The stories of romantic firsts — a first kiss, a first love, a loss of virginity — stay with us for the rest of our lives. These events become etched in our life stories, becoming key plot points in our love narratives. We revisit them in our memories and in telling the stories of these moments while bonding with friends or subsequent lovers.
The dating app Hinge encourages weaving these stories into our dating profiles, offering “first kiss” as one of several life events you can pick to describe. Movies and songs about first loves are so plentiful that there are listicles devoted to determining the “best” ones. When a 40-year-old woman decides to pose as a 26-year-old on the TV show “Younger,” she makes up a new story for how she lost her virginity that’s grounded in the age-appropriate decade for her new, more youthful persona. She knows it’s an inevitable conversation among 20-something friends and lovers, and she wants to be prepared.
Sometimes these stories are awkward and sweet. But just as often they can be disappointing — more shrug emoji than heart eyes. After all, it’s hard to know what you’re doing (or what you like) when you actually have no idea what you’re doing.
And sometimes they’re hurtful and damaging. By now — a year into the #MeToo era and weeks into the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the public airing of stories they’ve sparked — we know there’s another category of firsts that most women and some men carry around with them: The first time they endured an unwanted kiss or touch. The first time they narrowly escaped an assault, or didn’t. The first person they told about the experience, and whether they were believed or made to feel as if someone else’s misbehavior was their fault. Sometimes, of course, the first kiss and the first assault happen at the same time.
TV writer and “Lean In” co-author Nell Scovell put this more bluntly on Twitter last week, asking men if they still smile when they think about their first love. “That’s how so many women feel about our first assaulter,” Scovell tweeted. “Except we don’t smile. We want to throw up.”
What do we do with the experiences that are formative because they’re traumatic? The memories of these incidents can linger for a lifetime — and multiply as they get rehearsed in one’s mind and out loud. As Emma M. Millon, Han Yan M. Chang and Tracey J. Shors note in their recent study of how stressful life memories linger in women who have experienced sexual violence: “Each time a memory is retrieved, a new memory is made through its association with the context in which it is expressed. Thus, at a neuroscience level, one could hypothesize that the repetitive and largely involuntary rehearsal of a trauma memory creates yet more memories of trauma and related memories in the brain.”
“The more you’re bringing up the past, the more memories you’re making in the brain … making it more difficult to forget,” Shors, a psychology professor at Rutgers University, said in a phone interview about the study, which found that women who’d survived sexual violence had “especially prominent” ruminative thoughts and vivid memories of stressful life events. “The thoughts that really underlie the suffering are the thoughts and the memories that keep it alive.”
Shors said that many study participants told her and her fellow researchers that they either had never told anybody about the sexual violence they had experienced, “or maybe they told their mother or their best friend, but certainly they didn’t talk about it very often.”
Now that survivors are talking about it more, we’re also realizing that some of those iconic stories that have shaped our conception of those firsts don’t hold up to today’s standards around sex, consent and the way girls and young women should be treated. In new movies of teen romance, the stories are more diverse, and it’s almost an obligatory plot point to call out older favorites for being outdated. But the new ones aren’t perfect, either. In Netflix’s wildly popular rom-com, “The Kissing Booth,” Elle’s (Joey King) first boyfriend, Noah (Jacob Elordi), is extremely controlling. Elle calls Noah out for his misogynistic behavior, but his aggression merely diverts to his younger brother, Lee (Joel Courtney). Toxic masculinity does not believably get corrected that quickly.
The #MeToo era began by airing serious allegations against the men who create the narratives we see on screen, from movies to television. Eventually it’ll be time for the stories that follow to catch up — to be funny and engaging and tender and nuanced when it comes to first times of all kinds.
Where will the bad firsts fit in? Will they get addressed in neat and tidy ways that can be wrapped up in 25 minutes or two hours or 200 pages or a four-minute song, or will they reckon with the messiness of decades-ago allegations where one person’s account differs with another’s? How will they address, fictionally yet realistically, the gray areas of rape culture, the Aziz Ansaris in addition to the Bill Cosbys? If our culture can find new ways to make consent look sexy in stories, viewers will do what they have always done: lust after Hollywood’s version of romance.