At Your Own Pace

I sometimes wonder what it’s like to have your first kiss or sexual experience as a teenager. This seemed to be the life of my friends in high school; stealing kisses at the mall before your mom picks you up, having awkward post-prom sex because it was expected of you. This is normal, and its normality is reinforced by everything from teen rom-coms to YA novels. When your series of life events don’t quite match up, it’s easy to wonder if something about you is a little off. I’d know. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 23-years-old and I was a virgin until I was 25-years-old. I’ve lived to tell my tale without feeling like a complete loser for most of my life. Hopefully the following spiel can act as a helpful guide for anyone else who feels like they’re a late bloomer in the romance department.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t really concerned about having a boyfriend or hooking up. I was way more concerned with my friends, school, Harry Potter fan fiction, and, not feeling weirdly guilty after masturbating to really care about whether or not I had a date to prom. But the draw of desirability wasn’t lost on me either. It’s almost impossible to see your friends making out with their bae in the hallways and not low key think, “Oh, that looks kind of nice. I wish I had that.” I wasn’t losing sleep over my crushes not liking me back, but I do think I internalized this idea in my teens that I just wasn’t all that desirable. A lot of my friends were having relationships but I wasn’t. Nobody ever asked me out. All the guys I had crushes on had crushes on someone else; I usually tried to do what I could to help them succeed in their romantic endeavors. In a twisted way, it made me feel wanted.

I would do all kinds of little things to rationalize my lack of desirability. I’d blame it on the fact that I was a tall token black girl who never wore the right sized bra and hung out with a crew of weirdos. “Of course nobody is going to be thirsty for me,” I told myself. Though half of the people in my crew of weirdos were getting action, I chose to ignore that. I’d pride myself in being “the friend” and tell myself it was a good thing that I didn’t have to deal with so much relationship drama. Despite all the things I told myself, I still felt like a bit of an ugly duckling who couldn’t get a dude to like her. I’m human, and I wouldn’t have minded being adored.

I got so used to rationalizing the fact that dudes apparently weren’t attracted to me that by the time I got to college, I was straight up shook when guys would occasionally hit on me on campus. There was this one time when I’m pretty sure a dude I had a bit of a crush on had a crush on me back, and I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself.

Still, I wasn’t getting any. I studied abroad as a junior in college and sort of fantasized that my first kiss would be by some British dude who shared my love for The Smiths or something else nauseatingly quaint, but that didn’t happen. Before I knew it I was a high school and college graduate who had never had mouth to mouth action. I sort of carried this around like a weird party trick; get a group of women together, talking about their sex lives, and there I was with my “I’ve never been kissed LOL” story. When I became more open about this, I was actually surprised by how surprised everyone else was. People expected me to have been there and done that and were confused as to why it never happened.

I didn’t really have an answer for them. I was part of the mere 20 percent of college students who graduated without having sex, but it wasn’t because I was holding out for the one or anything like that. Maybe I was just never at the right place at the right time. Maybe I wasn’t aggressive enough. Whatever the reason, it was what it was, and I found myself having to defend my seemingly inexplicable v-card status. A couple years after college I started writing a column called The Accidental Virgin, which chronicled my life as a sexually inexperienced 20-something-year-old. I eventually got to write about my first kiss, my first hookup, my first boyfriend, and my first time having sex. What I learned from letting the internet know about all my dirty laundry is that I wasn’t alone. I got so many messages from teen girls and grown women who said, “OH MY GOD! I THOUGHT I WAS ALONE.” Even friends of mine that I also assumed were having sex all the time admitted that they too were 20-something-year-old-virgins. They were so pretty and charming and cool. “How could THEY be virgins like me,” I thought. That’s when I realized they probably thought the same of me.

I think that we would all feel a little less weird about our own lack of love lives if we were more open and honest. There’s a tendency to think that someone who is inexperienced must be some sort of weirdo who looks like a swamp monster with the charisma of a moldy slice of ham. Once you realize that your own friends and people you look up to are in the same sexless boat as you are, you really start to understand that maybe how interesting or cool or pretty you are really isn’t based on who you’ve managed to hook up with.

Here is some advice I wish I’d gotten when I was younger:

Know that there will be someone out there who wants your mouth on their mouth.

I’m serious. It’s possible that person isn’t at your school. Maybe they’re someone you meet at a gig, or someone who lives in your dorm in college, or some random person you meet via a dating app when you’re 25. Just know that you’re not some loveless slug that is incapable of being loved and desired. Again, I’m saying this as someone who didn’t have a boyfriend until two years after my college graduation, and we just celebrated our third anniversary. If I can find love, so can you. So many people say stuff about themselves like, “No one will ever like me, I’m so ugly.” Stop it! There’s nothing about you to warrant that level of disgust, I assure you.

Everyone operates love, sex, and life at a different pace.

You’re not some socially inept weirdo if you haven’t lost your virginity before going to college. Do you know how many other virgins you’re going to be surrounded by for the next four agonizing years? A lot—even if nobody is blabbing about it. No one is going to know where you’re “at” in terms of romantic experience unless you tell them. It’s not like you have a massive sign on your head that says “virgin.”

Your romantic experiences, or lack thereof, do not determine your self-worth.

This sounds so like almost every other thing you’ve read about self-love and having confidence, but I’m going to be so real with you guys: Your worth—how cool you are, how interesting you are, how funny you are, how attractive you are—has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with how far you’ve gone by senior year.

Being a late bloomer doesn’t define who you are.

If anyone does make you feel less than because of your lack of experience, please remember that they’re the weird one for acting like overhyped milestones—like first kisses and having sex for the first time—somehow defines what kind of person you are.

I want fellow late bloomers to feel a little less alone and a little less defective. We’re all going through the motions of love at our own funky speeds. It’s important to remember that you have too much life ahead of you to be upset about not hooking up with someone by some arbitrary age. In the end, what happens, happens. ♦