A few years ago, a man who identified himself as a 20-something college virgin contacted me through OK Cupid and asked if I would help him lose his virginity. Unfortunately for him, his chosen "experienced, older woman" had written a memoir of reluctant chastity.
I almost replied. I wanted to challenge his view of virginity and encourage him to think of what he could gain through a season of unwanted celibacy.
I've thought about that unwritten email again, ever since the news that Elliot Rodger gunned down six people and injured 13 others near Santa Barbara, California, in a shooting spree he attributed to the frequent rejection that left him a virgin at 22.
What do you tell the male virgin in a sexed-up 21st-century "bro culture"? Is there anything an older sister of sorts could say to encourage men frustrated by their unwanted celibacy? Here's my attempt.
To the male virgins out there:
I suspect you feel a lot of shame about the term "virgin." These days, it's hard not to. Even among young adults, virgins are a clear minority; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 American men enters marriage a virgin; most start having sex in late high school. The numbers show women behave very similarly.
Whatever our various reasons for ending up so, adult virgins must navigate a culture that regards sex as central to human fulfillment. But abstinence from this supposedly penultimate experience raises slightly different identity issues for men and women.
For women, men's disinterest can seem like a knock on our beauty and desirability. Depending on where we find our value, that rejection can throw our own self-worth into question. But where women may blame unwanted abstinence on some lack in ourselves, men seem to read sexual inexperience as a fundamental failing, or even evidence of women's universal aversion to or even contempt.
My long sexual drought brought me to ask two significant questions: What is true about my situation? (Am I worthless? Am I a failure?) and what can I do about it?
If you're a man who hasn't had sex yet, in certain cases, it may be true that some women don't like you. But all human beings experience a measure of social disconnect and disappointment at one time or another. In the face of misunderstanding and rejection, being ourselves, without shame or guilt or self-hatred, takes great courage.
Even so, the Bible does not leave room to conclude that God somehow screwed up when he made any of us. The psalmist regards God's personal plan for human life with awe. And Jesus, speaking in the famous sermon recounted in Matthew, notes God's lavish attention to birds and short-lived grass before reminding the hearers of their obviously greater value. "Will he not much more do so for you, o men of little faith?"
Even if you doubt the Bible or God's existence, how could our identity or fulfillment depend on sex? How could anything so fundamental to who we are depend on the consent and active involvement of another person?
That brings us to our response to unwanted abstinence. Some do very desperate things. People may augment their beauty, overspend, lie, pay for sex, or even rape. The more that we conflate identity with genital activity, the more destructively we may act.
But sex grasped through force, self-denial, or deceit falls grossly short of the intimate union God intended and I think most people ultimately want. It not only uses and damages others; it dehumanizes the one who grasps it. Demanding sex, whether overtly or implicitly, feeds your worst self, not your best.
I say all this because I want the men of my generation to flourish. A lot of you seem to be struggling, but I want you to succeed in life. I want you to use every resource and ability you've been entrusted with — to get the most out of your life and be all that you can for your community and the time in which you were born.
Hopefully that eventually includes a healthy, mutually satisfying sexual relationship. But you sell yourself criminally short if you would reduce your potential, your success and your identity to regularly leaving sperm with someone.
Sexual experience and skill don't even matter as much as you might think. For a long time, I used to wrestle over the fact that the Bible peoples paradise with not one but two virgins — male and female. That must have been incredibly awkward at the start! But you know what? They'd never seen porn. They'd never even seen people kiss in a movie or at a party. Their entire discovery and exploration of sex consisted of finding out what made the other person feel good. That took a teachable, humble spirit. It also took great patience and unselfishness.
And as a woman who still hopes to one day marry, I'd far rather have a teachable man who wants to get to know me and to make sure I feel comfortable than some guy who comes in with lots of preconceived notions and "experience." For a woman, the more attentive her partner, the better the chances of mutual enjoyment.
Now assuming your future includes sex at some point — which, for most men, it does — you should take heart. I suspect that one of the greatest lies our culture tells its young men is that being a good lover takes lots of practice in bed. I'm sure practice doesn't hurt, but the very root of the English word lover is the verb love: that action by which the God of the Bible defines himself, and by which Jesus said people would always recognize his followers. "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends," Jesus said.
Though "love" may have given its name to those proficient in the bedroom, life outside the bedroom has far more influence on what kind of true lovers we become. That means all us can become more self-sacrificial lovers, whether we get to practice that in sex or not. That should be a great encouragement for all so-called virgins — and I hope you among them.
—Anna Broadway, fellow pilgrim in the trenches