Fireworks? Anthems? Romance? Or just get-it-over-with experience Karen Bouris interviews women from all walks of life about . . . : Their First Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When losing our virginity, said Queen Victoria to her daughter, we must close our eyes and think of England.

Attaching a little more lyricism to the act, the great romantics, from Cervantes to Byron, saw virgins as roses and their deflowering a poem to passions that would saddle lions.

Karen Bouris' first time was somewhere in between: "Although I knew what I was doing, it was kind of a just-get-it-over-with experience. I was uninformed about my body. There was alcohol involved. It was significant in that it was the start of my growth as a woman and my self-imagery. But it really was a generic experience."

Her ennui, she thought, probably was common; the event even undertaken as something today's woman is supposed to do. As society says how a woman should be. As women of her mother's generation were supposed to be homemakers without college degrees. As nice girls are supposed to be decorous--which means never, ever discussing the naughtiness or nastiness of their first intercourse.

So Bouris, 25, has written a book about it.

"The First Time" is based upon the sexual initiations of 150 women who responded to interviews and on 1,000 questionnaires mailed to a national cross-section.

The book is more anecdotal than analytical, its conclusions rarely straying from personal to statistical. It bashes no males, in fact presents some as tender and caring. Even the male majority is tempered by general portrayal as victims of myth, machismo, movies and locker-room pressures. With, of course, the occasional lout and incestuous relative.

And for some women, Bouris reports, their first times were indeed anthems and firecrackers in celebration of sexual discovery, romance and independence.

"The First Time" speaks with Georgia homemakers and California prostitutes; it hears from early teen-agers and septuagenarians; it visits lesbians and touches all races and religions. It explores defloration as a conscious choice (wedding night or not); the minority who found it romantic; the pressures from church, peers and family--with margin quotes from St. Jerome to Molly Ivins.

Not every woman rushed to answer Bouris' questions. Many senior citizens were reticent to expose their intimacies, she says: "It's not hard to imagine that for older women who grew up in a very different social climate, the mere inquiry was an invasion."

One 75-year-old Presbyterian woman, Bouris recalls, said: " 'My friends and I were raised in a far different era . . . with different standards and a different moral code.

" 'There were no therapists or self-help groups. If we had any problems, we shed a few tears, thought we would die, and in a few days were back to normal. Sounds simple, I know. But to fill out questionnaires just isn't part of our world.' "

And therein, for Bouris, the author's challenge of skewering the unspeakable--and maybe society's final taboo.

Question: Somewhere in this feminist era, somewhere between Kinsey and Danielle Steel, someone must have written about women losing their virginity?

Answer: My favorite line from someone is: "It's so much easier to have sex than it is to talk about it." I remember looking through bookstores a couple of years ago. There were books on Tantric loving, on masturbation, on improving both heterosexual and homosexual technique, studies about female sexuality, but nothing on virginity loss . . . nothing about the actual experience and what happened.

Q: Those experiences, according to your respondents, were largely negative and certainly no encouragement to young lovers.

A: I don't care whose fault it is, but I do care about showing that these experiences are happening, and that we should learn from these experiences, teach our children, educate ourselves. See, for example, that women have perpetuated the role of passivity and that men have perpetuated the role of aggressor . And that we have got to get rid of both roles.

This isn't a book on sex, but sexuality, two entirely separate things . . . and a book telling about growing up female. By telling, we can grow and have a blueprint for our burgeoning sexuality. Then we move beyond this to open a healthy dialogue with our children and our lovers.

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Beyond feminine caring and her own inauguration, Bouris brings fairly humble credentials to her work. She has a degree in English literature from UC Berkeley and works as a marketing director for her publisher, Conari Press of Emeryville.

So to head off dismissal as an amateur dabbler, Bouris invited sexologist Louanne Cole to write an afterword for the book. Cole says "The First Time" is a thorough airing of a heavily ignored topic and the valuable opening of "an emotional window."

Bouris believes that credentials too often receive a higher priority than human experience. Besides, hers is neither self-help book nor academic study. It is simply a forum, and she a conduit for women with stories to tell.

That, Bouris says, makes her a journalist producing a story by researching sources and documents. The sources are her women, she explains, the documentation their stories.

Q: Your book takes no position about saving oneself. Do you consider remaining a virgin until marriage to be sound, healthy, realistic, even attainable in 1993?

A: Sure. But what we should be promoting is supporting an individual in her own choice. If waiting until you're married and 24 before making the decision is what you choose, that's wonderful. If it's not, if you're age 17 and feel comfortable and ready to be sexually active, and you're aware of all the responsibilities, that's also your choice. The important thing is equipping our children to make the sound, safe, informed, conscious choice.

Q: Are double standards a problem?

A: A woman who sleeps around is a slut, a man is a stud. Virginity is still something that girls are supposed to cherish and save, while red-blooded American boys should try desperately to lose it. And always the double message: If you are a virgin, you are a prude or frigid. If you are not a virgin, you are promiscuous or have been around the track too many times.

Q: What makes the ideal first time?

A: The elements should include mutual respect, the conscious choice of both partners, knowledge of your own body, knowledgeable communication, and a sense of safety and responsibility for each other.

Q: If yours is the first look at the personality of the problem, how can society ease the trauma of the first time?

A: From the earliest age, we need healthy discussion about the issue; that it's normal, it's natural. To be sexual and to be intimate are among the basic forces inside us. But then we have religious dogma, societal messages, parental restrictions, educational failures . . . it's a mess, it really is.

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Because loss implies defeat, Bouris and her respondents want to dispel the oxymoron of "losing one's virginity." The term, Bouris says, also is patriarchal and inaccurate in that it promotes the pristine state as a prized commodity with man the conqueror.

These days, she continues, the worthiness of an unmarried woman is no longer measured by her sexual purity. Now she has the taller barometers of education, career, position, individual finances and success.

Sexuality, not sex, is the true commodity. And that, Bouris notes, is something a person never loses, never gives to another.

Q: By that revised perspective, is a woman's passage from virgin to non-virgin anything to mourn?

A: If it is a conscious choice, a wonderful discovery, then I think it should be a celebration. Maybe we (should) send out cards: "Hallelujah! Karen lost her virginity. Barbecue on Sunday." Ideally, it should be seen as the beginning of another new part of one's identity, a new threshold.

Q: How successful will your book be if only women read it?

A: Most men who have read it were most appreciative, even awe-struck. . . . I hope the book says to men: Now you have a clear picture of what women are thinking, now you know what is going on in their minds, now you can acknowledge that we are different sexual creatures . . . and by understanding, help close the gap.

Q: This is a book by a woman, about women, addressing virginity that by any reference is a state of maidenhood. Isn't this somewhat sexist?

A: My next book is going to be about men. Same kind of style, but not about sex. It's not refined yet, but it will be something about the myths of being male and what goes on in their minds.

Q: You have family in Southern California. How do they feel about your public discussion of such a delicate subject?

A: Grandmother has read the book. And we've had discussions, woman to woman, that we would never have had years ago. Grandfather refuses to read it.

On the Record

'This isn't a book on sex, but sexuality, two entirely separate things.'

'To be sexual and to be intimate are among the basic forces inside us.'

'Maybe we should send out cards: "Hallelujah! Karen lost her virginity. Barbecue on Sunday." '

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