There’s nothing wrong with being a ‘late bloomer’
Virginity in adulthood is still stigmatised, but we need to remove the shame from both sex and the lack of it
image American Pie
words Louis Staples
“People aren't really comfortable with 'different'”, sex and relationships expert John Kenny tells Woo. “They can find it difficult when someone isn't doing as they do, or if they are not doing what seems to be ‘normal’”. We are talking about people who are “late bloomers” when it comes to sex.
The very term “late bloomer” brings with it an innate sense of anxiety, doesn’t it? These two words conjure the distinct feeling that an excuse is being made for something that is abnormal. When it comes to sex, specifically, we all have such different experiences. The “norm” can vary hugely based on where you are in the world, the specific community you’re a member of, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Ivan*, for example, is gay. His sexuality was outside the norm in the small town in Croatia, where he grew up, so didn’t lose his virginity until he was 26. This was outside the norm in Croatia, but also for gay men in London, where he now lives. “I lost mine to a friend at the time. We both felt we were gay, but we just couldn't say it, it was months of tension. And then one night we ended up alone at my friend's place, got drunk and said it out loud,” he says. “Then went at it immediately.” Does he think it has impacted his attitude to sex now? “I think losing the ‘v-card’ as a fully formed person has to be different, by default,” he says. “The first time had to feel ‘special’ and my approach to sex is probably more serious as a result of starting later.”
In the UK, where the legal age of consent is 16, a national survey found that most young people lose their virginity by the time they are 18. Half had done so before they turned 17. The research found that a majority of young people felt pressured into losing their virginity early. In fact, having sex too soon was the biggest regret of the young people surveyed, with more than a third of women and a quarter of men in their teens and early twenties admitting it had not been “the right time” when they first had sex. In America, the average age of virginity loss is also 17 for young men and women. In other parts of the world, the average age is much higher, like Malaysia (24), Indonesia (23), India (23), South Korea (22) and Singapore (22).
“There can be a lot of pressure on teenagers to engage in sexual activity, but it is also a very natural and normal thing to want to explore,” Kenny says. “The pressure can build if there are those who don't follow this path and be seen and feel like they are the 'odd one out' and are encouraged to explore this side of life, or at times made to feel like they have to or should, that there is something wrong with them if they don't.”
This is what happened to Kat*. “All my friends were losing their virginities at school but no boys really showed any interest in me,” she says. “When I got to around 19, it just became even more of ‘a thing’ because then it was like… It had to be really special, not a one-time shag?” Kat lost her virginity at 25, when she entered her first relationship, but the long wait has stayed with her. “I do think it’s affected my confidence. I think I fear rejection because it takes me back to being seen as unattractive at school and uni,” she says.
Of course, no one is entitled to sex from anyone, at any age. But is till feels like there is a gendered dynamic at play here. Patriarchy determines the worth of women, in large part, by their sexual currency – much moreso than for men. Women are shamed for having sex with “too many” partners, but also for having sex “too early” or “too late”. It’s a minefield. Men, on the other hand, are generally encouraged by “society” to have sex with as many partners as possible. This comes with different pressures for men who are unable to do so, or simply don’t want to.
James*, a 34-year-old straight men, didn’t lose his virginity until 27. He then had another “dry spell” until he was 32, which made him feel like he was “failing” at being a man in some way. David, a gay man who was also 27 when he lost his virginity, says a lack of sexual actvity made him feel shut out of a gay scene which often revolved around it. “When I first started going out, I just found it really difficult to gel with people and was very nervous about meeting new people,” he says. “I was chubby and effeminiate and it seemed like everyone wanted a muscley, masc man. It made me feel more isolated than I did before.”
Kenny says that our early (or late, as it would seem) sexual experiences can be extremely influential to our subsequent ones and our ideas and feelings about sex. “This can trigger 'performance anxiety' and therefore we go into stress mode rather than arousal, and your brain can't do both at once,” he says. “Having a difficult first experience can create a template on what we believe sex is and is going to be. Determine how we view what sex is to us and others and how we should do it.”
Crucially, is there a way of getting past this? Kenny thinks learning to understand how you see your sexual experiences is key to being able to rectify any negatives that you may still be carrying with you. “If sex creates a self-confidence or self-worth, esteem problem, then it is likely that this manifests in other areas of your life,” he says. “So look at the bigger picture and work on a holistic approach to your emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.”