Losing It: gender, Kate Munro’s Virginity Project and some problematic assumptions.

Posted: June 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

I am a nosy cow, and I am all for people sharing intimate details of their sex lives in whichever ways they feel comfortable. I think Kate Munro’s Virginity Project does a good and important job in fostering empathy and providing space for people to open up about their personal histories in ways they may find difficult with friends and lovers, and tells some lovely/important/disturbing/enlightening stories about people and how they do sex. But in Losing It, her published book version of the same, it’s hard not to notice a) the problematically heteronormative structures into which everything is shoehorned **even when the storytellers themselves structure and present themselves otherwise** and b) the equally problematic and difficult gender essentialist ideology. Allow me to explain.

The most immediately obvious issue is that Munro makes no real attempt to acknowledge her cultural background or ideological framework, she just assumes all her readers share it. Eg.:

‘one of the first stories that we are taught is about virginity loss. We all know the story of Adam and Eve. No sooner had these two hapless teenagers given into…temptation…than the course of their lives, and ours, was irrevocably changed.’

Well..no. This may come as a shock, but not everybody interested in a book about virginity loss (esp in the context of the ‘universality’ of the subject you’re repeatedly touting, ffs) is going to be Christian. (Let alone have that interpretation of Adam & Eve, but I digress.) By no means all of the people you interview are Christian, so why make that kind of assumption of universal experience?  I wasn’t taught Adam and Eve first off, because my mother is a lapsed Jew and my father an aetheist. I went to a Ba’hai kids’ class for a bit. I went to C of E school, but I don’t remember Adam and Eve, only Noah and trying to bargain with God so my family didn’t die (I was a pretty fucked-up child, in retrospect). You can’t take for granted that all your readers share your cultural background, nor your current thinking – I can’t really see why you’d want to – and yet she repeatedly does. Again:

We all have the desire to fit in.’ – well, no. I certainly have the desire to be recognised and understood for what I am, and to share experiences and be loved and nurtured by friends. But not everybody constructs that as ‘fitting in’ – I construct that as being ‘recognised and accepted’ by people who are various and different and intelligent and interesting and caring, not all of whom share similar backgrounds or desires or histories or outlooks on life or tastes in popular media. Yes, groups cohere around identities, particularly marginalised ones (‘queer’ and ‘goth’ being two relevant examples from my own life), but we are GROWNUPS ffs. It’s not about finding people you match, it’s about finding networks of individuals prepared to engage with you as an equal.

(And for the record, I am not interested in experiences of virginity loss because I am concerned about my own experiences and whether they’re ‘normal’, or in fact in the existence of ANY ‘normal’ when it comes to sexuality – nor am I backward in exploring this and related topics with friends and lovers and partners (rather the reverse, in fact.) Like many others, I suspect, I’m…basically nosy. I’m interested in human diversity and the impact of culture on intimate experience and how other people negotiate vulnerability and desire. I and my ilk may be in the minority, but assuming I don’t exist or patronising me is…really NOT a helpful way to go.)

There’s an ongoing dichotomy in Losing It between some pretty sensible statements and the methodology that ensues.

‘I discovered that the definition of virginity loss is a deeply personal issue. It can be defined in any number of ways, largely depending on how we feel.’

‘Even today, our benchmark for definitions struggles to move with the times and establish a more all-encompassing view of intercourse [than PIV] and, ultimately, of virginity loss?[…] What constitutes ‘sex’ for one person might mean something very different for someone else.’

‘The passage of time changed the way that people perceived their virginity loss. Definitions were not carved in stone.’

‘I knew that I didn’t want to present a homogenised, two-dimensional view of virginity loss. I wanted every sector of society to be represented in all their shapes, sizes and permutations.’

[This last – to my recollection there is only one gay man in the book and one bisexual lady, although several contributors with disabilities, for which Munro gets points.)

With all of which I can most heartily concur. Human sexuality is infinitely various! Everyone gets to define and interpret their own experiences! There is no single heteronormative definition! So why, why, in the name of all that’s holy, conclude an interesting chapter containing various definitions and viewpoints with ‘Despite the contrasting viewpoints of my interviewees, most people in the street, and in fact most people in this book, will tell you that they lost their virginity when they first had penetrative sex. In the ‘traditional’ sense [no, it’s really not clear what she means here, especially given the discussion of hymens earlier where one girl ‘lost her virginity’ falling onto the crossbar of a bike], virginity loss is a physical experience and most of us know exactly when it has happened.’

Why? Why do this? Why spend a whole chapter discussing the variety of perception of virginity loss, and then narrow it down? Similarly, why then spend the beginning of the *next* chapter discussing the ‘historical’ emphasis on female virginity [which I am not disputing, I am partly a c17th feminist academic ffs] and then coming out with *this* little gem, which annoyed me sufficiently that I am writing this *whole goddamn post* because of it:

A woman is more physically vulnerable than a man. [As an unusually small woman, I’m not necessarily in a position to dispute this in an average/wider sense; however its specific application here is HUGELY problematic.] Our anatomy is such that the loss of virginity [note how heteronormative her definition has become here, in direct contradiction to – eg. – the gay dude from the last chapter who defined his virginity loss as oral] requires us to allow another human being into our bodies for the very first time. You cannot alter the dynamics of that exchange any more than you can stop night from becoming day. Losing virginity for a woman requires a level of trust that a man does not have to heed, whichever way you look at it.’

Let’s just take a moment here for me to sink my head into my hands, before returning to enumerate all the many, many ways in which this is utter crap.

Okay. 1) The idea of PIV as ‘penetration’ of a passive female orifice by an active male phallus is a CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION. The ‘dynamics of that exchange’ are CULTURALLY dictated and constructed. There is a famous feminist essay about how different the Western concept of sexuality would be if we continually conceptualised PIV as ‘enclosure’ rather than ‘penetration.’ It makes a very, very good point.

2) we would not have a millennia of cultural imagery of vagina dentata, masculine engulfment, monstrous births, etc, if the placing of a sensitive part of one’s body inside another human being (one with the potential to change and mutuate, cf. centuries of cultural imagery of the changeable feminine) was not also *inherently vulnerable*, and equally so.

3) What about non-PIV types of sex, regardless of the gender of the participants? What about gay or bi men doing oral and anal? What about lesbians or bisexual women who lost their virginity to a lady? What about genderqueer people, or people who prefer non-penetrative sex, or who can’t have penetrative sex for various reasons? What about kink? Why posit such a narrow, problematic, exclusionary definition of virginity loss and then suggest that *by its very nature* the power dynamics involved only flow one way, when this is so markedly and noticeably BY YOUR OWN EVIDENCE not the case at all?

4) why entirely erase women’s sexual agency? A few sentences after, Munro continues ‘”I was very much the driving force,” says Sherrie, but in the end, this is only ever a subjective type of control and an unspoken agreement of trust that exists between two people. Any victim of date rape will confirm this.’ So, essentially, even when both participants in a sexual act perceive their power dynamics one way, you and your not-culturally-influenced-at-all omniscience get to swoop down and redefine them? What makes your perceptions more valid than theirs? What about situations (such as those you’ve described) where participants share a gender, or a woman is physically larger and more powerful than a man? What about male victims of date rape? Why can women not own and express their desire and perform an active, initiatory role in sex? Why is all that meaningless in the face of your unthinking replication of problematically binarist constructions of gender to which there are so many counterexamples we may as well all give up and go home?

Anyway, this whole line of rhetoric comes along with hugely problematic, despair-inducing binarist thinking. I here quote the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3:

If you had asked me when I began this project if I thought men would have the patience or the motivation to sit down and talk to a stranger about their virginity loss experiences, I would have said you were quite mad. I was wrong…We women like to think that we differ from men emotionally as much as we do anatomically. I beg to differ.

…Women talk to each other the whole time. We understand each other’s worlds because we have a constant, comfortable dialogue with one another  but, in my experience, men don’t generally share this fluidity…as I delved into the minds of the opposite sex, it became apparent that men have had to change and it hasn’t always been easy. Furthermore, they were more adept at talking about it than we ever give them credit for.

And then, immediately after this supposed revelation that ZOMG MEN CAN TALK ABOUT THEIR FEELINGS AND EXPERIENCES LIKE THEY’RE PEOPLE:

Women are so much better equipped to deal with flux…Women are built to flex and change in a world that’s flexing and changing. They have an advantage in the modern world that doesn’t come naturally to most men.

Has it not occurred to the author at any point that these ‘natural differences’ she continually refers to and reinforces may be the result of social conditioning, and it is this that’s broken, not the changes in the modern world or men’s place within it? We are not built to do anything, ffs, and I’d be surprised if she was even considering trans women there given the amount of time she spends conflating body parts with gender elsewhere. Yes, I like the author am a cis woman, yes I have a uterus, but that doesn’t make me ‘built’ to do anything other than carry children (and actually, in my particular case, not that so much at all.) Stop conflating physical characteristics (that vary hugely across all genders, actually) with social roles or psychological aptitudes or thought processes that vary from individual to individual. All this ‘men don’t talk about stuff’ nonsense. Surely that varies from, well, person to person?  Cultural environment to cultural environment? Socialisation to socialisation? There are stories IN THIS VERY BOOK that illustrate that such supposedly ‘natural’ differences develop as a result of environment or choice or circumstance – why spend pages trying to shoehorn them into a gender essentialist framework that doesn’t fit? Yes, patriarchy and assumed gender roles hurt men as well as women and others – so why adopt them, instead of saying that and then letting everyone be people?

And finally, SPEAK FOR YOURSELF. Possibly because I’ve never made the blanket assumption that anybody male-identified is completely incapable of having an in-depth personal, emotional or psychological conversation, I have a wide variety of male friends (and, currently, a male partner) with whom I discuss mental health, sexual history, relationships, feelings, body issues and all the rest of the bullshit that comes with contemporary western culture. I’ve NEVER ‘liked to think that I differ from men emotionally as much as we do physically’ (AND HOW FUCKING TRANS/QUEER ERASING IS THAT?) because I have always felt that EVERYBODY IS PEOPLE, and therefore has a unique and interesting experience of the world and of all these things. Can you not see that continually assuming that men can’t and/or don’t want to talk about things or be flexible or domestic or any of the other examples you cite as feminine contributes to a cultural environment where they have to struggle to do so? Can you not see that this is a problem and you are contributing? Did you learn NOTHING from the immense variety of stories even in this book, let alone the hundreds of others on the blog?

If somebody who genuinely thinks they’re challenging the status quo spends this much time reinforcing it, I despair.

  1. Claire says:

    “most people in the street, and in fact most people in this book, will tell you that they lost their virginity when they first had penetrative sex”

    What the hell? Surely that should read most women! Although by linking penetrative sex and loss of the hymen to losing ones virginity she is pretty much of implying that only women can be virgins, …….


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