Sex is wonderful just as much as it is awkward. You can have a great night with both parties working together to make a cohesive, delicious moment. Skin sweat-slicked, passions flaring, limbs wrapped around each other until you feel so sated you just fall back as one exhausted and conjoined mass. On the other hand, body parts could just not fit right with each other, the participants flailing around like pool noodles unaware of their own surroundings. The couple trying so hard or not trying at all, whatever the case may be–too much pressure to perform or not enough emotion to care about the person under or over them.
But what about the first time awkwardness? Think back; yes all the way back, to your first time. Maybe you were lucky enough to lose it to someone you loved, or maybe it was just with some person from the bar following a handful too many Lone Stars. Someone just as inexperienced as you or someone full of such prowess it was hard not to be caught up and bowled over by the moment. Sex as a virgin can seem terrifying, empowering, freeing, wrong, and myriad other conflicting emotions. And coming of age films have been banking on this range of feelings and experiences since the dawning of the medium.
But why are virginity stories so prevalent in our film culture? It’s not unique to western or eastern films, as both sides of the map confront the virtue (or lack thereof) of virginity and the importance of the first time. Eastern films tend to show virginity as this overtly precious commodity, that when taken away is either a dirty, punishable event or something sacred, special, and gladly given as a gift. It’s a very black and white world, although of course there are exceptions to this rule. Western films tend to focus on the pure pleasure of deflowering from the man’s perspective, and the regretful and often dissatisfying result for the woman. Don’t you know it’s NEVER good the first time? That’s bullshit by the way.
For the sake of this argument, let’s stick with western virginity tales. Not just because I’m scared to overstep my not-so-vast knowledge of the films, but also because I just like these movies. Guilty pleasure or not, western coming-of-age films are quite wonderful.
Pleasure of the Gaze
In western films virgins are pure, silken, and tamable. They are full of promise and have yet to be broken by society’s troubles. They want to feel something – romance, passion, love. Stealing Beauty and Virgin Suicides romanticize the virgin, each attempting to explain the power a weak virgin has over the men who gaze upon her. Many times the virgin is too naïve to use her virginity in her own favor, rather she is watched and objectified from afar, making her a picture of unattainable beauty and a reminder of the man’s youth.
Bernardo Bertolucci never shies away from addressing sex head on. Stealing Beauty is just as much a coming of age story for 19-year-old virgin Lucy (Liv Tyler) as it is an exploration of the power an innocent woman has over men. She is enticed and almost seduced by the older, experienced Alex (Jeremy Irons) when she ventures to Italy for the summer following her mother’s death. As she does not love Alex, or any other man intrigued by her declaration to leave a part of her in Italy, she holds firm to the one thing that gives her power—her virginity—and eventually offers her gift to the most unlikely of suitors. Yes, of course she loses her virginity, and the credits roll before we can watch the man detach himself and leave her for the next virginal beauty. That ending would just ruin the fantasy.
Meanwhile Sophia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides takes the male gaze even farther. A houseful of depressed, blonde virgins is almost too much for the group of boys on the outside. Their ennui feeds out into the street, the school, and infects the hearts of the most sensitive and disgusts the most hardened. They recognize their power exists only if they keep their virginity, and through death they will exact the sweetest of revenge. But what they are angry about is never clear. They want to be the object of the male gaze just as much as they want to avoid feeling the eyes burrowing into them from afar. Only death will provide them with the perfect balance they seek—free idolized virgins.
In Hollywood, virginal sex has consequences though, and not just hurt feelings or unrealistic expectations. That night and Circle of Friends each show the darker bits of sex. While no virgin is sacrificed in Craig Bolotin’s That Night, the narrator (Eliza Dushku) looking back on the summer she learned about lower body tingles watches as her sex positive neighbor (Juliette Lewis) falls in love with the boy from the wrong side of the tracks (C. Thomas Howell) and subsequently finds herself up the stick. As it’s 1961, Sheryl (Lewis) is sent away to have the baby and reflect upon her own badness as punishment for tainting and shaming herself. It’s all fun and games until you get knocked up by a carnival worker at 16.
Pat O’Connor took a sacred Irish tome, “Circle of Friends,” about a portly girl in love with the village’s star athlete and her presumably promiscuous best friend and turned it into a delightfully heart wrenching tale of love and sacrifice. Benny Hogan (Minnie Driver) desperately loves Jack Foley (Chris O’Donnell), to the point where she changes everything about herself to make him love her back. Unlike the book, her efforts are eventually rewarded when he sees the real her. However her friend Nan Mahon (Saffron Burrows) isn’t so lucky. Widely considered the town slut, Nan falls in love with an older, married businessman. Turns out she is in fact a virgin, but feels so loved and comforted by Simon (Colin Firth) that she offers herself to him. Later she discovers her mistake, and while Simon will not leave his family he will pay for her to end the pregnancy. Now, a woman who before was comfortable in her role as sex-pot, must face a life of complete shame and punishment just because she dared to love a man she shouldn’t.
In real life, sex isn’t so black and white. Yes, there are very real consequences for decisions, but there are also just as many great outcomes from sexing for the first time. If only it means you get to put in more practice. In the movies, though, the first time is almost always bound to be painful one way or another.