Heather Corinna replies:
I'm an 18 year old girl looking for advice to give a (just-turned) 26 year old male. That sounds odd, but my best friend is 8 years older than I am, and we're both virgins. While I'm proud of my decision to wait, my friend has become increasingly insecure with his. As our friendship has progressed I've found that my words have become less comforting, I suppose because of the difference in age and gender. There is so much unspoken pressure on girls and their sexuality in our society- but with males it is so much more overt, and his increasing age only increases his shame. I can't go to an adult sexuality site for an answer because those are irrelevent to me, and you're my favorite internet source of advice and information, so I hope you can help me deal with my friend. How can I let him know that nothing is wrong with him, and how can I build his confidence? How can I avoid seeming condescending (especially with someone so much older than I am)? All of his friends have had sex, so there's a significant wall in the conversation whenever he tries to talk about it with them. I'm scared that that wall is growing between us, not because of a difference in experience, but, again, in age (and possibly gender). How can I approach him with this topic without him becoming defensive? How can I make sure he knows I'm there for him? In college he saved himself for a girl that led him on because she was afraid of her own sexuality, she's now a proud lesbian and they're close friends, but I think it makes him feel worthless and incapable of a real relationship. He's so good to his friends, how can I get him to let me be the friend he is? How can I protect him from self-destruction and stop the label "virgin" from ruling his life?
What an awesome friend you are!
Obviously, everyone who is waiting for sex, or a certain type of sex, can have different reasons for waiting. Too, a person's reasons for waiting might change over time, or if a person originally had wanted to wait, they may not want to all that much at a certain point. It should probably also be said that if someone originally wanted to wait for sex -- let's say, until marriage, or until a certain type of relationship came along -- that might feel different over time if they haven't had many opportunities to say no. In other words, it sounds like it's possible that a) your friend's reasons for waiting might not be the same as yours, and b) he might also be feeling like given a lack of real opportunities, this is less about him actively choosing to wait at this point than it is about him not even having the option to say no or yes anymore.
I agree with you: this can be really loaded for men. Virginity as a concept really wasn't ever designed for men. Mind, it wasn't particularly designed for women, either, in the sense that the whole history of the thing and how it has been policed and enacted has been largely about objectifying women and valuing them via their sexuality or lack thereof. But at the same time, in some circles, a value IS put on a chaste woman (and taken away from one who is not) that is very rarely applied to men: the sexual value usually put on men is about virility and conquest, not holding back.
One place I'd suggest you start is just by reminding him that no matter WHAT he chooses, you're still his friend and will support him regardless. If he feels at all like part of your friendship hinges on you both continuing to want to make the same choices -- even if you both don't -- or have virginity have to be a huge part of both of your identities, that's going to feel pretty ooky. If you can give him the space and permission to feel conflicted and talk about it with you, with him knowing that whatever he's feeling about it is okay, that's going to strengthen your friendship and assure him that he has a safe space to voice how he's feeling with you.
Not knowing what his reasons have been or are now for waiting, it's a bit tricky for me to speak to some of this. I don't know how proud he's ever been of his choice to wait, or how much stock he has ever put in that. Sounds like it's a pretty big deal for you, and something you very actively choose: I don't know if that's the case for him. Perhaps you do, but if you don't, I'd also make sure you're not presuming the two of you to have ever been in exactly the same place, nor presume that he values waiting the same way that you do.
If you two get talking about this, and he talks about why he is or was choosing to wait, revisit those reasons with him. If, for instance, he feels like it's really important for him to only have sex within a certain type of relationship, it's generally safe to say that for most people who feel that way very strongly, sex in other contexts isn't all that likely to be beneficial for them. Even if, say, it meant more connection with his male friends because he could say he had sex, that benefit may not outweigh the bad feelings he might have for choosing to do something he isn't going to feel so great about otherwise.
I'd mention that when a peer group or friend is closing the door on someone because of this -- whether that's about NOT having sex or HAVING sex -- the problem isn't what that person shut out is or isn't choosing to do: the problem is with the group or friend not being as inclusive and accepting as they could be. In other words, he's not the problem here, nor are his sexual choices.
As well, I'd remind him that sex isn't the magical fairy in The Velveteen Rabbit that makes people or relationships "real." Relationships are real and have value with or without sex, and romantic and sexual relationships aren't somehow intrinsically privileged, or of some greater value, than all other kinds of relationships. Sex can't make a relationship important or "real" that wasn't either of those things already: it can only enhance, deepen or express a real thing that was already there. In fact, so much of sex and romance is ephemeral and ever-shifting, that in ANY kind of relationship, it really is friendship that's the "real" stuff. When in doubt about that, it's great to talk to older couples who have been together for decades: they tend to echo that sentiment very strongly.
The "label" of virgin isn't likely to ruin anyone's life. Nor is choosing to be celibate if that's really what a person wants, or it taking a bit longer for a sexual partnership someone DOES want to show up, nor will changing one's mind about choosing celibacy. If the real issue is that he wants to remain celibate and his other friends aren't being supportive, it may be time for him to find some better friends. If the issue is that he doesn't want to choose celibacy anymore, then he may simply need to know that that's just as okay by you, as his friend (per supporting him, not in terms of what's right for you) as choosing it. Ultimately, so long as what he chooses sexually and in terms of his own identity feels right to him, none of this is going to ruin his life.
Lastly, it's obvious that this friendship is really important to you. I might also be sure to let him know how important it is, and voice your concerns that this issue is putting a wall between you that you really don't want there because your friendship is so important. If he clearly knows that he can feel however he feels about this with you, and voice feelings that may not be yours, that may help bring down the barrier in and of itself: with virginity being of such high value to you, he may need a reminder that that's not a criteria by which you value HIM or your friendship, and that even if you two didn't have that in common, you'd want to be his friend. Since his other friendships seem to be hinging on making a given choice or not, it wouldn't be surprising if he was feeling like that might be the case with all his friendships and relationships.
Being a good friend who is unilaterally supportive, no matter what sexual choices he makes, is the best thing you can do to help him with his esteem and confidence: the rest really is up to him. But it sounds to me like he's got one heck of a person in his corner with you, which probably is a bigger help to him in dealing with this conflict than you know.
Given you're so familiar with the site, you probably have read these articles before, but in case it's been a while, one or all of them might be helpful to share with your friend: