This is the question that feminist filmmaker Therese Shechter explores in her charming and provocative new documentary How To Lose Your Virginity — a film that might make you rethink everything you know about sex.
Virginity has a deceptively simple question at its core: What is a virgin? The answer is more complicated than it seems. If a virgin is someone who has never had sex, then what is sex? If sex is defined as P-in-V intercourse, then are lesbians and gay men life-long virgins? Do personal definitions of intimacy matter? Does it count if it doesn't go all the way in? Or if someone is raped? What about oral or anal — are there different kinds of virgins? And if virginity is a state of not having done something, how can it also be a thing that is given up or taken away?
Most importantly, why is the impetus to remain pure so often thrust upon women?
In addressing these issues, How To Lose Your Virginity offers a nuanced portrayal of the cultural expectations surrounding sex and abstinence while treating a spectrum of sexual experiences — or deliberate lack thereof — with the dignity they deserve.
I spoke with Shechter about defining virginity, what it's like to hang out on a porn set, and how putting purity on a pedestal denies a woman's sexual autonomy and contributes to rape culture.
Julianne Ross (JR): How would you define virginity, if you think we need a definition at all for it? Do you think we should just do away with the word?
Therese Shechter (TS): There's part of me that wants to say let's just do away with the word because it has so many bad connotations related to women being property, having control of female bodies, shame, and guilt. But I think that the concept of becoming a sexual person is really important for people. I've talked to so many people on this topic, and this is a real milestone in people's lives.
I would like to sort of redefine what [virginity] is. It's not necessarily putting a penis into a vagina. It's not this magical moment when everything changes. I don't think we can get rid of the term, but I'd just like to broaden our understanding of what it means and how it affects us. I would love think about becoming a sexual person as part of a process — as something that happens over a long period of time. Because that's how we are as sexual people.
Underlying the issues around rape culture and virginity culture is this idea that women's sexuality has to be controlled, that women's sexuality is not something women can control themselves, or that women can't have any sexual agency.
We give out these V-Cards, which have 10 cherries that you can punch or cross off. We're subverting that notion that virginity is a one-time thing, and that this one-time thing is all that matters.
JR: The interviews in the film are so intimate. How did you get people to open up so much to you? Was there a lot of prodding, or were people really eager to talk about this?
TS: I think that any documentary filmmaker who is talking to people about an awkward subject needs to do a lot of work to gain the trust of their subjects. Some of the people I spoke to were really keen on sharing their stories. With other people, I had to write a lot of emails, we'd meet for coffee, I made my previous work available to them, I pointed them towards my blog — I just wanted them to understand where I was coming from and how I would treat sensitive topics.
We also have a really small crew. We don't set up lights. We're very bare bones. I want people to feel as little as possible like they're on a film set. We create a really intimate environment that way as well.
And I tell people what I want to talk about, and I tell them to feel free to just say they don't want to go there, or they don't want to answer that question. In a project like this, I'm not out to embarrass anyone. I want to honor their experiences. And the only way I can do that is to be super honest. It's like getting consent every step of the way.
We give young people so little good and useful information about sex that it creates this vacuum that then gets filled with popular culture, with abstinence until marriage programs, with porn.
JR: Another thing that struck me were the scenes where you asked students questions about sexuality, because a lot of their answers seemed sexist. They had some antiquated beliefs about purity, about how many people a person should sleep with, and that it's worse for a woman to have a higher number. I expected a younger generation to be more progressive. Did you find their answers surprising?
TS: We shot [those scenes] with three different groups of young people. They're college students. Sometimes they were repeating things that people had told them, and sometimes they were sharing their own opinions. I think that the kids were really great. I think they were just picking up everything that's in our air and in our water about how we talk about female sexuality and male sexuality.
We give young people so little good and useful information about sex that it creates this vacuum that then gets filled with popular culture, with abstinence until marriage programs, with porn. It gets filled with a lot of things that are not the most reliable sources of information and really market a lot of stereotypes. And that's reflected when you talk to them.
JR: What were your views on abstinence before filming, and did speaking with people like Brita and Sarah [who chose to remain abstinent] change them in any way?
TS: Personally, I couldn't have imagined waiting until I got married and I couldn't imagine only being with one person. This was just not the way I wanted to live my own sexual life. However, everyone has a different way of living, and everyone has different ideas about [sex].
One of the things I have against abstinence until marriage programs is the fact that people who are going through those programs make these decisions to remain abstinent until marriage based on really bad information — on sexist information and bad science and a lot of shaming and guilt. What struck me with people like Sarah and Brita was that they'd made their decisions in an informed way. They understood what everything meant and they knew what they wanted to do with their bodies. So they made informed decisions about their own lives, and I think that's the goal no matter what you choose to do.
JR: I was also surprised by the segment at Barely Legal — it was not at all how I imagined a porn set would be. What was it like being on set?
TS: I'm happy to tell you! I'm curious how you pictured it?
JR: It was just very calm, and there was all this food set out. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. I just imagined something sleazier.
TS: Yeah, that's really what it was like. I've been on a lot of film sets, and this was a very well-run set. There was a lot of food; everyone was in a good mood. Erica, Barely Legal's producer and the director, is very motherly.
Having said that, there were some sleazy people there. Some of the girls' agents were amazingly sleazy. And of course you're standing there watching people have sex on the hood of a car, so that's really weird and kind of disturbing. It was a strange experience. But it's not what we expected either.
Rape culture has to do with not valuing women as human beings. Rape culture has to do with feeling like women are objects who are there to be used, who have no agency and no bodily autonomy.
Now, this is one porn set out of about a million, and there are a lot of sets that are sleazy and awful. This just didn't happen to be one of them. My sense is that Erica is pretty legendary, and that people really like to work with her.
An adult film actress tries on iconic white panties on the set of Barely Legal.
JR: What do you think is the connection between the fetishization of virginity and rape culture?
TS: I think it's this idea of judging women based on what's going on between their legs, and then categorizing, valuing, and possibly punishing them based on that. Rape culture has to do with not valuing women as human beings. Rape culture has to do with feeling like women are objects who are there to be used, who have no agency and no bodily autonomy. Rape culture also then punishes women for being sexual in any way, and says that it's their sexuality that attracts the men who can't help themselves.
Underlying the issues around rape culture and virginity culture is this idea that women's sexuality has to be controlled, that women's sexuality is not something women can control themselves, or that women can't have any sexual agency. It's somebody feeling like they have a perfect right to access a woman's body without her consent — especially if she's had sex before, because then she's thought of as a slut.
And this is even more apparent when you're talking about women of color — this idea that their bodies are there to be sexualized. This complete lack of understanding that women need to have agency over their own sexual lives underlies all of this.
JR: When I was watching this film I kept thinking about how much I wished that I'd seen it in high school. Do you have any plans to work with schools, or to work with sex education programs in the future?
TS: Thank you for asking that! We're distributed by Women Make Movies, which is a great source of films for schools and organizations. You can buy the film through them and use it in classes. That's all going really well. I personally have been doing screenings, too. I was just at Harvard's Sex Week to screen the film as their big kickoff, which was really amazing. I love taking it to schools, and being there, and doing Q&As.
The biggest reason I made this film was so we could use it to spark some dialogue about healthy sexuality. That's really why I do this stuff, and I would love to see [the film] in lots of high schools. I know that it's going to get wide distribution in colleges, and I hope I get to do a lot of screenings and programs and workshops with it.
'How To Lose Your Virginity' premieres November 17th as part of the DOC NYC Festival. Head to the film's website to get tickets, learn more about virginity culture, and share your own virginity story through Shechter's 'V-Card Diaries' project.