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Shechter, Therese
2013 How to Lose Your Virginity. New York: Women Make Movies.

Notes: DVD, 66 minutes
Reviewed 31 Mar 2014 by:
Jack David Eller <david.eller.anthropology@gmail.com>
Anthropology Review Database
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Young women - Sexual behavior - United States - Case studies
Women - Sexual behavior - United States
Women - Sexual behavior - United States - Case studies
Virginity - Social aspects - United States
Sexual abstinence - United States - Case studies
Virginity - Religious aspects

ABSTRACT:    A very open and intelligent film examines the cultural obsession with virginity, contrasting it to the concurrent obsession with sex, and explores the diversity of sexualities and virginities in modern American society.



I have always been a bit mystified by the value that some cultures, including elements of American-Christian culture, put on virginity (by which of course they almost always mean female virginity). Perhaps in a society where paternity is a life-and-death issue it makes minimal sense, but with contraception and the acceptance of stepchildren and blended families, it simply seems unimportant. I am particularly dismayed and perplexed about the attitude that virginity is somehow a 'thing' or a commodity that one can lose, as if having been sexually active somehow damages or depletes a person.

The maker of How to Lose Your Virginity opens the film by describing her own first sexual experience, which did not live up to the cultural hype (as I imagine is often true). This leads her to ponder, like me, "Why do we give virginity such value and meaning?" In fact, in the post-modern, post-Clinton era, it is not even obvious what virginity or 'sex' is. What, for instance, is "technically a virgin"? Bronwen Pardes, a sex educator, shows that 'sex' and 'virginity' are not as simple as we think. Does masturbation or homosexuality or oral sex or rape, etc., count as losing virginity? The one thing we can be sure of is that genital-to-genital sex is not the only kind of sex. Hannah Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History appears among the guests in the film, who argue that societies have felt a need to organize people, especially women, in terms of before-sex or after-sex. Pre-modern patriarchal societies certainly had concerns about a woman's virginity and about the paternity of her children. On the other hand, the film contends, black slave virginity had no value, since slaves were property.

This raises the issue of control: who controls, and who benefits from control? And of course one of the particularly odd manifestation of sexual control in contemporary America is the chastity pledge. The film mentions, for instance, a production called The Education of Shelby Knox that examined the whole question of sex education and abstinence. In the 'chastity world,' a woman's sexuality belongs to God and to her husband. Accordingly, a young woman tells her story of keeping her chastity pledge (although they did everything else but sex before marriage); after marriage, sex was painful and hateful for a year.

Another angle on the virginity/chastity obsession is the 'purity ball,' a party at which a young girl hands her virginity to her father, until he gives it to her husband. Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth, remarks that, in these events, daughters are like little wives and that the discourse is about ownership over girls' virginity. For boys, the 'integrity ball' has emerged as a counterpart, but such events still focus on the females, emphasizing respect for someone's daughter or future wife. It is ultimately still about the woman's condition.

Two inevitable sites where such controversies are played out are the internet and government policy. For instance, you can bet that there is a Facebook page and app for abstinence pledges. As for policy, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General, asserts that abstinence-only programs are not based on science but on fear and misinformation. There continues to be official, tax-money support of abstinence-only programs, although they are proven not to work. But partisans take their campaign into other social spaces, like the True Love Revolution, a chastity club of Harvard University. And of course the problem of homosexuality throws a wrench into the debate about sex and virginity. On the other hand, pro-chastity types can simply demand that gays should practice chastity lifelong (that is, never engage in homosexual acts).

As this film and pretty much all of American culture makes clear, there are only two cultural messages about sex--virginity and 'everybody is doing it.' Thus, whether it is purity balls or "Girls Gone Wild," both sides are obsessing on women's bodies and sexuality. This unavoidably leads to confusion and contradiction, like the young female Christian musician dedicated to virginity who also performs with Lady Gaga. As the film also shows, religion is not the only reason for maintaining virginity, although it is dominant one. For instance, the movie profiles a 30-year-old voluntary virgin. It further argues that the message of virginity can be mixed: not all religions promote virginity to the same degree, and some institutions like the vestal virgins in Rome or medieval nuns can be construed as at least partly about female autonomy.

The question remains, what is virginity anyhow? Does an intact hymen equate to virginity? Remarkably, the film insists that the hymen was only discovered in 1544, but it is just one more example of physical and factual searches for 'proof' of virginity. The film covers various other absurd tests of virginity (and witchcraft), and, since the cultural and physical meaning of virginity is up in the air anyhow, why not hymen reconstruction surgery and clinics, as well as other forms of vaginal rejuvenation including an artificial hymen. By now the mythical quality of virginity is fairly apparent, as is the belief in the mythical power of marital sex. One example is the story of Sleeping Beauty, a woman who is sexually 'asleep' and magically 'comes to life' at the touch of a man.

The final topic of this ambitious but successful film is non-heteronormative sex and its implications for virginity. For instance, a MTF transgender discusses her sexuality, and other scenes examine the dual and contradictory pressures to not have sex and not to not have sex. Against the fantasy of a white wedding and the symbolism of virginity--symbolism which the filmmaker claims "became irresistible" as women became more sexually active in modern society--the film sets Lena Chen, the blogger of 'Sex and the Ivy' at Harvard who writes openly about her sex life. After a campus debate with a purity champion, she was attacked in the Harvard newspaper for being a slut. In other words, still today women are accused of being sluts if their perceived sexuality is threatening. The virgin/whore dichotomy persists, with the biblical Eve portrayed as the first woman to be 'slut-shamed' because she wanted to know things. And of course where would sex, virginity, and non-normative sex be without the porn industry which, you guessed it, has a sub-industry of 'virgin porn.' The film visits the set of "Barely Legal" videos, where fantasies of sex with virgins come true.

With visions of women auctioning their virginity in our heads, the film concludes that "the virginity industries sell porn, purity, white weddings, and Hollywood fairy tales by exploiting a powerful and artificial fantasy--before and after, one single event that changes a woman's value forever. And that fantasy has controlled our lives long enough." The last thought, reminiscent of Marx, is, "What if all we had to lose were our virginity myths?" Sex workers of the world, unite—and amateurs too, I suppose.

The subject-matter of the film is obviously quite mature, and some people will object to it for its rather overt (anti-conservative) politics, but How to Lose Your Virginity is very well done, covers a lot of ground in an hour, and raises deep cultural questions that surely beg for answers. It also approaches the difficult subject with warmth and humor. I recommend it for anyone who desires a serious, grown-up, critical overview of the issue of sex and virginity in contemporary America. The official website of the film is virginitymovie.com

Level/Use: Suitable for mature high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of sex and gender, and American studies, as well as for general audiences.