Review of The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex by

Book cover for The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex

Back in Grade 4, a small group of peers asked me if I was a virgin.

Not knowing what a virgin was, I said no. Well, that certainly got them laughing. And I got very upset.

This incident has stuck in my memory (which is otherwise very much a sieve through which most details inevitably fall) for a few reasons. Firstly, it was one of the few times I ever felt bullied in school, despite being very nerdy and introverted and unapologetically individualist in my outward behaviour. And I don’t even really think of it as bullying, as I’m sure the people responsible didn’t—they probably thought they were just having a laugh at my expense. I don’t think they expected me to react the way I did. Of course, they got in trouble. One of them gave me a Pokémon card in reparation (and it was Item Finder, so I really knew he was sorry).

But I digress. That’s my first memory of the concept of virginity having an impact on my life. In the next couple of years, we would start sex ed, Judy Blume books would materialize on our desks, the boys and girls would go to separate classrooms, and my classmates would start to pair off. (Uh, to be clear, that last part wasn’t school-mandated. That was a kid thing, not a sex ed thing. We’re better off than the States when it comes to sex ed, but we’re not quite Monty Python and the Meaning of Life here.)

I didn’t pair off, and I still haven’t. I made a few half-hearted stabs at it in high school, but I wasn’t all that dedicated. Relationships and sex seemed to be things that happened to my peers, and I was just away the day these things got handed out. But that has never bothered me. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything—and to be honest, I occasionally have a hard time believing other people actually engage in sex. You seriously do that? It just seems so messy, and there are so many … fluids. But, sure. I guess if you don’t have any good books to read you have to do something with your time.

Anyway, The V-Word is of interest to me for a few reasons. Firstly, as I mentioned, this is something outside my realm of personal experience. Because of the importance that sex holds in our society, however, I still find it very fascinating. It’s why I’m enjoying the Banging Book Club so much, and why I seek out non-club reads, like this book, about sex. I don’t see what the big deal is myself, but reading about why others consider it such a big deal helps a little bit. Secondly, I’m a teacher. I don’t actually teach sex ed, and I don’t even teach high school students at the moment—but I care a lot about what we teach our students about sex. I am pleased with the revised health curriculum that Ontario is rolling out. And so I approached The V-Word with the eyes of an educator, wondering if this was something teenagers might find useful—and I would like to think the answer is “yes”.

There is such a wonderful plethora of experiences served up here. This is obviously a book that was not spontaneously created, nor even curated: it was lovingly constructed. Amber J. Keyser, whose own first time is the first of many first times related here, has gone out of her way to include diverse voices from all sorts of women, cis and trans, of varying sexualities and races and religions. I laughed out loud at some of these stories, because they attest to how sex can be funny, or awkward, or how the relationships that surround them can take unexpected turns. Some of these stories were sweet, others more bittersweet. As Keyser’s interjections between each story reinforce, The V-Word is also unabashedly a message book. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. There are so many good quotations in here, so many good ways of summing up its message, but for convenience I’ll grab Kelly Jensen’s pronouncement near the end of the book: “There’s not one single right way to have a sex life.”

I’ve been very lucky. I have friends of many genders and sexualities who have talked to me about their sex lives, about first times, about what they like and don’t like and who or what turns them on. I value these conversations, not just because they signify the close friendships I have, but because they are windows into other people’s selves. We are so isolated from one another. It is so difficult to figure out what someone else is truly thinking or feeling at any given time. I get that, for some people, sex provides a level of connection and dialogue that talking doesn’t. But I have been lucky to have these conversations, and I know that many people grow up with parents who are too nervous to talk about sex, schools who cannot or will not educate them properly, and a big scary Internet full of porn and really bad sex advice.

This book gives good sex advice, not in the sense of how (or even when) to “do it” but in the sense of reassuring people that they are not somehow freakish or abnormal. Exploring your sexuality when you’re eleven? Normal! Not exploring your sexuality until you’re twenty-five? Normal! Having sexual desire but choosing to wait until marriage? Normal! Sometimes we confuse sex positivity with promiscuity and the idea that you’re only liberated if you’re actively going out and having lots of sex. I like that The V-Word’s sex positivity is much more inclusive than that, both in how people timed their first times as well as the actions that qualify for a “first time”.

Following the stories, the book includes end matter with resources for teens and parents. This is brilliant. Why don’t more books do this? I can totally imagine a questioning teen reading the book and, having finished the last story think, “OK, but what can I read or watch now to learn more?” Keyser has you covered. The end matter is, much like the rest of the content, brief but full of compassion. This is a book that wants you to do you (until you decided to do other people, I guess)—and it’s all about how you can do that safely and healthily.

And that’s really what it comes down to, if I can step on a soapbox for a moment. I get really angry when people justify censorship and weak-to-no sex ed “for the children” (much in the same way people will justify anti-abortion laws “for women’s health”). If we really want our children to be safe, to be healthy, to be happy and grow up into full members of our society, then we need to equip them with knowledge. We need to tell them that there is nothing shameful in asking questions, in learning about sex, and in making informed decisions. The V-Word does that, and it’s totally a message I can get behind.

Now, I don’t want to get all “but what about the men”, but I would really be interested in a companion book with men’s stories about their first times. I totally get why this is a book centred on women. Virginity and “the first time” have always been particularly germane to women’s sexual expression, and indeed one might say that the entire Western idea of femininity is grounded within demarcations of virginity. So it is understandable and completely valid that The V-Word should give voices to women. But boys need books too. Boys need male voices telling them about the importance of consent, of communication, of comfort with yourself and your partner(s). The V-Word is an excellent foray into a more compassionate sex ed than what you see in most American classrooms; I cannot wait to discover similar books out there.

Short but sweet (insert sex joke here), The V-Word is an intense but wonderful collection of experiences. It is successful in its goals, and I can only hope that many teens (and even adults) read this book and take something positive away from it. For those who are just beginning to explore their sexuality, it is not a manual, but it is a reassuring signpost along the way. For those who, like me, have decided to opt-out (at least for now), it still provides insight into a critical part of our society.

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