This valuable book for teens and their parents offers vivid portraits by 150 women, who tell of their "first time". By sharing their stories, they offer a much-needed woman's perspective and impart a heartfelt widsom that can lead to positive, healthy discussions of sexuality between parents and teens.
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The First Time
What Parents and Teenage Girls Should Know about "Losing Your Virginity"
By Karen Bouris
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1994 Karen Bouris
All rights reserved.
The First Time
How deep the need is to tell the story, to hear it to the end.
—Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones
One of the most significant stories a woman can tell is the experience of her first sexual intercourse. Not only is the event a traditional rite of passage into womanhood, but it is the door to one of the most intriguing and sacred sides of herself—her sexuality. Unfortunately, for many women the first time they have intercourse isn't by choice: prey to miseducation, abuse, coercion, or outright violence, they have the decision taken from them. For others, however, it is the beginning of sexual discovery and romance, independence and physical communication; in fact, many young women feel it's the first adult decision that they are able to make.
No matter what the experience—joyful or scarring, meaningful or seeming irrelevant—it can mark the threshold of the expression of our physical relationship with others. The stories we hold and the stories we tell of this time are important to us as individuals—and as girls and women trying to make sense of the mysterious and intriguing experience of sex.
Several years ago, I remember looking in bookstores through categories of books on women's issues and sexuality. There were books on masturbation, on tantric loving, on improving both heterosexual and homosexual technique. A wave of erotic literature had hit the mainstream, along with several landmark studies about female sexuality. But nothing on virginity loss except a few statistics on age of sexual initiation. With all of the books talking about the practicalities and the erotic, the emotional experience—how our heart and soul are affected by sex—was almost completely ignored.
I found it odd that in all that research, all that exploration of female sexuality, nobody had broached the topic and asked any questions: How did you feel about "losing your virginity"? What was it like, emotionally and physically? The subject seemed almost purposefully ignored, as though it were taboo, inconsequential, or simply a can of worms that nobody was willing to open. Our society has exploited and sensationalized sex in every way possible, yet we have profoundly neglected the engaged heart and body—and the passage that leads to or tears us away from this.
Granted, it is difficult to study and explore psychological and emotional experience. The range of variables, as well as the fear people have of revealing intimate details, make it nearly impossible. But I wanted to know what other women felt about their "first time," what impact it had on their future sexuality, and how their sexual selves unfolded.
I began by drafting a questionnaire, testing it out, and revising it until it was impartial yet specific enough to get honest answers to my questions. My main goal was to create a safe space for women to share the intimate details of their stories, no matter what their experience. I wanted to provide a forum for women to express themselves, a way to talk about not only the event itself, but also how they felt about it and how their sexuality evolved as a result of it. I asked open-ended questions, which I hoped would lead each woman to an exploration of the emotional aspect of her sexuality, a chance to see patterns and turning points, beginning with sexual initiation.
Over one thousand questionnaires went out to such women's organizations as shelters, support groups, professional associations, clubs, colleges, and special-interest groups. I also interviewed women who felt more comfortable speaking than writing, from homeless women to busy working mothers.
More than 150 women from all walks of life—teachers and students, psychologists and writers, waitresses and security guards, lawyers and ministers, prostitutes and sorority members—answered the questionnaire. The average (median, mean, andmode) age of first intercourse was seventeen. Although I tried to get as broad a racial mix as possible, the overwhelming majority of respondents were white—eighty-five percent—were Caucasian. Nine percent were African American, three percent Hispanic, and three percent Asian. I tried specifically to reach minority women through a variety of organizations, clubs, and personal contacts, but social and/ or ethnic taboos about discussing sexuality might have discouraged some women from answering, as well as the fact that I am a white, middle-class woman. Many religious upbringings were represented, including Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic.
Geographically, the largest number of respondents were from California, making up 20 percent of the total. Regionally, 31 percent came from the West, 33 percent from the Midwest, 9 percent from the Southeast, and 25 percent from the Northeast; 2 percent from outside the United States. Approximately 10 percent of the respondents defined themselves as lesbians; about 25 percent have had a sexual encounter with another woman.
The lack of response from older women was particularly noticeable. Age ranged from thirteen to seventy-four, but the average age was thirty-three. It's not hard to imagine that for older women, who grew up in a very different social climate, the mere inquiry was an invasion. A few wrote to tell me so. One seventy-five-year-old white Presbyterian said, "Thank you for the questionnaire, but I shall have to let you down. My friends and I were raised in a far different era—with different standards and a different moral code. There were no therapists or self-help groups. If we had any problems, we 'shed a few tears,' 'thought we would die,' and in a few days were back to normal. Sounds simple, I know. So to fill out your questionnaire just isn't part of our world. I hope you understand."
"I have to just keep telling myself that these are changing times," writes a seventy-six-year-old black woman from South Carolina. "My granddaughters try to keep me up on things, but sometimes I cannot believe how things have changed. The things they do, the things they talk about! I am trying to accept that it's a different world, but I'd like to keep my own story and bedroom goings-on to myself."
A sixty-seven-year-old white Catholic from Massachusetts echoes this sentiment: "There are some things in life that I feel should be your very own. Also, because of my very early training to not unburden myself to others, I don't think I ever felt close enough to any woman to discuss such intimate details."
A few other women wrote back to say that they were refusing to fill out the questionnaire or talk to me. The reasons varied, but often the reactions were revealing. One eighty-year-old woman said, "It happened so long ago, has been buried so deep, that to dredge it up now would be too difficult." And a young prostitute, who had agreed to talk with me about her sexual history, when questioned about her first time, said, "I'll tell you anything but that." I also got responses questioning my intentions: "Are you a pervert? A lesbian?" or, simply, "What business is it of yours?"
The responses I did get were overwhelming. Something about telling the story to a neutral party gave women the guts to look at themselves and their sexuality, often with startling insight. Women exposed their secret, sexual self—a self usually reserved for intimate bedroom conversations, sessions with a therapist, or deemed too private to show anyone at all. Many women said, "Thank you for asking this question," and others commented that it had been healing to write down their story; some confided things that they had never before told anyone.
Through the series of questions (see Appendix), women shared their disappointments: "I should have valued myself more and not 'given away' my virginity to the first guy who wanted my body but not necessarily me." They shared their anger: "Now whenever I see this man/boy who date-raped me, I want to punch him in the face, hurt him, and make him feel ugly as he made me feel." And they shared their growth: "Finally, through making love with a caring, compassionate man, I was shown how special, unique, and attractive I was; he gave me a wonderful gift—a new image of myself."
Because of the intimate nature of the questions, all of the names in the stories have been changed to ensure confidentiality. Other identifying characteristics were also altered slightly, with only general references to where a woman was raised and her occupation or religious background.
The stories I chose to include were those that I thought shared a common thread of experience but which were also revealing of the individual. The passionate responses testify to the powerful emotions that women have about this experience. They offer a keyhole glimpse into the gamut of feelings, opinions, and beliefs women have about their own sexuality.
Because I asked specific questions about how first sexual experiences affected their later sexuality, many women took the opportunity to give me an overview of their sexual history. In general, the older and more experienced the woman, the more she told of the metamorphosis of her sexuality, a positive transformation that took place over the years. Again and again women disclosed that the older they got, the better sex was.
Often it took women years to learn about their bodies and what they needed and wanted sexually. Some women had to erase stereotypes they had held on to for decades: how their bodies were "supposed" to function and how women were "supposed" to act during sex. Other women needed to learn to trust their partner in order to communicate their needs. Age also brought about a change in women's ideas about the myths of fairy-tale romance and gave them the perspective to recreate ingrained images and relationship models to fit real life. With experience and maturity, women began to say what was important to them, ask for what they needed, and expect respect and support.
As I looked at the questionnaires and interviews as a whole, I saw certain themes emerging. There were many issues surrounding the relationship between sex and power, whether feelings of empowerment, powerlessness, or using sex to have power over men. As much as power was an issue, so was choice, in all its forms and gradations. Some women felt liberated by the choice they had consciously made. Others felt like passive participants or observers in something that coincidentally happened to them—they were not aware they even had a choice. And still others had the choice stripped from them by rape or other forms of abuse. Not surprisingly, the women who reported a positive experience almost always needed to feel love in order to enjoy sex; emotional connection seemed to be the gateway to sexual pleasure.
The tremendous changes in sexual mores and behavior over the past thirty years were clearly reflected in the differing responses between older and younger generations. Not only was there a greater willingness to share their experiences among younger women, but there was also less adherence to the notion of needing to preserve virginity and more claiming the right to sexual experience and adventure. The cutoff age seemed to be fifty—women over fifty had either "saved" their virginity for their wedding night, or at least felt they were supposed to. Women in their thirties and forties, who grew up in the sexually liberated sixties and seventies, more comfortably claimed their right to premarital sex and told tales of many sexual partners. Young women in their teens and twenties, however, grappled with the very real fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, along with the pressure to grow up quickly and become sexually active.
Against the backdrop of all these experiences are individual responses to a set of sexual "rules" for women, the cornerstone of which traditionally has been virginity until marriage. Taken generationally, the broad spectrum of stories represents the breakdown of the old rule, the ensuing confusion and conflicting pressures both to have and not have sex, and the discovery process which we, as a society, are in now.
Lillian Rubin, in her book Erotic Wars, discusses the unconscious nature of these rules. "How do we learn these sexual rules? I don't remember anyone explicitly saying those words to me. Yet I knew, as surely as I knew the time of day or the day of the week. For the sexual norms of an age are passed on to the young in a thousand unseen and unspoken ways, as much in what is never said or named as in what is."
Nowhere did women react more strongly to the existence of such norms than in their reactions to the concept of "losing your virginity," which is why I've devoted an entire chapter to responses to this question. Largely, women were dissatisfied with the social value placed on female virginity, and were offended by sexual initiation being considered a loss. As one woman explained, "I don't feel as if we really 'lose' anything by making love for the first time. I feel we gain a better understanding of ourselves and our bodies, knowledge about sex and sexuality, and a greater amount of self-confidence. My sexual partners have made me feel much more comfortable about my body, which overall makes me feel better about myself. I didn't lose; I gained a whole lot more." Some women thought that the term was appropriate, because they felt they had lost something through the experience: their youthful innocence, a private part of themselves, or a coveted bargaining chip.
Others resented the emphasis on penile-vaginal intercourse as the ultimate sexual experience. As one woman wrote, "If the idea is that a woman's a virgin until she has penile-vaginal intercourse, that perpetuates the idea that the only sex that counts is intercourse. I beg to differ! By still using the term 'losing your virginity,' we are allowing a notion that sex equals intercourse to continue."
The belief that the act of intercourse is the ultimate goal ignores or undermines much of our sensuality, notes sexologist Marty Klein in Ask Me Anything. "[We] need a broader view of sexuality. Intercourse and even orgasm are optional parts of a sexual experience. Describing everything else as 'getting ready for sex' robs us of the deep satisfaction available from kissing, caressing, teasing, and oral and manual stimulation."
Nonetheless, the hallmark of sexual initiation for most people continues to be heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse, and what emerged from the questionnaires is that even in this day and age, we have conflicting feelings and beliefs about the first time we perform this act (if we do), notions that remain gender based. According to the recently published Janus Report on Sexual Behavior, eighty-seven percent of eighteen to twenty-six-year-olds surveyed believe that a double standard still exists. Virginity is still something that girls are supposed to cherish and save while red-blooded American boys should try desperately to lose. Many men still have some vague belief that they want to marry a virgin—someone who doesn't challenge their sense of adequacy, as one thirty-four-year-old man said to me, or someone, as Sigmund Freud speculated, over whom they can feel a sense of sole ownership.
Not surprisingly, many of the young women who answered are still very uneasy about coming to terms with their budding sexuality, allowing themselves to be talked into sex in order to be loved, feeling afterward that they've been degraded by or confused about the experience. The conclusion that exposure to sex in pop culture somehow made one ready to become sexual caused endless disappointment.
This fourteen-year-old junior high school student offers a story and reaction typical of younger women: "I didn't really think sex was a big deal, but it is. Maybe because my stepmom slept around a lot and cheated on my dad. She treated sex as nothing and was very promiscuous. So last year, when I was thirteen, I lost my virginity to a sixteen-year-old boy I had been friends with for three years. He was pretty drunk, and I had just broken up with my boyfriend of two years and was upset. We went on a walk in the woods and lay down on his sweater. It hurt, and I bled a lot. I regretted it later and wished it had been with someone whom I was really in love with.
"I felt sad because losing my virginity should have been a wonderful experience, but instead it was meaningless. I let him inside of me, we were sharing something totally sacred, and it was treated as nothing. I felt like a slut, real dirty. I've had other sexual encounters since then. I feel that because my first time wasn't special, none of the other men I'm with will love me, and they'll think I'm dirty."
This conflict—is it acceptable for young women to have sex—finds its echo, and perhaps origins, in ideas we are exposed to in literature, movies, and television, through religion, and by parents and friends. We are given images of doe-like, innocent virgins, but when we turn the page or switch the channel we see a voluptuous, sensual, experienced woman as the icon of the female sex. Thus, to be a virgin is both desirable and undesirable: You are fresh and marriageable; you are inexperienced and unappealing. To be sexually active is both desirable and undesirable: You are attractive, seductive, and comfortable with your sexuality; you've been around the block a few too many times. Within this maelstrom, each woman must find her place—and we do.
Excerpted from The First Time by Karen Bouris. Copyright © 1994 Karen Bouris. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Note to Parent
The First Time
Wedding Nights—or Almost
Pressure from All Directions
A Conscious Choice
Just Get it Over With
Violation in All Its Forms
Women Loving Women
The Romantic Minority
Losing "Losing Your Virginity"
Afterword: What We Can Learn from These Shared Stories
Appendix: Female Sexuality Questionnaire