These days, Nicole is thinking a lot about sex. Not the sex she’s having but the sex she isn’t. The sex she feels like she probably should have had already. The sex that got away. This past summer, sitting at her kitchen table, still in the clothes she’d worn that day to her internship, she got the call she’d been expecting, and sort of dreading, for a while now. “I have something to tell you,” her best friend from home exclaimed over the line. “I had sex!”
Nicole brimmed with questions: “How was it? How big was his penis? How many times did you do it?” She was thrilled for her friend but also unsettled. The two of them had grown up together in Orlando, sharing so many of the same life experiences that their childhoods seemed to meld into one. Then, a few months back, her friend had met a guy she liked, had started dating him, had fallen in love — all milestones that Nicole, now a senior at NYU, still awaited. While her friend had once been proof to her that you could be a 21-year-old virgin and still be cool, now Nicole felt left behind. “I get off the phone and I feel like I’ve lost a friend. I was like, ‘The club is dwindling.’ ”
Nicole is neither uptight, nor awkward, nor unattractive, nor religious, nor, she explains, “a prude — that’s the first thing I think.” She went to a Catholic high school, but she has no intention of saving herself for marriage. She’s friendly and outgoing and wants to work in PR. She wears leopard-print flats and a messy ponytail. She says her dream guy would have “tattoos and a man bun.”
Close to half of her friends are still virgins, she tells me. But that doesn’t stop Nicole from worrying about the fact that she hasn’t had sex. “Am I giving off a weird vibe?” she asks.
Over cocktails and flatbread at a low-lit downtown restaurant, Nicole and her roommate, Rachel, ponder whether someone who is a virgin is viewed more harshly than someone who’s deemed a slut. “I definitely think so,” says Rachel (also a senior, also a virgin). “If you’re promiscuous, it’s like you’re more respected because you don’t care what people think. Whereas if you’re a virgin, it’s the opposite.”
Nicole isn’t so sure. But she is sure that people tend to lump women into one category or the other. “It’s like you’re choosing to be a virgin because of all these values, or you’re choosing to go have sex every night — like it’s completely opposite ends of the spectrum. But what about people like us who are right in the middle? We’re not choosing either way. It’s just that the opportunity hasn’t presented itself.”
It’s that lack of opportunity that’s driving Nicole and Rachel crazy. They both know that they’re attractive enough to hit up a bar tonight and probably find someone to sleep with. But they both have also subscribed to the notion that their first time should be special — not necessarily with a boyfriend or someone who loves them but at least with someone they care about on some level, someone who will consider their pleasure at least as much as his own.
Rachel says she doesn’t have a problem with hookup culture; she and her friends expect random hookups to be the entrée into something more serious, even though they also expect that most hookups won’t end that way. (“It’s a game now, like you have to be the person who cares less. If you start hooking up with a guy and don’t care if he likes you, then you start dating.”) But she also feels caught in a bind: All throughout high school, she held out, stopping sexual encounters just short of intercourse, with the idea that sex in college would be better, more mature and evolved. Then she got to college and realized that the expectation was that she would have had sex already. “It would be less acceptable now to hook up with someone and draw the line right before you’re going to have sex,” she explains. Which means she’s not sure how to meet someone she could get to know enough to eventually want to have sex with, without having to have sex with him in order to get to know him.
Then again, the longer she holds out, the higher the stakes become. “I feel like if I waited this long and slept with some random guy at a frat party, I’d be like, ‘Why didn’t I do that senior year of high school?’ ” Unlike Nicole, who longs for a boyfriend, Rachel wishes she were able to participate in hookup culture. “I feel like once you’ve had sex the first time, the wall breaks and it’s acceptable to have sex with more random people,” she says. “I wish I could explore all of that, but I feel like the first time has to be a certain way. If I could get that out of the way, then if I had sex another time and it was bad, I wouldn’t be like, ‘That was horrible, bad on me, wrong move.’ I would be okay. But if that was the first time, I would be like, My life sucks.”
Though it may not assuage their concerns, Nicole and Rachel have a lot of company. According to the Online College Social Life Survey, a study of more than 24,000 students at campuses across America, 20 percent of college students graduate without ever having sex — a minority, to be sure, but a much larger percentage than even the students themselves might expect. In our own poll, which included underclassmen, 40 percent said they were virgins. “These college campuses are portrayed as being this hotbed of hookup culture, this idea that that’s what everybody is doing,” says Rachel Hills, author of The Sex Myth. “But a lot of people have sex for the first time when they meet someone who they really like and who really likes them back. For some people, that happens at 14 or 15. For some people it happens at 35 or later.”
Hills wrote The Sex Myth in part as a response to the way she felt about herself before she lost her virginity at age 26: “The realization that I wasn’t alone in having this kind of imperfect sexual trajectory was definitely what set me on the path to researching the book,” she says. She questions the idea that as a society we are currently more sexually free than we have ever been before, that our judgments about sex have become deregulated, and that truly anything goes. “Sexual liberation should be the idea that people can have sex, or not have sex, in whatever ways they like,” she points out. The fact that for so many not having sex doesn’t feel like an option — or, worse, feels like a curse — “says that our beliefs that we tend to frame as being progressive aren’t necessarily progressive. They can still have forms of control of their own.”
The very idea of virginity was historically a form of control, of course, a way to manage female sexuality and ascribe women value based on their sexual “purity.” The concept of male virginity barely even registered until a hundred years ago. “There are stories about a boy becoming a man by being taken to the brothel and things like that,” says Therese Shechter, producer and director of the film How to Lose Your Virginity. But that’s related more to him exercising his virility, not shirking his “purity and chastity.”
Now, though, the male virgins I spoke with seemed to think that they might have it worse than the women. Given the cultural assumptions about male sex drive and the relative ease of access to partners, inexperience can imply a lack of virility or even desire. Plus, young men, perhaps more than young women, assume that sex is happening all around them, all the time. In Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes of asking male students in colleges across the country what percentage of their classmates they thought had sex on any given weekend. The average answer he received was roughly 80 percent. The actual figure is between 5 and 10 percent. “We align our behaviors with whatever ideal is current in our subculture,” explains Hills. “But the vast majority of us don’t live up to some part of the ideal in one way or another, and that means we feel anxious about the ways in which we don’t live up.”
It also means that there is a lot of posturing — among both straight and gay students. Ralph, a freshman at Columbia, says that sex went from being a fairly taboo subject at his high school, where he was the only out gay student, to an “in your face” one in college: “Here, you know someone for a week and they’re already telling you all about their sex life. The conversation’s like, ‘How many people can you get into bed with you?’ ” So Ralph was surprised to learn that most of the freshman guys he’s met and gone on dates with are still virgins like him. “We’re all in the same boat. We haven’t had that much experience before, because there have never been a lot of people we could interact with in that kind of way. A lot of guys here hadn’t even come out before they got to New York.”
Now that opportunities are more plentiful, Ralph assumes that he will lose his virginity in college and that it will happen within a relationship where “we’re both on the same page and very comfortable with ourselves.” Which is exactly what Tim, a straight guy who graduated from Georgetown two years ago, had in mind; yet the one relationship he had in college stopped short of intercourse. Tim says that, as a virgin, he feels particularly assaulted by the pop-cultural messages that present women as sex objects. “When you consume entertainment through that lens and you haven’t had sex, it feels very emasculating,” he says. A year and a half out of college, the pressure and self-doubt he felt about being a virgin were so intense that he sought therapy. “Society says this is the way things are, and if you’re not part of it, you’re alienated,” he tells me. “I often have felt like a reverse–Scarlet Letter type of situation. Even though it was the opposite, the shame was still there.”
Such feelings contribute to the very unsexy feeling that sex is something that virgins need to get out of the way already. “I don’t know, necessarily, that the experience itself will be this magical moment like it is in the movies,” says Annie, a bisexual woman who graduated from a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest this past spring. “But I do think that it will ease a lot of anxiety because at least I can say I’ve done it. Maybe that’s not the best attitude to have, but it’s hard not to feel that way.” But, paradoxically, it’s also hard to escape the feeling that sex is, in fact, worth waiting for, and worth getting “right.” “No one’s ever like, ‘Tell me the story of the first time you blew someone,’ ” says Rachel, furrowing her brow.
For her part, Nicole tries to keep her anxiety in check by reminding herself that sex isn’t mystical or transcendent; it’s just something normal she wants to do. In that phone call last summer, her best friend told her, “I don’t know why people make it such a big deal. It didn’t hurt at all. We just did it and then that was it.” Nicole believed her. Still, she’s tired of waiting.
*This article appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.