Books We Want: "The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (Including My Own)"

I recently interviewed fellow virginity geek Kate Monro, who has just come out with a new book called The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (Including My Own). It’s based on her long-running blog The Virginity Project, where she’s been collecting these stories for over four years.

TAV: Our blog is read by a lot of people who consider themselves older virgins, so on their behalf I have to ask if the stories you heard were different depending on the age of first sex.

Kate Monro: This is a side of my research that I hadn’t anticipated. As soon as I started blogging, I was contacted by people of all ages who either hadn’t lost their virginity or were just about to. In the end, I decided to devote an entire chapter to their stories. And yes, as you would expect, a man who loses his virginity at 54 is going to have a very different story to that of a teenager. In the case of ‘Bill’, a strict religious background had held him back but in his mid fifties, with the aid of a patient female friend, he finally lost his virginity. The conversations going on in his head as this happened were something to behold. Here’s the link to that post.

Losing your virginity is often (narrowly) defined as intercourse. What broader definitions came up among your subjects?

People find all sorts of creative ways to define their virginity loss and again, I took a whole chapter to explore this question as the answers were so interesting. My favourite is from Diana, the Tantric sex teacher, who said:

‘Ultimately, I think that losing your virginity should be that gateway into pleasure, a gateway into something very innocent and beautiful. It should be about moving from ignorance to awareness, to becoming totally sexually self contained, to being a person who makes love or becomes intimate because they choose to, and not because they have to. Of course that could come years after you technically lost virginity. And for some people, maybe never.’

Lots of young people have alluded to similar ideas. One said that the first time they felt they were ‘properly consenting’ to sex as opposed to doing it for someone else’s sake was the time that they felt they had really lost their virginity.

As a filmmaker, I’m always jealous of writers because of the anonymity they can offer their subjects. Did anyone offer to go ‘on the record?’

That’s an interesting question because right back at the beginning, several people were adamant about the fact that they wanted to go ‘on the record’ and appear in the book with their real names. However, given time – and it’s a good thing that I had the foresight to check back before the book went to print – because when push came to shove, they both hated the idea. As one of them said, ‘its not just about me, it’s about my family as well and I don’t want to embarrass anyone’.

For myself, I always knew I was going to waive my anonymity and put my story in the book. It was my way of returning the favour to the people who had taken the time to tell me their stories. But I didn’t find it easy. Or at least I found it easy enough telling the story and harder when I knew the book was going to get published and that people were actually going to read it!


Photograph of Kate Munro by Ophelia Wynne for the Observer

How did you find your subjects? Did you just go up to people in the post office and ask for their stories?

Well, its funny you say that because at one stage, that was exactly what I considered. I often used to look at the head-scarved Muslim women behind the counter at my local post office and wish that I could ask them to tell me their stories but unsurprisingly, the timing never felt right. I really wanted the traditional Muslim perspective, i.e. what’s it like to wait to lose virginity until marriage whilst the rest of the Western world loses it at the first opportunity. I’m philosophical about my inability to find this story now because in the end, why should anyone tell me it?

But generally speaking, I didn’t have a problem finding interviewees. If anything, I couldn’t keep up with the offers that I was getting. I began by tapping my friend’s contact books and it grew organically from there. People enjoyed the opportunity for a little personal ‘me’ time and soon passed me on to friends and relatives.

Why do you suppose we women are taught to make such a big deal of the first time someone puts a penis in our vaginas?

You can’t change thousands of year’s worth of conditioning. That is what I would say to start with. I have a friend who gave me a hard time for constantly referring to virginity as a ‘loss’ whilst I was writing this book but 1. at least we all know what we are referring to and 2. traditionally speaking, virginity is an enormous loss for a woman. Not just for her, but for her family too – perhaps less so in the West now – but in many parts of the world, women lose honor and so much more when they lose virginity out of wedlock. I think that one way or another, this is fairly ingrained in our psyche as women.

But asides from that, it IS a big deal allowing another person into your body for the first time. One of the most revealing quotes from the entire book is that of a man who describes being penetrated by his wife for the first time:

‘All my life I had been the penetrator and even when the woman was aggressive, there was no doubt as to who was doing what to whom. But now, as the one being penetrated, I was on the other side. She’d gotten me to give it up. She’d probed, thrusted, and done any manner of other things, all of her own urging and without regard to what I wanted.

Afterward, I told her all these things. She hugged me all the harder and explained how it had been great for her. She also said, mimicking a cornerstone on which patriarchy is based, that she felt surprised at how easily I’d let her do what she was doing and in a way lost some respect for me. I nodded. I was surprised by that too and a little angry that that was how she felt. After all, I’d just done what she wanted me to.’

Note: We wrote about that particular story here.

Was doing the book different from writing the blog? How did you decide what to include?

Yes, it took me a while to find the right tone of voice. I had to learn to sit back from the material and let the voices of my interviewees do the talking for me. Plus it was gutting not to be able to include all of the interviews as there were so many wonderful ones. In the end, I had to go with the stories that illustrated the points I really wanted to make. But it wasn’t easy. I had to ‘let go of some of my darlings’ as the old saying goes!

The book is available for purchase in the UK or online here. The Guardian did a story about Kate’s work here. They interviewed me as well, and I rant a bit about the stuff they got wrong here.
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