An ad seen in the documentary How to Lose Your Virginity. Photo by Therese Schechter.
In How To Lose Your Virginity, director Therese Shechter explores some of life’s big questions. Like: Why all the hype around virginity? The documentary, which came out in 2013 but is now available on DVD and online streaming, discusses the cultural double-bind facing young women, who are expected to be sexy while not having sex. Along the way, Shechter, who directed 2005 film I Was a Teenage Feminist, examines her own sexual history and hears personal stories from sex educators, academics, pornography producers, and abstinence advocates, working to unravel this societal obsession. This film explores the myths and misogyny behind the concept that is on everyone’s mind, but few truly understand. How to Lose Your Virginity also has an interactive component: V-Card Diaries, a website where people submit short essays about their sexual experiences and allows readers to sort for stories by age, gender, and theme. The film’s website also offers real-life virginity punch cards, emblazoned with the phrase “Unlimited V-Card: Each new experience is a virginity to lose.”
I spoke with Therese Shechter about the film, a conversation that delved into the social construction of virginity, the filmmaking process, and the internet’s role in all this.
SHADE SAMUELSON: Can you tell me a bit about the preparation and process of making the film?
THERESE SHECHTER: When my producer Lisa Esselstein and I started thinking about this topic we were really interested in sex education and we were interested in the abstinence-until-marriage programs. We wanted to explore this idea of how women were shamed for being sexual and how our “sex education” system—and I have to use that in quotes—was perpetuating that. The longer I worked on the film and interviewed people, the more it became obvious to me that women were shamed whether they were sexual or not sexual, whether they were having sex or not having sex. So I thought it would be really interesting to also look at women who had decided to put off becoming sexual, and how that was working for them, and look at the media chatter going on about being a virgin and not being a virgin.
The opening of the film is a shot of the basement where you had sex for the first time. Was it hard for you to put your own story of virginity and sexuality into the film? Or did you feel that it was vital to the accessibility of the film and the community you were trying to create?
Well, both [laughs]. I’m a first-person filmmaker so a lot of my work at some point includes my own personal questioning, but it’s also a real art to find how much of me I really want to talk about because you don’t want it to be some giant confessional. I think it’s also important because I’m asking other people to talk about sex and their own personal relationship to becoming sexual. It’s important that I’m also willing to do some of that myself. I’m not just sort of standing off to the side and saying “Okay, spill.” I’m saying, “I know how hard it is because I’m also doing it.”
Were there any discoveries you made during the filming or the editing process that you were surprised by?
I found it fascinating the different ways that we’ve defined this idea of virginity over time. It’s not a static concept at all, it’s used to wield power. Virginity is something that is defined and given meaning [based on] whatever society wants to make of it. And that meaning is going to change, depending on the society—who’s deciding what’s important, and who’s running the joint. One of the things I was delighted by was to be able to talk about the Vestal Virgins. We don’t know much about the Vestal Virgins, but the fact that there were these ancient temple priestesses, and that virginity had nothing to do with purity at all, it had everything to do with autonomy and the fact that women who were with men had no freedom whatsoever, which we know is still happening today. Their freedom from men was what was important for them to do their job, that was really fascinating to me. And that’s my definition of virginity, so up to the moment I got married I could’ve called myself a virgin, because I wasn’t legally, officially, attached to [my husband].
Another thing that I started thinking about a lot was how the concept of virginity plays out in queer communities. It wasn’t something I had previously thought about in any real depth. I’m not queer, and the second I started talking to queer people about it, it suddenly opened up this whole new way of thinking. And I find that when I ask [people] what virginity means to them, I would say 99 percent of the time people say intercourse. So then I ask, “Then how do two lesbians lose their virginity?” This is when I’m talking to [male-identified folks] mostly, and the guys get this confused look on their face and I think it’s the first time they’ve ever had to think about this concept. They’re not having intercourse, but they are having sex. Does this mean they’re going to be virgins all their lives? It’s easy to blow peoples minds with the most basic things, because nobody ever talks about it, and watching mainstream media, queer stories around sexuality are so rare.
How do you think that access to more information through social media and the internet has changed the conversation surrounding virginity?
Well, I think it has changed the conversation around sexuality in general. I think it has in a very positive way, actually, broadened the conversation and given a lot of people access to support and access to other people’s experiences. Having the internet has been a huge blessing. Because you can find communities and you can find support and you can find that kind of reinforcement that your choices are valid and other people have made them. That’s why we do the V-Card Diaries, which is a collection of stories - we have over 400 of them now - and the V-Card Diaries is a way to show the diversity of experiences. However, media has also kind of been a piece of shit, in the way that it perpetuates a lot of stereotypes and allows people with very toxic attitudes and very toxic ideas to communicate them in that same public forum.
Will you tell me a little more about the switch from framing virginity as one magical moment to more of a mindset? Or what you described in the film as a “virginity punch card”?
The reusable v-card? [laughs]. Well that came a lot from talking to people and asking people about important sexual milestones. Particularly with women, a lot of women didn’t have too much to say about the first time they had intercourse, if they had ever had intercourse or if that was something that they ever wanted to do. A lot of women would say that the first time they had an orgasm was way more important. Or, the first time they felt really comfortable with another person, being intimate with another person, that’s their most important memory. So, the idea is that we needed to get away from that magical “penis in vagina” moment, from telling people that that’s the most important thing, and really broaden it and ask people, “Well, what do you think was the most important thing?” Sex is this huge, huge thing. I didn’t want to get rid of the concept of virginity altogether because it seems to be pretty ingrained in our culture, but I wanted to redefine it. I wanted to define it by saying, “Well, you can define it by what’s important to you and if you want to have 10 different times when you’ve lost a virginity then that’s totally fine.” And the fact that becoming sexual is this really, really long process with a lot of first times and a lot of first experiences, to isolate it into this one tiny moment when a penis enters a vagina doesn’t make any sense at all.
Watch the trailer for How to Lose Your Virginity:
If you’re in the Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco area be sure to check out How To Lose Your Virginity’s upcoming screenings, which Shechter herself attending to answer all your burning questions! RSVP to the screenings here.
Shade Samuelson is a student, artist, community organizer, and avid concert-goer living in Portland, Oregon.