What is a virgin? It seems like a question with a straightforward answer – someone who’s never had sex…right? But in her new documentary How to Lose your Virginity, Therese Shechter wants us to know that the issue of virginity is not so simple. Okay, let’s say for the moment that a virgin is someone who has never had sex. But how do you define “sex”? And why are we making this state so important?
How to Lose your Virginity takes the concepts of virginity, sexual purity, and abstinence and lays them on the table for discussion. What kind of sexual intercourse qualifies as a virginity-busting tactic? If, according to some, oral and anal sex “don’t count,” is the homosexual community designated virginal for life? What are abstinence-only programs in schools teaching girls about their autonomy and their bodies? And what’s going on in a society where an artificial hymen can be purchased for one’s wedding night for a measly $29.95 (free shipping)?
The film explores the contradictory messages girls are bombarded with every day: “Having sex makes you a slut, damaged goods, or eternally damned” and “Everybody’s having sex, and you’re an outcast if you haven’t.” Each of the film’s interviews takes on an engaging and fascinatingly different take on “swiping your V-Card,” with subjects ranging from Lena Chen, former Harvard student and curator of the collegiate sexuality blog Sex and the Ivy to Erica McLean, director and producer of Barely Legal, the leader in the surprisingly (or not) lucrative business of virginity porn. “How to Lose your Virginity uncovers the myths and misogyny surrounding a rite of passage that many obsess about but few truly understand,” making it a must-see for anyone interested in thinking about how we think about sex. And fortunately for us, its US premiere is Sunday, November 17 in New York City!
Therese Shechter is also the director of I Was a Teenage Feminist, How I Learned to Speak Turkish, and #Slutwalknyc. She runs The V-Card Diaries, an online project collecting stories about sexual “debuts and deferrals.” I was lucky enough to sit down with Therese and talk about the film, what virginity is and isn’t, and the different ways we can experience sexual “debuts or deferrals.”
Allison Epstein: Was there a specific moment or event that inspired you to make this film now? Why do you think it’s so important?
Therese Shechter: I think the first thing that got my attention was the abstinence until marriage programs, which in the 2000s, Bush had pushed into overdrive. I was thinking about this film back in 2005, about how these programs were, and still are, not teaching anything about sex and sex education. The more I explored what was being taught in those programs, the more I thought about this concept of virginity as this one-time “magic moment” with terrible consequences if you don’t do it right.
We think it’s a really basic idea. If you ask someone how someone loses their virginity, people have an idea in their heads. Actually, the way we think about virginity has this really fascinating history. It’s got a lot of religions connections, it’s got political connections, and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Also, as someone who considered myself an older virgin, I remember feeling really awkward and annoyed once I finally had intercourse. I remember thinking, “Are you kidding me? Is this the thing?” It seemed very clear to me that becoming a sexual person was really a process, it wasn’t something that happened in someone’s basement one night. I wanted to show a diversity of ideas about what becoming sexual really means.
AE: One of the really interesting points in the film was how abstinence-only programs hype up the idea of sex to make it a really big deal for people, as is the case with most things that we’re forbidden to have. What kind of impact do you think that has on people?
TS: I don’t mean to say that people don’t have really wonderful sexual experiences. There are just so many ways to become sexual, and so many ways you might feel about it. I have young women writing me because they had intercourse with somebody and regretted it afterwards because the guy was a jerk or it didn’t work out, or it was just really weird and awkward, and then they sort of feel like they’ve blown their sex lives forever. Where I sit now, decades after I was in that position, I tell them, “No, no, no, you have a really long life ahead of you! You may be really unhappy about how things went, and I don’t blame you, but you’ve got lots of experiences ahead of you.” The first time you drive a car doesn’t determine how you’ll drive the rest of your life. It’s a process.
AE: It was great how you got so many different people to talk to you about virginity, their experiences, and their mindsets. Did you find it difficult to get people to talk about this, considering how much of a taboo is around sex, especially for women?
TS: Sure, it’s really awkward to talk about our own sex lives, partially because we always feel like we’re measuring our lives against some popular culture yardstick that doesn’t actually exist. There were some people that were pretty keen to talk to me and relate their stories, maybe because they were in such a good place now that they were happy to talk about it. For other people I interviewed, I felt like I had to earn their trust. With them, we met and I really talked them through what I was looking to talk about. During our interviews, I would tell them, “If you don’t want to answer questions, just tell me and I’ll move on.” I wish documentaries could be open-ended sometimes, because I’d love to keep following these women’s stories.
AE: Virginity in some people’s minds is a very important thing, even though the overall message of the film questioned the nature of virginity. Do you think there is a place for the abstinence only, “wait until marriage” belief on virginity? Does that work for some people?
TS: I think that if you feel like you want to save all of your sexual experiences for one person, the person you marry, that is a completely legitimate choice. The issue I have with the abstinence movement is not that they tell people to wait until they get married, it’s that they try to make their case using really bad science and sexism and shame. If you’re trying to sell this idea and you can’t find real data, then that’s a problem. For people who choose to have sex, I feel like they shouldn’t be told they’re going to go to hell, or go crazy, or die of an illness.
The problem with these particular abstinence programs is, they basically say, “Don’t do it or you’ll die. Condoms don’t work. We’re not teaching you about abortion. We’re not teaching you about the concept of being gay.” If you happen to be a gay high school kid in an abstinence class, you’re basically being told you don’t exist, and if you dare to exist you are going to go to hell. It’s not the idea of remaining abstinent until marriage, which is a completely valid choice. It’s how that is foisted on people with no other options and with a lot of judgment.
TS: We’ve launched an online project called The V-Card Diaries, which collects stories from people about sexual debuts and deferrals. We have over 200 stories already, and they’re coming in fast and furious! You can read a lot of different kinds of stories, and you can submit your own. When you submit a story, we send you your very own reusable V-card (see image on left) , so I’d love for people to check that out and submit!
AE: Where can people view this film? How can people explore your work more deeply and get involved?
TS: The main hub is our website, virginitymovie.com. If you’re in the New York area, our US premiere is happening on Sunday, November 17 at 9:30, which we’re really excited about. The film is available for schools and organizations to buy, and you can find out about that on our website under “get the film”. The best thing to do is get on our mailing list to keep up with our news. If anyone’s reading this from a college or an organization, just go to our website and click on “Get the film” to find out how they can order it and how they can bring me to their school, which I love to do!
More by Therese Shechter on Adios Barbie: