Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My First Time

I’ve already reviewed My First Time over at Australian Stage – you can read my review here – but I have a few more things to say about it than I could feasibly fit into that review. Lucky I have my own blog.

I have two chapters in my doctoral thesis about what I call the virginity loss confessional genre – true tales of virginity loss – so this show doesn’t just fit within my academic interests, it IS my academic interest. There are six books out there which would count as virginity loss confessionals, as well as a bunch of websites, including myfirsttime.com, the website on which this show is based. My First Time isn’t the only show that’s ever been based on a virginity loss confessional – in the West End a couple of years ago, stories from Kate Monro’s (excellent) book The First Time: TrueTales of Virginity Lost and Found (including my own) and her ongoing blog The Virginity Project were dramatised. My point here is that My First Time, both the show and the site, do not exist in a vacuum – since the publication of Karen Bouris’s The First Time and Louis Crosier’s Losing It in 1993, there has been an explosion of virginity loss confessional stories. (One of the more interesting features of the genre is that most authors seem to be unaware that the other texts exist – there’s a real sense in all articulations of the virginity loss confessional that it is telling stories of the first time for the first time. That certainly holds true with My First Time.)

In Telling Sexual Stories, one of the best works in this sparsely researched field, Kenneth Plummer notes that sexual confessionals didn’t really become a common practice until the turn of the millennium. Before this, sex was one of the things you just Did Not Talk About. Sure, there were spheres where it was discussed (anyone who has read Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol.1 will be familiar with this), but talking about your individual sex life to other people? to the public? Not done. Probably the first notable sexual autobiography comes from Rousseau, and he was way, way ahead of his time in that respect. One place you could talk about sex was the confessional, but that functioned largely to measure your sex life against social standards (and if it did not meet them – if you were having socially inappropriate sex, such as sex out of wedlock – then you did penance).

My First Time and other works in this genre also offer a confessional function, but instead of the church providing the yardstick against which sexual experiences should be measured, it is the audience. This is one thing I felt that My First Time was really lacking, and something I wished it explored: why was it important to tell these stories? Why was there need for a website like myfirsttime.com in the first place? Why were people sharing? Why were people talking? And what did they want the audience reaction to be?

There is some merit to presenting stories without comment, which is what My First Time does. But as I said in my review on Australian Stage, it lacks a certain cohesiveness, a through-line. What is virginity? Why is it important? And why are we telling stories about it? These are the key questions at the heart of the virginity loss confessional genre. There is no one answer to these questions. Virginity means different things to different people. They view it differently. (There is excellent research by Laura Carpenter in her book Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences about the different ways in which people view their virginity – as a gift, as a stigma, or as a rite of passage. This is one area that I really wish My First Time had at least touched on, because it is so, so interesting, particularly if you think about how it has changed over time.) And authors within the virginity loss confessional genre have different purposes for telling the stories they do. Some present virginity loss stories almost as morality tales – it becomes a what to do/what not to do guide for teenagers. For others, the project is therapeutic. And for others, it is an exercise in oral history, tracking virginity loss stories over time and looking at how they have changed.

My First Time lacked a project, and that is why, I think, it felt insubstantial. Individually, the stories were hilarious, tender, horrifying, heartbreaking, but why were they being told? As telling sexual stories has become a more common practice, Kenneth Plummer notes that,
“...sexual stories of the Essence, the Foundation, the Truth are fracturing into stories of difference, multiplicity and a plural universe.” (134)

This is certainly presented – and presented well – in My First Time, but why? Why did the storytellers in this genre tell their stories? Why is there an appetite for them? Quite apart from the fact that virginity loss confessionals have become a genre in their own right, there are over 40,000 stories on myfirsttime.com, so clearly they have an audience. And why do we, as an audience, need – and want – to hear them?

I could elaborate on this for many, many thousands of words, but I would probably just end up reproducing a chapter from my doctorate, so I’ll stop here.  For more on what I thought of My First Time as a work of theatre and its entertainment value, go check out my Australian Stage review, where I tried to keep my academic self on the leash a little more! Obviously, for me, this show was of great interest, and I was kind of bewildered that I only found about it a few days before it opened. Whether that was a failing on my part or bad marketing? Not sure. (Though it was probably me.)

One final thing, though: I don’t know who checked the facts that were projected onto the big screen behind the actors but HOLY HELL there were some mistakes in here. Parthenogenesis is absolutely NOT a person who studies virgins and virginity: it means born of a virgin, like Jesus was born from Mary. (Technically, it’s reproduction without fertilisation, but in human terms, that’s what it is.) Studies suggest that virginity pledges make little to no difference in people’s sexual behaviour, except that people who have made a virginity pledge are far less likely to use contraception. There were also some stats in there which just did not sound right to me (not as in a ‘that can’t be true!’ gut feeling, but ‘I’ve read stats for this a bunch of times, and I do not think your stat is right’ way). So, yeah, if you read those facts, don’t go quoting them to people afterwards.

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