Like a virgin - when did you lose yours?
Darren Kennedy wants to know when you lost it
'One girl I spoke to lost it in the dunes at Portmarnock. Another guy booked a hotel room, put rose petals down for his girlfriend and did the whole romantic thing. I lost mine during my school lunch break when I was 15 ... to a woman," he adds with a smirk. "So I guess that some things do change."
No, Darren Kennedy is not talking about the TV remote control. He's discussing virginity, the subject of a new hour-long documentary he has made for RTE2.
What, I ask, prompted his interest in this still borderline taboo subject? He wrinkles his nose. "If I'm to be honest with you," he replies, "and I've never said this to anyone before, it was probably watching Katie Taylor at the Olympics. When she won gold, I was overwhelmed with a sense of national pride that I didn't even know I had in me."
I don't quite see the connection.
"I subsequently read up about Katie, her church and the emphasis it puts on no sex before marriage. The idea of this attractive young woman, who is completely dedicated to her sport, fascinated me," he adds.
Not, we should be at pains to stress here, that Kennedy knows or is implying anything about the boxer's private life. "Oh no, not at all," he says. "I probably shouldn't be dragging her into this. That's just how I became interested in evangelicals and the purity movement and all of that." It would be fair to say that Darren lacks the usual Irish circumspection when discussing people's sex lives. But what is interesting about his show 'Like A Virgin', is that it reveals how little encouragement we need to open up on the subject.
"When you tell people you're a virgin," Kennedy says to an older participant at the Joe Dolan International Bachelor Festival, "how do they react?" "Well, I only just told you," the man replies, deadpan. "You're the only one that ever asked."
Over the course of the documentary, Darren, who is also a 'Weekend' magazine fashion columnist, talks to just about everyone – pensioners, street vendors, poets, matchmakers, drag queens, virgins, born again virgins, TV personalities, innocent bystanders and Mary O'Rourke.
And not one of them sends him away with a clip around the ear. "In fact, quite the opposite," he laughs. "Some people who were very candid later contacted me to say, 'You know, maybe I shouldn't have told you that'. Often it was something that related to another person's privacy and we were happy to respect that.
"I've never felt uncomfortable about it [asking people personal questions]. I love chatting. As a kid, my dad says, I would talk the hind legs off a donkey."
There is one memorable scene in which he asks a 30-year-old virgin, and born again Christian, whether or not he masturbates. And if so, how frequently? Many of us might have wondered about that. But, clearly, it requires some considerable gumption to come right out and ask it.
Considered in isolation, Darren explains, that question might seem slightly intrusive. But it came in the context of a much longer conversation, not all of which made it to air.
"When you're with someone and you build a rapport with them, I think you're able to gauge where the line is. Or at least I haven't gotten a slap from anyone yet."
The show is entertainment, Darren admits. He makes no great claims for its educational credentials. He does not necessarily think parents should force their teenage children to sit down with them to watch it (he remembers going to his room to avoid being around when those sorts of programmes were on when he was a teenager).
But it has its moments. One of the most revealing is an encounter with a couple in their mid-20s at a music festival. They're sitting in their tent and, with very little prompting, casually mention that they had just finished having sex when Kennedy and his camera crew came knocking.
At first it seems as though they are over-sharing just a little. Do we really need to know such intimate details? But it quickly becomes apparent that these two are a normal, happy young couple in a loving relationship. Sex is an important and enjoyable part of their lives. Why shouldn't they be open about it? "Exactly," agrees Kennedy. "When you look at the depictions of young people and sexuality in the media, it's almost always negative – teen pregnancies, abuse cases. Positive experiences tend to get overlooked."
Not that Darren's documentary shies away from the other side of the story. Of all of the rabbit holes his film runs down, perhaps the strangest is the world of sex surrogacy.
Simply put, a sex surrogate is a therapist who treats patients who, for whatever physical or mental reason, are unable to have sex. This course of treatment may or may not conclude with the surrogate having full sexual intercourse with the patient.
"She will actually pop the cherry for you," Darren says. "So I put the question to her fairly straight, 'Are you a prostitute?'"
The sex surrogate, whose face is obscured, responds that if her patients were simply looking to pay for sex, they could get it much cheaper elsewhere.
"Leaving the question of whether what she's doing is prostitution to one side," says Kennedy, "she seems to be coming from a nice place where she's trying to help people. They could be suffering from erectile dysfunction or some emotional hang-up.
"If you have a problem with your arm, you go to a doctor. If you have a problem with your leg, you go to a doctor. Why should sex be any different? That would be her point." In truth, sex surrogacy is not widespread. Kennedy could track down only six practitioners in the UK and none in Ireland.
Other issues that are probably having a bigger impact on young people's sex lives, such as the proliferation and ready availability of online porn, are touched on briefly or not at all.
Kennedy readily concedes this and he also points to the grey area regarding gay people and when exactly they can be considered to have lost their virginity, since the term refers to heterosexual relationships and not all gay people have penetrative sex.
Then there is the way alcohol often factors in people's stories of how they lost their virginity. "We use drink as a comfort blanket, for Dutch courage," he says. "But that's a whole other documentary."
So what conclusions has he drawn from working on this project? "What I discovered is that, contrary to popular opinion, virginity is something that is still valued and losing your virginity is something people today still take very seriously," Darren says.
"Sex is still the great unknown for young people. There is excitement. There are nerves. But for most of us, losing our virginity still means a lot of fumbling around in the dark with someone who is equally clueless.
"It's like the Leaving Cert. It's a rite of passage. It seems like a big deal at the time. And once it's done you think, 'Thank God that's out of the way, now I can get on with my life."'
'Like a Virgin' shows on RTE2 on Nov 7