In 2017, a story in the Guardian broke the internet. It was about a woman who “managed to get to 54 without ever having a boyfriend.” She was called a “relationship virgin.”
The story was filled with anguish. The relationship virgin was distraught about her lack of romantic relationship experience and was struggling to figure out what was wrong with her. She was so ashamed, she would not even use her name.
My guess is that there was nothing wrong with her. The problem, instead, is with the pervasive pressures to be romantically involved, the celebration of those who are romantically involved, and the relentless stereotyping and stigmatizing of those who are not. I wrote about romantic relationship virgins when the Guardian story was first published, but I want to revisit the matter because I have glimmers of hope that some of the sadness and shame around this matter is beginning to dissipate. In some instances, people who have never had a romantic relationship are instead, justifiably, experiencing pride.
If you are a romantic relationship virgin and you feel badly about it, that’s understandable
I think some people really and truly want to have a romantic relationship – not just any romantic relationship, but a committed, enduring one. In their heart, that’s central to who they are. They think they will feel happier and more fulfilled that way, that their life will be more meaningful.
One of the many reasons we should stop stigmatizing them is this: they are in enough pain already.
I wonder whether, for some people who long to be coupled, that feeling can seem like it is coming from within – that it is something about them as a person and what they really want – when oppressive social norms and expectations are more powerfully shaping their desires than they realize. That’s important because they would feel less miserable if everyone around them, including our matrimaniacal popular culture, stopped being so unenlightened in their thinking and so judgmental.
The judgment begins with the very term that got popularized: “relationship virgin.” Like so many other uses of the word “relationship,” it hijacks it, narrowing its meaning to just romantic relationships. In fact, “relationship” is a great big warmhearted word. It encompasses friendships, family ties, bonds with neighbors and mentors, camaraderie with teammates, and more, in addition to romantic links. If you have had any of those kinds of relationships, you are not a “relationship virgin.”
Your feeling that you are being judged for never having had a romantic relationship, though, may well be real. My colleagues Wendy Morris and Jeanine Hertel and I did some research on the topic before the term “relationship virgin” was popularized. We created pairs of brief biographical sketches of male and female twenty-something year olds. For each pair, everything about the person in the sketches was identical (e.g., age, interests, hometown), except that in one version, they were described as having been in at least one romantic relationship in the past, and in the other, they were described as having had no experiences in romantic relationships.
We found that in some ways, the romantic relationship virgins were evaluated harshly. For example, they were viewed as less happy, less well-adjusted, and lonelier than adults of the same age who did have romantic relationship experience. Not all of the perceptions were more negative, though. For example, adults who have never been in a romantic relationship were not seen as any more self-centered or envious than those who do have experience in romantic relationships.
Why the stigma may be subsiding
Just about every time the Census Bureau reports new data, results show that the number of single people is growing. In the U.S., nearly half of all people 18 and older are unmarried. The biggest group, by far, of people who are not married are the people who have never been married. The rise of single people is not specific to the U.S. – it is a worldwide phenomenon.
Even more stunning were the results of a Pew survey conducted just before the pandemic and published in 2020. It showed that half of all solo single people do not want a romantic relationship or even a date.
Of course, plenty of people who are single have had romantic relationship experience. But the number who haven’t ever had a romantic relationship is likely to be increasing alongside the number of people who stay single. When more and more people share a particular experience, it becomes increasingly implausible to insist that there is something wrong with all of them. What’s more, with strength in numbers, sometimes they start to organize and fight back. They begin to challenge other people’s prejudices, rather than internalizing them.
From shame to pride
Something very significant has happened in the years since my colleagues and I started doing our research on the stereotyping of people who have never had a romantic relationship. People who are not very interested in sex or romance or conventional coupling are discovering that they share those experiences with more people than they ever realized. They are understanding their asexuality or their aromanticism or their status as single at heart as an orientation or an identity, not just a casual preference, and definitely not a deficit. They are creating their own forums, events, and collections of resources. With regard to asexuality, I think it is fair to say that it has become a social movement.
Investment in sexuality or romanticism or romantic coupling no longer feels as compulsory as it did before. Most significantly, many take pride in living outside of the conventions of sex and romance and coupling, rather than being shamed by it.
One of the raps on people who have never had a romantic relationship is that they are not fully adult. I’m not a romantic relationship virgin. I dated and had a few romantic relationships when I was much younger. But I’m single at heart. Conventional romantic coupling was never going to suit me. I don’t think I was ever less adult than when I was in the game, because that’s when I was trying to be someone I was not.
Suppose I already knew then what I know today – that I never want to put a romantic partner at the center of my life? That I’m single at heart, which means that single life is my best, most fulfilling, most meaningful life. If I had been a true romantic relationship virgin, if I had never dated or gotten romantically involved because I already knew that wasn’t who I really was, I would look back with pride.
I wouldn’t be ashamed to be a romantic relationship virgin. I’m a little ashamed that I’m not.