Pubes, Porn And Peer Pressure: Why Radhika Sanghani's Debut Novel Is All About Being A Virgin

10/09/2014 12:09 | Updated 10 September 2014

When you hear that the late, great Joan Rivers "loved" a new novel, you know that it was unlikely to be about biscuits and knitting.

The book in question is called Virgin. Written by Telegraph writer Radhika Sanghani, the endorsement is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it is her debut novel.

Speaking to HuffPost UK Lifestyle, she said: "I was really surprised, Joan Rivers, quite recently before she died, read the book and said how much she loved it and she was 81."

With its hilarious, cringe-worthy anecdotes and shockingly graphic detail, Radhika's first book Virgin will remind you of the embarrassing, fumbling sexual encounters you had as a burgeoning young adult.

So why did the 24-year-old write a novel that mentions pubic hair at least four times every chapter?

radhika sanghani twitter

“It was something I’d wanted to write for a while because I was sick of reading books that didn’t go into any detail about what it’s actually like to be a woman," Radhika explains.

"It felt like every book I read that was supposed to be about a real life twenty-something barely touched the surface.”

The book centres around 21-year-old Ellie’s quest to lose her virginity before graduating from university and explores the challenges facing a modern single lady, tackling everything from porn pressure to slut shaming.

Detail is something Radhika certainly doesn’t shy away from – a scene where Ellie engages in what can only be described as ‘vigorous masturbation’ with household objects in an attempt to break her hymen comes to mind…

Radhika says the book is "completely fiction" but some of the more humorous encounters were inspired by conversations with friends.

“None of it is really me per say, although some of the stories are things I’ve observed at uni,” she says.

“Lots of the really funny stories are things that my girlfriends have shared with me. I went to an all girls school and a lot of my friends there were ‘late bloomers’ if you will. We were were really open about these things.

"I had lots of friends who were still virgins later in life, so the idea came from that."

Radhika hopes the book will be read by questioning young adults, and reminiscing older women alike.

Ellie is witty, awkward and reminiscent of a young Bridget Jones, but as Radhika explains, for many girls the subject of losing their virginity is no laughing matter.

“I feel like talking about losing your virginity is still a taboo, especially for young women,” she says.

“There seems to be a societal view that girls particularly want to save their virginity for ‘the one’ and that they’re happy to wait until whenever that time comes.

“In reality, I think that for a lot of girls, the older they get the more stressful it seems and they end up wanting to lose their virginity to try and fit in."

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Radhika believes films like American Pie are part of the reason why young men and young women talk about losing their virginity in different ways.

"I think with boys there’s a lot more banter around losing your virginity – they're asked ‘have you got laid yet’ and that kind of thing. But I think with girls, it’s often a bit more private and something they might keep to themselves, internalise and get stressed about.

Any that isn't the only way the subject of first time sex is different for the genders.

"A guy can maybe joke about wanting to lose their virginity on a one night stand, but I think if a girl says she wants to lose it on a one night stand, people raise their eyebrows," Radhika says.

We're not surprised her first work of fiction has feminist undertones. She does, after all, work full-time as a journalist on The Telegraph's Wonder Women.

A lot of the topics in the book vocalise the pressures that any 20-something can relate to. Ellie and her friends feel pressure around sex which stems from porn, needing to shave their pubic hair and the unrealistic expectations rom-coms create when it comes to dating.

"It can feel like lots of chick-lit has perfect heroines and everything always ends happily ever after, but that doesn't touch on any of the issues my generation actually has," she explains.

"For my generation, feminism is a big talking point. These issues, like porn pressuring women and slut shaming, are all issues that women have to face.

"I think for so many young women, feminism is still a bit of a dirty word and it’s quite rare to find a piece of fiction that talks about these issues.

"I felt that putting these issues into a novel might make feminism more approachable - hopefully it’s not too preachy though!".

radhika sanghani virgin

Radhika joins a wave of women writing about women at a younger age, including Bryony Gordon and Caitlin Moran.

Following the success of How To Be A Woman, Moran also released her first fictional work How To Build A Girl in July.

Despite the fact that Caitlin's protagonist is 14 while Radhika's is 21, the two books discuss similar issues (body hair, sex, more body hair).

So why have these novels been released so close to each other? Are the public becoming more open to talking about issues facing young women?

"I bumped into Caitlin Moran at a party and said ‘I think we might have both written books that are just about pubes’, we were joking a lot about that," says Radhika.

"I do think now is a time when more and more people are talking about these issues.

"I first started writing this book in 2012 but literally did a chapter and didn’t think anything would happen. It was only last year in 2013 when I thought 'the time is right, I need to finish this book' because of TV programmes like Girls.

"I realised my friends and I weren't the only people talking about these issues – it’s getting more mainstream."

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Although she didn't write it with a particular aim, Radhika is hoping Virgin will open discussion on the ways we talk to young people about sex.

In the book, Ellie is incredibly naive, highlighting the holes in UK sex education.

"Sex education hasn’t been updated in schools for about 14 years," says Radhika. "My sex ed classes I remember at school were just so biological.

"We didn’t ever really discuss relationships or feelings or pressures or even more colloquial terms for things.

"Like bases, everyone was really confused about what bases are what, but it wasn’t the sort of thing we felt we could bring up with our PSHE teacher.

"I think schools should talk about what young people want to talk about, ask them what there problems are, rather than just making them put condoms on bananas," she says.

Radhika believes most young people learn about sex from their friends and older siblings, and although this has always happened, porn and the internet are confusing matters.

"In the book, Ellie googles things like ‘how to give oral sex’ and I think that is what young people do – they hear these terms and if they don’t know what they are, so they google them.

"It means they can literally get any kind of information - it’s confusing because there’s so much out there and they could be getting the wrong information," she says.

Radhika acknowledges the fact that, at 24 years old, she has written Virgin based on her memories as a teen and things have changed drastically for teens today.

"As part of my research I spoke to this 16-year-old girl who said the most shocking thing that has stayed with me.

"She was talking about pubes and said ‘of course I have to wax because what if a guy finds out and it goes on Facebook’ – I can’t believe this actually happens to young people now.

"I would hate to have a teenage daughter now, I’d feel so sorry for her," she says.

So, what advice would Radhika give to teens today?

"I guess the main thing is just to make sure you’re doing what what you want – if you do want to lose your virginity quickly and you want to lose it to the first person, then that’s absolutely fine if that is what you want.

"But if you’re honest with yourself and know you're doing that because your best friend has just lost her virginity, then that’s not the right thing to do," she says.

"In terms of body confidence, if I could give my younger self advice I'd say that looks like seem like the be all and end all when you're younger, but when you’re older, boys will like you for your personality."

Radhika Sanghani's debut novel for Mills & Boon, 'Virgin', comes out on the 12th September 2014.

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