This is not the beginning of a story about my virginity. I first met Therese Shechter in a hotel room. We were in San Francisco both attending a sexual health conference. She was in my hotel room to talk about virginity. Not with me, but with my friend and colleague Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen, someone who has more than a few things to say on the topic.
Shechter is the director of How to Lose Your Virginity, a documentary having its US premiere Sunday evening in New York, and the interview was sort of mesmerizing. Over 40 minutes or so a term which most of us take for granted as being some almost medical status (you either are or are not a virgin, you either are or are not allergic to shellfish, you either do or do not have athlete's foot, etc...) was spun out in a dozen ways in a conversation that was as much about history, geography, class, orientation, and culture as it was about a piece of tissue that has for centuries been mis-characterized as the proof of virginity.
I have been waiting for a few years to see the results of that interview along with the dozens of others that Shechter conducted along the way while making How to Lose Your Virginity. I'm happy to say the wait is over. In anticipation of the film's U.S. premiere I asked Shecter a few questions about the film and how spending almost a decade immersed in virgin culture has changed her.
The idea for this film began back in 2005, almost ten years ago. I'm curious to know if your ideas and understanding of virginity changed not just as a result of what you've learned but also from where you are in your life now vs where you were when you started?
The film seems very intertwined with my past and current life, and the intersections happened at various points in production. Initially I was really interested in how young women were shamed for having sex, partly because at the time I was single and dating and very casual about it, and constantly felt the subtle judgements about my own choices.
As I interviewed more people, I quickly realized there was a also considerable amount of shaming around NOT having sex. And that related to my life as well, because I became sexually active only after college and felt at 23 like the oldest living virgin in the world.
One of the revelations in the film is how many older 'virgins' there are out there, and how their stories are hardly ever told except as purity freak shows. Halfway through the film, I got engaged, and that added whole new layer to the film when I started personally exploring the re-virginizing properties of The Big White Dress.
When people find out you spent all these years making a film about virginity do their own stories come out?
All the time! One thing I've noticed is that when guys share their stories, and they often do, it's a fairly nice memory: how old they were, always what music was playing, these good feelings of 'becoming a man.' With the women, I get 'There was so much blood!!!'
The most interesting conversations, when they happen, are either with folks who identify as queer and have a very different relationship with the idea of virginity; or with people who are adults but not sexually active. They've never told anyone, but for some reason they feel they want to tell me. I'm always really honored to be chosen like that. Sadly, I also hear so many stories of sexual assault. Peoples experiences are so diverse, which is something I worked hard to reflect through the people in my film.
You've been immersed in issues around virginity for so long, I'm wondering what you now say to people who say that virginity is X, or that it's easily defined as one thing.
It's a great conversation to have with non-sexuality people because I know I'm going to blow someone's mind as soon as I say 'how do lesbians lose their virginity?' Some guys get this faraway look, because I think they're actually picturing it happening. That usually leads to a pretty interesting conversations although it sometimes takes a lot of prep work just to undo sexism masquerading as conventional wisdom.
Someone recently said to me 'men are the gas, women are the brakes' and so I had to politely deconstruct that for them (as well as introduce a useful new term: slut shaming) When I talk about this with most women, though, I feel as if a light bulbs are going off in their heads, like they're rewriting the story of their first time, so it's no longer about whose penis was the first to go into their vagina.
The film has screened overseas and it's having a US premiere at DOC NYC Film Festival this Sunday. What's next?
Some people feel like once they're done with their film or their book, they want to get on to the next thing as quickly as possible. Not me! After years of slogging through fundraising, shooting, editing, fundraising, and searching for that perfect visual metaphor for an intact hymen (guy bouncing on trampoline!), this part is dessert! I love interacting with the audience, talking to young people, hearing the questions and feedback first hand.
This fall I'm rolling out our outreach to spark dialogue with young people about becoming sexual in these confusing times. I'm doing film festivals, and the college events are starting; the film was the big launch event for Harvard's Sex Week this fall, and a US TV broadcast is in the works. The film was on TV in Israel, Australia, and I did 3 amazing screenings in Israel last month. And I'm continuing to develop The V-Card Diaries, which is a great crowd-sourced story sharing site with over 200 tales of 'sexual debuts and deferrals' submitted by our audience.
I'm hoping to do lots of screenings and workshops in the next year, as well as snag some funding support so we can finish our educators' guide and our online projects.
DOC NYC: How to Lose Your Virginity...................................................
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