In quarantine some people made sourdough; I corresponded with virgins on the internet.

Have you ever found yourself active in a community without anticipating it? In quarantine, Reddit caused me to do just that. Like many in the early stages of the pandemic I went all out with virtual social events and online dating. I eventually got bored with the Zoom windows and nights of swiping so I wanted a new way to interact with the world to make staying inside more interesting.

For the uninitiated once you get past the popular pages and cute animal photos, you’ll soon discover that there’s a subreddit for pretty much anything. Some of my favorite more niche ones include: r/bropill, r/detrashed, r/suggestmeabook, r/LifeAfterSchool, and r/progresspics. For those with a passion for creative writing there’s r/SimplePrompts, r/Worldprompts, and r/fantasywriters. With that specificity available, you can imagine there would be a subreddit about virginity, which I ended up unintentionally stumbling upon. In the process I learned what it truly means to be human.

Late 20s, F — I have serious appearance issues. I don’t even take photos of myself and I am not attractive. I won’t ask because I fear rejection, especially based on my appearance.

21M — I feel like I’m just too boring and lacking in the emotions that can interest a girl in being friends. I’m scared that if they do try be friends they’ll realize how pathetic I am.

Age unspecified, F — I’m so tired of everything, I try to force myself to go out, party and all of that just to meet people but I always end up crying because [no one] has “sexual” interest in me.

21M — People in my life literally try to downplay sex and relationships but they will never know how you feel.

As I started responding to more comments and posts every so often I would look at the person’s profile to try and learn a little bit more about where they were coming from. Obviously, no two people are the same when it comes to their specific circumstances, but I couldn’t help myself from thinking about overlap. While I have never had these feelings myself, I wasn’t surprised to see that some of the users who had written about their experiences as virgins also had issues with things like depression, anxiety and in rare cases suicide. Even if they didn’t post in subreddits about these very sensitive topics and related issues, it became obvious to me that their experience on virginity was sometimes a Trojan horse for other personal struggles. Case in point would be loneliness, which happiness.com described as “the ticking time bomb that’s killing men”. Loneliness, which often gets abbreviated to FA (forever alone), comes up often in the virgin subreddit leading to communities like FA30plus being formed and causing some overlap in terms of user interest. We’re social beings and we all want to be loved.

Even before COVID and our Zoom call burnout, the mental health crisis and loneliness epidemic started to become a topic of conversation on Reddit. After reading about people’s experiences firsthand I couldn’t help but take stock of where I was both professionally and personally. I had a great career, great friends, and a life I was proud of. However, I found parallels in my own life that I could no longer dance around. I didn’t feel lonely pre-covid, but I started to better understand where I fit within the extrovert versus introvert spectrum and how I wanted to put myself out there again.

30M — I’m worried that I’m gonna be that weird old man in neighborhood that everyone makes fun of. I Feel less of man.

20M — People and family mocked me for being a virgin/not having a girlfriend from age 15 now to 20, telling me I’m not a man/have a defect.

Aside from the mental health component that emerged, gender also played an obvious role. The users who are active on that subreddit are primarily male. I wasn’t surprised by this, especially since historically men’s value has been placed within the context of being able to attract a partner. When reading through comments and posts “the man box” would often be an idea that came to my mind regarding having to be the strong, aggressive, and forward one to get the girl or woman. In some cases, people would address this man box directly as per the above quotes. In other cases as I read posts I would sense that deep down posters were carrying an invisible weight. By having virgin status they were not enough of a man or “one of the guys” in their friend group even if their friends didn’t ask them directly whether or not they were virgins. While I have always been fine with my reserved nature I would be lying if I said I didn't have my own moments of insecurity when it comes to this even though I was never told things like “Man up.” as a kid.

35M — Life is short. It feels like you’re missing out on sex during your prime years.

40M — Age isn’t just a number at all. It is a measure of time and experience. It hurts because the older we get the more we need the things we missed when we were young.

37M — I already feel like enough of a freak and a joke. You don’t have to make me into a literal joke.

In 1931 George Bernard Shaw was asked the most beautiful thing in the world. He probably didn’t realize it at the time but his response, “Youth…is the most beautiful thing in this world — and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!” would be repeated long past his death in some form. I still consider myself a somewhat young guy so I couldn’t exactly relate to some users who were at least a decade older than me. It made it all the more impactful to read what those specific users felt. Being a late bloomer when it comes to sex still has social stigma. While slut shaming has rightly been called out, virgin shaming can hurt just as much because words matter. Being a 40-year-old virgin has become a punch line in our culture. It’s understandable why the Judd Apatow comedy isn’t looked at favorably by some of them. It’s not fun being the odd one out, especially when someone made a feature length comedy about it.

Since this essay discusses sex and intimacy, if you’ve gotten this far I’m going to take some time to talk about incels, which is short hand for involuntary celibates. It’s important to keep in mind that not all virgins identify as incels. However, incels by their very definition are also virgins because incels are individuals who are simply “unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one.” This also includes a short term partner. To those unfamiliar with the term and the community around it they are majority male and ethnically diverse. At first glance I can understand why the layman would be dismissive. Thanks to the media’s preference for sensationalism over understanding it’s pretty easy to have no sympathy for people who have been turned into an ever expanding mob of entitled, terrorist-in-the-making angry young men. However, that association with incels and violence is about as helpful to the conversation as our tendency to link mental illness and violence. (A 2014 study on the subject from the American Journal of Public Health actually found “adults with mental illnesses were more likely to be victims than perpetrators of community violence.”)

Out of a mix of boredom and curiosity, I read posts in one of the bigger Reddit incel forums since there would be some very small overlap and understood people who found comfort in that community were far from the boogeymen they’ve been made out to be. I understood these people found comfort in the label because they were sometimes victims of bullying and understandably felt left behind and broken down by society. They’ve dealt with issues virgins wrote about to much more severe degrees. Once you look beyond their terms, the nihilism is not only unsurprising but understandable. There is real pain that should be respected and the frustration sometimes reflects larger societal issues. This can especially be true when you take into things like the “Beauty Bias” and heightism. There’s a reason why some users weren’t complaining about having to wear a mask for COVID.

Since I don’t want to end on a negative note, I want to give you a challenge. Like telling a stressed-out person to calm down or asking someone who’s sad if they’ve tried smiling more, go against your first instinct. Consider not saying what first comes to mind when talking to virgins you know. As I better understood from reading posts, gas lighting and toxic positivity, even when done unintentionally can feel like a slap in the face. If your female and have recommend your male friends get back on the swiping train but they’re jaded don’t be surprised. I’m sure the quality of messages varies greatly but generally speaking if you want to find that someone as a woman on dating apps the probability will likely work out in your favor and that’s not the case for people who consider themselves average guys. Additionally, don’t go to incel forums because they’ve heard and likely tried the advice before. Besides, they probably don’t want to hear from us various tiered “normies” and “chads” anyway and I don’t blame them for it.

Words have their place, but if you’re in a position to really lift someone up with more than that do it. Drag your introverted friend to a socially distanced gathering and be their masked wing person, but be aware of their limits. Be a virtual matchmaker and consider checking out Chorus, a new dating app, whose motto is friends swiping for friends. Check in on that coworker from your office who seems lonely and ask how they’ve been doing. Knock on that neighbor’s door who never seems to leave their house and ask if they want to grab a drink some time. I’m not saying you should take on all of the emotional labor of a therapist, but there’s no better feeling then being someone’s anchor and listening. If you can really do something for someone who feels like they won’t get to experience love, intimacy, or something in between consider doing it even if it might take some effort.

I’m just as unsure of myself as anyone else. I have my own moments of shallowness. I still think women are out of my league. I’m far from perfect. I didn’t write this because I’m some holier than thou master of romance, but as COVID has taught so many of us who are in a privileged position to reflect you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.