by Alice Wilder
We’re all pretty big fans of filmmaker Therese Shechter, who you might know from her film I Was a Teenage Feminist. Her 2013 documentary How To Lose Your Virginity, which is available for streaming in July, explores the ways we think about sexuality and how it changes the way we feel about ourselves and others. The SPARK girls had a screening of the film a few months ago and all of us adored the film. You’ll see people of all ages and genders discussing virginity as well as some super great interviews with high school students. I talked to Shechter about how girls can own their sexuality in a culture that asks them to be sexy—but not have sex.
In my area there was recently a pretty big scandal about Belle Knox, a Duke University student who does porn to pay for college. The way she was vilified reminds me so much of your film.
The interesting thing is that these guys felt like it was fine to masturbate to an abstract porn performer, and they felt completely fine to vilify and demonize the real person–it’s that whole virgin whore dichotomy where a woman’s purpose is to give you access to sex, but in real life they need to present themselves as untouched. There’s a lot of parallel of how women’s sexuality exists for men’s pleasure but they also have to act pure for individual guys.
Yeah! She wasn’t ashamed of it, they wanted her to be embarrassed.
She’s not supposed to be doing it for her own purposes–she’s doing it to earn a living and to them that’s unacceptable. There’s a lot of parallels with Lena [Chen], who blogged about sex at Harvard [and was in the film]. She was open about her active sex life and people thought she was completely fair game to slut shame and harass. She said that people presume that the only people willing to talk about sex openly must be sexual deviants. She’s so great and has come through the fire, it’s like a different version of (Belle’s) story. Lena has lived this and studied it…she’s been thinking about it academically.
What advice would you give to young women on pushing back on that whole “virgin/whore” dichotomy?
Just feel like you get to call the shots of your own sex life, getting educated so you understand what’s going on with your body, with your relationships. Scarleteen is an amazing place to go for resources and once you have all the information you can start making decisions for yourself. Think about who you are, what you want, what makes you happy. And a lot of times what happens when you do that as a girl, you get a lot of pushback from people and you just have to hold strong and look for others who support the way you think. If you feel like you don’t want to have sex or want to take a break from sex, that’s a really valid choice, the point is to really understand what you want, what makes you happy and try to work with that- and be prepared for pushback. People want you to be who they need you to be. I had very specific ideas of what was important to me when I was a teenager and that resulted in me never having a boyfriend. I wasn’t happy about it, but I also couldn’t become the kind of person who had boyfriends. The person I would have had to become to have a boyfriend just wasn’t me. The boy I liked was just looking for a girlfriend to have sex and that made me feel bad, that he would be my boyfriend only if he had sex. I hate having to tell people this, but maybe you won’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend for a while until you meet the right person for you. It’s about what you want to do, not being pressured into doing something what you want to do.
Wow, that takes a lot of self confidence! How did you learn that self advocacy so early on?
Honestly I did not have any language to express things in the way I just expressed it to you. It took me years to realize “ah, that’s what was happening.” It was all about my feelings, and that was the most information I could access when I was sixteen. I just knew that he made me feel bad. I do know that in later years when I did start to have sex there were guys who just wanted to have sex and so did I, so our goals meshed at that point. There are a lot of mistakes you make and that’s how you learn. Sometimes people make a mistake and feel like they’ll pay for it the rest of their lives, but it’s all a process.
Do you think that the media messages about sex have improved at all since you were a teen?
I’m of two minds about this. Because there’s internet there are so many resources for finding your own community, you have resources online, but you also have a lot of other shit coming towards you really fast. The thing that’s really different from when I was a teenager was that idea that girls have to look sexy. That wasn’t really true when I was a teenager. When I was younger the message was always “Be a good girl! Don’t have sex!” which I think is still the message, but then now you also have the “be sexy but don’t have sex” thing.
The premise seemed really really interesting that the main character knew what she wanted and went about taking care of it. It doesn’t change your life in this massive way as we’re led to believe. If we go to pop culture there aren’t a lot of options [as far as portrayals of healthy sexuality], so when a movie like The To-Do List comes along it’s so important. As a teenager it always hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw something that actually reflected my life. That’s always really meaningful when you have that moment of “Oh, I’m not crazy, other people feel this way”
If a girl wants to be a filmmaker what challenges should she expect? How would you suggest she confront those challenges?
It can be challenging to get your ideas out there in a way that you can share them with other people. Don’t be afraid to make stuff, see what you think about it, see how you can improve it, make more stuff. A lot of us can be paralyzed by the empty page, every writer I know is paralyzed by the empty page. Even if it’s terrible, do a first draft. Just do it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s really cliche, but write the truth or film the truth. Create something that feels authentic to you and do things that feel meaningful to you, whether it’s drama or comedy. If it resonates with you it will resonate with other people. Don’t create necessarily for your audience–create for yourself and the audience will find you. The one thing we have to recognize is that creating is hard work, so love yourself and love what you want to say and understand that it’s going to take work and that just means that you’re doing what every other creative person does.
I have a really amazing editor who I worked with on HTLYV, and he said “I don’t believe you. I know who you are, and I don’t believe you would walk into David’s Bridal to look for a wedding dress.” I said “No, that really did happen! I went into David’s Bridal to look for a wedding dress for my wedding.” And he said, “Well you need to explain why you did that, because I don’t see you in a David’s wedding gown.” So we rewrote the narration so it felt true. Find someone who you trust to look at your stuff and get feedback. You have to be very careful who you ask for feedback. Find someone who will give you constructive criticism.
Y’all had such civil conversations with people who you really disagree with, like the abstinence activists. How did you manage to do that in a balanced way?
The girl from Harvard, Rosemary, was interviewed by one of the producers. I think sometimes you can just very politely ask questions and hear the answer and the answer may conflict with your own beliefs. I believe in giving [people I disagree with] their voice and their place to say what’s on their mind, and I know people who watch the film are like “oh my god that’s horrible!” but that’s how she feels about it. And it’s good to know that they’re out there.
I want to respect the people in my film and give them their own voice to tell their stories, but as far as institutions go I feel at liberty to say what I think. Individual people should have a chance to have their own voice. For people who are waiting until marriage, like Judy, she’s only talking about herself and I think that’s fine. I don’t agree with Rosemary, who says that all gays should not have sex even when they’re married, and I think most viewers will agree. I think that the idea that because you’re gay you can’t have these things that everybody else can have seems like a pretty outrageous statement. I don’t feel like I have to call her names to make that point.
Was it scary at all to put so much of your personal life out there in the film?
When people are like “you’re so brave!” I’m like, “oh shit! what did I put out there?” It’s how I work best, using my experiences as a lens. I’m asking other people all their personal sex stuff, I thought it was only fair that I share my stuff as well. Was there anything in particular you were surprised about?
Well I think anyone saying anything about their sexuality is radical.
I think some people are more open to sharing than other people, and other people share too much. Because I do these first person films I create this character of Therese, choosing what I’m going to show and talk about, there are really big chunks of my life that I don’t talk about. On screen Therese is not exactly who director Therese is. There’s nothing in it that’s not true, but there are things you choose not to talk about. There’s a filmmaker who I really admire and I asked him for advice, how do you know when you put too much of yourself in the film, he said “show it to a bunch of people you trust” and that’s always good advice.
What are your main projects now that the film is finished?
The V Card diaries, the interactive companion to the film! We have over 300 [submissions] now, we have a pretty cool interactive site, and you can submit your own stories, so that’s pretty close to my heart. I’m also developing some workshops based on the film, one that’s for charting your sexual history, one on virginity myths and one on first person storytelling. I’ve been thinking about a few other things in the development stage that i’m doing research on. I don’t want to get too specific, but I’m always really interested in women and our identity in society–who we are versus who people want us to be.