When Paul married Monica in 1997, they were a couple of doe-eyed, evangelical twentysomethings whose fast-approaching wedding night meant they were tantalizingly close to cinching the religiously sanctioned virginity loss they’d waited their whole lives for.
However, their consummatory coitus never happened. Three years into their marriage, Paul was still a virgin with an equally chaste wife and a Gateway computer housing a browser history whose increasingly hardcore entries revealed a pornographic timeline of his growing desperation. At the time, he felt blisteringly alone, like he was the only guy in this dimension. Turns out, though, he was just one of the pack.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Shawntres Parks, lots of couples stay “pure” well after the wedding bells have rung (though neither she nor Google Scholar’s statistics monkeys can be sure exactly how many). Some of her mutually virginal clients choose this path with conscious conviction, happily forgoing sex because it doesn’t feel congruous with their identity or relationship dynamic. Others, like Paul and Monica, don’t have much of a choice in the matter — some psychological, emotional or physical obstacle has prevented them from consummating their marriage, and trying to overcome it has left them frustrated, confused and in need of professional help. Sexual dysfunctions that make sex painful, religious misinformation and sexual trauma fall into this category.
In either case, Parks says a couple’s decision to maintain or sever their prolonged marital virginity can become a major point of tension in their relationship — a shaky barometer to measure which vows are worth sticking to and which are worth leaving behind. The direction a mutually virginal couple takes depends entirely on one thing: whether or not they actually want to have sex.
When they don’t — as is common in many companionate, asexual and graysexual relationships — Parks says prolonged marital virginity isn’t really a problem (also, not all people in those relationship types are virgins). After all, the intimacy of marriage can be easily supplanted by non-sexual things like kissing, hugging, cuddling, honesty, intellectual connection, shared life goals and the knowledge that you’re one of three people who knows your partner has a Willie Nelson tattoo on their hip. Any of which can be romantic forms of intimacy sexual contact if sex isn’t a mutually desired thing.
However, as Parks points out, that only really works when everyone in the relationship is on board with staying pure as freshly driven snow. When they’re not, involuntary virginity within a marriage can wreak havoc on an otherwise healthy relationship and lead to some surprisingly life-changing effects.
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All Paul ever wanted was to do the “right thing.” Though he adored porn and “jerked off like a motherfucker” during his adolescence, he saw himself as the ultimate good guy, the wholesome Tom Hanks figure who took the moral high ground and rolled his eyes at locker-room jokes about “wet dicks” and “getting it in.” Saving himself for his one true love went part and parcel with the Hankesian image he’d built himself in — a wedding night virginity loss would be a picture-perfect incarnation of the hopelessly romantic male protagonists portrayed in the VHS-era romantic comedies to which he prayed. The “right thing,” he thought, would be to wait. Plus, he says, girls thought it was hot.
Monica was no exception. A Southern baptist whose sterling commitment to God meant she’d never once touched herself “down there,” she was more than willing until she and Paul were married to get jiggy with it. Though they wanted each other badly, they made the mutually enthusiastic decision to stay chaste until after their wedding night — on their honeymoon, in sunny Cancun seemed like a lower-pressure option.
However, despite the beguiling beach vibes of Mexico’s top tourist destination, things didn’t go as planned. Though they warmed up with plenty of foreplay, Paul’s penis couldn’t penetrate his blushing bride — it was unexpectedly painful for her, and no amount of repositioning or breathing through it could help.
They agreed to try again later, and they did — for about a year. But despite their best attempts, all the foreplay and lube in the world couldn’t get Paul’s P in Monica’s V. They coped with copious amounts of oral sex, but around the third year in, the novelty of mouth-stuff started to wear thin. They became pathologically insecure about not being able to give each other what they really wanted, and each felt terribly ashamed that they couldn’t perform their marital duties. They became depressed, and eventually, they stopped being intimate altogether.
That time in Paul’s life was “absolutely horrible.” He’d waited his entire life to have monogamous, matrimonial sex, but despite his earnest attempts at doing things the “right way,” they just weren’t working out. This was no rom-com Tom Hanks life, this was Cast Away or The Terminal — the story of a man trapped in a place no one should be.
Parks is familiar with Paul’s sense of disillusionment, which she blames on the concept of sex people are taught to adopt. “Our culture is inundated with overt and covert messages telling us sex will be this blessed, and wonderful experience after marriage,” she says. “This is particularly true for couples with religious backgrounds, who are often taught sex is supposed to be a spiritual ‘reward’ for obedience in abstaining. Problem is, this premise doesn’t leave space for the real psychological and physical challenges that make penetrative sex exceedingly difficult or impossible for some people.”
It didn’t help that all their other married Christian friends were relishing in the rapture of their own religiously sanctioned sexual discoveries. “Even in the Baptist church, it was uncommon for a married couple not to have sex,” says Paul. “I’d go to bible study and all the guys would slap me on the back like, ‘How’s married life, bro? Wink wink.’ I couldn’t say anything, of course. I didn’t want people to look down on us or at Monica, so neither of us really talked about it, with other people or each other.” This part was particularly painful; marriage was supposed to be the one place you could talk openly about sex, but even that was off-limits. Every time Paul tried to talk to Monica about it, or suggest she see a doctor about the pain, she’d get mad at him for bringing it up and feel even more insecure for creating a problem. In response, he spent hours downloading early 2000s porn off a new thing called the “internet.” Their communication ground to a halt.
Parks has seen many couples in similar situations. “There can be so much shame around acknowledging the emotional and physical pain of a sexless marriage,” she says. “It’s never an easy situation, especially because individuals often struggle to share their feelings with their partner in a way that helps to address each person’s perspectives and beliefs.”
Blogger Shannon Ashley found this out after grappling with her own mutually virginal marriage (which you can read about in detail here). Having grown up steeped in the Southern evangelical purity culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s, both Ashley and her (now ex-)husband J were force-fed the idea that sexual desire of any kind was a reprehensible shame. In their world, sex was never discussed — except in the context of not having it — so when Ashley discovered she had vaginismus, a condition that can make penetrative sex excruciating, neither husband nor wife had the language or frame of reference to discuss what was happening. “No one ever taught either of us how to talk about sex,” says Ashley. “Purity culture prevents proper sexual education that would give us the tools to talk about these things. All it does is teach us to feel ashamed.”
And that she did — she felt so stressed by her and J’s looming virginity that she became almost entirely reclusive and gained more than 100 pounds. Other married virgins have experienced similar things — read this Redditor’s account of his mutually virginal wife and how shame kept her from therapy, then top it off with this one from YourTango writer Kerry Rogers, who details how shame and misinformation kept her in a painfully sex-free marriage for five years.
For people in such situations, infidelity can feel like the only way out. J sought solace in the arms of a high school girlfriend, and he and Ashley divorced. Paul also reached a point where he couldn’t take it anymore. One day, he pulled over by a roadside strip club during a work trip and had somewhat reluctant, guilt-riddled sex with a 19-year-old stripper in a Holiday Inn Express who took it upon herself to solve his virginity problem right then and there. He felt terrible about it, but also vindicated — in spite of the massive wrongness of what he’d done, he’d felt seen.
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Interestingly, Paul’s affair lead to some healing of its own. After a healthy dose of couple’s counseling and medical interventions for Paul and Monica, they were able to patch things up and try again. So much so that he says he doesn’t even remember the first time with her. Mostly because, the more they began to communicate openly about their fantasies and desires, the more fun and frequent sex became. Eventually, they developed so much trust and made so many new discoveries about each other that they took up swinging, ethical non-monogamy and kink. Though they later split up for different reasons and Paul went on to become a professional BDSM worker, their initial struggle with marital virginity paved the way for more honest, pleasurable expressions of their sexualities.
In that way, losing your virginity years after getting married isn’t so different from losing it in the backseat of a Camry at junior prom (or, if you’re like me, during poorly concealed middle school group sex in a garage). Though the concept of virginity is arguably over-precious, difficult to define and socially constructed to fit heteronormative religious and commercial directives that come with a host of problems, losing it can still be a jumping off point into the abyss of what you desire.
And who knows, maybe a Splash-themed Tom Hanks will be there to catch you when you fall.