I’ve been staring at this blank page for a while now, making sentences in my head and not daring to commit anything to the page. This might be the hardest thing I’ve tried to write to this day. Yet at some point you have to start building something.
This is about me, and the title says it all. My name is Florent, I’m a 28 year old man, and I’m a virgin. I’ve never had sex, I’ve never held someone in my arms in that way, I’ve never kissed or been kissed, and none of this has been a choice — at least not a conscious one.
I’ve been thinking about writing this anonymously for years. Since I turned 23, I think. Then in the past few months I’ve been seriously considering writing about it publicly. I had come to a point where I felt comfortable thinking the words “I’m a virgin” — it hadn’t always been comfortable, or even bearable — but the idea of speaking them out loud or writing them down for others to read was still unsettling. Yet this very discomfort decided me. It wasn’t right that I couldn’t feel comfortable about this. I felt that there was some reclaiming to do. I wanted to be able to say “I’m a virgin” as I would say “I have blue eyes”, matter-of-factly. I doubt it’ll ever come to that point, for me or for any other person living something similar, because it’s a very personal thing and because there’s a lot of social stigma around this. But I still want to go in that direction, and as far as I can.
Me being a virgin is not the biggest secret ever. My closest friends and some of my relatives know about it, whether we explicitly discussed it or not. Some of my other friends and distant relatives may suspect it as well, especially since I’ve had no known girlfriend or boyfriend. Many just think that I’m a repressed homosexual — which happens to be wrong, as I don’t think I’ve ever repressed my sexual orientations. If there’s one thing that I may have repressed to some extent, it’s sexuality itself. But of course things are never that simple.
There is a story to tell here. It’s a very personal one, and that’s fine. I’m not the most secretive guy ever. I believe we need people who are comfortable with how human and vulnerable they are and who are willing — or rather, driven — to show it bare to the world. I know that I’ve needed such people, I’ve needed their example and their words and their stories to make sense of my life. And I believe that it’s now my turn to tell a story.
I remember reading Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus! at 18 or so, quite vividly. I felt incredibly close to the main character, Jason. For years I had no idea why, as Jason’s fictional life was quite different from mine. The novel starts with the story of Jason’s teenage relationship with his girlfriend, Cheryl, and then her brutal death. The second part shows him struggling to find any meaning in life while keeping people away from himself. At one point in the novel, Jason writes “What if God exists but he doesn’t really like people very much?” That question resonated with me, because it’s not really a question about faith and it’s not a question about people. It was a question about him and I guess a question about me: “Do I even deserve to be loved?”
The second or third time I read that book, I said to myself: This is me; I’m Jason. Hey Nostradamus! remains my favorite novel to this day. Now, almost ten years later, I think I understand why. I hadn’t lost someone I loved, and I hadn’t shut people out completely, but I felt as afraid and alone as he was.
And to some extent, yes, I had shut people out. It took me years to realize that. It’s something that was a bit tricky to figure out, as I had always been reasonably comfortable with people. As a teenager I had a bunch of friends. As a young adult, in my professional field I had no trouble interacting with people and I’d made a lot of friendly connections. I felt comfortable speaking in public, even giving a few talks at conferences and assuming teaching positions. I never thought I was a shy person. I had that kind of strange, fake confidence. For years I felt lonely but in a subtle and diffuse way.
I think I had just turned 23, I was working on my first big job, when I read that Coupland had just published a novel called Eleanor Rigby. And he had said in an interview that the book was about that question in the song: “All the lonely people—where do they all come from?” I was electrified. It felt like surely that book was about me. “All the lonely people…” I wanted to know the answer to that question. I wanted some clues.
The book was a let-down. I guess I might have missed something, but Liz’s own brand of loneliness felt cliché, somewhat extraordinary and unrealistic, almost comical at times; and her way out of this was a kind of double deus ex machina. It didn’t resonate with me. My own life wasn’t as straightforwardly lonely, not by a long shot, and I couldn’t expect or even wish for the same kind of quixotic denouement. I quickly forgot about that book, never reading it again. And at the same time I forgot about that question: this loneliness—where did it all come from?
I moved on. Everyday life was okay. For years I had no love interest. I would meet some people whom I’d think were nice, but I wouldn’t feel anything special or strong. After a while, I got a bit worried about it. Before that, in my late teens and very early twenties, I would get crushes; I even thought I was in love once. Every single time I was the only one feeling something special, but at least it was something. But then, for years: nothing. I blamed chance, and not meeting enough people. But mostly I was lost and didn’t know what to think or even how I felt about it.
Two things happened in early 2010. I was turning 26. I had been taking singing classes for two years, in small groups, and for a third year I had decided to take one-to-one classes instead.
I had been working with my voice teacher for a few months when she kind of got fed up with me. During exercises I tended to stop mid-phrase, because I frankly couldn’t remember what the exercise’s melody was like. One day, she’d had enough of it. She told me I thought I didn’t remember but it was just a matter of doing it anyway. That of course I couldn’t remember if I started doubting all the time. That I had to go through with it. That she didn’t care at all if I got it wrong but I had to do it, and she didn’t want me to stop ever again. Understood? Then she said, never finishing that sentence: “I don’t know if you act like this in everyday life…”
I answered silently to myself. “Oh shit… I do! This is what I do,” I thought. “I stop. I stop all the time.” I was floored.
I don’t remember if this had an impact on my life in the next few weeks or months. I remember that, at that time, work was getting to me. I had made a few real mistakes, the small business I was working for was suffering for several other reasons, and I was getting too emotionally involved in “fixing” things. I started feeling like shit, thinking I should probably quit. Work — the different jobs I had taken, everything I had published — had been my go-to place for self-esteem for years, and now it was broken.
Then that second thing happened. I was home one morning, around 10 or 11 am, in my room, alone. My housemate had gone to work already. I was on the phone with someone I didn’t really know — I’ll spare you the details — and at one point in that conversation I said “This might sound strange, but I’m a 26 year old virgin.” It hadn’t been easy to say, but it was okay. An then, right after I ended that phone call, I heard something. A sneeze, a cough, I’m not sure. I froze, understanding that my housemate was in his room. The walls between the two rooms were paper-thin, we usually could hear each other’s conversations clearly. I thought about those words, “I’m a virgin”, which had been hard enough to tell to a stranger, and which I hadn’t told to a friend or face-to-face to anyone or at all since I had turned 20. He must have heard me. He must have heard the whole thing.
I was petrified. A tall wave of shame washing over me. And another one. And again. My mind was racing. My heart beating way too fast. Could it be that he hadn’t heard me? He sometimes had his headphones on. With a little bit of luck— Should I say something? Is there anything I should do? Should I explain— No, even if he’s heard everything— he won’t mention it. I guess. Oh fuck, what should I do?
I was able to let the wave of shame wash away. But the words “I’m a virgin” stayed with me for hours, prompting me to think about what it meant, what was implied in those few words. I thought about the past few years during which I hadn’t met anyone I was interested in, and the years before that, and how I had never ever felt someone’s interest for me. It struck me that in the past five years I hadn’t made any new close friend, all the while I had lost touch with the few close friends I’d used to have. I realized that if it weren’t for my family, I’d be alone, really alone. And I hadn’t felt the full strength of that loneliness before because of work and my family and not living on my own and keeping myself busy with always something to read or to watch or to do. But now all of this was falling apart.
And why the hell was I so alone, why was it that I had failed to make new connections and to preserve old ones? I remembered those times when I had felt like other people were keeping their distance. I remembered how two close friends had cut me off, with seemingly no reason. Sure, I could say it was their issues, other people’s issues, and it might even be true in some instances. But what was the common denominator between all those relationships? It was me. Just me. My behavior, my fears. It wasn’t people keeping me away, it was me keeping people away. Me being so self-conscious I’d stop half-way through (or at the very start of) anything I wasn’t already comfortable with.
And it was suddenly clear that I wasn’t comfortable with relationships. That confidence I thought I had in anything but romantic relationships? Bullshit. I wasn’t comfortable with how people looked at me, with what they could think or feel about me. I was terrified.
It was a perfect storm.
Me. My fault. My responsibility. I was the one who hadn’t tried to catch up with old friends, hadn’t replied to high school friends trying to get back in touch, because I was ashamed of being single and alone (and, yeah, a virgin). It was all coming together now. How afraid I was of people judging me. How hard it was for me, believing I could even be loved.
I don’t remember how long this thought process took. Just that one day? A few days maybe? In any case, it was both enlightening and excruciating. It’s not particularly fun — and perhaps not a very good idea — to make a list of all the things that went wrong with your life, and to think about how it has been your fault and your responsibility all along. It’s a downward spiral.
I ended up on the verge of a major breakdown.
But I was lucky. All the while I was reviewing all the mistakes I had made or might have made in the previous ten years, the shame turned into guilt. “I’m such a mess!” turned into “I messed up”. And there is a world of difference between the two. It’s hard to do anything with “I’m a mess”, but with “I messed up”, especially if what you messed up is your own life rather than someone else’s, there’s an obvious answer to that: SO FUCKING WHAT?! There was no point in beating myself up.
So I decided on a few things at that time:
I was going to forgive myself. All that compassion I was willing to give others? I’d start with me.
I was going to love myself. I deeply believed that everyone deserved to be loved just by virtue of being human, so it was only justice that I’d start applying that belief to myself.
I wouldn’t shy away from people anymore, I was going to step way outside of my comfort zone and let myself be seen without fearing how people looked at me.
And I did all of it, and more. I did it imperfectly and it’s always something you have to work on, but I did it. I used all the means I could think of in order to make it real and not just words. Something I could feel in my body.
And it worked wonders. I wasn’t afraid of forming new connections — I had nothing to lose in the first place! I faked it till I made it. And there were good and bad stuff, happiness and hurt, companionship and comfort and moments of vivid solitude. All in all I gained and learned a lot.
So I had turned my life around, and everything that had been broken was mended.
If you’ve ever gone through some kind of breakdown and major revelation about yourself, you might have felt this too: you get at a point where you’ve figured out so many things and worked so hard and made so fucking much progress that you expect things to Just. Work. Out.
Well, they don’t.
So friendship was great. I made the most awesome friends. And it turns out I’m a pretty decent friend too. But when it comes to love and, yes, sex, it’s a different story. I fell in love (madly so) and it was very much unrequited. That was one thing. After that there were a few other romantic let-downs. I chalked it up to bad luck, but still, it was hard to take. What the fuck was wrong with me? Why wouldn’t anyone just look at me? My best friend, a very sincere and straightforward person, told me she didn’t get it either, she usually could tell if there was something wrong with someone’s attitude, but with me she had no clue.
I was starting to get one.
There were two things. First, there was that time when I met a stranger I kinda wanted to kiss and caress and more (of course I didn’t do anything creepy, it was only happening in my head). I could feel the desire pushing me towards that person, and I knew at that time that I could use this as a motivator to, for instance, strike up conversation. You might be thinking something like “well, duh! this is how desire works to begin with!” Except for me it hadn’t worked like that in the previous twelve years or so. How desire usually worked for me was: feeling desire, and feeling pulled away from the other person. Desire was something which could make me step away or shut down.
The very idea that sexual desire was positive, a basic life force which could be used for not only sex but also seduction and social interaction and more, it’s something that I had read in a book a few months earlier, and it was kind of a novelty to me. So actually feeling it clearly for the first time, that was something.
The second thing happened a few months later. I thought back on a fairly intimate evening from a few weeks before when I could have taken the first step, but hadn’t. I didn’t know if it would have resulted in anything, but there had been quite a few green lights, and I had done nothing. Then I thought back on another intimate evening from a year before, an evening I had spent with someone I loved, when I didn’t dare to do anything for a lot of perfectly good and rational reasons — yet the main reason I had done nothing was fear.
And I thought about how, in my experience, desire was not only linked to romantic feelings but almost permitted by or through romantic feelings. To put it simply: I needed an excuse to be able to want someone.
This is when I realized that something was wrong with my relationship to sexuality. Until then I had chalked it up to lack of confidence and experience — so of course I wasn’t prone to taking the first step. But it was much more than that. I was stuck. There was a fucking big mental block in the way. There was something wrong with me.
I was devastated and relieved. Devastated because all the hard work I had done in the past two years hadn’t fixed my issues. And relieved because suddenly I didn’t have to pretend that sexuality was something I was fully comfortable with. Ironically, thinking “I have a problem” felt great!
I started asking questions. To myself, as always, and to my parents. Why was it that they had never talked to us about sexuality, not even once? I started seeing a therapist. I looked for every answer I could find.
My family has a long history with incest. (I don’t want to go into too much detail, but let me just add that my parents have done nothing wrong to contribute to that history, quite the contrary actually.) It’s a family secret — actually a bunch of family secrets — that emerged roughly ten years ago. Until recently I thought this had no strong impact on me, since I was neither victim nor perpetrator. For years I had thought “Sure, I may have some issues of my own, but they’re probably not related to this.” Well I guess I was wrong.
Guilt. Fear. Danger. Turns out as a child you soak up those things. I’ve always felt insecure as a child. There are probably a lot of facets to this insecurity, and I don’t understand or recognize most of them, but one is linked to the idea of masculinity. It had always seemed kind of alien to me, not only in my teenage years (when I felt I wasn’t tall enough or strong enough or manly enough), but in my early childhood years too.
I had to be a man. It was expected of me. But I couldn’t be a man, I would have been a danger. Because men are abusers.
At 19, I understood that my parents’ view of sexuality was not for me. We never really discussed the topic — I don’t remember ever discussing or mentioning sexuality with my parents during all of my teenage years — but it was like they viewed sexuality as something harmful which had to be purified through love and marriage and spirituality. Upon realizing this at 19, I promptly decided that sex was something neutral that could have good or bad consequences on people (but hopefully mostly good ones) depending on what you do.
It took me 9 years to come full circle. To actually believe what I had decided on at 19. But now I had a deeper understanding of what this all meant, and it could finally sink in.
Most of these thoughts, discussions and — in a way — work happened in Spring and Summer 2012. I had my first sexual experiences shortly after that. It was great.
So I guess I lied earlier when I said that I’m a 28 year old virgin. But I’m not sure that was really a lie. For starters, I have been a 28 year old virgin quite recently. But, most importantly, I wanted to reclaim that title, “The Virgin”, for a bunch of reasons.
I wanted to reclaim it because when some words have described a big part of your life for so long, they never fully go away.
It’s actually pretty funny and stupid and a bit sad, that whole “virgin” thing. As if there were a clear-cut line. As if it were a thing. If “virginity” is a line, then it must be a kind of Maginot line. And I remember what I felt was my first time: when she held me in her arms and I could feel desire — her desire, not only mine — and we both knew we wanted to do something with that desire. That was the first time.
I wanted to reclaim that title because if there’s a lot of social stigma already for having a sex life that’s not “perfect” or “good enough”, you can imagine how much more stigma there is for not having a sex life at all. You know what kind of jokes and insults there are for “virgins”, you’ve heard them and you might have used them too. But there are a lot of people out there, probably more than you imagine, who are either “virgins” or have painful problems with relationships and sexuality. I know a few such people: all different, all unique, men and women alike. We’re out there. And there’s no fucking shame to be had.
I wanted to reclaim that title because even though I’m only one of “all the lonely people”, this is where I come from. This is the path that I have traveled. It belongs to me, and I’m okay with writing it all down.
Thank you for reading.