All illustrations are taken from the front cover of Losing It
A couple of years ago, Kate Monro quit her job in marketing so she could spend her time talking to people about losing their virginity. Once she’d heard a load of stories from over the past eight decades, she wrote them all down and put them into a book, Losing It: How We Popped Our Cherry Over the Last 80 Years.
Those stories include the firsthand account of a married man who hasn’t had sex because he prefers to be punished; the words of a woman who refuses to acknowledge that her first sexual experience was with her doctor; and the story of a man with disabilities who paid for his first sexual experience but enjoyed the post-coital cuddle more than the act itself.
The book manages to demonstrate the huge variety of modern sexuality while also – unsurprisingly, given it's about people dropping their V-cards – making for a pretty fascinating read. I wanted to find out the story behind the stories, so I asked Kate some questions about poking her nose into other people’s sex lives and what she thinks tales of virginity loss ultimately tell us about ourselves.
VICE: Hi Kate. What compelled you to start asking people about how they lost it?
Kate Monro: I loved the idea of exploring modern culture via first person stories of first sexual experiences. Also, I figured that if I had questions about what people get up to behind closed doors, I might not be alone.
Why is virginity loss such a big deal to us?
There are valid and traditional reasons as to why it’s a big deal. In days gone by, if you were a Western female and not "intact", you could be in real trouble – and let's not forget that it’s still the same for many of the world’s women, even today. But for those of us lucky enough not to be judged by our sexual status, a lot of the people I interviewed saw virginity loss as a really important step between childhood and adulthood.
What did you learn from writing the book?
One thing I found out is that you’ll never know how many normal, attractive people have not lost their virginity until you write a book about it. The story about the married man in his forties who's still a virgin was the story that stopped everybody in their tracks, including me. Some are too nervous or scared, and it becomes "a thing". Some don’t get around to it – the timing is wrong and it feels too late to try and start. My blog, The Virginity Project, became a voice for these people because there is no place in society for them to exist.
What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?
When you’re talking at a certain level of intimacy with people, they will drop things into the conversation that you’re not expecting. One woman told me that, as a teenager in the 1950s, her male GP had shown her how to masturbate.
You have to learn to control your emotions at moments like that, because, actually, she came from an era in which people knew very little about sex compared to today. And while she was confused about this experience, she also felt strangely liberated by it. As she said, "I had never done this to myself. This was something strange and new. As a result, I learnt to masturbate and it was a complete and utter revelation to me." That was the way she chose to frame the experience, and it didn’t feel right to burst that bubble for her, particularly as she was now an elderly lady.
Sometimes you interviewed people you already knew. Was that awkward?
People were constantly surprising me, and I learned not to prejudge, because you never know which sweet old friend-of-a-friend is going to sit across a table from you and tell you in the most casual way imaginable that he lost his virginity aged 13 in the summer of 1959 to two sisters aged 15 and 16. Generally speaking, I found this older generation so much less Victorian than we imagine they were. They were motivated by exactly the same hormones as we are today.
Was that the most surprising story you heard?
One of my most memorable surprises was the stay-at-home-dad. His wife is the breadwinner and she also has a penchant for pegging. Pegging, as I learned, is the act of anally penetrating a man with a dildo. So while he "took" her virginity when they were first together, years later she took a special type of virginity from him.
His observations on this were priceless. "I'd come as close as I ever will to experiencing what Georgina had experienced the first time I screwed her," he said. "This was not like my first experience all those years ago, from which I took away feelings of power and exhilaration. To the contrary, this mostly involved powerlessness – being pursued, penetrated and under the control of another person. But it was a mind-blowing orgasm, the likes of which I'd never experienced before."
So what does this tell us about the power dynamic between men and women when it comes to sex?
I learned something about the delicate balance between physical and mental power for men and women. He also told me that his wife “felt surprised at how easily I'd let her do what she was doing, and in a way lost some respect for me. I was surprised by that and a little angry that that was how she felt. After all, I'd just done what she wanted me to."
There tends to be a genuine sense of physical vulnerability about virginity loss for a woman, though. It’s a big deal, to let another person into your body for the first time – whether that’s how you define your "first time" or not – and I’m not sure that people always appreciate what a major act of trust that is and why it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
But interestingly, it’s also usually the woman who dictates if the deal goes down in the first place. The male virgins I encounter – the ones who are desperate for that first time to happen – are having a much harder time than the women because the women know that, if push comes to shove, they can nearly always find a willing man to have sex with for the first time. It doesn’t always work the other way around. Women really hold the cards in that respect.
Your book spans stories of virginity loss over the last 80 years. Has our attitude towards it changed in that time?
The word "virgin" was chucked around like an insult when I was a teenager, whereas I think today’s youth are slightly less encumbered by the term, mostly because of the internet. On the one hand, we all know now that there are a million-and-one different ways to have a sexual encounter that doesn’t involve penetrative sex. So we are much freer to define the idea of virginity loss on our own terms.
But there's so much unrealistic pornography on the internet that, like it or not, that has become the default sex education for a lot of young people. While I’m not knocking hairless people who want to "take it hard up the arse", I really think that now, more than ever, it feels right to uncover the truth about what men and women really think and feel about their sexual lives and experiences, and share that information with a wider audience.
Why did you decide to include your own story in the book?
I told it partly because it was the inspiration to write the book and explore the subject matter in the first place, but also because in some small way I wanted to repay the favour to the people who had sat and painstakingly told me their own stories. It seemed like the least I could do. Weirdly, I never considered for a moment that I might feel odd about telling my story publicly, but the day it was published in a magazine article, a little bit of me felt like staying indoors. It’s such an exposing story.
How did you define virginity loss before writing Losing It, and how would you now after writing the book?
If you’d asked me beforehand, I would have stuck to a conventional definition of virginity loss and gone with the first act of penetration, but I see now that that is such a load of dull patriarchal bollocks. Sure, it’s a big thing – that moment can be one of the most intimate experiences you’ll share with a partner. But sex can be a whole series of intimate and meaningful moments.
As an interviewee once said to me, "After a few months of sleeping with my boyfriend, I started to feel the twinges of a possible orgasm. And then he made me come. That’s when I really started to lose my virginity." That is an incredibly significant moment in a woman’s life. Why is that less meaningful or important than the very first sex act?
In the end, what matters most is that lots of us can now define our experiences in the way that we want to, and not the way someone else wants us to – and that is a really great thing.
Losing It: How We Popped Our Cherry Over the Last 80 Years is published by Icon Books.
More stories about people losing their V-cards: