Even in our cloud of overly analytical, Dawson’s Creek-style naivety, we could foresee potential future complications.
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, my friends I were talking over lunch about a subject much beloved by the time rich and experience poor: S-E-X. The exact topic of our conversation? When we would lose our virginities. Not how old we thought we would be at the time (although we’d covered that too, in previous discussions), but which precise act would mark the transition from innocent ingénue to sexual debutante.
In the movies we saw, the magazines we read, and the teen soaps we would watch for guidance and emotional catharsis, sex looked so simple. Girl meets boy. Girl and boy flirt a bit, fall in love, make out enthusiastically in movie theatres and on park benches and then one day, after an appropriate length of time date, some mature discussion and condoms procured (thank you, Dolly Doctor!), they would have sex.
Easy, right? Formulaic, even. But even in our cloud of overly analytical, Dawson’s Creek-style naivety, we could foresee potential future complications. What if the penis only went part-way in? Were you still a virgin then? What if you started doing it, but one of you decided to stop before either of you orgasmed? What if your first time was with a girl? Would you stay a virgin forever? It wasn’t that we wanted to make sure we stayed “pure”, so much as we wanted to be able to pinpoint the moment that everything would change, and we would go from boyfriendless wonders to sophisticated, sexually experienced women.
If only we had been privy to the work of Therese Shechter. A forty-something independent filmmaker born in Canada and based out of Brooklyn, Shechter and her film How To Lose Your Virginity are part of a new vanguard of feminist thinkers and media makers (think The Purity Myth’s Jessica Valenti, Lena Chen of The Chicktionary or historian Hanne Blank) seeking to redefine how we think about virginity. Or better yet, to do away with the concept altogether.
“Almost everyone loses their virginity at some point,” explains Shechter. “It’s a really major milestone in our lives. But the things we understand and believe about virginity affect us in ways we’re not always aware of. Virginity is tied up with so many myths, misconceptions and value judgements.”
What it signifies depends on who is - or isn’t - doing the deed. For many teenagers, virginity is bound up with ideas around maturity, rebellion and coming of age. Sex is something that adults do, and that children are forbidden to do; ergo, once you have sex, you are an adult. For teenage girls, that thrill comes with a bitter twist: resist sex and you risk being labelled a prude, but do it too soon or in the “wrong” relationship, and you risk being labelled a slut. At a certain point, be it 16 or 36, to not be sexually active is to be marked out as somehow suspect: out of step with both the times and the people around you.
Shechter’s own interest in virginity and its discontents emerged as a response to the abstinence movement, which has been a hot-button political issue in the US for over a decade now. ““I was appalled by how women were being shamed and punished for being sexual,” she recalls. “Abstinence education teaches young men and women to wait until marriage to have sex, but the tactics used are shame and sexism and bad science.”
But Shechter’s work has also been met with enthusiasm from other, more unexpected quarters. “We have a First Person section on our blog, where people share stories about their ‘sexual debuts or deferrals’. Every time I ran a post on older virgins, I would get a flood of comments and emails. I realised that people were not only being shamed for having sex, but for not having it. You couldn’t really win. Whether you’re supposed to be having sex or not having sex, those decisions mark you in some way.”
The United States has a notoriously fraught relationship with sexuality: think the recent congressional hearings over birth control, “purity balls”, at which teen and pre-teen girls promise make a promise to their fathers and god that they will remain virgins until they marry, or the aforementioned abstinence education programs.
But the questions Shechter, Valenti and Chen raise are also relevant in comparatively liberal sexual landscape of Australia, says Sydney-based feminist commentator Nina Funnell. “While purity rings and purity balls have not taken off big in Australia, our culture still fetishises female virginity. Politicians talk about their daughter's hymens as ‘precious gifts’. Girls’ magazine editors may not tell teenagers to ‘wait till marriage’ but they still treat virginity as ‘something special’ to be ‘shared with the right person’.” And while the intent of such advice might be to encourage young people to make sexual decisions that are medically and emotionally safe, they also have the effect of elevating one specific form of sexual interaction – penis in vagina intercourse – over all others.
But times are changing, and by some accounts, at least, teens today may be more confused about what does and doesn’t constitute “virginity” that they were even ten or fifteen years ago. In How To Lose Your Virginity, Shechter speaks to Susan Schulz, editor-in-chief of CosmoGirl!, who says the magazine receives countless letters from readers unsure of whether or not they still have their “V plates”.
Tempting though it may be to put such queries down to inadequate sex education, they could equally spring from its opposite. The more you know about sex, after all, the less it seems like a simple, penis-in-vagina only deal. And the less entwined virginity becomes with one particular act, the less clear it becomes what it is and is not. In a 2010 essay for The Monthly, Emily Maguire quoted 17-year-old Sydneysider Kelly, who says: “Everybody knows hymens can break from all kinds of things. It doesn’t mean anything. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m a virgin, and having a doctor say ‘Oh yes, you’re still sealed up’ wouldn’t make a difference to that.” And so it was for me: when I eventually did lose my virginity in the teen movie, Dolly Doctor type way, it felt significant, but no more so than any of the other sexual experiences I’d had before it.
So, is it time to do away with the “V” word altogether? Shechter suggests replacing it with another, less loaded term: “sexual debut”. “That’s really what all of this is about,” she says. “I’d like people to be able to say to themselves, ‘I feel like a sexual person now’ without hanging it to a particular act. Or to just let the process happen without defining it.”
How To Lose Your Virginity will be released in 2013. To find out more, or to be a part of its completion, click here.