Kate Monro – author of The First Time; True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found – was on Woman’s Hour not long ago. She was talking about www.virginityproject.typepad.com where she has been gathering all sorts of peoples’ (ages, nationalities, religions) first experiences of sex. And she emanated a grand passion for the extraordinary stories that she has been told over the last five years. I was so intrigued – I almost (key word) started a magazine called Bitch in the 80s where the back page was a first person account of someone having sex for the first time, I interviewed broadcaster, Andy Kershaw and I think his ‘dawning of a new age’ happened in the back of a car – I invited her to walk with me.
One Sunday afternoon, I opened my door to a sea of leopardskin, prettiness, blonde hair, fetching straw hat and jeans. “Look, we’re matching,” she exclaims in a cheery way. And yes, I am wearing almost entirely leopardskin print myself. Both cardigan and skirt. Perhaps inadvertently we are paying tribute to Jackie Collins. Anyway we enjoy our sartorial elision and take it as a good portent.
I comment that ‘losing your virginity’ seems like an anomaly as an expression. Anachronistic. Ridiculous. “Yes, all that patriarchal shit,” she agrees.“Really this project has been all about people’s personal stories. It’s been so much more that first time sex. I interviewed one woman who is 91 and it was so thrilling to find out how sexuality was treated in her time. In many ways, what I’ve been interested in is how attitudes to sexuality have changed over the years.”
What worries me, I say, is that being constantly invaded by superficial, airbrushed over-sexual imagery in videos/ads/TV – has undermined the value and vocabulary of sexuality. “You mean the ‘If I give you a blow job, will you like me more?’ attitude of some girls,” says Kate. “Interestingly, I’ve had quite a lot of young women tell me that they want to lose their virginity at their own pace.”
Great to hear, but I’m not convinced how widespread that is. I remember the documentary, Let’s Talk Sex, that Davina McCall – yes, Davina – made a few years ago on sex education in schools here and in Holland. No contest. In Holland, they actually start talking about love, relationships and sexuality at primary school whereas most of our kids get something short and unsatisfactory that is focussed on the biology. At secondary school. Not nearly enough. Not wide-ranging enough in discussion. Don’t make sexuality a tiny part of science and the PCHEE curriculum. Treat it as something vital and serious and part of relationship education. And make it compulsory.
I’m paying such a lot of attention to our conversation, I almost forget we’re in Harlesden. But I do notice that shops are changing. Ali Baba’s has turned into Lahori Bites. And Dora’s Delights has turned into Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown. Wrights, of course, the late oft lamented Wrights, has been replaced by the hideously graphic Cash Converters.
How did she start doing this project? “I was on holiday with an old boyfriend and we started discussing what happened to us the first time we had sex,” she explains, “and then, it just seemed like a great idea. One that would totally preoccupy me. My friends had always said I would find one thing and then, I’d be off and I was.”
I’m wondering now what happened when she first had sex? I can feel myself avoiding ‘losing her virginity’ in the same way as I avoid ‘committing suicide’. The religious, sinful undertones. “Well, when I was being interviewed on the radio recently, a presenter commented that it seemed very business-like,” she says. “and I suppose I was eager to get to the next stage. The virgin status was something I wanted to move on from. I was 15, on holiday in Spain with a friend’s parents. He was a charismatic, French guy. But I don’t think I did it in a great way. I’d rather have concentrated on really caring about the other person, than achieving something as I saw it then.”
I have to say here – I’m not smug, more surprised – that I did manage to have sex for the first time with a boyfriend that was more experienced than me in the techniques of physical love, and also I went on to have a 9 year relationship with him. Blimey, a small success in an ocean of difficulty. And it was a good experience.
By this time, we’ve meandered up Manor Park Road and are about to embark on the non-scenic Church Road. We’re both aware that we’ve been oblivious to our surroundings. We’ve even managed to find a male friend that we both know. “This is proper urban jungle,” declares Kate who had thought Harlesden was the bit of the Harrow Road before Scrubs Lane. The Kensal Green side. So this is all a revelation for her.
“Telling my parents about the virginity project was like telling them I was pregnant,” she laughs, “but in fact, they responded very well. They’re very interested in history so they saw that it would make great social history.”
Has she asked her parents about the first time they had sex? “We’ve never spoken about,” she says, “I’m sure my mother probably would tell me. But I’ve never gone there.”
At this point, we pass a Somali wedding that is taking place at the Unity Centre. Three older gentleman have ornate, embroidered head wear that looks marvellously ornate and dramatic. “They would make a great photo,” exclaims Kate. Whereupon I exclaim that I can’t take photos of people without feeling I have some sort of relationship with them, it would feel too exploitative. Especially if they are from an ethnic minority.
It turns out that Kate has another project – www.bigguysmalldogblog.typepad.com – where she takes photographs. “It’s a social phenomenon that would never have happened ten years ago, “ she grins, “these huge men with tiny, fluffy dogs. At first, I was scared to actually use my camera but now I have been known to chase them down the street.”
Somehow we leapfrog into a discussion about the oldest person that Kate interviewed for her virginity project. “She’s a 101,” says Kate, “and she knew she’d had sex before she got married but she couldn’t quite remember the details. I love talking to older generations because it tells you so much about about their era. Because sex was more hidden in those days, and more taboo. I sometimes think they had so much better foreplay. They were creative about the way they pleasured each other.”
Bring back courting, I declare. And mean it. The delights of getting to know one another. Slowly.
“Older men were in general difficult to talk to about sex,” she says, “they didn’t have the vocabulary but women were dying to tell me all about it. Some were sad about the opportunities they’d missed. They would have loved to have been sexually active in this era. But I did find one 80 year old man who loved talking about his sex life. He was stationed in Austria as a soldier during the second world war, and he had a lot of sex.”
We reach Roundwood Park and Kate is telling me she has 250 stories. “I wanted to make the stories a patchwork quilt of the UK today with lots of different nationalities and religions included.”
So what stories did she want that she didn’t get? “I really wanted to find a black homosexual who would tell his virginity loss story,” she says enthusiastically, “and a traditional Muslim story. This sounds bad, but I did get this Thalidomide guy to tell me his amazing story. It’s one of the best stories in the book.”
As we part, Kate is off to meet the no doubt irrepressible American, Cindy Gallop, who has a website http://www.makelovenotporn.com which is about the effect of hard core porn on young people. Yes! Finally, Kate expresses her continuing fascination with men and how they are changing around their sexuality and their emotions. “Yeah, I’d really like to do some more research into that area,” she says. Me too.
The First Time – True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found (including her own) is by Kate Monro and out on Icon Books at £11 99.