Being a virgin isn't exactly a positive thing once you've hit a certain age. Or, at least, that's what society and pop culture want you to believe.
Stereotypes of older virgins lean towards the extremely conservative, the religious or the socially awkward. After all, there must be some explanation as to why a woman isn't having sex when she's older. But the fact is, while the average age women first have sex in the United States is 17, average is simply the most common experience, not the only acceptable one.
"It leaves out so many different types of people. When you put people in categories, that's problematic, and virginity is just another example of that," Vanessa*, 24, told Mic. "Putting emphasis on the first time takes away from where I think the emphasis should be, which is communicating with your partner and having a healthy view of sexuality."
Indiana University's National Survey for Sexual Health and Behavior — the largest nationally representative study of sexual and sexual-health behaviors, according to its website — found the most common reasons women don't have sex are far from the stereotypes.
"According to our national research, the main reasons women wait to have sex with a partner are that they have wanted to have sex but have felt that shyness that gets in the way; they haven't yet experienced sexual desire or attraction for another person sufficient to make them want to have sex with someone; and they are waiting until they are in love," researcher Debby Herbenick told Mic.
We talked to women who waited — or who don't want to have sex at all — about their choices. Here's what they want you to know:
It's not a label: Elizabeth*, 24, hasn't had sex yet, simply because it hasn't happened. She grew up in a small town where people got pregnant during high school, so she said it was self-preservation at first. Since then, she said she hasn't found anyone she would be interested in having sex with.
"I don't have a big stance on virginity as a construct," she told Mic. "I just wouldn't have sex with someone I don't know very well or don't care very much about."
Overall, Elizabeth thinks that society should put less weight on the term "virgin."
"It's not something that defines me as a person," she said. "It's an even lesser identifier than to say race or gender or ethnicity or education. It's just another identifier. It's just one component of my life. It doesn't indicate my competency in personal relationships either. I haven't had sex, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't be good at it."
No attachment necessary: For 25-year-old Jessica*, her decision not to have sex with anyone didn't start out as a conscious choice. But even throughout a two-year relationship, she did not have sex with her partner.
"I would say it's probably an intimacy thing," Jessica told Mic. "I don't really get attached to guys. I've never been head over heels. I'm very defensive."
"Now, it's become a way for me to keep my distance from people," she said. "I feel like I can walk away in this situation, and you haven't gotten everything from me."
Jessica said she thinks choosing not to have sex says a lot about a person's character, but not in the way that the stereotype would suggest.
"I think it takes a lot of conviction and confidence to say no to somebody," she said. "Maybe this person will no longer be interested in you, or maybe this person will go find somebody else. It's not an easy thing to do, and I think it would be a lot easier to just say, 'Sure.'"
A different kind of attraction: Megan*, 32, wasn't interested in sex since she dated her first boyfriend in high school. They broke up, and she dated other men in between, but the desire to have sex never occurred to her. After dating someone at 30, Megan felt she needed to come to terms with herself:
She was asexual.
"I felt so conflicted," Megan told Mic. "It's a normal thing to have sex. Everyone should do it, I supposed. I didn't know that it was not that unusual to not want sex. It feels alien to me, just the idea of me having sex. I wouldn't say that I'm repulsed against it. It just feels alien, and I don't want it."
Asexuality, defined as someone who does not experience sexual attraction, is a sexual orientation. Asexual people can fall in love romantically and they can experience attraction, but they lack any sexual desires.
"I can fall in love with guys, but only romantically. I don't feel sexually attracted to anyone," she said.
Since her last relationship, when she realized she was asexual, Megan has not dated anyone. She says she only wants to date someone who is also asexual, but that limits her options.
"I think I could fall in love, but it is so hard to find another asexual. We make up approximately 1% of the population in the world," Megan said. Although she considers herself a heteroromantic asexual, or an asexual that can have romantic attraction for someone but not sexual attraction, "I try not to date [straight people], because it would just cause heartache for me and the other person."
Know thyself: At 21, Nancy* was still a practicing Christian. She decided not to have sex with anyone she was dating, because, at the time, she thought she would wait until marriage. She usually wanted to date people of similar religious beliefs who would respect her wishes and hold similar ones themselves.
"People have this red flag, like, 'Oh, wow. You're super conservative.' Or you could be religious, and if there's no kind of doctrine blocking you, then it's like, 'What the hell is wrong with you that no one wants to have sex with you?'" Nancy told Mic.
While still a virgin but no longer religious, she assumed most people thought she had sex because of her personality.
"I did women's and gender studies [in college]," Nancy said. "I've traveled a lot. I'm socially competent and outgoing. When people meet me, they think I'm someone who has had lots of interesting experiences, and I think saying something like that would have shocked them."
Nancy waited until she was 23 to have sex for the first time with her monogamous partner. She doesn't think her decision to wait to have sex is something to be embarrassed about.
"When talking about people's sexuality, we should make less assumptions, and we should validate people's experiences more," she said.
*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.