Two new documentaries directed by young women operate under a shared thesis: Women need to talk about sex.
In How to Lose Your Virginity, which premieres this week, director Therese Shechter intersperses vintage sex-ed footage with candid interviews and her own story of lost virginity. The film introduces us to women who are abstinent, sexually active, and in between, with lots of cheek and humor.
Melissa Tapper Goldman’s film, Subjectified, now screening online for a nominal fee, includes a series of interviews with nine young women from different backgrounds. Goldman asks candid questions about topics ranging from their periods to past abuse, present pleasure, and pubic hair.
The filmmakers are now soliciting the same candor shown in their films from their audiences, with Shechter’s V-Card Diaries project and Tapper Goldman’s Tumblr project Do Tell. In a week in which New York Magazine is centering the stories of women’s abortions and the biggest article in the New Yorker is a woman describing a stillbirth in wrenching detail, it feels like we’re having a moment in which a kind of sharing once relegated to privacy is becoming an acceptable part of public discourse. And this is a good thing.
It’s clear that when it comes sexuality, there is no “normal.” The two filmmakers, unsurprisingly, are big fans of each others’ work, and so I decided to pick both their brains at once. Though we were only chatting virtually and couldn’t dish about sex over coffee, as they usually do when they get together, our discussion was a rich brew anyway.
RH Reality Check: Let’s talk about finding a space for pro-sexuality feminist work in both feminist and mainstream realms.
Melissa Tapper Goldman: Making the work accessible and relevant sometimes means using plain language and operating outside the confines of feminist spaces and discourses, even when that’s where my framework comes from.
Therese Shechter: I just did a TV interview today, and I felt like I spent a lot of time just undoing all the conventional wisdom the hosts were saying to me: “Men are the gas, and women are the brakes.”
RHRC: Both of your films are effective at dispelling the idea of a socially predetermined norm, just through the varied stories of your subjects.
TS: It’s crucial to name these stereotypes and dismantle them piece by piece. You won’t believe the number of people who have come to me after watching How to Lose Your Virginity with the new realization that the hymen had nothing to do with someone’s sexual history.
MTG: One of the persistent misconceptions I bump up against is the question of vaginal versus clitoral orgasm. I honestly thought we’d covered this already, even in glossy magazines, but apparently this is not a discussed fact.
RHRC: I felt like both of your films took me back to an earlier stage of life in which my friends shared more with each other, because we had very little collective experience to draw from!
TS: I was speaking to a South Asian Muslim woman the other day, and her mother had actually talked to her about sex so she was able to go back to her all-girl high school and educate her friends. Nothing was being taught at the school. When you have a vacuum like that, all kinds of stuff rushes in. Pop culture, magazines, porn, and abstinence-until-marriage programs.
MTG: In a vacuum of interpersonal silence, media messages take on enormous proportions. That ties into the “cost of shame” that I’ve been discussing, the different prices we pay for not being able to talk about sex.
RHRC: Therese’s film shows that people go really far in bending their lives to conform to that media narrative, specifically around virginity.
TS: “Virginity loss” is made into a one-time before/after moment that changes you forever. Actually, though, we become sexual gradually, as a process, sometimes without one penis and one vagina in the room together!
MTG: Dissolving the binary of virginal versus sexually active was something I encountered as well. It was great to hear women’s stories unfolding, because you began to see that it ebbed and flowed. Perhaps someone had a boyfriend and they broke up, so she started again just with kissing her next partner. The sense that you’re either “sexually active” or not falls apart.
TS: Some of us go through long periods of abstinence between partners.
MTG: Sexuality is a complex web. One of the women I interviewed, “Morée,” talked about trying sex for the first time and then backing off of it because she wasn’t ready to be sexually active.
TS: I hate the before/after binary because it doesn’t reflect the truth about sex. It only reflects ownership, control, judgement, shame.
RHRC: That’s true, and it goes with all these other binaries: desexualized/oversexualized or slut/prude…
TS: Or clean/dirty, new/used, valuable/worthless. I was really moved by what Elizabeth Smart said about how she felt about herself after being raped by her captor.
MTG: It wasn’t just the rape that took away her sense of self-worth and dignity. In her own retelling. The virginity culture that associated her value as a person with maintaining virginity was the thing that sent her into a desperate depression during her captivity. As a society, we need to take ownership of the fact that we are re-victimizing survivors of sexual assault.
RHRC: There is also a very important distinction that you both draw between having personal beliefs about sex and imposing them on others. With this topic we see the same anxiety that permeates the fraught discussions about weddings and childrearing. Can we acknowledge that others’ experiences and priorities are different without shaming them or feeling implicated ourselves by that difference?
MTG: Personally valuing sexual abstinence does not have to involve shaming other people. Both of the women in Subjectified who consider themselves sexually abstinent really did embody an attitude of openness to many things, including their friends who are sexually active. We risk alienating a big part of the population when we talk without nuance.
TS: One [abstinent] woman in How to Lose Your Virginity used to tour with Lady Gaga, and seeks to be pure in body and spirit. She says, “It’s not like I’m sitting alone in my room reading the Bible all the time.” She’s found a way to exist in a very sexualized world, while keeping her own beliefs.
RHRC: Are any people saying the films made them squirm or uncomfortable? And is that a good thing?
MTG: Yes, Subjectified is making people squirm, and yes, that’s a good thing! But Do Tell, the story-sharing campaign, is letting people speak up about their own experiences, which people are finding comforting at the same time. Feeling heard is incredibly powerful.
TS: Some people squirm, sure. Sex is awkward. But there’s a lot of humor in How to Lose Your Virginity, which is a way to give people some pretty horrible information about how women’s sexuality is valued, in a way that won’t shut down the conversation. I’m glad that guys love the film. We can’t just have this conversation with the ladies!
MTG: It’s so fantastic that Therese is able to use humor in her work. That really helps make it possible to talk about things that would otherwise be too intense for most of us. We spend so much energy trying to silence people and make them feel ashamed about their sexual experiences, it’s no wonder that people—particularly women—often don’t believe that their experiences matter. So even to be able to verbalize our experiences can bring a huge feeling of comfort and empowerment.
RHRC: Definitely. Was it an obvious choice to add that interactive online community component you both have?
TS: For me, because it took so long to make the film, I started the blog. And people started sending in stories for a feature we called the V-Card Diaries. The more experiences we hear about, the less these binaries and stereotypes exist.
MTG: My process was the other way around. The interactive part grew directly out of the response to Subjectified, out of seeing people react to the project and desperately wanting to share their experiences.
RHRC: You both had to really push over a long period of time to get this work to see the light of day. What kept you motivated?
TS: I find you have to be totally obsessed with a topic to make it through the long haul of creating a documentary. It really helped for me to get other people involved and invested, either because they were really generous donating their time or talents, or because they supported us with donations on Kickstarter. The more people are excited about the project, the more you feel like you owe it to them to finish.
MTG: My first desire was to watch a movie where young women talk honestly about sex, so I thought I’d just find it and watch it, because that’s such an obvious topic, why wouldn’t it exist? Once I realized that this incredibly obvious movie was missing, it just became crystal clear that I had to make it.
RHRC: Do you feel like the winds of change are shifting now?
TS: There are some great movies about the purity movement and all its disturbing trappings. In the last couple of years, there’s been so much more conversation about female sexuality, especially in connection to rape culture and reproductive health. But I feel it’s always one step forward, two steps back.
MTG: Yes and no. The most obvious reference people make on the blogosphere or in talking to me about the project is Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex.” It was made in 1991, the same year that Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court. So I’m not necessarily optimistic, but I think that this work does have an impact. I do believe we can shift some important conversations. The terms “rape culture” and “slut shaming” have also gained traction in the last few years. Language is powerful.
RHRC: I’m seeing a lot more personal essays on places like The Rumpus and even national magazines about women’s sexual and reproductive lives. I feel like there’s got to be a digital feminist influence there.
MTG: I think the question is getting this language out beyond the feminist and sexuality educator sphere. That takes much longer, and requires a different eye toward showing the direct relevance in people’s lives. We need to have those conversations on multiple levels and in more than one community.
TS: This is our plug for more mainstream coverage of our work! Melissa and I have been talking about how our work exists as the baseline for all other conversations about sexuality. You can’t talk about abortion or rape or contraception without first being able to talk honestly about sex.