Therese Shechter, Director Of Film 'How To Lose Your Virginity,' Talks Female Sexuality, 'Purity' And The Virgin-Whore Complex

How Myths About Virginity Harm Women

Virginity. Chastity. Purity. Your V-Card. The Big V.

It’s the thing women are told not to “give up” but to “lose" eventually. It was the subject of a TLC reality show, something you probably talked about in your high school health class and the “double-edged sword” that Ally Sheedy's character discusses in “The Breakfast Club.” It’s also the topic of filmmaker Therese Shechter’s new documentary, “How To Lose Your Virginity.”

At 23 Shechter thought she was “the oldest virgin in the world.” Now, she’s trying to unravel the myths that surround the topic. She traveled around the country interviewing young people, sex educators, authors, porn producers and women who consider themselves virgins as well as those who do not. Although the film isn’t finished yet, Shechter shared a 20-minute version with HuffPost Women and spoke with us about her own virginity story, the virgin-whore dichotomy and how prevailing beliefs about virginity can harm both men and women. (Scroll down to see a clip from the film.)

What inspired you to make a film about virginity?
It is one of those things that almost everyone deals with or at least thinks about. It’s a pretty universal topic. I was 23 when I lost my virginity, by which I mean had intercourse. And it was really a result of years of confusion and fear and worrying. And when I finally did it it was like, “Ok, that was interesting.” I [didn’t] know why I waited [that] long. I was wondering whether other women went through this, and if they did, why? Why was it so complicated, and why did it make us [feel] nervous and weird and bad? There are so many myths and misconceptions and so much dogma around [virginity]. So that was the impetus to explore it and try to figure out what exactly was behind all of this.

Something you touched on right off the bat was how difficult it was to define virginity. Why do you think it is that we don’t have a clear definition of virginity?
When you ask someone randomly, "How do you define losing your virginity," most people are going to say intercourse. So we have this shared conventional wisdom about what has to happen to lose your virginity. The problem is that that’s a really narrow and confusing definition when you think about it a little further. And because the thing that seemed obvious now seems not so obvious at all, that’s when the confusion sets in.

Because of course, how do lesbians lose their virginity if there’s no penis in the room? And the whole “penetration by penis” has to do with breaking the hymen and bleeding, except not everyone breaks the hymen and not everyone bleeds. And can you get your hymen fixed up again, and does that mean you’re a virgin again? As soon as we start picking at [the definition], it’s like -- wait -- that doesn’t make sense at all.

You say in the film that issues of virginity have always been about women. But how do these issues that are so much about women impact men?
I’m actually really fascinated by male virginity loss too. There [are] two ways to look at this. One is, how are men talked to about losing their virginity? The cliche is that the guy has to lose it as soon as possible so [that] he’s not a “loser.” Men have to be total horndogs and want to sleep with as many women as possible -- there’s a lot of shame in being a male virgin. Because of that and because guys are stuck in their own stereotypes, it also affects how they deal with female virginity. Because if [the boy] has to be the aggressor, then the girl has to be the prey. A guy has to pursue the girl, and she can’t “want it”; she has to be talked into it. But at the same time, girls have to look very sexual and very attractive. [Girls] always have to look like they’re trying to attract someone, but they can’t look like they actually want to have sex. [It’s] the boy’s job to initiate that.

I think that we’re all trapped in these stereotypes. Part of it is just millennia of double standards. But I also think we see these [ideas] reflected back to us through our popular culture. It’s pretty narrow, pretty shallow and pretty limited.

I’m also curious about how father-daughter relationships are impacted by the purity balls and pledges discussed in the film?
There’s this idea that the father is the protector of the daughter. Historically, the father literally owned his daughter and would sell her to her husband [in marriage]. In the U.S. we don’t do this anymore, but that’s really how these relationships have worked forever. With the purity ball thing, it kind of looks similar to me. The father is responsible for his daughter’s chastity, he locks it up in this little box, and on her wedding day he hands the box and the key to the husband and the husband gets to unlock her sexuality.

It doesn’t make for a whole lot of agency on the young woman’s part. But I do think that in these families, these are really profound and important relationships. While a lot of us stand on the outside and say, “That’s incestuous,” or “That’s creepy,” when you’re inside that world, it’s part of an important relationship a daughter has with her father. So, while it’s founded on some ideas that I think are really retrograde and dangerous about men controlling female sexuality, it looks very different from inside that community.

When you interviewed former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders in the film, she commented that abstinence until marriage programs “kind of make the girls feel that the boys have all of this sex drive going and somehow it’s their responsibility to control that.” How does this pressure affect the way that young women interact with young men?
I think it’s really different for different people, but what we’ve been hearing is that the boy pursues the girl, and the girl has to keep saying no. It’s her job to say no and if she doesn’t, it’s her fault, whatever happens. It takes away a girl’s sexual agency and her freedom to say, “Yes, actually, thank you. I want sex too, or maybe I want sex more than the boy does.”

It’s also tied into the whole [idea] that women are temptresses -- they’re the ones who tempt men who really can’t control themselves. It’s up to the girls to set all the boundaries. The assumption is that girls aren’t interested in sex, but if sex happens it’s their fault because they didn’t stop the guy.

Was there anything that you learned while filming that challenged an assumption you had?
I started out [making the film] thinking that young women were being shamed for being sexual. And as I started working on the film and writing the blog, I got tons of emails and submissions from people who were older virgins. It’s interesting, since I always considered myself an older virgin, that I never really thought about that as an issue. But in fact there are lots and lots of people who consider themselves older virgins, and they’re really embarassed about it -- “prude-shaming” for lack of a better term. [I started wondering], when does it go from “You shouldn't be having sex” to “Why haven’t you had sex yet”? Whether girls are having a lot of sex or not having sex, it doesn’t matter. They’re still being defined by their sexuality.

That sort of segues into the idea of the virgin-whore complex. You say in the film that it’s “used to sell everything.” So what’s so appealing about the woman who is simultaneously virginal and sexually insatiable? Why do we buy into it so completely?
It’s that weird “be sexy but don’t have sex” thing. There’s some kind of appeal to having a woman as an incredibly sexual object that’s just waiting for you. She’s totally sexual, totally available, but she hasn’t done anything yet because she’s waiting for you. The man has to come and wake up a woman’s sexuality and ignite it. In virgin-themed pornography it’s the same thing. You have this sexy schoolgirl who’s a virgin. She’s very sexy, she’s very available, she’s just turned 18 and the second she’s 18, there’s the guy ready to turn her into a voracious sex monster. But it won’t happen until he shows up -- she’s just kind of primed for it. And I think it’s a really weird thing, frankly, to want that.

It’s also the idea that every woman in the world is either a good girl or a bad girl. There’s not a spectrum of sexuality. Guys grow up with these really weird messages around them. [One the one hand], girls need to be clean, but also girls are there to have sex with. It’s a very weird thing to hold these two opposite ideas in your head. You don’t want a girl to be dirty or slutty, but you do want to have sex with her, [and] you want her to be available for sex. I don’t think every guy feels this way obviously, and deep down a lot of guys don’t feel this way at all. But we keep [getting] the same message pounded at us over and over again.

You interviewed young people who have grown up with web access to porn and all sorts of information about sex. How do you think the Internet has impacted the way women view virginity?
I think the Internet is really good news and bad news. The bad news is that there's all this dangerous unfiltered stuff coming out at people. If you don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality, it’s really hard to be a porn consumer. You really need to understand that what you're watching is fantasy, and what you're doing in your real life is reality, and they’re not really the same thing. I don’t think we’re media literate enough to sort through everything.

On the plus side, there are amazing resources online now for sex education. Anything anyone has a concern or question about you can find online. People submit these first-person stories to our blog, and we’re always getting emails from people who [have read them and] say, “It makes me feel like I’m not the only weirdo in the world.” In that way, the Internet is fantastic.

Did you encounter anyone who felt like losing their virginity or not losing their virginity wasn’t a big deal?
Oh yeah. I mean, if you’re queer, you're completely left out of the standard losing your virginity paradigm. People I’ve talked to who have those non-intercourse experiences sort of almost dismiss the whole idea of losing their virginity, like, "That’s not for us.” That’s not to say that if you’re queer you don’t embrace the concept in your own way, because everyone defines it in their own way, queer or straight. I loved talking to people who just defined [virginity] the way they wanted to.

A lot of people [I spoke to] had very blase reactions to losing their virginity. And a lot of people had great experiences. It happened the way they wanted it to, and they had realistic expectations. Those are great stories -- they’re not the most common stories, but they’re great stories. You can decide what [virginity] means to you and whether it’s important or not. And my definition has really evolved into this idea of it being a process. We have a lot of virginities to lose and a lot of opportunities to do things for the first time, whatever they may be.

If you’re interested in contributing to the Kickstarter campaign for “How To Lose Your Virginity” click here.

WATCH: Trailer For "How To Lose Your Virginity"

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