“27 M4F. Central Texas area. I’m very shy when talking to women and online dating doesn’t seem to be working,” shared one Reddit user on 21 January. “Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.”
Josh wasn’t expecting much when he posted these details to r/VirginityExchange, along with a photo of him smiling into the camera. At 27, he had never had sex. As a teen, he’d found dating difficult and the older he got, the more his virginity felt like a giant red cross on his door; warning potential dates away.
R/VirginityExchange is a unique corner of Reddit; a subreddit set up for adult virgins to hook up with other virgins. It works like a very supportive dating site: Members post their details, sometimes with a photo. A typical post includes a user’s background (age, city, height) and particular vulnerabilities.
“I was picked on by girls when I was little, which shaped my awkwardness around women. I’d love to chat with someone down to earth,” shares one member, 26, from London.
“Dude, that type of psychological damage is hard to overcome,” wrote another in response. “Props to you for getting out there.”
Some posters warn that they are introverted and want to take things slow. Others say they have a disability that has stopped them meeting people in the past. Most users on the thread circulate their dating pitch several times; it is hard attracting attention among the daily crowd of posters.
Underneath Josh’s post were supportive messages. “You’re a very attractive guy! Best of luck in your search!” wrote one user. “You’re very cute and I’m sure with some patience you’ll meet the right girl – on HINGE. Get off Tinder!” wrote another.
Josh waited for a week, until he received a message from a girl who also lived in Texas. “She said she thought I was cute and that she lived fairly close,” he tells VICE. “We moved to Snapchat pretty quick to basically get to know each other. Seemed to get along really well and we just happened to both be off of work so I drove to her.”
“I was extremely nervous pretty much the whole time,” he adds of the actual sex. “I was a little skeptical up until I saw her in person. I do feel happier. I also feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
For the 39,000 members of r/VirginityExchange, this community is special. The page was set up as a sanctuary in 2015. “It was founded out of pure compassion for those who feel unloved and unwanted because of their lack of sexual and romantic experience,” writes one of the page’s two moderators, u/ribbitribbitrabbit. “I wanted to help remove the shame and stigma that is attached to being a virgin.”
As in most parts of the internet, Reddit is home to quite a bit of sex. Like Twitter, users can post unfiltered images. There are hundreds of subreddits full of amateur porn; pages dedicated to hookups and nude sharing. But the subreddit doesn’t want to be thought of as a hookup page.
“r/VirginityExchange is not meant to be a lewd place, sexuality is normal and healthy. Discussing the topic of sex and our personal experiences should be done with respect to others and ourselves,” says u/ribbitribbitrabbit.
There are clear rules about what users can share: “No ‘hook-up’ posts” and no advertising “paid ‘services’ of any kind here.” There’s also a sidebar of reading material for newcomers, including articles about what it’s like to lose your virginity, along with tips on avoiding the forum’s biggest fear: catfishing.
While the page was originally designed for people to lose their virginity to other virgins, an increasing number of more experienced women are approaching men on the page. “Sometimes people pretend to be women. They would ask for money but not directly in exchange for sex. They would say something like ‘I need $100 for gas money,” says Josh. “For the one DM that turned out to be real, there was like ten that were fake or a scam.”
The demographics of the page are unclear. You have to be an “older virgin” to join, which mods define as 30 and up – though there are plenty of 20-somethings on the page. Most active users seem to be men, although women do occasionally share and comment on posts. No one can quite pin down the official demographic. Members frequently share survey requests and gender breakdown polls, trying to combat their uneasy suspicion that this community might just be an echo chamber of guys.
Being a moderator on r/VirginityExchange is a full-time job. “We have a ton of people trying to join and post quickly, where what we really wanted was more of a community,” says u/cittra, the second half of the two-person moderation team. That’s where Discord comes in.
A handful of the community have flocked to its private channel; now with 273 members. The conversation there is more unfiltered. Discussion ranges from thoughts on dating apps, 4Chan and mild flirting. Some users seem to just be venting their horniness into the void, although they are usually reminded that “thirsty posts” are discouraged in the channel.
But spend enough time on the Discord, and you will notice that sympathy is only moments away from the more dangerous emotion of resentment. Whilst hanging out on the channel, one user asks me if I have ever done dating app research. “While I do not like to repeat it due to its incel connotations, statistical and quantitative data does show that 80 percent of women go after the ‘top’ 20 percent of men, while the remaining 80 percent of men go after the remaining ‘bottom’ 20 percent of women.”
When asked where I could find these statistics, the user seemed unsure: “I believe apps such as Tinder have this data posted on their websites, somewhere.” Factcheck these data points and you will find yourself stumped. Neither Tinder nor Hinge have shared this information on their sites – the only place you’ll find them cited is Reddit.
Deference to unverified “quantitative data” is common in incel forums. Often these communities are made up of traditionally introverted men who find comfort in statistics, rather than more nuanced explanations for their sexlessness. Made-up dating app numbers are an easy way to find logic in loneliness, but moderators say they are not worried about incels infiltrating the page; it’s trolls and catfish that pose the real threat.
Despite these concerns, connection still soldiers on. It took 23-year-old Sam* a long time to finally meet up with someone from the thread. “It took around a year of posting and editing my posts,” he says.
He has always been shy, so he never used to hang out with girls. “I didn’t even socialise with girls online. I tried dating apps and other options but they were all a terrible letdown.”
Sam started using the subreddit when he was 21 but had no luck. Then came 2020. “I turned 22 and attempted the subreddit again, that’s when I happened to find someone early in the year and met up with them just before the mess of 2020 really took off. The experience was amazing, I learned a lot and felt lucky to have gotten the chance.” The pair met up in Kelowna in Canada, booking a hotel room for four nights.
The couple were a similar age, but she was more experienced than him, which Sam was grateful for. The romance was fleeting: “After she went home, we texted from time to time but we aren’t dating.”
Sam felt liberated. “I am very glad a subreddit like this exists! Any other subreddit that’s more subtle on the subject of sex probably would not have been a success for me. Typically when you get to know someone or you make a bio about yourself, any sexual topics are avoided because it could be embarrassing or inappropriate at the time. But with the subreddit being what it is, the most difficult topic is basically skipped, since that’s what we’re all here for.”
While there are inevitable side effects to open sexual spaces, vulnerability still manages to carve out a place on r/VirginityExchange. For Josh, the support of this online community gave him the confidence to try and meet someone: “I am glad this sub exists not only cause it benefited me or the other success stories, but the people that comment on the posts are very nice and uplifting. Even if you don’t get to meet up with anyone, someone probably left a nice comment or DM that is a confidence booster.” For now at least, kindness prevails.
*Name has been changed