Therese Shechter on Losing Your Virginity
Ever had a sexual experience? Then welcome to the magical world of "virginity," where a white wedding dress can restore a sexually-active 40-something's innocence, a set of pigtails can turn even the most experienced porn performer chaste, and a new hymen can be shipped from China for about 30 bucks. Documentary filmmaker Therese Shechter explores the culture of denouncing sex (even while you're doing it) in "How to Lose Your Virginity," a film about our cultural obsession with chastity— and the way its meaning shifts mysteriously depending upon the implement and the orifice.
Shechter has got nine days to raise a couple thousand dollars to finish the film; while she's waiting to seal the deal, she agreed to answer some questions about surrendering your precious chastity orb to that one special fella who will ensure its proper maintenance until death do you part:
SEXIST: What's it like making a movie about people not doing something?
TS: The definition of virginity is so subject to interpretation. A Mormon college student who considers herself a virgin did a post for my blog, The American Virgin, about how enthusiastically sexually active she was, even though she was waiting for her wedding night to have intercourse. In the film you get the whole spectrum of sexual activity, from Cindy, a very religious and abstinent 30-something screenwriter I met at the Sundance Film Festival, to former ‘abstinence poster girl’ Shelby Knox who now runs seminars called “Fucking While Feminist.” This is all pretty much North America I'm talking about, by the way. There's so much more to say about the rest of the world and I deal with a lot of that on the blog.
SEXIST: In your pursuit of understanding our culture's obsession with virginity, you've examined a variety of industries and subcultures that rely on our fascination with virginity for their own purposes—from "barely legal" porn producers to wedding dress retailers to religious abstainers. How have you seen the meaning of "virginity" shift to satisfy these different contexts?
TS: I think they’re remarkably similar in that they all work within the fantasy of female sexual purity as something to be fetishized. They have different props—the Big White Wedding Dress, porn’s white panties, and the purity ring—but all use a sort of ritualized process whereby a symbolically virginal female is offered up to a male for deflowering. I say symbolic because the porn actress is definitely not a virgin, we’re pretty certain that most modern brides aren’t either, and given our shaky definition of the V-word, we might not even consider some purity pledgers to be totally chaste. But it’s the fetishization of all three that really fascinates me. For whose benefit is it this being played out?
Interestingly, in shooting these scenes, I felt the most comfortable in the company of the pornographers. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’d sooner go back to Barely Legal Ranch than a bridal salon or an abstinence conference.
How does our culture's emphasis on virginity affect men and women differently?
TS: That’s kind of at the heart of it all, isn’t it?
There are the abstinence-until-marriage programs and purity balls that focus almost exclusively on female virginity, going as far as having young girls symbolically hand over their purity to their father for safekeeping until their wedding night when it gets transferred to the husbands. You know, we may cringe at this, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s just a more blatant version of the traditional wedding ceremony. That’s something I really get into in the film as I deal with my own wedding planning and all its chastity-based rituals.
In terms of more mainstream culture (and by that I mean teen sex comedies), I think it used to be that the guys had to be total horndogs and get rid of their virginity as quickly as possible, and the gals had to defend the castle for as long as possible. I feel like recently there’s been a cultural shift where the guys are still basically supposed to be horndogs but it’s now okay for gals to have pre-marital sex under the right conditions (i.e., sex with your perfect boyfriend in a romantic setting with scented candles, possibly after prom, after you’ve professed your love for each other). And by sex, I mean intercourse. I think the idea that a woman needs a penis in her vagina to turn her into a full-fledged sexual being is still pretty prevalent. In reality, young men and women do all sorts of things sexually that don’t fit these gender-based scripts at all, but then they run the risk of being judged, shamed or punished by their peers, media, religious authorities, what have you.
Something seems to change for women in college. Young women talk about this in the film: there’s this metaphysical dividing line between high school, where no one is talking about having sex, and college, where everyone is expected to be having sex. Except not too much. Because that would be slutty, or according to the media, soul-killing (see: Caitlin Flanagan’s article “Love, Actually” in The Atlantic Monthly). The flip side of all this is if you don’t feel ready for sex, you’re considered freakish or undesirable, so you end up either keeping that fact to yourself or doing a bunch of stuff you don’t really want to do.
What’s really interesting is how this plays out after college with people who haven’t yet had sex. Those earlier expectations—that ladies should only have sex when in love and guys should be getting some nightly—often continue past the college years. The women are usually still waiting for that ‘special someone,’ and the men are so totally humiliated by their lack of horndog experience that they just withdraw. I hear this so often—people just assume that not only is everyone but them having sex all the time, but that no one would want to have anything to do with someone who was sexually inexperienced. Again, I think it’s the script we think we should be following so we’re not honest about what’s really going on. I got into this film project because I was pissed off by how women were shamed for being sexual, but as I’ve looked deeper, I’ve found there’s a significant portion of people out there who feel shamed for being non-sexual. I was a post-college bloomer myself, so I can relate.
I think it’s interesting that if you’re queer, you don’t really have a cultural script to follow, because among other things your sex life isn’t about penis-in-vagina sex. Maybe that’s good because you can create your own script when it comes to sexual initiation. I love the Marshall character in “The United States of Tara,” and I’m hoping the writers are building up to some kind of interestingly complex virginity loss scenario. I haven’t seen all of season 2 yet, so if it happens in Episode 11, don’t tell me about it.
In your work on the issue, have you come to find any healthy, inclusive, and non-judgmental conceptions of what "virginity" could mean? Or should we just call the whole "virginity" thing off?
TS: I don’t think we can call the ‘virginity’ thing off. Even though it’s socially constructed, impossible to really define (there isn’t even a medical definition), and often employed as a tool of the patriarchy, virginity still matters. For most of us, sex is important, and the first time you have a significant intimate moment, it’s a milestone (maybe not the best one, but a milestone nonetheless). But it’s hopefully just the first of many milestones in our sexual lives.
So, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the word ‘virgin,’ just the values we attach to it. Virginity is already imprinted with so many meanings, depending on who you’re listening to. It would be nice to be able to create our own personal language of sexuality, and dis-engage it from religious dogma, double standards, the fantasy porn sex you just downloaded or last night’s episode of Gossip Girl.
We spent a whole day talking about all this at the “Rethinking Virginity” conference where I was a panelist, and in the end it came down to this: Do whatever you want with whomever you want as long as it’s consensual and safe. Go forth and shag. Or don’t. That’s fine too.
Your film is called "How to Lose Your Virginity." Any tips?
TS: Unfortunately, no. I’m hoping that by the time you’re done watching the film, you think that phrase is absurd. There’s no right way, we’re not losing anything, and virginity is ultimately an ephemeral and elusive concept. So maybe you’ll be mindfucked, but you’ll still technically be a virgin.