On ‘Late’-In-Life Virginity Loss

Those who don’t have sex during their teen years are in the minority, but the reasons for—and effects of—waiting differ for everyone.

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Keith McDorman walks into the back room of an Austin, Texas coffee shop. With his dirty-blond hair, light eyes, week-old beard, and striped button-down shirt, he looks like a younger, shorter, bohemian version of Bradley Cooper. He tosses his scooter helmet onto the wooden table, sits across from me at a booth that barely fits us both, and talks before I ask a question.

“My mind doesn’t comprehend how much sex I have,” says McDorman, a 29-year-old carpenter from Southern California.

That statement brings glances from studying college students. We opt for more privacy by heading outside, where we talk over a live rock band at a high table near a vegan food truck. McDorman continues by telling me about a conversation he had recently with his girlfriend, in which he expressed fear that his libido had dropped. She laughed because, well, they had had sex six times that week.

He told me this less as a brag and more as a preface. McDorman had lost his virginity just a year prior. He abstained from sex because he had low self-esteem, which he says heightened after learning about his sinful nature at church. He didn’t want to be ostracized from his Christian family and friends. And he didn’t want to prematurely ejaculate while messing around, which had happened to him once in college. So he didn’t have sex until he was 28.

What eventually made him feel ready was practicing orgasmic meditation, which entails stroking a woman’s clitoris for 15 minutes. The class, which he joined after hearing about it from a friend, eased McDorman into being sexual in a permissible environment where he felt safe. Soon after, he lost his virginity to a girl in this community and later met his current girlfriend.

Like McDorman, many individuals who lose their virginity “late” do so for many reasons—not just the stereotypical “can’t get laid” or “super-religious” assumptions. Whether it’s by choice, circumstance, or both, late virginity loss can bring anything from pride to sexual dysfunction for the few Americans who experience it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age Americans lose their virginity (defined here as vaginal sexual intercourse) is 17.1 for both men and women. The CDC also reports that virgins make up 12.3 percent of females and 14.3 percent of males ages 20 to 24. That number drops below 5 percent for both male and female virgins ages 25 to 29 and goes as low as 0.3 percent for virgins ages 40 to 44.

Of course, those statistics represent only heterosexual penile-vaginal sex. The question of “What is virginity?” obviously has a different answer in the LGBTQ community. And straight people too sometimes feel that oral or anal sex counts as virginity loss. Still, the most common definition of virginity loss is penile-vaginal intercourse, as Planned Parenthood points out on its website.

Statistically, if you didn’t have sex in your teen years, you’re in the minority. But most people I asked in my unscientific poll felt virginity loss wasn’t “late” if the person was still college-age. Many thought 25 was the first late age. One friend told me that for secular people, “late” is 20 and older, and for religious people, 40 and older. The popular 1999 film American Pie suggests that late is freshman year of college. And the character Jess (played by Zooey Deschanel) on New Girl stated in a flashback in a recent episode, “In three years, I’ll be 25. I can’t rent my first car as a virgin. They’ll know.”

Not only does the perception of what is “late” vary among individuals, it also varies among communities. For Sarah and John Devaney, who lost their virginity to each other on their wedding night, being a 30-year-old virgin was not too outlandish within their Christian community. When they got married, Sarah was 31 and John was 30.

The couple recently Skyped with me, sitting on their bed in Reno, Nevada. John, now 33, would have looked like a college professor if he wasn’t wearing a University of Nevada at Reno sweater. He’s an online math teacher with thick-rimmed glasses, neat dirty blond hair, and unblemished white teeth. Sarah is a 34-year-old brunette who smiles with her whole face. She has bangs, dark eyes wrapped in black mascara, and is a director for a Christian ministry.

The couple’s Christian convictions partially motivated their decision to wait until marriage but they say those weren’t the only reasons. The two also wanted to avoid STDs, pregnancy, and the emotional damage they had heard can come with having sex with someone who ultimately leaves. They speculate that they would have lost their virginity later than average even if they weren’t Christians. John thinks he would’ve lost it after college, in his 20s, because he admits he didn’t know how to talk to girls before age 20 and wasn’t ready for sex before then. Sarah says she had low self-worth before age 25, making her believe she would’ve eased into sex piece by piece in college.

Their wedding night wasn’t spectacular but their sex life continues to improve.

“The first time felt good to me but he didn’t orgasm,” Sarah said. “We knew we wanted to keep learning, to figure it out more. It took lots of experimentation. Neither of us had anything to compare it to. If I didn’t orgasm or he didn’t orgasm, it’s not like, ‘You don’t love me.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, how can I do that better or different next time?’”

John agreed with her, adding, “I think we’re in a very satisfying sexual relationship. We don’t have many issues.”

Not every person who loses their virginity later in life fares as well as John and Sarah, though. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, survey respondents who lost their virginity “late”—a mean age of 22—more frequently reported sexual problems than those who lost it at a “normative” age—a mean age of 17.5, in this study. These sexual problems include having trouble reaching orgasm, maintaining an erection, and becoming sexually aroused.

Dr. Stephen Snyder, a sex therapist in New York City, has seen his share of sexual dysfunction among his male patients. These patients, who often are virgins or men who lost their virginity in their 20s or 30s, most commonly suffer from extreme shyness, social anxiety disorder, or anxiety about their bodies.

“It generally has to do with how sex is done and how it’s arranged in the secular modern world,” Snyder told me. “The man usually is the initiator and has to take some risks in order to ask someone else, indicate he’s interested, and find out whether the answer is yes or no. So a man who is socially anxious is going to have much more difficulty taking that risk.”

During our phone conversation, Snyder referred me to the webpage for the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale Test to emphasize some of his points. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable being the center of attention (a question on that test), sex may not be easy for him or her, because it requires being the center of attention, Snyder said. If someone’s not comfortable meeting strangers (another question on the test), they may not thrive sexually, because we tend to have sex with people we know the least well, according to Snyder.

Snyder said his patients’ feelings about being older virgins varies from somewhat embarrassed at 25 to extremely embarrassed at 45. Sometimes their issues could be low sex drives caused by hormones or even a lack of interest in sex (such as with asexuals), but many times it’s linked to anxiety. In those cases, Snyder typically prescribes medicine and performs psychotherapy to de-catastrophize negative thoughts.

Childhood physical or sexual abuse can also, understandably, leave some hesitant to have sex. Mare Simone, a Los Angeles sex surrogate and tantra educator, has had older virgin patients who have been sexually abused. As a sex surrogate, she has intimate encounters (sometimes intercourse) with people to help them overcome sexual issues, often working alongside with a therapist in cases of abuse.

“If you had trauma in the body, that trauma can get reawakened just by touching the area where you were traumatized,” Simone says. “Even if the touch is gentle and loving, if it’s not backed with a certain amount of strength, confidence, and support, it can continue to re-traumatize that same issue and cause a crazy, spinning-nowhere cycle.”

Emotional abuse can also lead to sexual abstinence. That was the case for designer Stacy B. of Boston, whose father regularly told her she was worthless and ugly. This made her distrust men. She’s 39 now and lost her virginity at 37 after going to therapy for seven years.

Stacy says her mother taught her that sex is special (a common reason people wait) and she kind of believed it. Later she realized that the emotional trauma she faced growing up caused her to keep her distance from men, rather than the belief that sex was special. She told me me over the phone that she never got a lot of attention from boys, not because she’s unattractive but because she put up walls. She wishes she had dealt with this a long time ago, before becoming too old to have kids.

“I guess I needed to work through a lot of things and learn to trust my instincts,” Stacy said. “Then I needed to learn to trust other people before ever doing something like that.”

Stacy lost her virginity to a guy she met on the casual encounters page of Craigslist, who she said was very accommodating to her inexperience. According to Stacy, her first time was fantastic: It didn’t hurt and she had an orgasm. In fact, she still has sex with him sometimes and said she has an incredible sex life.

“Would you say you’re making up for lost time?” I asked her.

“I’m certainly trying,” she said, laughing.

Dr. Aline Zoldbrod, a sex therapist in Boston, says the environment you grew up in can make all the difference in how you approach sex. The ideal environment, according to Zoldbrod, is a happy home where sexual curiosity is encouraged, questions about sex are answered age-appropriately, and privacy and independence are not only respected but also cultivated. Other environments, such as homes where sex is never talked about or where parents are not openly affectionate with each other, can lead to issues.

Adding body insecurities or a fear that you’ll be bad at sex to one of these non-ideal family situations makes a likely candidate for holding back sexually, according to Zoldbrod. But it’s never too late to work it out and have great sex: One of her clients was 60 when she lost her virginity.

“There’s really hope for any of us since you can learn to love sex at any age,” says Zoldbrod, who’s the author of SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do With It—Transform Your Sex Life.

A University of Texas at Austin study showed that survey respondents who lost their virginity at 20 or older reported having more satisfying romantic relationships than respondents who lost their virginity at younger than 20. While that doesn’t ring true for all people who waited, such as those who experienced sexual dysfunction or shame from losing it later, it’s certainly the case for McDorman.

After telling me how madly in love he is with his girlfriend and how sex has drawn them much closer, McDorman stands up to leave the coffee shop. But first, he brings our conversation full circle.

“I think I had a super-strong first year of sex,” McDorman says, putting on his helmet. “I don’t regret any of it. I’m learning a ton and it keeps getting better.”