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Frisky Q&A: Kate Monro, Author Of “The First Time: True Tales Of Virginity Lost & Found”

When a friend introduced me to the author Kate Monro over email, explaining she’d just published a book filled with virginity loss stories, I knew that I would love it, sight unseen. The First Time: True Tales Of Virginity Lost And Found (Including My Own) totally delivered! Monro, who used to work for the band Blur and for Dazed and Confused magazine, began collecting stories on a blog called The Virginity Project. For her first book, Monro collated vignettes from Brits and Americans, from grandpas to high school girls, who all reminisced about their first time with fondness, earnestness and occasional heartbreak. It may have been a long time since any of us has been a virgin, but if the bare humanity on display in The First Time is any indication, we could do well to revisit it.

Kate Monro lives in the UK, so we had to conduct our interview over email — but I’d like to imagine we chatted over cups of Earl Grey and some Tim Tams while staring off into the London fog. Our Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, begins after the jump.

The ubiquity of sex has given young people the most humungous expectations for their first times, not to mention their exposure to pornography, which peddles some fairly misleading ideas about sex. Unsurprisingly, there was a chorus of ‘Is that it?’ from pretty much anyone who lost their virginity after the mid-1970s.

Why start a blog about virginity loss in the first place?

I wanted to find a project that encompassed social history and sexuality. I wanted to find a way to get people to tell the stories about their lives that we don’t usually hear. It turned out that asking people to tell me their virginity loss stories was the perfect answer! Though of course, I couldn’t have articulated any of this at the time. I just had an idea, had a gut feeling, and decided to go for it. My interviewees followed through with an amazing collection of stories, recollections and revelations about their intimate lives. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you give them a platform to speak and anonymity. It has been a privilege to listen to them talk.

Virgins have always been held in high esteem by Western culture up until very recently — in some parts, it still is.

For various reasons, virginity was venerated for many years in Western society. “Losing it” for an unmarried woman could be catastrophic, not just for her, but for her entire family as well. It could reduce her marriageable value in a second and this had ramifications for everyone. Not so now. Women have education and independence, but we also live in a hyper-sexualized society and this is an issue for people. Or as a young Christian interviewee once put it to me: “The weirdest thing about waiting for marriage these days is that you can say you’re anything. You can say you’re bisexual or lesbian or gay or this fetish or that fetish and no one will bat an eyelid but if you say you want to be a virgin, it’s like, ‘What? I don’t believe you.’” There is little space in society to accommodate this concept these days! One of the stories that stopped people in their tracks most of all was the story of the married man who was still a virgin. To this day, people are more shocked by this story than anything else.

The contraceptive pill is what really changed things, because it broke the connection between sex and marriage and in the process, it changed the way we think about virginity. This is why I found it so fascinating to listen to the stories of women because you can watch it happening. As each decade ticks by, women gain more autonomy and in the process, everyone’s lives change, including men’s.

What does “virgin” even mean nowadays, anyway? Most people have a pretty heteronormative idea of what “losing your virginity” means. In your book, I was particularly taken by the lesbian who had sex with her female gym teacher while in high school and then lost her virginity “again” to a man later on.

I pretty much spent the first chapter exploring this idea because people had such creative ways of defining their virginity loss. Is it about innocence? If you’re one of the “everything but” brigade, are you still a virgin? Some people think — and I tend to agree — that oral sex can be more intimate than so called “regular” sex. Defining virginity loss as the moment we have penetrative sex for the first time seems a bit limiting. And as the lesbian woman says, where does that leave gay people? Don’t their non-penetrative experiences count?

I loved the response that I got when I asked people to tell me about the first time they had sex and enjoyed it. This alone was enough to convince me that there are all sorts of different, and equally significant first times. For lots of people, virginity loss is a process, a continuum even, as opposed to a one-off occurrence.

Tell me more about the concept of “becoming a man,” which seemed to be important to every guy you interviewed for the book. Us ladies don’t generally consider our loss of virginity to be when we “become a woman” — maybe because we have getting our periods or childbirth for that.

It’s true: men definitely do tie the idea of virginity loss up with that of “becoming a man.” I think women have the capacity to feel the same, but perhaps not in such an anguished manner. I think it comes down to the fact that women have more control over when they lose their virginity because, let’s face it, if we aren’t picky it’s not hard for us to lose virginity. We could find a taker without too much trouble. The same cannot be said for men. You can see it in nature. Male birds always have fancier plumage and the female takes her pick of mates. If she’s not impressed, she moves on! I think it is this power dynamic that renders men a bit helpless and a bit emasculated — at least in their minds. I get some heartbreaking emails from male virgins. (Not of the feathered variety, I hasten to add).

Yes, you wrote that you learned while researching the book that “Men are every bit as vulnerable as women. Just a different way.” What does this mean?

For me, this was one of the most fascinating aspects of doing the research. Men really let their guards down with me. Partly because I was offering them anonymity but also because they just don’t get the same opportunities to talk in everyday life — and boy, did they talk. I found them so candid and ready to admit how they felt about their intimate lives. Normally, this stuff gets held in and that’s what I mean about vulnerability. We still expect men to “be men.” Hence the phrase to “man up” — and I don’t think it’s healthy. I’m not suggesting men start emoting all over the shop, but I did feel that they gained from having the space in which to be honest about their inner worlds.

A common theme in some stories was that young women seem to have a lot of sex with their first partner (and often, a few men who came after him) that they were not enjoying. Why do you suppose young women settle for such “meh” sex? Even though women are not necessarily being coerced into having sex, I got the vibe from some of these stories that young women enjoyed the emotional part of sex a lot, but the physical part not at all. Personally, I did not enjoy vaginal intercourse — but still had it to make my partners happy — until I was 25 years old, so I am an example of this phenomenon as well.

I think we settle for ‘meh’ sex because we don’t know any better! What would we compare it to? I think you’re absolutely right and the realization of that is all part of our natural development. People make the mistake of thinking that we should be “good” at sex straightaway and it’s just not the case. It’s like anything else in life, the more we practice, the better we become. It’s only in retrospect and with — hopefully — progressively more experienced lovers that we begin to understand our bodies, ourselves and our needs. And stop having “meh” sex!

The First Time took great care to interview both older and younger people about their virginity loss. What were the greatest differences in their stories? Likewise, what about virginity loss is common in everyone?

I loved talking to the older generations about their experiences and what they think now when they look back. I nearly fell off my seat when 93-year-old Edna said of her wedding night in 1940: “I was frightened and when I saw how he looked, I laughed. I’d never seen anything so funny. In spite of having two brothers I didn’t know what a man looked like.” It astonished me that a woman could get to her wedding night and not have even the most basic knowledge about a man’s anatomy, but of course, that was typical of the time.

So that would be the main difference. Today’s young people have lots of information and it’s relatively easy to find more, even if your parents aren’t telling you stuff. But this in itself presents us with the next biggest difference. The ubiquity of sex has given young people the most humongous expectations for their first times, not to mention their exposure to pornography, which peddles some fairly misleading ideas about sex. Unsurprisingly, there was a chorus of “Is that it?” from pretty much anyone who lost their virginity after the mid-1970s (including myself).

I think what unites everyone, regardless of age, is basic human instinct. We think our grandparents were so Victorian about sex, but it’s not true. The older generations were just as capable as shocking me with their stories as the younger ones — they just weren’t trained to talk to each other about it is all!

In the introduction, you wrote that you did the book because you really believed people can benefit from hearing each other’s stories about our first times. Have you found that to be true?

Just by virtue of being human I think we have an innate need to know that our private lives are similar to other peoples. I can’t tell you how many times people stopped me during interviews to ask if what they had just told me was “normal” or not. I think this is so indicative of the post-pill generations.

We partner up for different reasons to our parents. Having a “healthy” sex life is a huge part of the package (as it were) for us, whereas the older generations had lower expectations and fell back on friendship a lot more. We’re not really sure what we should be doing any more and of course, what really matters is what works for us personally. But the pressure is on all the time to be having “the best” sex at every opportunity and sadly, we often believe there is something wrong with us if we’re not.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how did your feminism (or lack thereof) influenced writing this book?

That’s a question that I struggle to answer with a straight “yes” or “no.” I think we still live in an era of quite institutionalized sexism when it comes to women and equal rights. People casually forget that women are still being paid less money to do exactly the same jobs that men do. How is this possible? If feminism means striving for equal opportunities, to retain my reproductive rights — which I am aware that some people would still like to take away from me — then yes, sign me up. But I don’t think we live in the black-and-white times of first- or second-wave feminism anymore and I see a fair amount of bulls**t being leveled at men, too.

Writing this book has made me see how much more we have in common than we think we do and now men are in a very strange place right now. The balance of genuine power is constantly in question and I think a lot of aggression — and often violence — is leveled at women as a result of a deep-seated insecurity about the future. Without wanting to sound like a hippie, I believe the only way we can resolve these issues is together — not apart. Everybody has to be able to get what they need, but it shouldn’t have to be at the expense of each other. So call me an equalist! It feels more 21st century.

The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (Including My Own) is available from Amazon.co.uk..

Image via Amazon.co.uk

Want to contact the writer of this post? {encode=”amelia@thefrisky.com” title=”Email her”}!

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