By Melinda Guerra
“We women are told that virginity is something that makes us pure. Virginity is a thing to protect. A thing another person will eventually take away. It goes hand in hand with a host of other, crueler words. If we give it away, we’re called sluts. If we hang on to it, we’re called prudes. Once it’s lost, something is gone forever.” – page 1
In the conservative religious environment which provided the setting for my coming of age, it was common to attend events designed to scare us out of sex: the young men by the threat of penis/virility-impairing STIs (or parenthood), and the young women by bizarre object lessons centered around how sad it is to “lose” our purity (interchangeable with virginity). Said purity was symbolized by a variety of creative objects, such as a rose (passed from hand to hand until it lost its petals/worth), a piece of duct tape (stuck to several hearts consecutively, until it lost its stickiness), or a paper heart (pieces of it torn off and given to various people, until its owner had only a small shred to give her “husband” at the skit’s end). In addition to presenting incredibly damaging ideas especially to those who have survived sexual abuse and assault, these object lessons were also minimizing the value of the female person, reducing her to a thing that must be kept whole so it can be presented to her husband someday (for more on why this understanding of, and pressure to maintain, virginity is harmful, check out this and this). That the understood definition of virginity was heteronormative, cisnormative, applicable solely to those born with hymens (which hadn’t managed to be broken via non-sexual activity) and assumed sex as a particular kind of singular act, was lost on most of us.
“They say in sex ed that virginity only happens one time. That once you break your hagfish-shaped hymen, that’s it.
You’re officially in the club.
But it’s just not fucking true.
Life is an endless roller coaster of first times, of lost virginities. My first time having great sex was like taking that dress off all over again – slower, sweeter, better. It captured me completely by surprise.” – page 31, from Kiersi Burkhart’s “The First Rule of College”
When reading stories about sex, sexuality, and virginity, I am constantly aware of what I was taught about each of those, as well as what it took to unlearn those lessons. As such, when I see those themes in literature directed toward young adults, I pay close attention, knowing what it takes to deconstruct and rebuild after damaging misinformation. The V-Word: True Stories About First-Time Sex, edited by Amber J. Keyser, is a collection of stories by seventeen women who write about their earliest sexual experiences. The contributions tend to be short, averaging around 6 pages each, and told simply as a story, avoiding both the “this was what I did and you should too” and “this was what I did and so believe me when I say you shouldn’t” tones adults can sometimes get when talking to young people about sexuality.
The V-Word is well-curated. The book is not (as some may fear) seventeen stories eagerly encouraging teens to run out and have sex with as many people as possible, but neither is it a collection which shames people for their sexuality. The straight, lesbian, bisexual, and trans women who contributed to this collection share many different kinds of stories: of cherished sex and regretted sex, of reclaiming sexual agency after sexual assault, of first-time sex on a couple’s wedding night, of postponing sexual experiences, and of eagerly accruing those experiences.
The first boy I ever slept with just tried to friend me on Facebook, but I didn’t friend him back. I’m not saying this will happen to you. I’m not saying that the first boy you have sex with will grow up and have a sketchy profile picture and try to friend you in the way that people who Google their ex-girlfriends do when they’re bored or horny. I’m not even saying that just because he’s posing in front of a window covered with a makeshift curtain it necessarily means that he’s a lonely guy living in a dingy apartment googling his ex-girlfriends. But it does make you wonder. – page 98, from Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s “It Would Not Be an Overstatement to Say I Knew Nothing”
In between each story is a page which serves both to tie the preceding and following stories together, and also to offer a little of the advice (albeit gently) the stories themselves avoid. I could do without it, but I imagine some appreciate the space it gives to reset and prepare for the next piece as a thing completely of its own. What I do love is the “Beyond the Stories” section at the end of the collection of essays. It’s a resource section which includes a compilation of advice sex educators give to young people, an interview with YA librarian Kelly Jensen, a list of helpful books, articles, and websites for teens and young adults, and a “Reassurance for Parents” note, followed by resources for parents specifically. While I advocate for a very honest and proactive approach to discussing sexuality with children and young people, I understand many parents and educators blush at the thought of having those conversations. Parents and educators alike can benefit both from reading this book and passing it along to the young people in their lives, and also from perusing the suggested resource section.
Among the things I enjoyed (and there were many) about the book is its openness to identifying which word is “the v-word.” Several contributors express the importance of rethinking our understanding of virginity, and some specifically explain our need to understand the fact that, if we choose to hold to the idea of virginity, we must at least then allow for many virginities, for when it comes to sexual experiences, our “first times” will very likely be numerous. Keyser herself makes clear in her preface the importance of yet another v-word: voice. Because whatever our personal values and perspectives about sex, sexuality, and virginity, it’s important we articulate them to ourselves and our partners, and empower others to do the same.
The V-Word is available now at GPL.