This is a bit outside the boundaries of the genre, but in some ways, it’s not. I first mentioned The Virginity Project here, and when the publisher of the book offered a review copy for me to review, I was so curious to see the collection, I couldn’t say no. Since so much of romance focuses on virginity in one form or another, both literal and figurative, examining sexuality through illustration of the (dare I say) seminal moment for some men and women’s sexual history seemed relative to romance’s interests.
This collection is so moving, I couldn’t stop reading it. It doesn’t take long to read, but there are some that are so wrenching, so joyous, so funny that you go back and re-read them. Each could be a novel, though some are so horrifying they’re not even on the same planet as romantic. There are tales of rape and assault, stories of coming out and finally figuring out how to come, and stories of planned and spontaneous sexual experiences that reveal how much we’re NOT talking about when we discuss sexuality, virginity, and sexual agency.
The bad ones are easier to remember, but the joyful ones are equally important to savor. So few people have first sexual experiences that are memorable for good reasons – either they’re not dramatic at all, or much better off forgotten entirely. What I find amazing is the talent and kindness of the artists. The project emerged as part of Seattle’s Bumbershoot arts festival in 2004, and the finished comics were displayed at the Seattle Erotic Art Festival in 2008. Through individual interviews, K.D. Boze and Stasia Kato created comic panels that tell a person’s virginity story. But even though the hallmarks of the artists’ styles are evident, no two are alike, and the artists’ pain or amusement or commiseration and always constant empathy are all tangible. Most of all, I found it respectful – which is a powerful trait considering that they’re revealing some incredibly intimate moments.
From theVirgin Project website:
All of the stories in this book are true. The names have been changed to protect privacy, and identifying factors have been altered occasionally. These stories were collected at various times and locations, including during the Seattle Erotic Art Festival and the Victoria Erotic Art and Film Festival. Artistic license has been used, but sparingly to ensure that these real-life stories ring true.
You can see samples at the publisher’s page about the book. If you’re wary of reading some that are painful, Gail and Arlen‘s stories are funny – but heads up, these are about sex. Ergo: not safe for work viewing!
Reading the book made me feel both tearful pain and giggly happiness, depending on the page. It is not an easy experience to read this book, and is not one to be entered lightly, especially if you yourself have a painful sexual history. The ones that left the biggest impression on me were the man who couldn’t talk about his because it was so traumatic, the woman who realized what “took care of it” really meant, and the woman whose extended circle of family and friends conspired to make the night she lost her virginity a story so beautiful, I grinned for hours. It’s funny and touching and wise and, above all, it’s serious business, the Virginity Project.
Since romance as a genre, not only the books but the individuals creating that genre, from the editors to the authors to the publicists to the readers, is indelibly linked to sexuality and virginity, like it or not, the topic is frankly important. I think this book reveals as much about the experience of sexual initiation through comics and illustration than any academic text about why women have sex and how many reasons there are. If you see it in a bookshop, take a look. It’ll be hard to put down. (Huh huh. I said “hard.”) The Virgin Project is powerful in its simplicity, and grows more complex as you think about each panel individually, and the book as a collective assembly of personal, and communal, history.