Q & A Sexuality

Let’s Talk About Sex: A Discussion With the Filmmakers of ‘How to Lose Your Virginity’ and ‘Subjectified’

Sarah Seltzer

Two new documentaries directed by young women operate under a shared thesis: Women need to talk about sex.

Two new documentaries directed by young women operate under a shared thesis: Women need to talk about sex.

In How to Lose Your Virginity, which premieres this week, director Therese Shechter intersperses vintage sex-ed footage with candid interviews and her own story of lost virginity. The film introduces us to women who are abstinent, sexually active, and in between, with lots of cheek and humor.

Melissa Tapper Goldman’s film, Subjectified, now screening online for a nominal fee, includes a series of interviews with nine young women from different backgrounds. Goldman asks candid questions about topics ranging from their periods to past abuse, present pleasure, and pubic hair.

The filmmakers are now soliciting the same candor shown in their films from their audiences, with Shechter’s V-Card Diaries project and Tapper Goldman’s Tumblr project Do Tell. In a week in which New York Magazine is centering the stories of women’s abortions and the biggest article in the New Yorker is a woman describing a stillbirth in wrenching detail, it feels like we’re having a moment in which a kind of sharing once relegated to privacy is becoming an acceptable part of public discourse. And this is a good thing.

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It’s clear that when it comes sexuality, there is no “normal.” The two filmmakers, unsurprisingly, are big fans of each others’ work, and so I decided to pick both their brains at once. Though we were only chatting virtually and couldn’t dish about sex over coffee, as they usually do when they get together, our discussion was a rich brew anyway.

Rewire: Let’s talk about finding a space for pro-sexuality feminist work in both feminist and mainstream realms.

Melissa Tapper Goldman: Making the work accessible and relevant sometimes means using plain language and operating outside the confines of feminist spaces and discourses, even when that’s where my framework comes from.

Therese Shechter: I just did a TV interview today, and I felt like I spent a lot of time just undoing all the conventional wisdom the hosts were saying to me: “Men are the gas, and women are the brakes.”

Rewire: Both of your films are effective at dispelling the idea of a socially predetermined norm, just through the varied stories of your subjects.

TS: It’s crucial to name these stereotypes and dismantle them piece by piece. You won’t believe the number of people who have come to me after watching How to Lose Your Virginity with the new realization that the hymen had nothing to do with someone’s sexual history.

MTG: One of the persistent misconceptions I bump up against is the question of vaginal versus clitoral orgasm. I honestly thought we’d covered this already, even in glossy magazines, but apparently this is not a discussed fact.

Rewire: I felt like both of your films took me back to an earlier stage of life in which my friends shared more with each other, because we had very little collective experience to draw from!

TS: I was speaking to a South Asian Muslim woman the other day, and her mother had actually talked to her about sex so she was able to go back to her all-girl high school and educate her friends. Nothing was being taught at the school. When you have a vacuum like that, all kinds of stuff rushes in. Pop culture, magazines, porn, and abstinence-until-marriage programs.

MTG: In a vacuum of interpersonal silence, media messages take on enormous proportions. That ties into the “cost of shame” that I’ve been discussing, the different prices we pay for not being able to talk about sex.

Rewire: Therese’s film shows that people go really far in bending their lives to conform to that media narrative, specifically around virginity.

TS: “Virginity loss” is made into a one-time before/after moment that changes you forever. Actually, though, we become sexual gradually, as a process, sometimes without one penis and one vagina in the room together!

MTG: Dissolving the binary of virginal versus sexually active was something I encountered as well. It was great to hear women’s stories unfolding, because you began to see that it ebbed and flowed. Perhaps someone had a boyfriend and they broke up, so she started again just with kissing her next partner. The sense that you’re either “sexually active” or not falls apart.

TS: Some of us go through long periods of abstinence between partners.

MTG: Sexuality is a complex web. One of the women I interviewed, “Morée,” talked about trying sex for the first time and then backing off of it because she wasn’t ready to be sexually active.

TS: I hate the before/after binary because it doesn’t reflect the truth about sex. It only reflects ownership, control, judgement, shame.

Rewire: That’s true, and it goes with all these other binaries: desexualized/oversexualized or slut/prude…

TS: Or clean/dirty, new/used, valuable/worthless. I was really moved by what Elizabeth Smart said about how she felt about herself after being raped by her captor.

MTG: It wasn’t just the rape that took away her sense of self-worth and dignity. In her own retelling. The virginity culture that associated her value as a person with maintaining virginity was the thing that sent her into a desperate depression during her captivity. As a society, we need to take ownership of the fact that we are re-victimizing survivors of sexual assault.

Rewire: There is also a very important distinction that you both draw between having personal beliefs about sex and imposing them on others. With this topic we see the same anxiety that permeates the fraught discussions about weddings and childrearing. Can we acknowledge that others’ experiences and priorities are different without shaming them or feeling implicated ourselves by that difference?

MTG: Personally valuing sexual abstinence does not have to involve shaming other people. Both of the women in Subjectified who consider themselves sexually abstinent really did embody an attitude of openness to many things, including their friends who are sexually active. We risk alienating a big part of the population when we talk without nuance.

TS: One [abstinent] woman in How to Lose Your Virginity used to tour with Lady Gaga, and seeks to be pure in body and spirit. She says, “It’s not like I’m sitting alone in my room reading the Bible all the time.” She’s found a way to exist in a very sexualized world, while keeping her own beliefs.

Rewire: Are any people saying the films made them squirm or uncomfortable? And is that a good thing?

MTG: Yes, Subjectified is making people squirm, and yes, that’s a good thing! But Do Tell, the story-sharing campaign, is letting people speak up about their own experiences, which people are finding comforting at the same time. Feeling heard is incredibly powerful.

TS: Some people squirm, sure. Sex is awkward. But there’s a lot of humor in How to Lose Your Virginity, which is a way to give people some pretty horrible information about how women’s sexuality is valued, in a way that won’t shut down the conversation. I’m glad that guys love the film. We can’t just have this conversation with the ladies!

MTG: It’s so fantastic that Therese is able to use humor in her work. That really helps make it possible to talk about things that would otherwise be too intense for most of us. We spend so much energy trying to silence people and make them feel ashamed about their sexual experiences, it’s no wonder that people—particularly women—often don’t believe that their experiences matter. So even to be able to verbalize our experiences can bring a huge feeling of comfort and empowerment.

Rewire: Definitely. Was it an obvious choice to add that interactive online community component you both have?

TS: For me, because it took so long to make the film, I started the blog. And people started sending in stories for a feature we called the V-Card Diaries. The more experiences we hear about, the less these binaries and stereotypes exist.

MTG: My process was the other way around. The interactive part grew directly out of the response to Subjectified, out of seeing people react to the project and desperately wanting to share their experiences.

Rewire: You both had to really push over a long period of time to get this work to see the light of day. What kept you motivated?

TS: I find you have to be totally obsessed with a topic to make it through the long haul of creating a documentary. It really helped for me to get other people involved and invested, either because they were really generous donating their time or talents, or because they supported us with donations on Kickstarter. The more people are excited about the project, the more you feel like you owe it to them to finish.

MTG: My first desire was to watch a movie where young women talk honestly about sex, so I thought I’d just find it and watch it, because that’s such an obvious topic, why wouldn’t it exist? Once I realized that this incredibly obvious movie was missing, it just became crystal clear that I had to make it.

Rewire: Do you feel like the winds of change are shifting now?

TS: There are some great movies about the purity movement and all its disturbing trappings. In the last couple of years, there’s been so much more conversation about female sexuality, especially in connection to rape culture and reproductive health. But I feel it’s always one step forward, two steps back.

MTG: Yes and no. The most obvious reference people make on the blogosphere or in talking to me about the project is Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex.” It was made in 1991, the same year that Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court. So I’m not necessarily optimistic, but I think that this work does have an impact. I do believe we can shift some important conversations. The terms “rape culture” and “slut shaming” have also gained traction in the last few years. Language is powerful.

Rewire: I’m seeing a lot more personal essays on places like The Rumpus and even national magazines about women’s sexual and reproductive lives. I feel like there’s got to be a digital feminist influence there.

MTG: I think the question is getting this language out beyond the feminist and sexuality educator sphere. That takes much longer, and requires a different eye toward showing the direct relevance in people’s lives. We need to have those conversations on multiple levels and in more than one community.

TS: This is our plug for more mainstream coverage of our work! Melissa and I have been talking about how our work exists as the baseline for all other conversations about sexuality. You can’t talk about abortion or rape or contraception without first being able to talk honestly about sex.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.