Is every relationship defined by the first meeting? If we had met at a rock concert, would we have been fast, sleazy and drugged? Or if we met at the Art Institute, would we have been civilized, artsy and reserved? Or perhaps in a garden – Lincoln Park along Lake Michigan – would we have combined the best of the city outdoors with a country give-and-take?
The above questions posed by author, memoirist and sexual experimenter Zola Lawrence give some outline to the subject of her book – the physical and emotional encounters with men that she purports to recall and that she depicts graphically (though not porno-graphically) in Virgins!.
Zola posits herself as a typical young woman of the swinging 1960s, and I believe that in that claim she is on solid ground. I came from the same times, and absent a happy and fruitful marriage, I would have comported myself, I’m sure, not much differently than she did. It was the tenor of the times. Women longed for the freedom men had always had – to hitchhike (she marks that one off the scorecard in the first episode of this five-part memorial to the battle between the sexes), sleeping on the floor (ditto), getting hurt and disillusioned by members of the opposite sex (ditto). In other words, beginning in the early 1960s women got to catch up with men in the realm of sexual exploitation and disappointment, raunch, risk and revenge.
With one big difference. Men did not have to worry about getting pregnant. This has always been a major de-equalizer in the struggle for women’s rights. Early on, we agonize with Zola as she is forced to choose abortion for the sake of freedom, finding very little emotional support from her impregnator.
We watch as the “I” narrator slips into pervasive mild depression, also typical of the era: “In between twice-a-week therapy, blue Valium, and unemployment checks, life becomes normal.” For the uninformed, blue Valium is the strong stuff. That is not the only drug that Zola partakes of, her “reefer madness” playing a major role in her slide into insecurity and neurosis, even into jail. Yet somehow she manages to stay alive, support herself for the most part, and even obtain a Master's degree.
Zola’s sexual journey begins in America, but with an Englishman. He encourages her in her daring new appreciation of her physical capacities but can hardly provide the deep love or abiding caring that the young woman seeks. Eventually she stops longing for love and goes for sensation, like the men she meets. She invites us into her bed and her mind as she has sex with a man who has been fantasizing about other women:
“At home in bed, you make love to all those women, I see their images flash through your mind and into my vagina as you plunge in and I feel dirtied…I feel a mixture of masculinity claim my short, female self, as if I reach into your heights and steal touches of your mind.” Zola’s reflections provide a glimpse of Everywoman, Superwoman, and Woman Scorned.
The author is in actuality a sophisticated, world-traveled professional writer who has spun a tale of girl-into-woman exploits that will have those of the female persuasion giggling, snuffling, and feeling sure that Zola has been there with them in spirit through the hormonal and socio-political confusion of discovery and growth. Kudos to Zola for her deft, open-minded and amusing treatment of this fascinating and profound subject matter.