Therese Shechter deftly fuses personal narrative, interactive technologies and grassroots activism to chronicle 21st-century feminism, most recently as the writer and director of the documentary How to Lose Your Virginity.
How To Lose Your Virginity challenges the meaning and value of virginity in American culture. It is the first documentary to fully examine how the concept of virginity shapes the sexual lives of young women and men by journeying beyond the abstinence movement to examine the intersecting forces of history, politics, religion and popular culture.
Her other documentaries include I Was a Teenage Feminist, How I Learned to Speak Turkish, and the short “#slutwalknyc.” [Press materials]
How to Lose Your Virginity will play at DOC NYC on November 17.
Women and Hollywood: Please give us your description of the film playing.
Therese Shechter: What has launched both purity balls and porn franchises, defines a young woman’s morality, but has no medical definition? How to Lose Your Virginity takes the audience into the magical world of virginity, where a white wedding dress can restore a woman’s innocence and replacement hymens can be purchased online. This entertaining and eye-opening film uses my own path out of virginity to explore why our sex-crazed society cherishes this so-called precious gift. Along the way, I talk to sex educators, virginity auctioneers, abstinence advocates, and young men and women who bare their tales of doing it — or not doing it. How to Lose Your Virginity uncovers the myths and misogyny surrounding a rite of passage that many obsess about but few truly understand.
WaH: What drew you to this story?
TS: My previous documentaries have looked at feminism, sexuality, power, body image and how we shape our personal and political identities. All these ideas really come together in How to Lose Your Virginity, which directly challenges the meaning and value society gives to virginity.
When I was doing college screenings of my documentary I Was a Teenage Feminist, I spoke to a lot of young women who were deeply confused about making the right sexual choices. So I started looking into abstinence-until-marriage programs, and how the media tells girls they should look sexy but not actually have sex, and it became clear that women were still not in control of their own sexual lives. Whether or not there’s been a penis inside your vagina has pretty much zero to do with your worth or morality, but young women are still getting that message.
I find the concept of virginity fascinating. Here’s this thing that’s been valued for millennia, has no medical definition, can’t be proven despite countless tests claiming to do just that, and has inspired everything from Virgin Mary cults to the artificial hymen you get on the internet for thirty bucks.
I feel like “virginity” is the foundation of all of society’s oppressive ideas towards women. Pull it out, and the whole construct comes tumbling down.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
TS: Does everyone answer “funding” when they get asked this? Because that’s always the biggest challenge in making a documentary these days, isn’t it?
Connected to that, it was difficult to make the case to funders that we were creating a unique and powerful way to look at female sexuality. The ways in which women are judged and punished around sex underlie every conversation we’re having today about rape culture, reproductive rights and sexualization in the media. But I think because the film’s approach is personal and funny and doesn’t have a classic narrative arc, it was hard for foundations to envision the final product. Although we didn’t get any foundation support, we did raise over $50,000 through Kickstarter from an audience who was living these issues every day and saw the film as a way to talk about them.
The other challenge was getting people comfortable enough to talk about their sexual lives on camera. They had to trust that I would handle their stories with the respect they deserved and not turn it into something sensational or judgmental, so it took some relationship-building to get there. I think the film honors their stories and, given the very narrow version of sex we get from the media, gives our audience a chance to see a real range of experiences. That’s really why I made the film.
WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?
TS: Don’t let the bastards get you down. Work with people who share your vision and want to see it realized. No matter your genre, remember that your life experience as a woman gives you a perspective that’s underrepresented. Audiences need to hear your voice, and the voices of the people whose stories you’re telling. Support others who do this work, because we can use all the encouragement we can get. And above all, keep your sense of humor, because although filmmaking is a hard job, it’s not like we’re coal miners.
WaH: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
TS: That’s such an interesting question. I think half the people who haven’t seen my work assume that because I call myself a feminist and make films about issues that affect women, my films are going to be angry and preachy. I always wince a little at the reviews that reassure people that even though my work is feminist, I’m not angry! Then there’s the other group who think that because my films are all funny, I’m not dead serious about the issues they explore. Just like with sex, the stereotypes get you coming and going.
WaH: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?
TS: This is my first film since digital distribution became a viable option. Being able to post films online give you reach that was unthinkable 10 years ago, with sites like Vimeo making it easy to upload video, analyze views and control access. Publicity has been a breeze. We just email links and passwords to everyone.
On the other hand, no one wants to pay for content anymore. I’m lucky that my films are so popular for educational distribution, so I can still make some money selling to schools and doing speaking engagements. There something to be said for having actual venues, conversations in physical spaces, and screens larger than a smartphones.
I think one of the best things about digital opportunities is the ability to extend the film into interactive space like we’ve done with our story-sharing project The V-Card Diaries. Whether people see the film or not, there’s a space for our audience to share their experiences and create spaces to spark healthy dialogue around sexuality.
WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.
TS: Just a small sampling:
The Trouble with Angels by Ida Lupino – The classic film of my youth. I lived vicariously through Hayley Mills’ unapologetic adventures.
Passionless Moments by Jane Campion – An incredibly droll collection of vignettes that inspired an idea for short film I have yet to make.
Walking and Talking by Nicole Holofcener – The first modern girlfriends-in-the-big-city film, with a fresh script and great performances by Keener, Heche and the rest. Spoiler: The scene after Big Jeans dies breaks my heart and cracks me up every time.
Blue Vinyl by Judith Helfand – My go-to documentary: A potent combination of personal storytelling, raging activism and huge laughs.
Mary Jane’s Not A Virgin Anymore by Sarah Jacobson – So ahead of her time, Jacobson was dealing with female sexuality in ways we still don’t see today. It’s tragic she’s not with us any more.
Watch the trailer for How to Lose Your Virginity: