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Carolyn Hax: How do I explain my lack of dating experience?

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We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: I’m a 33-year-old woman living in Los Angeles, and I’ve never had sex. I’ve never been on a date, and I don’t even know how to kiss — I’ve been kissed (with my permission) literally twice, at parties.

I want romance, sex, a relationship, etc., I’ve just always had severe body image issues (I believe “dysmorphia” would be the right word), and spending 20 years with undiagnosed social anxiety didn’t help. I’m working on all of that, but one big worry is, once I manage to get a date with a guy I’m into, how/when do I explain my total lack of experience in a way that isn’t insanely awkward? And should I anticipate that a lot of guys will have a negative reaction to this, or no?

Anonymous: Speaking as a late-dater-due-to-body-issues: When someone calls you attractive, they mean it! They wouldn’t say it if they weren’t into you.

For kissing, just let it be awkward. For sex and a relationship, once it looks to be moving that way — he’s inviting you to his place or you’re on a third date or whenever — just tell ’em. “Hey, I haven’t done [sex, boyfriend] before. I hadn’t felt ready, but I like you and where this is going, so I want to do it with you. But I wanted you to know.” There’s nothing wrong with hearing “Not yet” as a response (which you can always say too, of course) — maybe he wasn’t ready for that step, or wants to make sure you’re comfortable. Guys who react negatively — bullet dodged!

It’s easy to think all bad dates or rejections are your fault, but the world of relationships and sex is HUGE and nobody’s experienced in all of it. The guys are still looking, learning and hoping just as much as you are, or they wouldn’t be on dates. People who’ve been on a million dates and slept in a hundred beds still get rejected, still encounter new sexual or romantic hurdles, and still get insanely awkward. It takes practice to hear rejection not as “What did I do wrong?” but as “Good, that means he wasn’t as right as I felt, glad I found out quickly.” That practice, and that experience, matters most.

Anonymous: I was in a similar situation some years ago and this is the advice I wish someone had given me:

Sex is such a bizarrely loaded topic that it might help to think of this in terms of another human endeavor with less baggage. Imagine we’re talking about water skiing instead of sex.

You’ve never water skied before and you start dating someone who loves water skiing. If you don’t ever want to ski, he should know early so he can decide if he’s willing to pursue this interest by himself or if he should find a partner who shares this hobby. If you do want to learn to water ski and you find yourself discussing skiing with him or if he’s inviting you on an impromptu lake trip, maybe tell him this is new for you just so he knows not to drive the boat too fast. There’s no reason to be embarrassed that you haven’t done such an arbitrary activity before. Lots of people don’t water ski; maybe they don’t happen to be in good lake country, or it doesn’t sound fun, or their culture frowns upon it. It would be unfair and weird for him to be upset that water skiing hadn’t come up before for you. And you’d never feel compelled to explain or justify not having done it. He doesn’t need a history or a justification, it just hasn’t come up for you before. Your only responsibility is to decide your level of interest in this hobby, find someone who has a similar level of interest, and make sure you take proper safety precautions.

This strategy of thinking of sex as an arbitrary shared interest really removed a lot of the pressure for me, as well as a lot of the weird cultural gunk surrounding sex and sexuality.

Anonymous: Before going out, decide for yourself what you are comfortable doing/not doing. The first time or two someone asks you out (or you ask them — and yes, you can), suggest that you meet for coffee in a public place and in the afternoon so you can chat for a limited time before parting company. This helps you avoid the whole “will we, won’t we” kiss/make out/have sex dilemma until you get more comfortable with each other. I always invited people to go to the zoo for an afternoon, on the grounds that anyone who doesn’t like the zoo isn’t right for me anyway. What sort of thing would work for you in that way? And do watch out for anyone who wants to take advantage of your lack of experience/confidence. Sadly, they do exist. If your gut goes “ick!” listen to it.

Anonymous: I was in your shoes, albeit a couple of years older, just a year ago. I met someone who had been in a few previous relationships so I knew was more experienced than I was. I was honest about my lack of relationship experience, using the casual but true, “It just never really happened for me,” and saved the, “just so you know, if we do this it will be my first time,” for when it was a more imminently pressing issue. Like you, I was anxious about disclosing the latter, but I felt like I should for both our sakes, and it was fine! For him, a nonissue, other than to make sure I was comfortable. I don’t know what you’re looking for in a relationship, and maybe I was lucky, but I think if you find someone kind who genuinely cares about you that will carry over into potentially awkward conversations about sexual history (or lack thereof). Good luck!

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.

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