Maybe you became sexually active a long time ago. Or sex doesn’t really interest you. Or you’ve done a couple sexual activities but are taking it slowly. No matter who you are or where you live, you will have thought about whether or not you are a “virgin” — and what exactly being a “virgin” means.
The 2013 documentary by Therese Shechter (above) called “How To Lose Your Virginity” spans purity balls, school hallways and the porn set of “Barely Legal” to explore our cultural fascination with virginity and the myths that surround it. American society has made it clear that even if we can’t exactly agree on what “virginity” means, we still hold it in reverence, particularly for women. We are, after all, the country that promotes abstinence-only education in far too many classrooms and allows eight-year-old girls to promise their fathers they will remain virgins until marriage. And did you know you could purchase a fake hymen for $30 on the Internet?
Lucky for you, “How To Lose Your Virginity” debuts on Saturday, February 8th at 8 p.m. EST on Fusion (check cable providers here) with other screenings after that. On a recent snowy day, I chatted with Therese over Skype about virginity (obviously), abstinence-only sex education, white panties, and “the magical penis”.
Therese Shechter: Well, I think my initial inspiration was the abstinence-until-marriage programs in the U.S., which inspired a lot of very angry journalism about how we talk to young people about sex. That was back in the mid-2000s, and I started looking into sex education sort of generally. But every interview we did when we started talking about virginity specifically and the complexities around it and the impossibility of defining it, it got me very interested. So there was this thing that I thought was a pretty simple thing, as many people do — how you lose your virginity — very quickly turned into a very complex concept that brought in history and pop culture and politics and religion and science. Of course, that’s perfect for a documentary filmmaker to get out the complexity of an idea that everybody thinks is actually pretty simple.
Was it difficult at all to get people to talk on film somewhat intimately about sex? People were very candid with their own experiences.
Yeah, I continue to be so grateful at the generosity of the people who agreed to be on camera, because we all know how difficult it is to talk honestly about your own sexual life. One of the reasons I made the film is because of that problem — everything gets shrouded in mythology. Some people were very eager to talk, to share their own stories. Like Ellen Westberg who’s at the beginning of the film, the one that had a terrible wedding night. Ellen, as soon as I contacted her, was really very eager. She said ‘yes, I would love to share this story.’ Other people were a lot more reticent, but you know, it’s a process of gaining trust. I would have a lot of conversations, I would meet with people, I would show them other work I was doing. Luckily, there was a blog [about the film] in the works so I could point them to the blog so they knew exactly where I was coming from. For one particular subject, I was the only person there I was a one-person crew shooting interview to put them more at ease, but I would say it’s sort of like getting consent. Every step of the way you want to have trust and communication and make sure you’re getting consent. And I think partly, too, because I was sharing my own story pretty openly, it felt like sort of a give and take almost. It definitely helped for them to be able to look at my other work and really understand what that was like.
Something I didn’t realize until I watched the documentary, and I’m surprised that I didn’t realize it, was that there are some young people who have anal sex or oral sex but they’re still calling themselves a “virgin” or claiming that they are abstinent until marriage because it isn’t penis-in-vagina sex.
[A]bstinence-until-marriage [education] teaches you these pretty vague concepts when it comes to sex and I found that people were very unclear about what they were allowed to do and not allowed to do. That’s one reason why there is so much confusion and distress around this issue, because people want to be “good” but they don’t even know how that’s defined and the definition shifts all the time. So yes, there were a lot of people who sort of define themselves on these different levels of virginity, including the young people I interviewed that sort of come back through the film.
I think that really sticks to the fact that there is no one definition of virginity. It’s this concept that really cannot be defined, there’s no medical definition. … [T]here’s no medical definition, so we’re sort of left floundering to define it for ourselves because it’s so important to define it, to know where you stand, what side of that line you stand on. I think that’s why you get all these definitions, and at the end of the film we suggest this idea to look at virginity as a series of experiences that make up our sexual history instead of this one ‘before and after’ moment. That you can have a lot of quote-unquote ‘virginity losses’ in your life, and it all adds up to the process of becoming sexual.
I really related to the woman Ellen in the film, who was talking about how she waited until marriage to have sex and then she didn’t like it, and it took her several years and new partners to finally enjoy sex. Basically that exact same thing happened to me. I can remember saying as a 20-year-old, 21-year-old to a boyfriend I had at the time that I just didn’t like sex. It wasn’t until I got older and was 24, 25 and got more comfortable with kink that I realized, like, “Oh! This is what I am!” and “This is what they’re all talking about!” [Laughs] Even though that’s not directly related to virginity, I think that you’re absolutely onto something with the idea that we put so much emphasis on the first time and that it’s going to be a certain way and that it’s going to mean a certain thing. That it leads to a lot of — especially for women — disappointing sexuality, for sometimes years and years and years. And you don’t understand that it’s not you, there’s not something wrong with you. I thought there was something wrong with me! I went to a sex therapist actually, and was asking her “Why is it that I don’t like sex?’ And it wasn’t that I don’t like sex, it was that I was having the wrong sex!
Yeah, that’ll do it. Well, there are a few things going on there. Look, there are some people who don’t like sex, who aren’t interested in sex, and we call them asexual and that’s fine. I hear from people who are asexual who really dismiss this whole “virgin” thing because it has nothing to do with their lives!
That’s a good point.
But for the bulk of us, I suspect, and for women especially, it takes a while to figure out what you like. But the other interesting thing is that we’re really focused on intercourse, which is very heteronormative. We really look at intercourse and what I like to call “the magical penis” that comes and makes us sexual people. And of course, before you have intercourse, you might be having all kinds of other sex that you really do enjoy a lot! You may be masturbating, you may be having oral sex or what I want to call ‘manual sex’ because there’s no good word for it with a partner and you really like it, and then you have intercourse and you don’t like it, you don’t have an orgasm, you don’t know what’s wrong with you because you’ve been led to understand that this is “real” sex and there’s something wrong with you because you’re not responding. So again, it’s like that “one magic moment” thing causes a lot of distress and confusion and it takes a long time. … I say in the movie I had intercourse for the first time when I was 23, but it took me much longer to actually have an orgasm with another person in the room. That came afterwards. And that, to me, was a much more gratifying moment than the penis-entering-vagina moment which was awkward.
Anyway, back to the film: What was your takeaway from going to the porn set of the “Barely Legal” films where the actresses are all pretending to be these sexually naive young women?
Well, I deliberately didn’t want [my film] to be about “porn is good” or “porn is bad,” because that’s a fine conversation but not one that could be accommodated in this film. What I was really interested in is how pornography defines virginity for its own use, and further to that, this fetishization and commodification of young women’s bodies and the concept of “virgin.” So I found it a really fascinating place to shoot. It’s one of the most interesting shoots I’ve ever done, actually and Erica McLean, who runs “Barely Legal,” is really professional and she runs a really good film set. You know, there’s lots of food, everyone’s joking around, people seem to be in a good mood, and I know that there are porn sets that are not like that at all, but this particular one was great.
But it was interesting that everyone [filming "Barely Legal" that day], they weren’t thinking too deeply about it. So it was challenging to interview people because there wasn’t a lot of introspection about, you know, “What does it mean that I’m dressed up in these white panties and I’m pretending to be innocent and then I become a raging sex fiend?”’ They weren’t thinking about it too much, so that was challenging. … And a lot of people asked me, ‘are those girls really virgins?’ and I’m like, ‘no, they’re professional adult film actresses who are paid to play a role.’
I got that question so many times. I said, “No, they’re actresses, they’re in costume, they’re playing this part for your masturbatory benefit,” you know. There are rumors of some first intercourse porn films, but I asked our expert porn consultant about them and he can’t even verify that they’re actually happening.
It sounds like to verify whether adult film actresses are genuinely losing their virginity on film that you’d have to get pretty clinical, like a gynecologist at the casting or something.
Well, even a gynecologist, a good gynecologist will say that they can’t tell by looking at a woman’s hymen whether she’s ever had penetrative sex or not. You can’t tell. You don’t really know. Like many parts of our body, it sort of changes over time. As an example, my skin changes a lot, you know? So one day you might think I’m a person with pimples, and another day I’m not, or then my skin looks really dry one day. It’s really hard to make these assumptions about the state of a hymen, which is what people sort of are looking at. So there’s really no way to know. As a doctor who we interviewed in the film was telling me, the only way you know is by asking. And then that gets to the question of ‘Why do you need to know? Why is it so important to know this thing?’
So what’s been the reaction that you’ve gotten to the documentary, both positive and negative?
I’m really happy that we’ve gotten a great response! The film is really for high school and college students primarily, but obviously there’s a wider audience than that. I just did a screening at MIT on Monday night… I think the best thing for people to take away, that I think people are taking away, is sort of brand new things to think about and a really new way to look at their own sexual histories, a reframing of their sexual experiences that they have had or are yet to happen.
We’ve gotten really good response from the press also, especially feminist sexuality press. I just got interviewed by a conservative publication, which is good because they have been writing these stories about like, “Oh there’s this film called ‘I Was A Teenage Feminist.’’ [Shechter's previous film] Can you imagine?”Without ever having seen the film or the press kit or talking to me! Maybe they watched the trailer, and so they’re writing stories about how I’m basically saying virginity doesn’t matter and everyone should just have sex and things like that. It’s like, it’s not really that simple. But I just did an interview with [some conservative press], I haven’t seen the story yet, so we’ll see how it goes.
It’s good that conservative publications are interested in writing about the film! I think that with the kind of stuff — like the films that you do and the kind of writing I do for The Frisky — we always run the risk of just speaking to the converted. Even though I generally don’t like the things that conservative bloggers will write about the things I say, I’m at least happy that they’re getting exposed to it. I’m happy that they’re getting their readers exposed to it and so I think that’s awesome. I just hope that they’re fair to you.
That’s the reason I said yes [to the interview], because I would really like the exposure. I would really like people who go to more conservative media to know that this film exists, and they can make up their own minds about it…. University of Texas had a screening of the film [and i]t’s in the Salt Lake City public library system. Just seeing who’s bought the film, that makes me happy that it’s in a lot of places that are more conservative than New York City and that there’s this resource there for people if they want it.
That’s really great.
Yeah, I love that.
Is there anything else that you think I didn’t ask?
Well, one thing I’d love to talk about just a little bit is our V-Card Diaries project. We’ve been collecting stories that people will send in, what we call sexual debuts and deferrals. People write stories about still being virgins, about losing their virginity, about virginity being a social construct that’s utter bullshit — straight, queer, poly, male, female, ‚from places all over the world. So we have this amazing collection that continues to grow online and it’s got a very cool interface that’s organized in a way that’s unique, which is sort of about how people feel about the sex they’re having. ‘I just want to get it over with’ is one category, ‘I’m waiting until marriage’ is another. ‘I was sexually assaulted’ is another category, and I would love people to know about it, to use it as a resource, to really see the diversity of experience and to know that they’re not crazy or alone, which is how I often felt as a youth, and to send us stories as well. We’re building that up, I’m trying to get funding to build it out a little more and it’s really all about trying to expand and diversify the conversation about becoming sexual, because we know that pop culture isn’t doing it and our government is not funding it. So someone, a bunch of us on the internet, are trying to do it that way.
Learn more about “How To Lose Your Virginity” here!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.