The problem with making up for lost time in bed.
When he was in his 20s, Jin Wu spent a year trying to make up for his lack of sex during his youth. He'd lost his virginity at 23 after a lifetime of feeling overlooked.
"It made me angry to see my classmates of every other ethnicity bragging about having sex," said Wu, who is Asian. "Was it really a race thing? Maybe, maybe not."
When he finally did lose his virginity to his girlfriend, he felt great. But when their relationship ended three-and-a-half years later, his sex life ground to a halt. He was 26, had slept with a total of one person, and was miserable. So he did the only thing that seemed reasonable: He tried to have as much sex, in as little time, as possible.
"Sexual development is a very important part of an individual's personal development and self identity," said Dr. Michael Aaron, a New York City-based sex therapist who told me he's dealt with numerous clients who are looking to "catch up" on their number of sex partners. "If a person feels like they missed out on this stage, they will chronically feel like something is missing. In some ways, making up for lost sexual opportunities is often part of a larger desire to 'feel whole' or feel complete. I've often heard something along the lines that the client feels like their life will feel incomplete if they don't go back in time and make up for lost sexual opportunities."
For Wu, that meant reading what he now calls "garbage literature about seduction," like The Game and Assholes Finish First, to learn how to pick up women. He started hitting bars, clubs, and internet dating sites to try to rack up his number.
"I fucked as much as I could, with as many women as I could, and in as many places as I could," he told me. "I literally told myself, Now is where I make up for all the years I missed."
This phase lasted for about a year, during which time he says he racked up $6,000 in credit card debt from all the dates, dinners, drinks, and new clothing that he felt was required to get laid. He lost count of sex partners after 26.
Wu's late start on having sex and ensuing "catch up" spree may have cost him more than just money. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that delaying sexual activity may "create health risks by impeding development of the emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal skills that are crucial to satisfactory sexual functioning and general well-being." By their definition, those who had their first sexual encounter at age 22 or older were considered "later starters."
There's not a lot of research on the effects of losing one's virginity late. Most experts I spoke to for this article said that they hadn't seen many specific studies on this topic. But many, like Aaron, said they had worked with clients who felt the need to make up for a lack of perceived sex in their life. Online, there are more than a few communities devoted to this kind of discussion, and New York Magazine recently published a sex diary from a woman making up for lost sex time.
Tara Morgan (who asked that we not use her real name) first had sex at age 26. Being a virgin in her early 20s didn't bother her, until she finally lost her virginity and started feeling like she'd wasted her youth not having sex.
"I just feel this internal pressure that I'm missing out," she told me. "I feel like I wasted all these years being self-conscious and shy and nervous about the first time and it wasn't worth it. And now, I feel like I need to enjoy it and embrace it."
Of course, even people who lose their virginity at an "average age" aren't immune to the kind of insecurities that late bloomers have. I lost my virginity at 18, and was dead set for years on making up for lost time, just like Wu and Morgan. At a certain point, though, I realized that I had more than made up for any possible experiences I could have conceivably had during my younger years. Plus, racking up numbers for the sake of it for lost its appeal. It wasn't fulfilling; it made me feel empty.
Sari Cooper, a sex therapist based in New York City, told me that's a normal reaction. "Thinking something like, 'I should have more partners by now' may not actually be satisfying for them in reality," she told me.
Matthew Kennedy, who is now 32, lost his virginity during his first year of college, when he was 18. He didn't have sex with anyone else until he was 22, at which point he started actively trying to accelerate his sex life. He slept with eight people over the next year, but told me he tried to sleep with more. Soon, though, he came to the conclusion that he simply needed to stop caring so much about it. By thinking about sex as a numbers game, he realized, he was missing the point.
"The number of women I'd been with mattered a lot less than how fulfilling it was for both sides, both physically and emotionally, so I started working on shifting my focus in that direction," Kennedy told me. "But I started enjoying sex a lot more when I began trying to be a better partner and to understand my own needs than when I was in that 'making up for lost time' phase."
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