I am a virgin at 26, and I worry future partners will scorn me

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A friendship with a new co-worker is steadily blossoming into a romance, which is bringing me much joy. The only issue is that, because of a history of mental health problems, I have isolated myself from relationships and am a virgin at 26. If and when we become intimate, the prospect of my lack of experience being a problem fills me with dread. How do I overcome my insecurities?

Some background: when I was 13, I was diagnosed with a serious anxiety disorder. As a result, throughout my teenage years, my social life was almost nonexistent. I had few friends and no relationships in secondary school.

I stumbled into a very short relationship just after I finished school, but my situation meant we split up within weeks, without becoming intimate. Afterwards, my condition got even worse, and I had to withdraw from university after a short period.

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Throughout those years, the fact that I have never been in an intimate relationship has gnawed at me. Luckily, around my 25th birthday, my condition slowly started improving, due to medication and a lot of work at my end. I now feel well enough to love someone, but while a new relationship seems to be budding, my insecurities remain. I fear any future partner will scorn me for my lack of experience. Yet I am sure I have a lot of love to give.

It sounds as though you have overcome some really tough times, and I admire and applaud you for having done so much work to get where you are today. Both the psychosexual therapist I consulted, Cate Mackenzie, and I would have liked to know more about what happened to you at 13 and the messages you grew up with, particularly around sex, as these would help us with context. But perhaps, especially as you’ve worked so hard to move on from your past, it’s best we look to the future.

I lost my virginity relatively late too (especially for the 1980s), at age 22, so I understand a little about your insecurities. I found it hard to tell people, but when I did, it was a really useful way of separating those who were kind and supportive from those who weren’t.

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Mackenzie wanted to reassure you that your partner “will probably be as insecure as you feel”. Remember that no matter how much experience someone has, experience doesn’t equate with confidence – or skill. Whenever you meet a new person, it’s a whole different experience with them.

Mackenzie thought it might be an idea to practise what you want to say to your partner, with someone you trust, or with a psychosexual therapist (even one session could help), or just to yourself if there isn’t anyone you feel comfortable with. “This may feel like the biggest thing in the world to you,” Mackenzie said, “so if the first person you say it to is the person who matters the most, it makes it very loaded. Even practising with just one person [or out loud] can be really beneficial.”

Lots of people lie about their sexual experiences because they are afraid of appearing vulnerable. You sound very strong and in control, even if you don’t feel as if you are. “You may think you are the only person in the world who is a virgin [at your age]. It’s normal to feel like this,” Mackenzie reassured. “Some people lie for so long and then can’t navigate back from that. Look at how authentic you are for not wanting to hide this.”

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Mackenzie also thought it would be helpful for you to “work on your sexual sense of self”. Having worked with people who have cut off from this part of themselves (often due to fear or insecurity), she suggests using sensual massage with some shower oils, and getting to know what sort of touch you like. “Basically, start to love yourself,” she said. “Also, sex isn’t all about penetration; it’s about the stuff that makes someone feel good.” Mackenzie adds: “Remember that when you get stressed, your amygdala (the part of the brain that deals with flight/fight/freeze, among other things) is on, and what can help calm us is anything to do with the senses – such as touch, seeing, hearing.”

You are getting close to your co-worker; you obviously make them feel good, and they like being in your presence. You sound very sensitive and that’s an amazing quality to have. Take it slow, and remind yourself you are made up of many parts. Rather than focusing on your virginity or social anxiety, look at yourself as a whole person who has made huge progress.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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