The Happy Trail

Not having sex in college: Students talking stigma and support

By Emma Holmes

On a campus fully immersed in “hook-up culture,” it can be difficult to navigate the realities of not having sex with others, whether the decision is deliberate or not. As a sex-positive section, we would be remiss not to affirm everyone’s autonomy over their sex lives. This week, The Happy Trail reached out and interviewed two anonymous sources about their experiences as virgins* in college — the reasons, the pressures, and the stigmas.
The first of our interviewees, who we’ll refer to with the pseudonym “Frances,” is voluntarily remaining abstinent until they’re married. The second, “Jamie,” identifies as a virgin by circumstance, having simply not found the right person, place and time to take that step. We asked them both about their experiences navigating identity, sexual exploration and social pressures surrounding their circumstance.
Frances attended a private Christian middle and high school, where their decision to stay abstinent until marriage was widely supported by their teachers and parents. Several of their friends made a similar commitment, and the decision was relatively easy to uphold. Their significant other shared that value, and the two worked together to avoid tempting situations.
In college, Frances draws support from their friends and family, as well as their faith. “It’s for my benefit, not others. If God wants me to do this, it must be important,” they stated. They’ve found friends who share their faith, as well as those who do not. The key, they told us, is simply being willing to talk about their decision instead of making assumptions about it.
According to Frances, the most significant pressures to have sex come from people’s misunderstanding. Frances worries that people perceive them as feeling superior because of their decision to remain abstinent. This stigma is enhanced by people’s discomfort when the subject arises. “Most conversations about sex are pretty brief once I tell them I’m a virgin.” However, Frances says they appreciate it when people ask direct questions, or address their discomfort. It offers them a chance to clarify their position. “This is just something I’m choosing to do. It doesn’t mean I think any less of anyone who doesn’t do it.”
Our other interviewee, Jamie, made no such commitment, but identifies as a virgin because they haven’t participated in penetrative sex with another person. While they felt uncomfortable about their virginity their first year of college, participating in more conversations about it has made them realize the true array of sexual experience on campus. Encountering friends, teammates, and peers who comfortably discuss their sex lives, or lack thereof, has normalized Jamie’s experience, making them more comfortable with their own situation. These frank conversations, however, have made them increasingly aware of sexual assault in intimate situations. “Hearing close friends’ experiences with sexual assault made the threat much more real. It was something I hadn’t really thought about.” While Jamie says that they “definitely still want to have sex” someday, they are warier than they were in high school about safety and comfort.
Both interviewees made it clear that the most critical aspect to navigating a sexually active campus as a virgin was transparent, non-judgmental conversations. Where Frances and Jamie otherwise felt that people were judging them, communicating honestly about their decision or circumstance made them more comfortable in themselves and with others’ perceptions. Frances elaborated: “I’d say it’s definitely not comfortable, but it’s something that I like to push myself to do. I’ve learned recently — and through life — that being transparent is something that’s super rewarding … I would love to see people questioning each other in a friendly way more often. In a curious way, not confrontational.” Jamie, similarly, said they were surprised with how comfortable they’ve become sharing the fact that they sees themself as a virgin. While they says they’ve felt shame around sex in the past, they’re becoming more and more comfortable with the subject. The bottom line? Everyone makes decisions for different reasons, including whether to have sex or not. Avoid assumptions about someone based simply on this very personal decision.
*The concept of virginity is one that we grapple with regularly at The Happy Trail. For the purposes of this article, we define a virgin as an individual who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. We invite our readers to consider and challenge the concept of virginity, and the damaging effects of the cis-heteronormative and narrow definition imposed by traditional sexual norms.