Therese Shechter is the filmmaker behind How To Lose Your Virginity, a documentary about virginity culture and why we are so obsessed with virgins (and slutting them up then judging them.) She’s in Istanbul right now because she’s fancy, and so we did a virtual interview.
Beth: I’m diving right in with this one, because as someone who had no business wearing white at my wedding (and didn’t) I’m wondering how much of the virgin-ey stuff did you have at your wedding?
Therese: The ‘white wedding’ construct disturbed me but, I decided that I would try on some white gowns with an open heart and see if I really did feel like a ‘princess.’ And of course I also filmed it for the documentary, with the amusing results you see in the trailer. It turned out I was excruciatingly uncomfortable being in those dresses, and I ended up wearing a gorgeous long lime green and black dress for my wedding.
My total discomfort with chastity-based wedding rituals went further than the gown, though. I refused to wear a veil even though it was sort of part of the Jewish ceremony. I wore a big red flower in my hair instead. And I really didn’t want to be ‘given away’ by anyone, so my groom and I walked down the aisle together.
Beth: And is virginity being redefined or are we just talking about it more?
Pre-marital sex is nothing new, I just think we’re talking about it a lot more, and we’re more open about sex in general which is a good thing. It’s allowing people to see that their own feelings about sexuality are shared by many others, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to our intimate lives.
Not only can more open conversation give young women the space to be sexual beings on their own terms without shame, but it also tells 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 and am making that dynamic part of the film.
One thing that’s very important to talk about is the complexity of the virginity construct. How do we define virginity? If it’s penis-in-vagina, where does that leave people who identify as queer? If it’s something else, then why are we so obsessed with hymens? Do we suddenly become sexual beings or is it gradual? What are we losing, if anything? My film is called “How to Lose Your Virginity,” and ultimately I’d like to show how absurd every part of that familiar phrase is. I sort of like “making your sexual debut,” even if it does sound a little too elegant for good old-fashioned sex.
Beth: Where does abstinence only “education” fall into all of this? How much did the teens you interviewed know about sex?
Therese: Shelby Knox, who is also in the film, (and starred in the doc The Education of Shelby Knox) speaks movingly about the shame and misinformation doled out in equal measures in her abstinence classes. Things like if you have sex, you’re nothing but a dirty used toothbrush. And the lack of information on preventing pregnancy and STIs is just plain criminal. Shelby told me a story about a young woman she met who asked Shelby about using birth control pills correctly. Seems she was inserting them into her vagina instead of swallowing them.
Nothing good comes of keeping information from young people. It creates a vacuum that gets filled with even more mis-information, usually from popular culture. If someone tells me everything they know about sex came from watching porn, it just makes me really sad. That’s fantasy, not reality.
Beth: The big one: what are you telling your kids about sex? What happened to Our Bodies Ourselves being the go-to guide for teen girls? I loved that book.
Therese: I don’t have kids, but I can see how it might be uncomfortable to discuss it, and my parents didn’t really talk to me about sex. I learned everything I know from Judy Blume, The Joy of Sex and Letters to Penthouse Forum! When I got to college, I bought my first copy of OBOS and I still refer to it today.
I’ve interviewed some really sex-savvy teens, and I think that’s thanks to some great sex-ed programs like peer sex education in high schools and online sex-ed sites like scarleteen.com. Heather Corinna, who founded and
runs the site, is in my film, and she’s awe inspiring in the way she provides judgment-free answers to questions from young people all over the world. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of the questions relate to virginity.
I was also a fan of the now-gone CosmoGirl! Magazine, whose editor Susan Schulz is also in my film. Despite the ‘Cosmo’ connection, I think that magazine provided a lot of good, frank and age-appropriate information to its readers. They once ran a little story on the vulva, complete with a whimsical diagram pointing out all the anatomy. They got more hate mail from parents for that than almost anything else. I think some people are freaked out by the idea that their kids know anything about sex. Like it will make them run out and do it right away!
And let’s not even get started on talking to teens about the fact that sex feels good! Even the most progressive programs still seem to stress all the bad stuff that will happen if you have sex.
Beth: Talk to me about The Sasha Grey phenomenon – porn, intelligent porn, all the 3rd and 4th wave stuff.
Therese: Conversations about porn are complex. I’ll just say that it’s not going away, and everyone likes different flavors of it. I think the most important thing is to help people understand that it’s fantasy. We get into trouble when we start believing that it’s the how-to guide for having sex in your real life. Also, sometimes people lose sight of the fact that the reason the actors look like they love everything they’re doing is because they’re being *paid* to.
I spent an eye-opening day on the set of the virgin-fetish porn outfit Barely Legal, shooting what I think is one of the most interesting parts of my doc. Everyone was fun and nice, and in a lot of ways, it was like any other well-run film set I’ve been on. Except that people were having sex on the hood of a car. And no, no one actually lost their virginity. They’re professional actors.
Beth: And one for the cheap seats: favorite/least favorite cherry popping moments in film/tv/literature
Therese: I have a few favorites:
A classic for me is “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” where Buffy has sex with Angel for the first time. The pleasure it gives him breaks an ancient curse that’s been placed on him and he becomes a vicious vampire again – which Buffy cruelly finds out the morning after. It speaks to that classic fear that once you have sex with a guy, he’ll treat you totally differently. Joss Whedon was great at reflecting the everyday pains of high school into the world of demons, and this scene is a great exammple.
(I love this promo video for the episode Therese talked about – can you imagine someone saying your first time was going to be a spectacular event that lasted two hours? Score! -Beth)
In “Real Women Have Curves,” I love that America Ferrara’s character has non-melodramatic sex with her boyfriend, enjoys it, doesn’t get pregnant or die, and when her mother finds out, she stands up the her. Then she gets into a great university and moves on with her life. Sex is just one part of her coming-of-age-story.
In “The Wackness,” the teenage male protagonist is your typical horndog chasing after the girl of his dreams. When they do finally hook up, his total awkwardness in bed leads to his confession that he’s a virgin. Her reaction is to say she’s had sex lots of times and can show him how it’s done. He reacts to the news with great joy. There’s never any commentary about her sexual experience defining her in any way that’s shameful or judgmental.
I think it’s telling that the best examples come from indy films, not mainstream Hollywood ones.
So now I have to implore you, all of you, to go to Kickstarter and help Therese out with her movie. We spend a lot of time here and on GeekWeek complaining about the lack of smart versions of women and how movies all suck and how we can never get what we want and blah blah blah blah blah. Skip two drinks tonight. Take that $20 and put it towards a movie getting made.