Virginity, the checklist & chocolate croissants: Flo Perry & Rachel Fitzsimmons in conversation
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
12-minute podcast (Woman’s Hour, 12/12/19)
What twists and turns did a conversation about virginity take when perceptive sex-educator Rachel Fitzsimmons – a lecturer in sexual health at the University of Central Lancashire – and Flo Perry – the exuberant author/illustrator of How To Have Feminist Sex (and incidentally daughter of psychotherapist Philippa Perry and artist Grayson Perry) – were quizzed by Woman’s Hour host Jenni Murray? Here are some of the highlights…
ABOUT HOW PARENTS APPROACH THE TOPIC OF VIRGINITY WITH THEIR KIDS
Historically parents have treated boys’ virginity differently from girls’. We seem to see girls’ virginity as coveted – “Lock up your daughters!” – whereas for boys it’s: “Don’t get anyone pregnant. Sow your seeds.” Virginity is complicated to define. It’s also very heteronormative, with our traditional view of virginity as being a male/female penetration thing, when actually sexual activity is so much broader than that… – Rachel Fitzsimmons
ON WHAT LOSING YOUR VIRGINITY ACTUALLY MEANS
Virginity shouldn’t be thought of as one occasion. Losing your virginity should be about gaining sexual experience over time. We have many virginities. We’re all losing virginities throughout our lives. The first time you have sex with the person you marry, the first time you have sex with anyone, the first time you do oral sex, the first time you have sex outside… – Flo Perry
TALKING ABOUT VIRGINITY WITH GIRLS AND WITH BOYS
It should be the same. It’s almost like a checklist: “Am I ready for sex, do I feel respected, do I feel safe, does it feel right, do I love my partner, do we feel the same way about each other, have we talked about condoms and STI prevention, do I feel able to say no if I want to stop at any point and change my mind?” It’s also about respecting that the other person has got to go through the checklist as well. So it’s about communication, really – Rachel Fitzsimmons
ON COMMUNICATING ABOUT CONSENT
Make sure your child knows that sex is meant to be something that’s enjoyed – and if they’re not enjoying it, they can say no. Give them a sense of confidence. If they have that confidence – that they are worthy of love and respect and a good sex life – then they’ll feel that if they’re not getting those things, they can say no – Flo Perry
THE RIGHT TIME TO TALK ABOUT PORN
The mistake we make as parents is that we leave it a little bit too late. Open the dialogue when your child is young. It’s our job to establish and maintain a meaningful dialogue. If you build those communication skills with your child, you’re equipping them to have really good conversations with their partner and friends.
If you go straight in when they’re 14 and say: “So: pornography!” it’s going to be a bit intimidating. They’ll go: “Shut up, Mum. Go away.” But if you’ve already talked about consent, our bodies, our rights, our responsibilities, then it’s a natural progression.
As a parent you can talk about reading your gut instinct: “Do you feel safe and respected?” They’re safe things for parents to talk about – Rachel Fitzsimmons
PORN & UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
That’s a very important conversation that parents should be having with their teenagers. We need to talk about it more and tell our teenagers that porn is not realistic. Tell teenagers: “Comparing your sex life to pornography is like comparing your civil-service job to being James Bond. Porn is entertainment; it’s the movies; it’s made to look good, not feel good. The sex you will be having is not like that” – Flo Perry
MESSAGES ABOUT SEX THAT PARENTS CAN CONVEY
Focus on the joy that is sex and make sure that your children, especially your daughters, know that sex is meant to be fun.
There are so many messages that girls get that it will be painful and scary. Remind your children that you’re meant to be enjoying sex, and if you’re not, then something is wrong. Make sure they can come and talk to you if something goes wrong and that sex isn’t a source of shame for them – Flo Perry
HOW SEX IS LIKE CHOCOLATE CROISSANTS
You’ll have a variety of chocolate croissants in your life. Sometimes you have some really terrible chocolate croissants. Sometimes you have some bad sex. But they don’t need to be the ones you remember.
You can have some amazing chocolate croissants and some amazing sex – and what your first chocolate croissant is like doesn’t matter, because you have a whole life of chocolate croissants ahead of you of varying quality – Flo Perry
ON PEER PRESSURE & “EVERYBODY’S DOING IT, SO I SHOULD TOO” MISCONCEPTIONS
For young people the pressure often comes from themselves. We’ve got this perceived norm of everybody doing it – but the average age of losing your virginity is still 16. Young people often tell me it’s 13, 14. Their perception puts them under pressure. Young people have a sense not so much of peer pressure as of peer belonging. They want to fit in. They don’t want to be the only virgin in their group, but they might not be – Rachel Fitzsimmons
IF YOUR CHILD IS NOT HETEROSEXUAL, OR NOT OUT BUT YOU MIGHT SUSPECT…
• Let them lead. Answer any questions as honestly as you can. If you don’t know the answer, don’t feel you’re lacking in some way. You can research together or give them some resource, like a book. There’s too much pressure on parents to be the sole source of information. Conversations with their partner, their peers, their teachers is all information that will contribute to their ideas about sex – Flo Perry
• Have an attitude of: “Your sexuality is your sexuality and you have the right to explore it.” Be sex positive and inclusive in the way you talk about sexual experiences and that it may not necessarily be with males or females or either. Our attitudes are really heteronormative and we need to be more inclusive and to talk about the feelings and the experiences. How you feel about your sexual experiences is what’s important – Rachel Fitzsimmons
QUICK DEFINITION OF FEMINIST SEX
Feminist sex is about having the sex that you want to have, whatever that looks like, with maximum pleasure for you, rather than the sex that you feel you should be having, because of what society or your parents or your partner are telling you – Flo Perry
SO GO YOUR OWN WAY – BUT LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS SOMETIMES? Maybe. It depends on what they’re saying. Listen to yourself most of all… – Flo Perry
• Good read for older teens: How To Have Feminist Sex: A Fairly Graphic Guide by Flo Perry