Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The First Time: An all too brief review

I have spent a great deal of timing thinking about “the first time” and what precisely this means for the person about to have their “first time” or reflecting on their “first time.” To these ends, I want to briefly mention – and unabashedly recommend – Kate Monro’s The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (Including My Own) which was published by Icon Books in May 2011. Some people may already know about Monro’s work from her blog The Virginity Project, in which she presents the stories of virginity losses of many ordinary people who share their stories. Let me begin with the glowing recitals: as a scholar of virginity, Monro’s book is clearly one of the best volumes written to date on virginity and how precisely we define virginity (and, of course, its loss). Monro unlike earlier scholars also pays a great deal of attention to male virginity – a concept that seems to have eluded many critics and historians. Monro’s book, by my estimation, is worthy of sitting alongside Anke Bernau’s important Virgins: A Cultural History (2007), Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007), and Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences (2005). What Monro’s book does so extraordinarily well is that it polemicises our definitions of virginity and what precisely makes one person a virgin or not. Readers are presented with a narrative written by Monro and interspersed throughout this narrative are the tales of virginity losses of many people that she interviewed (and, of course, her own virginity loss story). The book is incredibly rich in its insights and observations on human sexuality and the recognition of how we become sexual.

Shortly, I will post on how this book will and can influence the ways in which we think about virginity in romance (and how it will affect my current work), but for now, I wanted to briefly acknowledge Monro's masterful, lovely, and absolutely thrilling book.


  1. I look forward to more, but I question the words loss and lose.

    I'm not sure how a man or woman can "lose" their virginity, like the keys to the car.I know it's the common term, but words have power. Loss implies that the person is then in a poorer state, which was probably intentional about women in the past. No more, I hope.

    I'm in favour of give, because in most cases virginity is given, however carelessly. In some circumstances, take would be the right word. In one of my novels the heroine asserts that her virginity was given, not taken. An important distinction, especially as it shifts the power from the taker to the virgin.

  2. I think that is precisely the case, the whole notion of "loss" is problematic. Kate Monro makes this point in her book, in one instance, she writes that an interviewee, "asked an interesting question: Is virginity always something that we lose? Or could it be something that we find -- or 'gain,' as [the interviewee] referred to call it?" (26). In another case, she writes: "We have consistently used the word 'loss' to describe the passing of our virginity and yet this experience seemed to be a personal victory" (41).

    Likewise, in "A Gift of One's Own" (57-101) from Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, Carpenter explores how virginity-as-gift is one of the key ways in which we speak about virginity.

    So, I think there is certainly a great deal to be said about changing the ways in which we speak about virginity loss, giving, passing, etc.

  3. Virginity can also be a burden. Many women want to get rid of it so they can explore relationships without who should be their first being an issue.

    I write historical romance, and in the past -- and in some places still -- physical virginity was a test, which is another sort of burden.


  4. I also want to know how virginity can be applied to those who were sexually abused as children, and the people who still haven't had penetrative sex while maintaining sex lives, one way or another. For example, there is a persistent belief that a lesbian cannot be a 'former virgin' if she never had sex with a man. Or that a male couple can sustain a long-term relationship without penetrative sex.

    In case of a friend who was sexually assaulted when she was a child, she still sees herself as a virgin because she hasn't yet experienced a rite of passage, such as giving herself to the one she chooses to make love with.

    So I wonder if this book has anything by those who experienced this kind of passage?

    As for 'loss', I see it the way I see time. You lose youth when you grow older and you'll never get it back as it becomes part of yesterday, but in return you gain experience or another avenue to in this web of life. I must admit my perspective of time is decidedly skewed (I have dyscalculia) so it may be a terrible analogy.


  5. Yes, Kate Monro's book deals with similar experiences and works to understand them all in terms of how virginity figures into the experience. I don't want to quote too much from the book, but, one definition from an interview would certainly seem to be true for one of the examples: "I think for two people to be naked together and to have an intimate sexual experience, I think that's losing your virginity. But I also think that a major part of it is both of you being pleasured right to the end" (200).

    Her book is, in many ways, one of the most complete explorations of virginity precisely because there are so many experiences of the first time out there (and Monro has documented many of them!).

  6. There is an interview with Kate Monro over at The American Virgin: http://theamericanvirgin.blogspot.com/2011/05/books-we-want-first-time-true-tales-of.html

  7. Was it Zsa Zsa Gabor who said, "all my husbands have appreciated my virginity"? It sounds like a really fascinating book!