I’m a sucker for torture. As a teenager, I repeatedly rented the so-bad-it’s-just-bad Queen of the Damned movie just so I could watch it with the commentary on and scream at the director. (They totally ruined Marius. Seriously.) I’m old now, so instead I watch “documentary” gumpf on ABC iView for a pleasurable feather-ruffling.
So it was that I sat down with a bowl of soup to watch Cherry Healey: Like a Virgin. I’ve never encountered Healey before but Google tells me she’s a regular presenter of BBC Three lifestyle documentaries. The goal of Like a Virgin is to hear the stories of young people’s first times and determine whether these events are momentous or meaningless, and whether virginity is different for men and women.
Let’s face it — I don’t expect academic rigour from Healey, whose other docos include Britain’s Favourite Supermarket Foods. But it is surprisingly how narrow a lens Like a Virgin takes. To start with, the “virginity” Healey deals in here is pretty outmoded: a singular event, exclusively heterosexual, wherein a penis enters a vagina, causing pain for the female partner. (She does interview a queer man and a kinky lady — but mostly she gawps at them.) But the real reason I’m ranting here is that Healey never discusses consent and safer sex with the vulnerable young people she interviews (nor her viewers).
I should state my biases. I prefer the idea Hanne Blank proposes in an essay in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power in a World Without Rape (Ed. Friedman and Valenti), “The Process-Oriented Virgin”: virginity as a series of first times and learnings, from youth to old age, with and without partners. Blank’s concept puts the emphasis on personal agency, and that sits well with me. Healey, on the other hand, perpetuates the idea that “virgin” and “non-virgin” are binary states, and that one might carry more worth than another, or at least that “defloration” might change a person irrevocably.
Like a Virgin follows Healey as she squeamishly interviews a number of young ‘uns about their first times and sexual habits. She hesitates over the word “sex” and giggles through euphemisms (“willy” and “vu-vu”). Not only is it patronising to the young people talking frankly with her, it reveals her deep discomfort with the subject.
Worse, Healey is extremely judgemental. She ridicules the first interviewee, a young man, for owning a whip — and then makes fun of the state of his bedroom. She interviews 17-year-old “Beth” about not yet being sexually active; later, after a raunchy seaside holiday, they meet again and Healey addresses the camera: she is “shocked” that Beth has been “such a busy girl.” She correlates a burlesque dancer’s career with her sexual experience, and later persistently asks a happily kinky woman if BDSM is “scary” and “unnerving”.
Early in the piece, Healey takes some young men down to the pub to discuss sex and bravado. Then, in contrast, she takes Beth to a beauty salon to “prepare her physically” for sex with male partners. Healey and the beauty practitioner explain to the spread-legged teenager that she should endure this pain for men. Afterwards, Healey high-fives Beth, because now, “without hair” she looks “neat”.
They don’t talk about being relaxed; they don’t talk about her comfort; they don’t talk about condoms or birth control; they don’t talk about consent — they discuss how much hair she has on her vulva.
In a very sad sequence, Healey interviews a 15-year-old boy who first had sex — unprotected, initiated without foreplay or forethought — at age 12. He admits he didn’t know what ejaculate was, let alone a condom. What a perfect opportunity to address the abominable lack of comprehensive safer sex education in schools! But no, Healey makes a squeamish face and moves on.
Healey wonders whether “first-time sex is ever a romantic, painless experience, or just something you have to get done — and then move on from.” (Yes, Cherry, for many women it is the former — and, for balance’s sake, don’t forget that sex is sometimes painful or forgettable for men too.) She applies her experiences of one-night stands to all casual sex experiences: “At the time it’s great, but then the minute it’s finished you just don’t feel very good.”
…And then there’s a glimmer of hope! Healey interviews a gay man who considers that he has “lost his virginity three times” — with a woman (as a teenager — he gets a “wow!” not a “what?!”), with a man (physical/casual), and with a man (emotional). The question “What is losing your virginity?” is revelatory for Healey.
She avoids her revelation entirely by cutting to the final scene: Healey performs a burlesque routine in a London cabaret theatre in the hopes it will boost her confidence in the bedroom. It serves to illustrate the wastefulness of the whole exercise. Healey gets an hour’s worth of BBC film time, talking to young people about waxing and amateur burlesque. Because, girls, sex isn’t about communication, safe practice and consent, it’s about looking hot for your man. And guys, sex isn’t about communication, safe practice and consent, it’s about bravado.
This week has brought us another media storm: two Ohio teenagers have been found guilty of raping an intoxicated teenage girl. Cue the usual cringe-worthy commentary: she was drunk and just regretted it; this has ruined the lives of these young men, etc. Paul Callan, a legal expert consulted by CNN, says, “What’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?” Who asks: what is the lasting effect on the victim? Cue tumbleweed.
I don’t expect a BBC Three entertainumentary to be revolutionary or even terribly influential — but what a sad missed opportunity to talk with young people about safer sex and enthusiastic consent.
If you too are a glutton for punishment, you can watch Like a Virgin on YouTube.