How to lose your virginity: What movies taught me about sex and vulnerability

I was 16 when I experienced real desire. I was thrilled and terrified -- but two films had given me a few lessons

Published February 9, 2015 1:00AM (EST)

Kristy McNichol and Matt Dillon in "Little Darlings"   (Paramount Pictures)
Kristy McNichol and Matt Dillon in "Little Darlings" (Paramount Pictures)

Excerpted from "Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies"

We needed signed permission slips from our parents for the field-trip screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s "Romeo and Juliet" in 1976 – all that potentially traumatizing passion, after all. My friends and I were dying to go; we’d read the play in our 7th grade Drama class, our teacher emoting the text for us, offering an exegesis of Queen Mab’s dream and the more arcane metaphors, but really, it was all about the poster: two naked teenagers gazing affectionately at each other in rumpled sheets, unencumbered by any literary or historical context. And rumor had it there was (more) nudity and sex in the movie, this was Shakespeare made really hot, and that guy playing Romeo looked really cute. And he was, that tousle-haired Leonard Whiting, in his Renaissance Faire tights and blousy shirt. Olivia Hussey was a total babe as Juliet, too, all rosebud mouth and wide-set olive eyes, a river of silken black hair; at seventeen and fifteen, they were an improvement – and a controversial one – on the thirty- or forty-something Romeos and Juliets of film versions past, the appropriately seasoned Norma Shearers and Leslie Howards, who, to our eyes, made passion look so boringly, uninterestingly adult: an old-movie, ancient-history, irrelevant kind of love.

But now, on a Saturday afternoon with my classmates at the Nuart Theatre for this educational screening of the most recent incarnation of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Leonard and Olivia, in their wide-screen, English-accented glory, are far far beyond cute; their beauty is unearthly, gasp-inducing, almost painful to look at. And their physical desire for each other is revelatory; we were expecting a love story, sure, but are surprised to feel the awakening of our own nascent, adolescent lust.

I have a rudimentary understanding of the biological basics of sex and reproduction, of course; when I was six or seven my mother read through the unprurient "How Babies Are Made" book with me, chapters sequencing in greater sophistication from flowers to chickens to dogs to humans, all illustrated with cartoony paper cutouts; I understand, in theory, about the egg-and-seed workings of fertilization, that Penis A inserts into Vagina B. By now I have been taken to the occasional movie rated R for sexual content, watched late-night TV soap operas, and cringed my eyes away from the gross sex scenes – who wants to see grown-ups behaving like that? And I am, at twelve, a veteran of playtime doctor’s appointments with pantsless and hairless neighborhood boys, of bottle-spinning kissy games and those awkward and giggly few minutes “in Heaven” at lights-out rumpus room parties, everyone’s nervous breath both sweetened and soured by candy and punch, many of us secretly hoping indignant parents would snap on the lights and put a stop to all that fun. I have discovered the hand-held shower massager and the perfectly-placed Jacuzzi jet in our pool, and my own clever, dexterous fingers, although these early explorations, while successful, were blank-minded and unimaginative – I didn’t yet have a bank of visual imagery to draw on, could only rely on the instinctive, if uninspired, physio...

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By Tara Ison

Tara Ison is the author of Ball: Stories, and the essay collection Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies.