Q&A with Therese Shechter
Excerpts from two interviews originally published on the Her Film Project blog. Reprinted with permission.
HF: With the feature documentary film I Was a Teenage Feminist under your belt, you are now focusing on a new project, How to Lose Your Virginity, which is another feature doc. Can you discuss how you came to concentrate your efforts on this topic and how your two films might relate?
TS: I think all my films look at the world through a feminist lens. Of the two shorts I’ve done, How I Learned to Speak Turkish is about sexuality and power and Womanly Perfection is about beauty standards. Taken along with I Was A Teenage Feminist, which I think is about finding a political and personal identity, they all feed into to the ideas I’m playing with in How to Lose your Virginity. I also would say that the virginity project is similar stylistically to I Was a Teenage Feminist—it’s funny, there’s a lot of intimacy with subjects, and I use my personal experience to make universal points.
When my editor and I were cutting I Was A Teenage Feminist, we watched a lot of those old ‘Now You Are A Woman’ films from the 1950s. I was struck not only by how useless the information was, but also how they kept telling girls that the only way to avoid social and physical ruin was to be a ‘good’ girl (read: a girl who doesn’t have sex). The abstinence-until-marriage programs (which the government still funds, by the way) are really just a present-day extension of those ideas. I started to wonder what we were telling young women about their sexuality, especially given that pop culture is full of highly sexualized girls that seem to be the polar opposite of this ‘good girl’ expectation. I realized that it all comes down to the same message: that women should model themselves on images of male desire. In trying to mold themselves into either virgin or whore (or an impossible combination of both), women are constantly working to fit someone else’s needs instead of pursuing their own sexual identities.
On a personal note, I was planning my own wedding at the time of the shooting, and was getting a little freaked out by all the chastity-based wedding rituals and coded wedding accessories. What would it mean for me to embrace the white dress, don a veil, and be ‘given away’? What would that say about my own sexual autonomy and identity? It echoes the narration of I Was a Teenage Feminist where I refer to myself as “a woman who feels incredible pressure to conform to an ideal that I don’t even buy into. Is it possible to be who I want to be without judgment, or apology or compromise?”
HF: In American culture, virginity experiences a dichotomous treatment. The social state of virginity is also binary in nature — you either are or you aren’t, at least socially. What differences do you see between gender, age and sexual orientation when the topic of virginity is discussed?
TS: Virginity is basically a complex social construct that’s always been more about female sexuality than male. There’s actually no medical definition, and our conventional concept of ‘losing your virginity’ through penis-in-vagina sex is incredibly narrow. Is a penis really the only way to turn a woman into a sexual person? How then do lesbians lose their virginity? Do we suddenly become sexual beings or is it gradual? When we lose our virginity, what specifically are we losing, if anything at all?
In queer communities, the concept of virginity loss is far more nuanced and individualistic because it doesn’t fit into established hetero understandings about sex. But although ideas about how a person loses his or her virginity might vary, there is still some point where most of us cross a threshold of sexual initiation. It may be a construct, but it’s still an important defining moment – however we define it. You can see how important it is when you speak to older virgins who for whatever reason haven’t yet had sex. I hear from a lot of them through my blog, and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy around being an older virgin (which I think can begin as young as your early 20s). Everyone thinks everyone else is having sex but them, but it’s just not true.
HF: Please talk a bit about your experiences with interviewees… [and] tell us a bit about your production team and how you work with a crew when dealing with people’s (interviewees’) deeply personal experiences?
TS: When I interview someone, I want it to be as casual and as intimate as possible. I want them to talk right to the audience, so they look directly at the camera, not off to the side. And I like to shoot them in their natural environments as much as possible. We have a tiny crew. Sometimes it’s just me, and at most it’s my DP and one PA and minimal if any lights. We give up on some of the beauty, but like I said, I want it to be intimate so subjects can talk about really personal things and feel safe doing it. I’m always humbled by the things they’re willing to share. I’m also very open with them about my own experiences during the interview. I figure I should be just as willing to talk about whatever I’m asking of them.
HF: I’ve taken a few looks at the blog you have to support the storytelling and sharing around the topic of virginity, and you include many first-person pieces. It’s amazing and inspiring to see how many people are willing to share information about something so personal as their virginity and sexuality. What inspired you to introduce this type of “confessional-style” blog post?
TS: I love The V-Card Diaries, and since we launched it in 2009, it’s become the most popular thing on the blog. I was inspired by fellow virginity geek Kate Monro who writes a blog called The Virginity Project in the UK. Aside from her work, most everything else I found was very mainstream and almost nothing outside of religious sites addressed people who weren’t sexually active. I could tell from our blog comments I had a lot of folks out there whose experiences–and even definitions of virginity–didn’t conform to the black-and-white stereotypes of pop culture. So I started building this collection of what I like to call “sexual debuts and deferrals.”
We’ve run stories from a woman who lost her straight, gay and three-way virginity in one night (hey, it worked for her); a Mormon college student who wrote about being a virgin and then did an update after she had forbidden premarital sex (verdict: meh); and we get quite a few submissions from guys in their 30s and 40s who talk about what it’s like to be an older male virgin (not good). We’ve also run several First Persons by women who had intercourse for the first time because of sexual assault, and they want to share their experiences and recovery with others.
My favorites are the “update” submissions that I get when a previous poster starts having sex. One woman said the first three people she told were her roommate, her best friend and me for the blog. I kind of love that There’s a lot of silence around how and why and if we become sexual and I think these stories really help us all feel less weird and alone. I really could have used this when I felt like the very last virgin in art school.
HF: Are there differences in what you’ve learned through the actual filming of the documentary and the interactions you have with people online through your blog or twitter, for example?
TS: When I started working on the film, I was really focusing on young women being shamed for being sexual and the value that’s place on virginity. It was in the zeitgeist and was getting all the attention. But when I started getting the V-Card Diaries, I was surprised at how many were coming from people in their 20’s who were ashamed of not being sexually active and that became a much bigger part of my film and the blog.
I think it goes without saying that it’s far, far easier to get candid stories from anonymous writers than getting people to talk about the same things on camera. I’m really grateful to the people agreed to be filmed. They’re very smart and thoughtful about their intimate lives, and they provide an antidote to the way we usually hear stories about sex that are more fabrication or fantasy, like Reality TV and porn.
In the same way that we give people the space to be sexual beings on their own terms, we also tell people who don’t feel ready for sex (or aren’t into it at all) that they’re not freaks. I get a lot of letters along the lines of: “I generally feel like I’m harboring a shameful secret, and before I found your blog was pretty convinced that I was the only woman in her mid-twenties who had never had sex.” Speaking as someone who became sexually active only after college, I can really relate.