I spent time interviewing men and women about first sexual experiences a while back. I’d decided to explore recent British history, but told via the prism of people’s virginity loss tales. Because history is more intriguing when it's wrapped around a story. Especially, let’s face it, a sex story.
A lot made my eyes pop as I set off on this weird journey. My elderly interviewees, in particular, stopped me in my tracks. Put your Victorian ideas about that generation to bed. They had sex, a lot of it, and in a variety of different ways.
But mainly my socks were knocked off by the male population.
Who knew that men like to talk so much? I thought I’d have to work harder to get them onboard but no. They sang like canaries. Guys of all ages were touchingly candid about vulnerability, rejection, shame, and more heartfelt romance than I’d anticipated. I held their stories in my hands like little birds. It felt like a big deal, to hear them.
On a personal level, I can’t deny this was a backstage pass that would have been useful in my youth. It was so...illuminating. On a global level, it felt like something bigger was shifting. Those men were taking the opportunity to sit opposite a woman and explore the way they feel in a world that doesn’t always find the vulnerability of men comfortable. Men embracing their feminine sides has entered common parlance. It’s a thing. But whether we are conscious of it or not, whether the question is explicit or not, we still ask men to be what is traditionally deemed ‘masculine’. To emulate the qualities of a bygone generation of men. Be strong and silent. Man up. Keep your innards to yourself.
No prizes for guessing, this isn’t the easiest way to live.
As if to illustrate the contradiction, here is a quote from the wife of one of my interviewees, right after they lost their anal virginity together*, with him as the receiver (*people interpreted the idea of virginity loss in ways that felt meaningful to them).
He said she’d told him in half-mocking tones that ‘she felt surprised at how easily I’d let her do what she was doing to me and in a way had lost some respect for me. I nodded. I was surprised by that too and a little angry. After all, I’d just done what she wanted me to…’
‘I don’t feel sorry for men a female friend said recently as we discussed evolving gender roles. ‘Men have had things their own way for long enough’. This is true. I feel the pain of my mother’s generation in my gut, on a daily basis. My mother had no agency whatsoever in her first marriage. She couldn’t open a bank account and her GP never asked questions about her bruises. Each time I read a news story about a woman in India being murdered on a bus for going out with a man she is not married to, a piece of me breaks and I wonder why the entire world isn’t up in arms about the plight of women.
But taking a raw journey into the minds of men and examining the secrets they hold onto in the name of Being A Man allowed conflicting sets of thoughts to nod their heads and acknowledge each other’s existence. It turns out that ‘welcome to my world’ can co-exist alongside ‘holy shit’, because it’s not about not feeling sorry for men. It’s that there is value in recognizing it’s difficult for all of us, male and female, as we figure out where we’re at - mid shake-down by my reckoning - in relation to each other. That the expression of anger or pain is a natural response but it gets to the point where we need to start doing something different with that energy, something useful, and preferably together. That listening, I mean really properly hearing and acknowledging each other’s stories is a really good place to start.
This is a convoluted way of telling you that eventually, everyone’s first-time sex stories became a book but the memory of my male interviewees lingered. There seemed so much more to say. We’d just got going. Time passed and what we think of as masculine (and feminine) has evolved even further. Fashion designers are designing garments to be worn by both women and men, modeled on runways featuring a kaleidoscope of genders. We literally have the outfit to match a new, more gender fluid world. On a deeper level, each time I talk to a young person who doesn’t really get why this is a big deal, I know something great has begun.
Eventually, I decided to ask men of different ages to talk about their sense of masculinity. To see how guys of different generations have grappled with the concept of masculinity in a world that is in constant motion. The results were published here . Naturally, being forced to reduce each of my interviewee’s epic stories into paltry 200-word sections was galling so here is an extended version of one of my favorites, Paul Apps, as he reflects on what he has observed in his 52 years of life.
Paul Apps/Aged 52
From a young age, I craved the attention, protection, and affection of an older man, a father figure. I used to bunk off and sit with the winos in the graveyard near our house. I’d take them things to eat. They’d be sober and hungover from the night before but they were my mates. They were lovely men and they were always nice to me. About midday when they started to get drunk again they’d tell me to sod off, that it was their time now.
My dad, bless him, was the youngest of 14. His brothers were freedom fighters, or terrorists depending on which way you look at it. He arrived from Ireland poor and became a carpenter and sung in a band with his back to the audience because he was so shy. That’s how he met my mum. She came to see the band and I was literally conceived that night on a chair in his mate’s kitchen.
It was just something that happened. Good Catholic boys and good Christian girls get married so they had this loveless union. I think I was always searching for connection as a result. I craved contact so I was a bastard to women and I wasn’t conscious of it until I married and my wife left me and my heart literally cracked open. It broke me. Thank god she did in a way because it opened me up. But up until that point, I honestly thought it was ok to have 5 girlfriends. That it made me more of a man.
He was a crap dad but I understand him. I am him and my younger son is me. It’s in the genes. Whatever anybody says, there is something in our DNA that is passed on from our fathers. I have a massive sense of injustice about anyone who is treated badly and that comes from my father and that was passed onto him by his father. I was gutted when he died last year. He’d left our family and gone on to have another so it was weird to watch 7 other people sobbing passionately for a man I barely knew. I found out after he’d died that he’d done some lovely stuff. He spent time helping out at soup kitchens but he never talked about it.
We are the culmination of what we’ve seen, heard, felt and touched throughout our lives and judging someone on that is the worst thing you can do. Because people are mostly not horrible by choice. It would break anyone’s heart to hear some of the gut-wrenching experiences the young men I work with have been through. But they’re living a life that to them, its normal. Just as your life is normal to you. It’s what we know.
Society is full of under-fathered males who haven’t got a clue. Our job now is to break that mould. Just because your dad worked hard and drunk and shagged a lot and never come home. I could take that road tomorrow but I take the responsibility to not do that and work on myself. So my son’s experience very little of that from me. I’m not gone. I’m present.
We are all searching for something. There’s a piece of work we do at Band of Brothers. I won’t say what but it's emotionally intense and it culminates in screaming and shouting and what it comes down to is that everyone wants to be loved and touched and told that everything is going to be ok. That’s a primal need in every single one of us but we’re taught that big boys don’t cry. Women used to do my head in, all the questions and worrying and thinking about things that I don’t want to think about but I didn’t understand that its ok to have emotions.
I’m not gay but I love men. I can see quite easily how men can be gay. I did think at one point I could be but I tried it and no! My mates often say ‘what’s the difference between a gay man and a straight man? Seven pints’. I’ve had a few guy’s tongues down my throat late at night after a few beers. But I can’t go further than that. It just doesn’t work for me.
For me, talking about what actually makes me feel masculine is tricky because I’m masculine and feminine. I’ve got a pair of bollocks. I appear to be a man visually but I’ve got both going on and getting the balance is what it’s about. It’s more important to me to be an authentic individual, to address everyone with equal dignity. Whatever I do or wherever I go, if I keep in that space for most of the day, it’s a good one for me.
Things are changing but we’re getting a community of bleaters now. The ‘poor me, no one loves me’ guys who are not moving forward. I’m in the middle of that and I’m saying look guys, you can focus on this shit if you want. But let’s get it out. Let’s talk about it and then let’s move on.
We can change, it’s a matter of getting our thoughts connected to our emotions and managing those. I make it all sound so simple but actually, it is. You can do it if you really want to.
‘Paul Apps has worked extensively in several organisations with vulnerable young men and teenagers, supporting profound life changes and positive transformation. He now heads up a new Charity that aims to minimise the need for rough sleeping and begging in East Sussex. www.kozia.org’
*Note: people have many different definitions and interpretations of virginity loss.