An exploration of women's sexual initiation


When losing our virginity, said Queen Victoria to her daughter, we must close our eyes and think of England.

Attaching a little more lyricism to the act, the great romantics, from Cervantes to Byron, saw virgins as roses and their deflowering a poem to passions that would saddle lions.

Karen Bouris' first time was somewhere in between: "Although I knew what I was doing, it was kind of a just-get-it-over-with experience. I was uninformed about my body. There was alcohol involved. It was significant in that it was the start of my growth as a woman and my self-imagery. But it really was a generic experience."

Her ennui, she thought, probably was common; the event undertaken as something today's woman is supposed to do. As society says how a woman should be. As women of her mother's generation were supposed to be homemakers without college degrees. As nice girls are supposed to be decorous -- which means never, ever discussing the naughtiness or nastiness of their first intercourse.

So Ms. Bouris, 25, has written a book about it.

"The First Time" is based upon the sexual initiations of 150 women who responded to interviews and on 1,000 questionnaires mailed to a national cross-section.

The book is more anecdotal than analytical, its conclusions rarely straying from personal to statistical. It bashes no males; in fact, presents some as tender and caring.

Even the male majority is tempered by general portrayal as victims of myth, machismo, movies and locker-room pressures. With, of course, the occasional lout and incestuous relative.

And for some women, Ms. Bouris reports, their first times were indeed anthems and firecrackers in celebration of sexual discovery, romance and independence.

"The First Time" speaks with Georgia homemakers and California prostitutes; it hears from early teen-agers and septuagenarians; it visits lesbians and touches all races and religions.

The book explores defloration as a conscious choice (wedding night or not); the minority who found it romantic; the pressures from church, peers and family -- with margin quotes from St. Jerome to Molly Ivins.

Not every woman rushed to answer Ms. Bouris' questions. Many senior citizens were reticent to expose their intimacies, she says.

One 75-year-old Presbyterian woman, Ms. Bouris recalls, said: " '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. But to fill out questionnaires just isn't part of our world.' "

And therein, for Ms. Bouris, the author's challenge of skewering the unspeakable -- and maybe society's final taboo.

Q: Somewhere in this feminist era, somewhere between Kinsey and Danielle Steel, someone must have written about women losing their virginity?

A: My favorite line from someone is: "It's so much easier to have sex than it is to talk about it." I remember looking through bookstores a couple of years ago. There were books on Tantric loving, on masturbation, on improving both heterosexual and homosexual technique, studies about female sexuality, but nothing on virginity loss.

Q: Those experiences, according to your respondents, were largely negative and certainly no encouragement to young lovers.

A: I don't care whose fault it is, but I do care about showing that these experiences are happening, and that we should learn from these experiences, teach our children, educate ourselves. This isn't a book on sex, but sexuality, two entirely separate things . . . and a book telling about growing up female.

Q: Your book takes no position about saving oneself. Do you consider remaining a virgin until marriage to be sound, healthy, realistic, even attainable in 1993?

A: Sure. But what we should be promoting is supporting an individual in her own choice. If waiting until you're married and 24 before making the decision . . . that's wonderful. If you're age 17 and feel comfortable and ready to be sexually active, and you're aware of all the responsibilities, that's also your choice. The important thing is equipping our children to make the sound, safe, informed, conscious choice.

Q: What makes the ideal first time?

A: The elements should include mutual respect, the conscious choice of both partners, knowledge of your own body, knowledgeable communication, and a sense of safety and responsibility for each other.

Q: If yours is the first look at the personality of the problem, how can society ease the trauma of the first time?

A: From the earliest age, we need healthy discussion about the issue; that it's normal, it's natural. To be sexual and to be intimate are among the basic forces inside us. But then we have religious dogma, societal messages, parental restrictions, educational failures . . . it's a mess, it really is.

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