The First Time

Kate Monro set out to ask as wide a selection of people as possible - men and women, old and young, gay, straight, Christian and Muslim - about their personal experiences of virginity. Through her findings, Katherine Dunseath discovered that the definition of virginity, and virginity loss, isn't as straightforward as she'd previously thought

, 9 March 2012

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Covering the most personal of topics, The First Time is a readable look at virginity loss through a series of personal stories. The real strength of the book is the way in which the personal stories help to illustrate the personalities behind them, underscoring the author’s argument that virginity, as well as its loss, can be something that contributes to and reflects our identities at once.

TFT isn’t intended as an academic book, but still uses interviews to discover people’s stories, forming an oral history built up around the topic of virginity. As someone who interviews people for work and study, I really appreciate how difficult researching this book may have been at times. Reading these accounts about first sexual experiences, some being given for the first time, is a real privilege. Hats off to Monro for managing to gather such intimate accounts!

The sheer contrast between experiences of older and younger generations featured is sometimes mind-blowing

The author interviewed people with a wide variety of perspectives on virginity and these are broadly organised in themed chapters through the book. One of the interesting questions posed by TFT is what can we define as virginity, or when can we say that a cherry is truly popped? It’s a tricky question to answer, made all the more difficult to grapple with due to the complexities in the stories shared. I doubt many readers would feel able to answer these particular questions after reading TFT.

From a feminist point of view, the way in which women’s history has been encapsulated in the experiences shared by members of the older generations is really fascinating. I would encourage any feminist to read TFT just for this personalised insight into women’s history. I wish that the stories of some of these women could have been written about in more detail – after reading, I was certainly left wanting know more about them and their life stories.

The sheer contrast between experiences of older and younger generations featured is sometimes mind-blowing: an important detail is the lack of space older generations had to openly talk about sex and sexuality, while younger people are shown, by comparison, to have experienced more opportunities to open up. I also notice that there is a more considered element of ‘romance’ in the experiences and stories from older generations – a sense that things could develop between two people over time. When reading, the stories told by older people often made me reflect upon this idea of romance, meaningfulness and how that applies today.

Reading accounts of virginity loss in the form of abuse or via the use of prostitutes is of course troubling

It is refreshing to see that no virginity loss story is presumed to be the same and that men’s stories are included in the book. Indeed, the divide between men and women is happily blurred by the chapter ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. It’s really great to see a shift away from male/masculine stereotypes presented through real stories contributed by men themselves. I had never really stopped to think about what it must be like for a man to lose his virginity, having personally held an admittedly old fashioned and misled assumption that a woman always has so much more to lose. I don’t know where I got those views from, but I feel that this book has really set me straight in that regard.

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Admittedly, most of the stories shared in TFT are about heterosexual emotional and sexual awakenings but gay and lesbian stories are also included and shown to be equally valid. In a somewhat minor way, asexuality does feature – though its handling by the author does still feel a little jarring. I suppose writing about a person’s experience of indifference towards sex amongst an array of accounts of desire to lose – or hold on to – virginity makes this identity a little trickier for Monro to write about. I’m glad asexual experience has been included all the same.

Whilst this is an easy book to read, and one I happily dipped into on my commute, the stories are also meaningful ones and sometimes upsetting to read. Reading accounts of virginity loss in the form of abuse or via the use of prostitutes is of course troubling. When it is evident that the experience of one contributor is born out of an abusive situation, the story is related in the only way that can ensure dignity: in that person’s own words. In fact Monro uses a great deal of direct quotation. This sometimes doesn’t feel very well woven together but it does give a real authenticity to the stories told.

Our experiences can be wildly different and we need to be sensitive to that

When it comes to the stories from men who used prostitutes to lose their virginity (and there are a few examples), the use of direct quotations helps to bring across their ambivalence towards the situation. For some, their first experience taking this form was more than just a transaction, yet still far less than what they wished for. For others it was a meaningful experience tinged with the questioning of whether paying a woman for sex was really OK. To hear these accounts from the men themselves certainly provides food for thought for any feminist.

With such a wide array of experiences to reflect on, this book has made me think hard about my own experiences and assumptions about other’s experiences too. (Personally, I think it should be compulsory reading for any teenager. I certainly wish I had the chance to read it at that stage in my life!) For me, this is the most important feminist message of the book: whilst there are lots of similarities amongst women and men, our experiences can be wildly different and we need to be sensitive to that.

Katherine Dunseath is a festival organiser, NHS worker and social

research geek with an interest in health and food issues. In between

these things she is trying to get in touch with her feminist side as well as developing her interest in food by attempting to grow things more complicated than cress. Follow her at @katanth on Twitter

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