Sunday, June 20, 2010

How to Lose Your Virginity: The Interview (Director's Cut)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing documentary film director Therese Shechter about her new project How to Lose Your Virginity for the Ms. Blog. She was incredibly generous with her time and I'm very excited for the new film. Our full interview is available below:

Aviva: After your 2005 film, I Was a Teenage Feminist, what made you decide to use virginity as the topic of your next project? Was there some sort of defining event—I know in the trailer the defining event seems to be around you wearing white for your wedding—or was this something that you’d been thinking about for a while?

Therese: I’ve been thinking about it since we were editing I Was a Teenage Feminist because we used some old educational “now you are a woman” kind of films and I was really struck by how lame the whole process of educating girls about their bodies and their sexuality has been in the past—especially the ones that taught you hygiene and proper dating so guys wouldn’t think you were the wrong kind of girl. [Laughs] So that kind of stuck in my mind for a while. Then all this news about abstinence-until-marriage programs was coming out and that added to it. Like, what the hell are we teaching people? What are we telling—especially girls—but girls and boys?

We started doing some interviews and the most interesting thing people were talking about to me was issues of virginity. So, if we talk about virginity we can talk about politics and religion and history and economics and popular culture and it became this incredibly large, fascinating topic.

And then I got engaged [laughs] and my other films had been very personal; they’ve grown out of a very personal questioning I had to a larger social issue. I couldn’t find the personal connection to this film and I thought, oh, I’m just going to play it straight and it won’t be a first-person film, and it just wasn’t working because I don’t seem to be able to tell stories unless they’re rooted in my own experience—for better or worse. When I got engaged and we started talking about the wedding, it hit me like a ton of bricks: that I was this 47-year-old woman who was expected to put on this drag show of purity.

A virgin bride?: Shechter at a bridal fitting in New York City*

The other component is that I’ve been doing this blog for two years, The American Virgin, where we cover some of the same topics. I really couldn’t wait for the years it takes to make a film to talk about this stuff so it’s been a great outlet as a way of bringing this discussion up now. I started getting a lot of letters from people who had not yet become sexually active—a lot—for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them were religious, some of them had pretty significant social issues, and others just by circumstance hadn’t found the right partner to become sexually-active. And these were people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s... There seemed to be a lot of shame and a lot of secrecy attached to that and I started hearing that we were one of the few safe spaces where they could talk about this and not be ridiculed.

I got into this thinking I hate the way young women are being shamed for being sexual people; I never thought about how people were being shamed for being non-sexual people, too. [Laughs] It’s like that double-edged sword; you just cannot win this.

A: Obviously you feel that a personal connection is a central part of your methodology as a filmmaker. Would characterize it as a “personal is political” kind of connection or is it just something that you need to do to invest in a project?

T: There’s a long line of feminist filmmaking that takes that exact thought and builds on it [Shechter later emailed to tell me she was thinking specifically of Joyce Chopra's 1973 documentary Joyce at 34]. So there’s a long tradition of this personal storytelling because it’s like the consciousness-raising groups: You tell your own story and you realize that it’s actually a universal story. It’s not your personal problem, it’s a much larger systemic problem, and understanding that other people are going through something perhaps similar is a really big moment of consciousness-raising and can lead to group action. So, I don’t want to say the feminists invented it [laughs], but that’s a classic feminist thing.

A: Do you feel like virginity and sex are feminist issues as well?

T: I feel like the way our culture approaches it are feminist issues. I feel like the way issues around female sexuality are discussed, I’d say almost anywhere, is a feminist issue. Women are often being told how to behave and what the right way to do something is and the right way to be sexual. When you look at the abstinence-until-marriage movement where they’re using moral shaming and they’re using the worst possible gender stereotypes to make a case for women remaining pure until marriage.

Although that world of pledges and purity balls might seem sort of foreign and confined to a small minority, we're symbolically enacting the same process out at any traditional wedding. The father ritualistically gives his white-clad daughter, along with her implied purity, away to the husband, who makes no statements about his own sexual history. It may be symbolic and the bride may not be a virgin, but we're still embracing the ritual and symbolism as something sweet--as opposed where it comes from which is an ancient patriarchal economic transaction. If that’s not a feminist issue [laughs], I don’t know what is!

There’s a larger issue even in the mainstream world that’s sending messages that girls should behave this way. Chloe Angyal just wrote something for the Christian Science Monitor about this study: a woman comes into a restaurant clearly bruised and a guy comes in after her and is physically threatening her, and they wanted to see who would go and help her.

But the upshot of it was that when this woman was dressed in slightly more revealing clothing—a low-cut blouse, a mini-skirt, high heels, sending the coded message of “I’m a sexual person”—people were less likely to help her.

I don’t think people are openly writing that [sexual people should be devalued] but it seems to be embedded in so much coverage we hear about campus rape and how people are being treated, in the rewards of not having sex for female [film and television] characters and the punishments if they do. That old horror-move trope: the couple has sex and then get killed. That’s changing a little bit, which is refreshing, but there’s still so much of that.

A: Do you think that sort of double standard about sex is something that sex education can help with?

T: I think that the essential problem is telling people what to do. It would be nice if the conversation was somehow shifted to “Some people do this and some people do that and some people like this and some people like that,” which is way more nuanced. And leaving space for whether you’re having sex or not having sex as not the thing that defines you.

Obviously we want to talk about being healthy and safe and especially, especially, about things like consent. Are you having sex because you really want to have sex? Or are you having sex because you think you have to or because someone’s made you? Or you think all your friends are so you should be? And we don’t talk about the consent part of this enough. Are you allowed to say “no” to your boyfriend if he wants to have sex with you? Yes! And if he says he’s going to dump you if you don’t do whatever sexual things he’d like you to do you, you should be okay with being dumped. You’re not there for that service, above and beyond all other things.

I sometimes joke that, well, you’re just not going to be popular for a while, but that’s okay. It’s okay.

A: Eventually you won’t be in high school anymore.

T: Eventually you won’t be in high school anymore; eventually you won’t even be in college anymore and everything will make more sense. It’s not a real comforting thing to say to a 17-year-old. I remember when I was 17 and I wanted a boyfriend and I wanted someone to love me and all of it, so it’s very hard to say, “If you don’t do these things you may not have a boyfriend, but that’s okay.” That’s a really hard thing to say...not just to a girl. But in some ways I admire those people who can say, “Sorry, but, I don’t want to do those things and if that means you don’t want to go out with me, I’m moving on. I’m going to the movies with my girlfriends.”

A: You interviewed a lot of teenagers for this film. Did you get a sense that they still feel like [sex is] a big deal or do you feel that the terms have changed, say, in the past couple decades?

T: It depends on the teenager. Interestingly, the people that I’ve interviewed that are sexually active or very comfortable with the concept of sex, if they are not sexually-active, seem pretty open in talking about it. And the people who are religious who are waiting for religious reasons are also open about talking about how they feel. The people who are not having sex and want to be having sex and are embarrassed do not want to talk to me. I run a lot of stuff on my blog from them, because it’s anonymous. People really want to tell their story and other people want to read that story, but it’s been very hard to get people to talk on camera. I’m negotiating with people right now…how anonymous can I make them. But, you know, I think it’s just kind of too bad, really.

A: While shooting and researching for your film, do you feel like you’ve gleaned more insight into why we have such a bizarre perspective on sex even though it’s everywhere—say, why people are so unwilling to talk about it with you?

T: People are willing to talk about it, but I’m not sure if they’re honestly talking about it. And I think when you say “sex is everywhere,” I think that it is everywhere…in people fantasies. In their imaginations, everyone is having sex but them. Or everyone is having amazing sex but them. And I think that’s a message over and over again. That’s how we sell products. That’s how we sell all kinds of media, and, I think that if people were actually honest about their…I don’t want to hear every detail about someone’s sex life, but I think if people were generally more honest about what the world of sexuality really looked like, I think it would look very different than what we see all around.

A: Was there anything that really surprised you when you were making this film, something you didn’t expect?

T: We shot on the set of Barely Legal, which is a porn franchise run by Hustler and it is a virginity porn franchise. There are no virgins in porn, despite what anybody may claim. [Laughs] These are professional actors being paid to act, let me say that right out front. We were on the set of Barely Legal and we’d spent the day before talking to someone who blogs about porn [Gram Ponante, NSFW link]; he’s actually part of the Fleshbot family, which is Gawker’s adult site. He was awesome and he gave us this really great interview, and I had come into it with some preconceived notions about what being on a porn set might be like.

We got to the Barely Legal set and it was one of the best-run film sets I’ve ever been on and everyone was cool and it was kind of a fun day. And that coupled with the complete surreality of watching people having sex right in front of you [laughs], walking around naked and whatever, I mean that was incredibly weird. But it wasn’t creepy, people were very open, and it was refreshing to spend the day with people who are so comfortable with sex and sexuality. I certainly don’t think that all porn sets are that pleasant, just like not all offices are the same. Working at one insurance office is different from working at another insurance office.

On Barely Legal's set, a wardrobe person displays the virginity franchise's signature white panties.*

It turned out to be one of my favorite shoots in the sense that it was the most interesting to me to be there and just observe it and talk to people. So, I’m reluctant to give you: oh yeah, being on that porn set was great. It’s all in the inflection. But it was fascinating and I didn’t expect that.

The other really surprising thing that I have found is…just the number of people that aren’t sexually-active. The incredible number of people that aren’t sexually-active that pretend they are because they don’t want to be shamed.

A: And because the culture tells us that everyone is, like you said?

T: Yeah, something weird happens. Up until a certain age, you’re not supposed to be sexually-active and then you cross some invisible threshold and suddenly everyone is supposed to be having sex. I think if you get out of college and you still aren’t sexually-active that seems to be the weird taboo-zone. And I have met so many people that aren’t and feel terrible. Not personally feel terrible—they’re making decisions about their lives—but feel terrible culturally. Like, God forbid anyone should find out about this.

And here I thought everyone was having sex.

A: Which I did, too, but I guess that assumption alone is a sign of the cultural backdrop. To wrap up, do you have anything specific that you want to mention that we haven’t talk about yet or any teasers [laughter] you want to give readers for what the film will encompass?

T: Yes, well the question is: what wedding dress will I wear? [Laughs]

A: Ah, yes.

T: Will Therese wear a veil? Will she be walked down the aisle by her parents? I’m sure these are burning issues for your readers! [Laughs]

There is one thing I want to say, which is that I think if you talk to people who think about this stuff a lot, they’ll always tell you virginity is this cultural construct, so let’s dismiss it. The thing is that, it may be a cultural construct but it’s still very, very important to people. I think that the idea of one’s sexual initiation, however you want to describe it, is important and we can’t just toss it out because there’s some issues around it that are problematic.

The other fascinating thing is that when you talk to people who identify as queer—who don’t engage in penis-in-vagina sex, for example—and how they perceive of the concept of virginity, which leaves them completely out of the definition that most people use because it’s a much more nuanced thing. I’ve also talked to people in the asexual community who are like, “This has nothing to do with us. We don’t even want to be called virgins because it’s defining us by whether we’ve had sex or not and we don’t have…it’s not part of our lives. So we don’t want to be defined by something that has nothing to do with us.” That’s also fascinating and makes a lot of sense; I hadn’t thought about it.

A: And even for people who are heterosexual, the definition for “what is sex?” is very different for different people.

T: Yeah, and there’s really no answer to that; there’s no blanket answer where we’re going to write up a virginity manifesto—“We’re all following these rules now”—because it’s too complicated so we can’t do it.

A: You’re raising money to finish editing a rough cut of How to Lose Your Virginity through Kickstarter and you have until July 1st to raise $10,000. And there’s a cocktail party fundraiser for the film in New York City on June 29th. So, besides donating money and telling our friends about the film, what else can readers do to help get this film out there?

T: There are a couple things and only one involves money. The Kickstarter thing is really important. To make an even modest documentary costs about $300,000. And people have been doing stuff for me for free, for really low rates, people have been fantastic. But we cannot, literally can’t do anymore, unless we have cold hard cash, [laughs] because we have to employ an editor full-time. I can’t ask someone to volunteer four months of their life to me, full-time.

So this Kickstarter thing is part of it. And we have to get to this $10,000 goal or we don’t get any of the money that people have pledged, so in the next two weeks, that’s a huge push for us. And I hate asking people for money—I can’t tell you how much. It’s the most detested part of this job, but there you go. Our budget is equal to Tom Cruise’s hair and makeup budget on some other film. And there’s no Hollywood studio asking for a feminist critique of female sexuality in pop culture. [Laughs] They’re just not. So we’re always looking for money. We just can’t ask people to do stuff for free anymore.

The other part of it is that we are looking for subjects. It is very easy for me to find white, Christian young women to talk to me about virginity. It is harder for me to find people who are queer, people of color, trans people. My subject group right now is not diverse enough and it’s something I want to remedy and I know there are people out there from those different communities that could tell their story. And I don’t care what the story is, I just want to hear their story. [If you’re interested in volunteering to be interviewed for Shechter’s film, you can contact her via her website]

A: Is there an expected release date for the film?

T: If we had $30,000 right now, we could have a great rough cut by fall. That means it would then be in the form that people want to see it in order to give us all the finishing money we need.

A: Oh wow. Great.

T: Once you have rough cut, it makes a huge difference. So, yeah, we could have it done this year. The only thing standing in our way is funding, and the funding climate is horrible for everyone. Horrible. So, we’re not taking it personally.

A: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! I'm eagerly awaiting the release of How to Lose Your Virginity.

Our new trailer! "How To Lose Your Virginity" from Trixie Films on Vimeo.

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