INTERVIEW: Therese Shechter, director of How to Lose Your Virginity

Director Therese Shechter (Photo courtesy of Trixie Films)

BIOGRAPHY

Therese Shechter deftly uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to chronicle feminism and sexuality, and is proud to have been labeled a “Brazen Advocate of Slut Culture” by conservative bloggers. Her first documentary I Was A Teenage Feminist has screened from Stockholm to Delhi to Rio and at Serbia’s first-ever Women’s Film Festival. Therese has created videos and written about virginity and feminism on the film’s blog and in the Chicago Tribune, the Bitch Magazine blog, Adios Barbie and Women & Hollywood. She was recently a featured panelist at Harvard University’s “Rethinking Virginity” Conference and at MomentumCon: Feminism, Sexuality and Relationships in Washington. Therese’s short documentary How I Learned to Speak Turkish has screened internationally and her production company Trixie Films is based in Brooklyn and sometimes at a little cafe in Istanbul.

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“I won’t tell you how to have sex for the first time, but I do want to know why we’re so obsessed with female virginity.”

The US government has spent 1.5 billion dollars promoting it. It has fetched tens of thousands of dollars at auction. And 50 years after the sexual revolution, it continues to define a young woman’s morality and self-worth. Using her own path out of ‘virginity’ to guide the narrative, filmmaker Therese Shechter creates a far-reaching and very personal dialogue with women along the sexuality spectrum, revealing the myths and misconceptions behind this so-called precious gift.

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Her Film:  You’ve been working on your documentary How to Lose Your Virginity for the past several years.  Can you update us on the film?

Therese Shechter: We’re almost done editing the film, which is very exciting. This is the most challenging part because this film’s subject is complicated, and there are a lot of moving pieces. I really like tackling big concepts like feminism and virginity by getting at them through very personal stories, both my subjects’ and mine. Then we’ll be working with our composer and animator to add the finishing touches. By the time we’re clearing footage and correcting color and mixing sound, I’ll be in heaven because the heavy lifting will be behind us. Frankly, I’m exhausted.

Needless to say, this all costs a lot of money, so this Kickstarter is really crucial. I’m so psyched to finish it and get it out in the world. We just did a great little sneak preview at the Momentum conference for many of the top folks in feminism and sexuality. I get contacted by distributors, film festivals and college professors all the time asking “Is it done? Is it done?” and I really can’t wait to say “Yes! Here it is!”

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  How are you building your audience?

TS:  We’ve been building our audience almost from the very beginning through our blog. Some people do blogs to track their filmmaking process, but I was a lot more interested in the topic of virginity itself. I initially wrote posts that called out a lot of the sexism and bad science around abstinence-until-marriage programs, and the disturbing outbreak of virginity auctions all over the world.  Then I branched out into pop culture as well as creating a space for our audience to talk about their own personal experiences with virginity culture.

Plus there’s the constant back and forth of Facebook and Twitter posts, sharing little bits of video online, supporting other writers and filmmakers doing sexuality-related work, and writing for other publications on the topic. I recently did something about virginity loss myths for a great site called Adios Barbie, and did a breakdown of the virginity loss stereotypes in an episode of “Glee” for Women & Hollywood. I think you have to create a good balance between interesting information and dialogue with your audience if you want to build that anticipation and goodwill. We can see it with the response to our fundraising campaign, with so many people supporting a project they already feel invested in personally.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  I’ve taken a few looks at the blog you have to support the storytelling and sharing around the topic of virginity, and you include many first-person pieces.  It’s amazing and inspiring to see how many people are willing to share information about something so personal as their virginity and sexuality.  What inspired you to introduce this type of “confessional-style” blog post? 

TS: I love First Person, and since we launched it in 2009, it’s become the most popular thing on the blog. I was inspired by fellow virginity geek Kate Monro who writes a blog called The Virginity Project in the UK. Aside from her work, most everything else I found was very mainstream and almost nothing outside of religious sites addressed people who weren’t sexually active. I could tell from our blog comments I had a lot of folks out there whose experiences–and even definitions of virginity–didn’t conform to the black-and-white stereotypes of pop culture. So I started building this collection of what I like to call “sexual debuts and deferrals.”

We’ve run stories from a woman who lost her straight, gay and three-way virginity in one night (hey, it worked for her); a Mormon college student who first wrote about being a virgin and then did an update after she had forbidden pre-marital sex (verdict: meh); and we get quite a few submissions from guys in their 30s and 40s who talk about what it’s like to be an older male virgin (not good). We’ve also run several First Persons by women who had intercourse for the first time because of sexual assault, and they want to share their experiences and recovery with others. My favorites are the “update” First Persons that I get when a previous poster starts having sex. One woman said the first three people she told were her roommate, her best friend and me for the blog. I kind of love that.

There’s a lot of silence around how and why and if we become sexual and I think these stories really help us all feel less weird and alone. I really could have used this when I felt like the very last virgin in art school.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF: Are there differences in what you’ve learned through the actual filming of the documentary and the interactions you have with people online through your blog or twitter, for example?

TS:  When I started working on the film, I was really focusing on young women being shamed for being sexual and the value that’s place on virginity. It was in the zeitgeist and was getting all the attention. But when I started getting the First Persons, I was surprised at how many were coming from people in their 20’s who were ashamed of not being sexually active and that became a much bigger part of my film and the blog.

I think it goes without saying that it’s far, far easier to get candid stories from anonymous writers than getting people to talk about the same things on camera. I’m really grateful to the people agreed to be filmed. They’re very smart and thoughtful about their intimate lives, and they provide an antidote to the way we usually hear stories about sex: Reality TV and porn.

HF:  Can you talk about your current crowdfunding campaign and the phases of your financing for the film (where the money goes)?  In a message to me earlier this year on twitter, you said you’d “love to mention how much ‘low budget’ docs cost, because some backers don’t know why $13K didn’t cover all our costs.”  Any challenges in dealing with financial backers that you’d like to talk about?

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WATCH THE TRAILER FOR How To Lose Your Virginity

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TS: Since 2008, almost every independent documentary filmmaker has been struggling to find financing for their projects. Not that it was so easy before, but now foundations have even smaller endowments than ever and many TV networks are either only looking at finished films or have abandoned documentaries altogether in favor of reality shows.

We’re currently doing a Kickstarter to raise $35,000 to pay for the rest of our edit, our composer and our animator. If we don’t meet our goal I’m really not sure how we’re going to finish the film. We got through production thanks to an amazing group of DPs and producers who worked for free or lowered fees, lots of interns doing the research and one very small fundraiser. Then we had our first Kickstarter and raised $13,000 which paid for about five weeks of editing. For the rest of it I’ve had to beg, borrow and reach very deep into my own pockets to keep things going.

The average documentary you see on TV will cost half a million to a million dollars to complete, and that often means hundreds of thousands of dollars of free labor by the filmmakers. A lot of our non-filmmaker backers have no idea, and really why should they? We have to keep educating them on what things cost and the fact that you really do have to pay your full-time editor a salary for at least several months. And also about how it takes so incredibly long to finish something because you have to keep stopping to raise (or earn) more money.

I think that once people understand what goes into a documentary, they’re amazingly supportive. I’m been blown away by the support we’re getting for this campaign and the abundant generosity of complete strangers. We can’t relax until May 9th, though. If we don’t meet our $35,000 goal by then, we don’t get anything, so it’s going to be a little intense until then.

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Read a recent article at the Huffington Post on female sexuality which discusses Shechter’s new film:  “Virgins, Bondage and a Shameful Media Fail” by Soraya Chemaly.

To connect with this filmmaker, support her film and to learn more about her work, check out these links:

Crowdfunding: Kickstarter (15 days to go with $35,000 campaign goal.  As of this blog post, $16,682 has been raised)

Her Film Interview from June 21, 2010: Click here.

How to Lose Your Virginity Blog: www.virginitymovie.com

Trixie Films (production co.): www.TrixieFilms.com

Twitter: @trixiefilms

Facebook: /The-American-Virgin

Interview: Therese Shechter, filmmaker

This week’s installment of the rapid-fire Q & A with women filmmakers focuses on the work of Therese Shechter, a widely recognized feminist filmmaker (woot!) who makes fascinating movies.  In particular, we focus on the topic of virginity and how she is making her newest documentary film How to Lose Your Virginity.  After I noticed she was following Her Film on Twitter I thought that would be a nice intro to asking her if she’d like to do a Q & A for the blog.  She was kind enough to say “yes” and I had a real ball reading her responses.  Here’s hoping you do, too!  Lots to learn from this important artist…

BIO: Therese Shechter is a filmmaker who uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to make award-winning documentaries including I Was A Teenage Feminist and How I Learned to Speak Turkish.   She writes about virginity and feminism for her blog The American Virgin and other blogs and publications.

After 10 years as a Chicago Tribune graphics editor, she gave it all up to work for Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Productions in New York, before going out on her own. She’s won coveted spots in the Doc Lab Master Class (Toronto Hot Docs 2008 Festival) and was one of 5 filmmakers selected for the Paley DocFest 2009 Pitch Workshop. Therese worked at Sundance through 7 festivals, where she was inspired by countless independent filmmakers. Therese is a stealth Canadian who is based in Brooklyn.

Learn more about Therese Shechter’s work:

KICKSTARTER page for Therese Shechter’s new film

The American Virgin blog

@TrixieFilms on Twitter

Trixie Films website

On to the Q & A…

Q: With the feature documentary film I Was a Teenage Feminist under your belt, you are now focusing on a new project, How to Lose Your Virginity, which is another feature doc.  Can you discuss how you came to concentrate your efforts on this topic and how your two films might relate?

A: I think all my films look at the world through a feminist lens. Of the two shorts I’ve done, How I Learned to Speak Turkish is about sexuality and power and Womanly Perfection is about body image. Taken along with I Was A Teenage Feminist, which I think is about finding a political and personal identity, they all feed into to the ideas I’m playing with in How to Lose your Virginity.  I also would say that the virginity project is similar stylistically to I Was a Teenage Feminist—it’s funny, there’s a lot of intimacy with subjects, and I use my personal experience to make universal points.

When my editor and I were cutting I Was A Teenage Feminist, we watched a lot of those old ‘Now You Are A Woman’ films from the 1950s. I was struck not only by how useless the information was, but also how they kept telling girls that the only way to avoid social and physical ruin was to be a ‘good’ girl (read: a girl who doesn’t have sex). The abstinence-until-marriage programs (which the government still funds, by the way) are really just a present-day extension of those ideas. I started to wonder what we were telling young women about their sexuality, especially given that pop culture is full of highly sexualized girls that seem to be the polar opposite of this ‘good girl’ expectation.

I realized that it all comes down to the same message: that women should model themselves on images of male desire. In trying to mold themselves into either virgin or whore (or an impossible combination of both), women are constantly working to fit someone else’s needs instead of pursuing their own sexual identities.

On a personal note, I was planning my own wedding at the time of the shooting, and was getting a little freaked out by all the chastity-based wedding rituals and coded wedding accessories. What would it mean for me to embrace the white dress, don a veil, and be ‘given away’?  What would that say about my own sexual autonomy and identity? It echoes the narration of I Was a Teenage Feminist where I refer to myself as “a woman who feels incredible pressure to conform to an ideal that I don’t even buy into. Is it possible to be who I want to be without judgment, or apology or compromise?”

Q: In American culture, virginity experiences a dichotomous treatment.  The social state of virginity is also binary in nature — you either are or you aren’t, at least socially.  What differences do you see between gender, age and sexual orientation when the topic of virginity is discussed?

A: Virginity is basically a complex social construct that’s always been more about female sexuality than male. There’s actually no medical definition, and our conventional concept of ‘losing your virginity’ through penis-in-vagina sex is incredibly narrow. Is a penis really the only way to turn a woman into a sexual person? How then do lesbians lose their virginity? Do we suddenly become sexual beings or is it gradual? When we lose our virginity, what specifically are we losing, if anything at all?

In queer communities, the concept of virginity loss is far more nuanced and individualistic because it doesn’t fit into established hetero understandings about sex. But although ideas about how a person loses his or her virginity might vary, there is still some point where most of us cross a threshold of sexual initiation. It may be a construct, but it’s still an important defining moment – however we define it.

You can see how important it is when you speak to older virgins who for whatever reason haven’t yet had sex. I hear from a lot of them through my blog The American Virgin, and there’s a lot of shame and secrecy around being an older virgin (which I think can begin as young as your early 20s). Everyone thinks everyone else is having sex but them, but it’s just not true.

In the same way that the blog offers young women the space to be sexual beings on their own terms, it tells people who don’t feel ready for sex (or aren’t into it at all) that they’re not freaks. I get a lot of letters along the lines of: “I generally feel like I’m harboring a shameful secret, and before I found your blog was pretty convinced that I was the only woman in her mid-twenties who had never had sex.” Speaking as someone who became sexually active only after college, I can really relate. I hope to make that perspective a dynamic part of the film.

Q: I hear from filmmakers over and over that people don’t give money to films, they give money to people.  How do you approach potential financial supporters of your film when dealing with what is seen by many as an extraordinarily private topic?  How do you sell the story?  (Feel free to plug away!)

A: You know, it was hard enough to fundraise for a film about feminism. Some people had such negative reactions to even just the word. But imagine a film that uses “penis,” “vagina” and ‘anal sex’ liberally. With older people especially, the pitch and the trailer can get uncomfortable. And I’m pretty sure that my parents, while being personally supportive, are not bragging about it to their friends.

On the other hand, I Was A Teenage Feminist is really well known in the feminist community, so I come with some good references and a sort of anticipation for what I’ll do next.

Unfortunately, there’s also very little money in this community, so with our current fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, we’re relying on a lot of small contributions adding up to a large goal. We’ve raised almost $7000 this way, but we still need another $3000 to meet our July 1 deadline.  Kickstarter is a great new way for creative projects to get funding, but it comes with a catch: if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get a cent. We’re all working really hard to get the word out to as many people as possible. Even a $10 donation makes a difference.  Plus, if people give more, we give them cool rewards. We’re like public television, but without the tote bags.

Q: Please talk a bit about your experiences with interviewees… [and] tell us a bit about your production team and how you work with a crew when dealing with people’s (interviewees’) deeply personal experiences?

A: When I interview someone, I want it to be as casual and as intimate as possible. I want them to talk right to the audience, so they look directly at the camera, not off to the side. And I like to shoot them in their natural environments as much as possible. We have a tiny crew.  Sometimes it’s just me, and at most it’s my DP and one PA and minimal if any lights. We give up on some of the beauty, but like I said, I want it to be intimate so subjects can talk about really personal things and feel safe doing it. I’m always humbled by the things they’re willing to share. Of course, the more they are able to share, the more likely it is someone in the audience might find something to relate to.

I’m also very open with them about my own experiences during the interview. I figure I should be just as willing to talk about whatever I’m asking of them. It helps to have a blog I can point to so they can see my approach to the topic. Of course, that backfires when you’re trying to get the Purity Ball people on camera. It doesn’t take much of a Google search to find out I’m not a fan of their philosophy, but I’m not going to misrepresent myself to get an interview. So that’s an ongoing challenge.

Another challenge has been finding older virgins who are willing to be on camera. If they’re religious and are waiting until marriage, they’re more comfortable with talking about it. But people who are virgins of circumstance are often too embarrassed to be on camera, even in shadow. So, I’m currently in search of more subjects who are older virgins, especially people of color and members of queer or trans communities. People should definitely contact me if they’re interested.

Q: How long have you spent thus far on How to Lose Your Virginity and what have you personally taken away from it?

A: I first started researching the topic four years ago. But in terms of more concentrated work, it’s been about three years on and off. You know how it is–you work in spurts when there’s funding and when there’s inspiration. When the economy tanked I had to focus on paid work, so it went on the back burner. Since last fall it’s been a priority again. We were part of the Paley Docfest Pitch Workshop late last year, which prompted me to cut a new trailer. The audience and panel response was so great that I knew I had to get the thing done as soon as I could.

Personally, it’s been an interesting way to look at my own sexual history and see if and how it defines me. I started late, but then really made up for lost time, as they say. The abstinence people claim a lot of casual pre-marital sex will doom my marriage, so I’m waiting to see how that goes. And now people refer to me as a sex blogger, which I find sort of hilarious, even though I guess they’re more or less right.

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A heartfelt thank you to Therese Shechter for doing this Q & A and helping to support Her Film!

NOTES: Some pieces by and about Therese Shechter are linked below, but this is by no means a comprehensive list!

“The Difficulty in Defining Virginity: A Conversation that Continues”

“Rave On: Filmmaker Therese Shechter on Woman: An Intimate Geography”

“The Doc Doctor’s Anatomy of a Film: ‘I Was a Teenage Feminist'”

“How Funders are like Crushes and Other Sundance Morsels”