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Are There Really 40-Year-Old Virgins?

Surrogate partner therapy is controversial, but effective.

In the 2005 romantic comedy, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," Steve Carell plays Andy, a nerdy retail salesman into his fourth decade who has never done the deed. He inadvertently lets his virginity slip to his friends, who decide to help him gain sexual experience, but their advice is screwball and their help is, at best, dubious. Of course, as the plot unfolds, on his own, Andy meets Trish (Catherine Keener), and eventually, well, it's Hollywood, so you can guess....

"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is played for laughs, but for real older virgins, generally defined as people who have not had intercourse by age 25, it probably elicits tears. The real world of older virgins is much different from the one depicted in the film. It's a world of shame and isolation, a world where people feel seriously stuck, handicapped, and not part of the adult world.

Forty years ago, older virgins were considered curiosities, but by the mid-1980s, sex therapists began reporting a steady trickle of clients over age 25, about three-quarters of them men, who had never had sex with anyone other than themselves. (Many had tried sex workers, but most said that "didn't count" because commercial sex wasn't "real" sex, and they'd never had "real" relationships.) By the 1990s, it was clear that a surprisingly large number of people were still involuntarily virgins at age 25, but the true prevalence of older virginity remained a mystery.

That began to change with the 2009 publication of a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the researchers tracked sexual abstinence among 2,469 men and 5,120 women age 25 to 45, and found that 122 of the men (5 percent) and 104 of the women (2 percent) said they'd never had partner sex. Now some abstinence might be voluntary, Catholic priests and nuns, or others who affirmatively opt for celibacy. But it's safe to say that most--probably the vast majority--of older virginity is involuntary. I interviewed one 47-year-old virgin man who called it "my shame, my terrible handicap."

The study found two significant associations with older virginity: regular attendance at religious services and abstinence from alcohol. However, in my interviews with older virgins and with the therapists who counsel them, those factors appear much less important than profound shyness, social awkwardness, and general discomfort with the opposite sex and the whole idea of physical intimacy with another person. As one told me: "I shut myself off. I can't really explain why, except to say I was very shy. I was keenly interested in women, but they intimidated me. I had no idea how to get beyond casual friendships to anything romantic, no idea at all."

Fortunately, there's help for older virgins, surrogate partner therapy. In fact, today, a substantial proportion of surrogate partners' clients are older virgin men.

But surrogacy is controversial. It began in 1966, when British sexologist Martin John Cole, Ph.D. introduced "sex surrogates," sexologically trained women, into sex therapy with men--and was attacked for running a brothel. A few years later, pioneering sex researchers William Masters, M.D. and Virginia Johnson also employed surrogates and faced similar attacks.

Since then, the name has changed from "sex surrogate" to "surrogate partner," and for good reason. Many surrogates never have sex, i.e. intercourse, with their clients. Instead, they answer clients' sex questions, and introduce them to kissing, sensual touch, massage, and mutual nudity--but not genital sex--to help them become more comfortable with what happens in intimate relationships. However, when working with older virgins, after many sessions of foreplay, some surrogates include intercourse.

To distinguish themselves from sex workers, most surrogate partners work closely with sex therapists, and accept clients only by referral from therapists. Surrogate therapy costs more than regular sex therapy because both the therapist and surrogate must be paid. Figure $200 to $250 an hour.

Most surrogate partners live in Southern California. Clients who live elsewhere either travel there or pay for the surrogate to come to them, which adds to the expense. One man I interviewed lives on the East Coast. He found a psychotherapist near him to supervise his work with a surrogate, and flew the surrogate out from Los Angeles. The total cost of his therapy came to around $10,000. But he was happy to pay because by the end of his therapy, he felt "finally, part of the world."

For more about surrogate therapy, including how to find a surrogate partner, visit the International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA) at surrogatetherapy.org.

Eisenberg, M. et al. "Who Is the 40-Year-Old Virgin and Where Did He/She Come From?" Journal of Sexual Medicine (2009) 6:2154.

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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