Rebel Wilson isn’t the only one who lost her virginity in her thirties

Rebel Wilson talks about being a ‘late bloomer’ in her new memoir (Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock)
Rebel Wilson talks about being a ‘late bloomer’ in her new memoir (Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock)

Not everybody has to lose their virginity as a teenager.” So says Rebel Wilson in her recently released memoir, Rebel Rising. Among the many headline-grabbing lines to come out of the book, perhaps the one that sparked the biggest furore was the revelation that the Pitch Perfect actor didn’t have sex for the first time until she was 35.

Referring to herself as a “late bloomer”, Wilson, now 44, said she was sharing her experience in the hope of normalising the notion of losing your virginity later in life. “People can wait till they’re ready or wait till they’re a bit more mature,” she said. “And I think that could be a positive message. You obviously don’t have to wait until you’re in your thirties like me, but you shouldn’t feel pressure as a young person.”

Despite culture’s best efforts to convince us that everyone is at it like rabbits, Wilson isn’t alone. A YouGov survey revealed that 5 per cent of Britons – 4 per cent of women and 6 per cent of men who were willing to give an answer – aged 25 or older were yet to have sex for the first time. Meanwhile, a quarter of Japanese people remain virgins into their twenties and thirties, according to a 2019 study. Among those aged 30 to 34, the number of women who reported never having had heterosexual intercourse was 11.9 per cent, while this figure was 12.7 per cent for men.

But while it’s far from being a unique or even rare situation, there’s still a huge amount of stigma around being a virgin beyond a “socially acceptable” age, according to Alyson Cadena, creator of the 30-Year-Old Virgin podcast. Now 33, she didn’t have sex until the age of 31. “Doing the podcast, I realised it wasn’t some weird, abnormal thing – there are loads of us out there! – but people are ashamed to talk about it, so they think they’re the only ones. We’re almost encouraging that stigma because we won’t speak our truth.”

In Cadena’s case, the “decision” not to have sex wasn’t really a decision at all – more something that crept up on her passively and unintentionally. “A lot of us didn’t actively decide to wait,” she says. “I was obese my whole life until the age of 30, when I had weight loss surgery. I thought I wasn’t a desirable person because of that, and I just ruled myself out of dating and sex altogether.” It’s only in hindsight that she’s realised that wasn’t true – “everyone has their own taste” – and that people did (and do) fancy her.

This idea of inertia resulting in someone becoming a late bloomer, rather than it being a choice, is something Helen Mayor, a psychosexual and relationship therapist at the Thought House Partnership, has noticed with her clients.

“There’s enormous truth in that, particularly for women,” she says. “They didn’t plan it. But perhaps they’re nervous, they’re shy, they’re not body confident, they don’t go out much – and sex just never happened.” It can be very “vulnerable”, says Mayor – “All these people are sitting with fear and a sense of isolation, believing ‘I am the only one; only I am still a virgin in my thirties.’”

Steve Carell stars in ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ (Universal Pictures)
Steve Carell stars in ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ (Universal Pictures)

It’s one of the main reasons Cadena started her podcast – to break the silence, break the shame cycle, and help people in the same situation feel less alone. After all, the only other frame of reference in popular culture for most people is the 2005 Steve Carell movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

One of the biggest questions people have is: should they tell people they’re seeing that they’re a virgin? If so, when? “As I started getting into dating, I had to think about that,” says Cadena. “Because some people will judge you, some are going to fetishise it as a weird kink – ‘oh, I’m going to take her innocence’ – and some people make this assumption that you’re going to become too attached.”

She went on a journey with it, swinging between never disclosing her status as a virgin and wanting to tell everyone up front to gauge their reaction. She eventually reframed it as something that could be disclosed but only to those who had earned the right to that information.

“Whether you tell someone or not is your business,” says Cadena. “Sexually active people don’t hand out a resumé before they have sex!” She adds that late bloomers “think too much about other people. They need to re-centre and think, ‘What do I need?’ If that means telling the other person, cool. If that means don’t tell them, cool. If it means waiting for love or sleeping with the person you just started seeing, that’s fine.”

The more you delay it, the more you’re keeping yourself away from the full spectrum of human experience

Sachin Srinivasan, 34

Part of the decision to stop “wearing it on her forehead” was based on the predictably bizarre and creepy responses she received from some members of the opposite sex. “People feel like they can be inappropriate and weird because you’ve shared this sensitive information,” she says. She matched with one man on a dating app whose questions were “nonsensical to the point of being insulting. He was like, ‘Do you shave? Because no one’s going to see it.’ People also loved to ask me if I masturbate – I fail to see why that’s anyone else’s concern!”

As well as the passive factor, there are a range of reasons why someone might not have sex until later in life or not at all. It might be that they’re waiting for the right person or for marriage; there could be shame or fear attached to sex; it could be driven by religion; they may be wrestling with their sexual orientation or exploring whether or not they’re asexual.

For Sachin Srinivasan, a 34-year-old who teaches English as a second language in the US, it was cultural and religious reasons that initially kept him from diving between the sheets. Originally from Mumbai, he had sex for the first time at 25. Although that may not sound particularly old, “I feel like it was super late in my peer group,” he tells me. “The decision was firstly religious, then it turned into a personal thing where for a few years I was waiting for the right person. And then it just felt more like something I had to do. It started weighing on me, it became a Thing, and desperation is a stinky cologne…”

Unlike Cadena, he didn’t get rude responses from women but he did get mocked by male friends. As time went on, the jokes wore thin. “After a while you go, ‘Guys, can you cut it out already?’ It’s almost taken as a sign of you not being a proper adult yet. I felt like sometimes I didn’t get taken seriously.”

Alyson Cadena hosts the ‘30-Year-Old Virgin’ podcast (Alyson Cadena)
Alyson Cadena hosts the ‘30-Year-Old Virgin’ podcast (Alyson Cadena)

Srinivasan decided against mentioning that it was his first time to the woman to whom he lost his virginity: “I felt telling people would scare them away so I just didn’t.”

Whatever the motivation behind someone remaining a virgin, the older they get, the more fear can – for some – build up around the idea of sex, says Mayor. “The longer it goes on, the more sex can become something terrifying and incredibly vulnerable, as can the prospect of mentioning it to a prospective partner.”

One of the ways that fear can express itself in women is through vaginismus. This is “the body’s automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration”, according to the NHS. “Whenever penetration is attempted, your vaginal muscles tighten up on their own. You have no control over it.” This physical response can in turn feed into greater shame and fear around sex for women, in a continuous vicious cycle that’s hard to break.

“Even for women who want to have sex, there can be so much fear in the body that the body doesn’t allow it,” explains Mayor. She often works in conjunction with a pelvic floor specialist so they can tackle the physical internal issues alongside the psychological ones. “People need to know it’s really common – in people who’ve had sex before as well as those who haven’t.”

But there can be unexpected benefits to waiting (aside from avoiding the awkward teenage “cherry-popping” stories that many people would rather forget). “I’m actually very grateful to have lost my virginity as a fully actualised adult,” says Cadena. “It wasn’t this magical experience that I expected it to be – but I can make sense of that. Becoming a sexually active person who started dating in her thirties, I learnt so much about my body and my sexuality – much faster than I would have done in my teens. I’m in touch with myself and my beliefs and who I am as a person.”

I’m actually very grateful to have lost my virginity as a fully actualised adult

Alyson Cadena, podcaster

It’s also been a rollercoaster ride, she admits, having done all her “firsts” in such a short space of time: dating, sex, falling in love, experiencing heartbreak. “I had my heart broken for the first time at the age of 31 – I felt like my heart got ripped out through my a**hole! I can’t imagine having to go through that at 16,” she says.

For late bloomers who are looking to have sex for the first time, Mayor recommends open communication. “You set the pace,” she says, “write down a list of things you’re comfortable to try.” She also emphasises that safe sex is vital – “the last thing you want to add is anxiety about getting pregnant or catching an STD” – and recommends “pre-emptive lubrication” for women, to take the pressure off. “Not getting wet can feel like the equivalent of a man not getting an erection. Just apply some lube, make it easy.” Exploring your own body first is also going to make sex with another person much more enjoyable: “Get to know your own anatomy and what you like,” adds Mayor.

But, in the end, it’s down to the individual if, when and how they want to have sex for the first time. Srinivasan advises late bloomers to “just go for it – it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid in the best way. The more you delay it, the more you’re keeping yourself away from the full spectrum of human experience.” Cadena doesn’t think there’s any “clear answer” but her advice is to “trust yourself. If you think that this is the moment to do it, don’t worry if it’s perfect; just allow yourself to be in the moment.”

Everyone can agree on one thing, though – we need to talk about it more, drop the stigma, and normalise the fact that we’re all on different sexual timelines. “I guarantee other people around you are also confused and struggling with this,” says Cadena.

Within the infinitely broad, complex and beautiful spectrum of human experience, perhaps it’s time we finally started making more space for the sexual tortoises among us, not just the hares.