In Kate Monro’s new book, “Losing It: How We Popped Our Cherry Over the Past 80 Years,” she picks up where Nancy Friday left off, letting a wide range of people tell their stories of how they lost their virginity, smartly bookending each with historical and cultural context. It’s a fascinating book that shows, to put it one way, just how far we’ve come. Two weeks ago we excerpted the story of a husband losing his backdoor virginity to his wife; today, Monro shares the story of a feisty 91-year-old who spoke openly to Monro about topics that were once very unspoken.
from “Losing It” by Kate Monro
My mother came with me on this first part of my journey as we drove north towards Yorkshire to interview a dear family friend, Edna. Finding older people to interview was a challenge. The social conventions of Edna’s generation decreed that subjects of a sexual nature were strictly off limits. A ‘lady’ would never talk about such matters! Talking to Edna confirmed that all the old clichés were true. According to her, one would never say that that one was ‘going to the toilet’. One would only ever refer to ‘brushing one’s hair’ or ‘powdering one’s nose’.
But as with my mother I often detected, if not anger, then certainly regret at the constraints placed upon these women and their natural inclination to really live life…
But it was all changed now, and women of ‘a certain age’ almost universally leapt at the opportunity not only to set the record straight, but to break free from the past. ‘You must interview me as well,’ said a woman in her seventies when I called to arrange an interview with her husband. ‘My generation weren’t brought up to talk openly about virginity and sex.’
Speaking to me appeared to be a small act of rebellion for this generation of women. If nothing else, I got the impression that they wanted to help women of my age – and those younger than me – to understand why our lives are so much richer now. We didn’t get all this freedom overnight. Someone had done the groundwork.
I hadn’t seen Edna for a long time and I had no idea how lucid she was going to be, or indeed, how candid. At 91-years-old, she was to be one of the oldest people to be interviewed for this book…
‘How are you?’ we asked as we arrived at her bungalow.
‘I’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin,’ she quipped as she teetered across the room to say hello. Ninety-one she may have been but she was as sharp as a tack…
I mentioned the many reasons that people had for talking to me and Edna was not backward in coming forward. She was naturally outspoken; however, there was more to it than that. She was eager to tell me about the sexual mores of the day but she also had a personal message to impart about love, and ultimately, about friendship. The latter was particularly important to her because she and Henry were married for over 50 years. This would be her last chance to share this information because she passed away within six weeks of telling me this story:
The First World War was already a year old when I was born in 1915. Both of my parents were involved in it so I stayed with my grandmother in the countryside. She had big boobs and feather beds and I loved it. I used to get into bed with her in the morning in this feather bed, and the boobs, and that was my first few years of life.
Eventually my mother gave up war work and we went back to live in Manchester where I had been born. One day I was playing and a man passed around the house and I didn’t know who he was. My mother was sitting on the table and she had had her hair cut. She used to have beautiful hair and she had an Eton crop and she was smoking a cigarette and he came back and found this woman who he had left with lovely long hair and didn’t know what a cigarette was, sitting on the table, smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. That was my father. My little brother was born nine months later.
Though I had two brothers, I never knew what a man looked like until I got married. Now, how my mother kept the two brothers from me, with one bathroom, has always been an enigma. You’d have thought I would have had an idea, but I didn’t. Sex was a forbidden subject. And going to the lavatory was a very private matter and that’s how it was. My mother never gave me any advice. When I started periods, she just said, ‘You’ll have these once a month and don’t let your brothers know’.
Eventually, as I grew up, I left school and got a job as a receptionist in a hotel in Mayfair. I used to meet lots of chaps and I hung onto my virginity. It was taken for granted that I would. Some of these chaps would grope around but I had had this austere sort of childhood and no one was going to get too near me. Men fumbled and tried to find their way through like the prince did in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and he had to get through all those brambles and everything. Well, they never got that far with me.
I was in love several times, deeply in love. I was going to commit suicide when it ended but I decided not to in the end. Also my father was ill. We thought he had cancer but he actually had TB. He contracted it in the trenches during the war. It lay dormant and took a hold of him when he got older. I used to visit him in the hospital and he would write me these wonderful little poems. I was in love with a man from Peru at the time so there would be a little poem entitled ‘My friend from Peru’ and another time it would be something else. Anyway, he died, just before the Second World War.
Although I was engaged to the chap from Peru, there was no familiarity at all in those days, a kiss goodnight and that was it. Eventually, he went back to Peru and I was to go out to Havana and get married to him. In the meantime, I met Henry and fell in love with him and we decided to get married. Unfortunately, how it worked out with dates, our wedding day, 12 January 1940, was also the anniversary of my engagement to the chap from Peru and all these roses arrived and my mother was absolutely furious. She said, ‘What are you going to do with them then?’ and I said, ‘You put them on Dad’s grave’. So that was that and Henry and I got married.
Before our wedding, I would go up to London at the weekends when Henry was free but we always had separate rooms. One night he did come into my room and got into the bed and things could have gone on from there, but with my austere upbringing I knew that this wasn’t right so off he went. I had half lost my virginity; when I say that, I’d been fooled around with and manhandled by previous boyfriends but when I got married, that was when I really lost my virginity.
I was frightened on my wedding night and when I saw how he looked, I laughed. I’d never seen anything so funny. In spite of having two brothers I didn’t know what a man looked like. My mother had never told me anything. She never said anything about what would happen when I got married, I had to find out by myself. On the first night, I might tell you, I thought ‘this is much ado about nothing’, but then I got to quite like it.
In days gone by virginity was a commodity that was sold. Today virginity is a very cheap thing. On the one hand, I don’t think the ideal thing is to keep yourself pure and meet the right man and save yourself for marriage, I don’t believe in that at all. But I feel sorry for young people now because they’re taking their young days and making the most of them but I think there is going to be a regret later on. I don’t think poor girls setting out for an evening’s boozing and then all finding a one-night stand is a good way to start.
I think it is very likely that if you’re in love with someone and you’re not married, that it can happen in a natural sort of way; that happens. But to go out with the intent, that you’ve got condoms in your bag, I don’t like it. The whole point about marriage is that you grow into a deep friendship. You grow older together and you become deeper friends. Henry and I were very deep. We were very good friends.