the Incel movement, wants others to experience their suffering. The news focuses on the violence and anger because it is easy to sensationalise, but all that does is drive people's opinion against the whole of the community. Maybe if they could share more positive stories of people who have overcome this lack of intimacy, that is vital to the human experience, they could help to give people the strength to either find help or better themselves.
Don't like sex?
It is thought that between 1-3% of the population is asexual, meaning they do not feel any sexual attraction to other people. For years Stacey was puzzled about why she never wanted to sleep with anyone, even her husband. It was her doctor that told her the truth.