“I’m 40 and I’ve never slept with a woman. I haven’t even been on a date.”
Harel (patients’ names have been changed in the interests of privacy) has never been in a relationship and has never had sex. Sivan too. Sahar has stopped going on dates for fear of his date expecting him to go to bed with her. Shulamit Sperber tells us about “late virginity” and how to treat it.
"My greatest fear is never having a relationship or a family,” Harel tells us. “I sometimes feel it’s an unattainable dream, that I’ve missed my chance and it’s not going to happen.”
He's a 40-year-old research laboratory directory with a PhD in Biology. At first sight, he looks like any other man. But, Harel has a secret eating him away from within: He’s never been on a date. He’s never been in a relationship and he’s never had sex.
“When I’m at work, I somehow manage to not think about it. I repress it, but when I meet up with friends, I feel I’m different. It’s like they’ve all moved on in life and I’ve been left behind, that I’m the ‘old bachelor’ in the group. All my friends have partners and some of them already have children, but I’ve never even had a girlfriend.”
Sivan, a 30-year-old computer programmer, is in a similar situation: “I’ve never been in a relationship, I can’t make it happen,” she tells us sadly. She’s shy and introverted and has lots of hobbies that enrich her life: She learns new languages and likes watching TV series, but the idea of meeting new people evokes debilitating levels of anxiety.
“I’ve tried going on dates, but they’ve been total disasters. I’m so nervous. I freeze up and can’t even talk. After a few disappointing attempts, coupled with the rejection from the men I met, I simply stopped trying.”
Sahar, 36-year-old medical student, has also stopped going on dates. He’s terrified of the moment his date would expect him to go to bed with him. “I’ve had a few unsuccessful sexual experiences. I came really quickly and I felt very embarrassed. I don’t feel I can put myself in such a vulnerable position with someone I don’t really know. I don’t know how she’d react if that happens again, so I just avoid it.”
Harel, Sivan and Sahar are not alone. I meet a lot of men and women in their 30s and 40s with no sexual experience, and who have never been in a relationship. It’s called “late virginity” and it’s much more common than you would think.
According to psychologist Erik Erikson's theory on stages of psychosocial development, each stage in our life is marked by tasks that we are to successfully complete. Between the ages of 19 and 35, we are to form intimacy with a partner and take on some kind of professional responsibility. If people near 30 without experiencing intimacy or a romantic relationship, it generally causes feelings of extreme distress.”
Dr. Ronit Aloni, a sex therapist specializing in sexual rehabilitation, couples therapy and sex surrogacy runs a course at the Faculty of Medicine at the Tel Aviv University called, “Everything from sex to sexuality.”
She explains how people get to this situation: “It’s a combination of circumstance. It’s often people who had some kind of crisis at the age when most people form romantic relationships. Once they’ve dealt with that crisis and want to start dating, they’re embarrassed about having gotten to such a mature age without any romantic experience. This sense of shame and embarrassment prevents them from meeting potential partners. Social anxiety is also much more widespread than commonly believed.”
Sivan describes her social anxiety as a fear that silences her to the extent that she’s unable to speak: “When I meet a new person, I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, that I don’t talk at all. The conversations doesn’t flow and it starts getting uncomfortable and I leave the date feeling like I’m a failure. I’m very self-critical. I have to think a million times if what I’m about to say will be well received by the other person or whether it’ll make them reject me.
“Dating for me has been a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Because I’m so afraid of saying the wrong thing, I hardly speak at all, so we have these awkward silences. The date doesn’t really flow, so they don’t want to see me again. So, I’ve stopped going out. The most frustrating part is that I know that the anxiety is what’s ruining these dates and torpedoing my efforts to form a relationship. I just can’t shake the anxiety.”
Invariably, fear of intimacy in the factor preventing both men and women from dating. To create a romantic connection, we must take an emotional risk - which is always an issue when getting close to another person. Intimacy forces us to trust, open ourselves up and reveal ourselves. When, for various reasons, close relationships are perceived as threatening, and physical and emotional intimacy is seen as dangerous, lots of people will choose to just not go there.
In other cases, the fear of losing one’s independence and being emotionally “engulfed” within the relationship sabotages attempts to form them. Close relationships require that we make space for another person, take their needs and wishes into consideration, commit emotionally and open up, while still retaining boundaries and listening to our own needs.
During the development stages of adolescence, a clear and stable identity of “self,” including the ability to assertively communicate, should be formed. If this happens, we’re less likely to experience fear of losing our “self” within a relationship with another person. If, however, this personal sense of identity has not sufficiently taken shape and the person lacks the skills needed to create intimacy without losing themselves, a romantic relationship is likely to feel threatening.
The enveloping secrecy, with its senses of shame generally exacerbates the problem: This shame prevents people from going on dates, which only serves to reinforce the lack of sexual and relationship experience, which reinforces not going on dates. Harel describes it as a “viscous cycle I’m trapped in and I’ve no idea how to get out.”
The lack of sex is just the symptom of difficulty in forming intimate and romantic connections,” Dr. Aloni says. “People often find themselves in this situation because they lack the social and communication skills to form relationships. People mistakenly believe that they don’t have relationships because they lack sexual experience, but what they’re really lacking are the social skills needed to develop connections.”
In addition to the social skills outlined by Dr. Aloni, there’s the further problem characterizing older people who haven’t experienced either sex or a relationship: self-image. To get close to another person and build a relationship, you need the basic belief that you’re good and deserving of warmth and love, that you have something to give and that it’s worth being in a relationship with you.
For certain people, after so many years of avoiding it, it’s hard to start going on dates and to begin the process of finding a partner. In these cases, treatment by professionals who are experienced with late virginity can help. This treatment accompanies and supports the search for a relationship and allows patients to consult and receive professional advice when they feel they’re struggling. This treatment includes practicing relaxation skills. Some people primarily need to learn communication skills to feel confident on dates. Others want to work on their self-confidence. The treatment is tailor-made for each person and helps them overcome their unique difficulties.
Harel, who’s never been on a date, wanted to focus on learning and practicing communication skills he would need to form a romantic relationship. He asked that before each date, we should think together about where to meet, what to talk about, what is and isn’t appropriate to reveal and how to deepen the emotional intimacy at more advanced stages of the relationship. The ability to plan the dates, share the experiences and generally seek advice when needed and not be alone in the process, has made Harel more relaxed and for the first time in his life, has allowed him to go on dates and look for a partner.
Sivan’s treatment focused on learning methods to reduce anxiety so that she could be more relaxed and not close up and stop talking, incapable of holding a conversation while trying to meet someone. She learned to be mindful of how the anxiety manifests itself in her body: to identify the contractions in her stomach and shoulders, how her breathing flattens out and how her arms and shoulders shudder.
Sivan tried to relax by taking deep breaths and used guided visualization exercises to stop her obsessive thoughts about all the things that could go wrong. She has even managed to enjoy the opportunity of meeting a new person.
Furthermore, Sivan came to understand that she is good and deserving of a relationship and that the right person would be happy to allowed into her rich inner world and would be fortunate to get to know her magical thoughts and feelings. She understood that she didn’t have to think a thousand times before speaking and that the person meeting her, himself came on a date because he wants to get to know her as she is.
Sahar learned that it’s alright to take his time in terms of physical contact and that he has both the right and obligation to set boundaries. He learned that the premature ejaculation he experienced was his inner self’s way of telling him that he had gotten into bed at a stage that wasn’t right for him, born out of a feeling of obligation, rather than because he wanted to.
He now tells women he meets that he wants to take it slowly in terms of physical contact, so that he can open up and feel more secure. He has learned how to form connections gradually, at his own pace. This change means that he’s no longer afraid of meeting new women.
If you’ve reached a certain age and haven’t been in a relationship, don’t be despondent. You’re not alone and many good people have gone before you and they’ve managed to overcome it. The best way to dissipate the anxiety is to expose yourself to what it is that frightens you, and you’ll soon discover that the demons aren’t that bad. Supportive friends and family can also help break the cycle of shame and anxiety.
Shulamit Sperber is a licensed sex therapist and is a member of the medical team for sex therapy at “Reuth” hospital and at “Ishi” clinic.