Strangers Talk about Losing Their Virginity & Keeping It

Every woman has a story of how their cherry was popped. Don’t be shocked by the term.  There’s no shame in remembering that first time--no matter how it rated.

Several years in the making, Therese Shechter's "How to Lose Your Virginity" began as a film that focused more on slut-shaming, but also became about virgin-shaming  as well. As a woman you are damed if you do, damned if you don’t. The full length film, expected to be released later this year, has also developed an interactive component.

The first phase, V-Card Diaries, will be featured in the Kinsey Institute's 8th Annual Juried Art Exhibition.  It’s Kinsey’s first interactive project. The exhibit opens May 17th and will run through July 13th at the Grunwald Gallery of Art at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.

The V-Card Diaries collect stories about virginity. The name was inspired by the V-Cards Shechter and her team give away at events. They're reusable, sort of like a coffee-shop punch card, where you can punch multiple virginity losses. You can also request a V-Card.

People love this subversive way to push back against the one-time life-changing construct of virginity loss, Shechter says.  But what sets this project apart, she adds, are the many stories by people who haven't yet become sexual, or reject the concept of virginity loss altogether.

The filmmaker also tells VITAMIN W, “this project isn’t just about virginity, it’s about the larger power of connection and community through storytelling.” 

What's the goal of the site being interactive/the hackathon?

We know that following screenings of our documentary "How to Lose Your Virginity,"  audiences want to share their stories. They visit the blog, they tweet and write testimonials. We also know there is incredible stigma for young people about sharing these stories publicly, admitting confusion, inexperience, displeasure or even enjoyment.

We created The V-Card Project based on that feedback, providing our audiences and users with three ways to interact and share stories: the Diaries (long-form essays), the Experience Engine (quiz and data-visualizations) and Express (tweets and texts). We want to allow people to have the choice to share quickly or more in-depth.

Creating these safe online spaces seemed a natural fit. It's where our college-age audience lives, and we want to give them fun, meaningful and shareable content.

Explain the hackathon and how the interactive projects work?

At the POV Hackathon 2 (organized by PBS)  in January, we built The V-Card Diaries, for long-form essays submitted to the blog. Because it's organized around the feelings and experiences of the contributors, like 'I'm saving myself for marriage' or 'My first time was casual' or even 'I'm socially awkward,' the interface creates communities around shared feelings. It can also be searched in other ways, randomly or through keywords, and stories can be shared through social media. That's the one that will be at Kinsey and it's up and running now.

For Hackathon 3 in April, we created the prototype for the quiz which uses fun Mad-Libs-style questions to talk about an important sexual milestone in your life. Users go through Before, During and After pages to share their experiences as a process. We deliberately don't ask about virginity loss, but rather provide a pretty long menu of sexual milestones to choose from, everything from kissing to intercourse to kink.

Every time you submit your anonymous data, the app reveals, in chart form, how others in the community answered the same questions. And for people who have had no sexual experience whatsoever, they have their own track where they can talk about why that is, and what they hope it will be like. We like that it's non-judgmental and inclusive of all experiences, genders and sexualities– and of course a fun way to talk about an awkward topic. You can find that prototype here:  

How has social media played a role in women talking about their virginity?  And what about anonymity?

Being anonymous and connected is revolutionary. There are many reasons people don’t want to talk about sex. It often comes with heavy baggage, and triggers embarrassment, shame, fear, and pain-especially for women who are judged no matter what sexual choices they make. But silence (including the absence of honest, non-judgmental dialogue) has never protected women. It has kept them from understanding that the way they think about the world is valid.

It's huge knowing there are other people out there just like you experiencing the same things–that you're not alone or crazy or abnormal. Especially because there's so much confusing BS coming at us from all corners, about virginity loss, and how if you do it wrong it's going to ruin your life. Just recently Elizabeth Smart was in the news because of these amazing talks she giving. When she was kidnapped and raped, she believed she had been ruined and that's one reason she didn't try to get back to her family. That's what she learned from Abstinence programs, that if you lose your virginity outside of marriage, you're dirty and worthless.

So it's crucial to have accurate non-judgmental information, to read someone's blog or have a resource like Scarleteen.com that will give you the straight info and provide forums to talk about what's going on in your life.

Anonymity is also a must for people who consider themselves 'older virgins,' because there's a lot of stigma and shame attached. We hear a lot from our audience, from people who thought they were freaks and then saw all these commonalities with others for the first time when they read the stories we're collecting.

Have you learned more about attitudes on virginity since the initial campaign to promote your film?  

At first I was most interested in the effects of the abstinence-until-marriage programs and all the bad science and sexism they were peddling. So, slut-shaming of young women was a real focus. But the more I worked on the film, the more I realized there was a lot of virgin-shaming going on as well. Basically, women couldn't win, no matter what they did. So I decided the only way to win was to walk away from that one-time life-changing before/after idea we're taught virginity loss is. We need to rethink that as a process of becoming sexual, as a series of experiences. That's the message of our V-Cards - that you can punch a whole series of cherries each time you have what you consider to be a sexual milestone. It's the V-Card you keep and reuse again and again.

Were you shocked by anything?

One thing that kind of shocked me wasn't in the film or the blog, but came up when I was discussing virginity with my own gynecologist. There seems to be this idea that virginity testing and hymen reconstruction only happens 'over there,' but my doctor told me she gets a lot of mothers bringing their daughters in to see if they're still virgins. They all ask her to check their hymens, which she has to keep explaining is a myth, and this whole thing is happening right in the West Village. Not far from her office, also in Manhattan, is a clinic that sews up hymens so women are guaranteed to bleed on their wedding nights.

Does the film or multimedia component ask the question of the experiences of those in LGBTQ communities?

Absolutely. The virginity construct is totally heteronormative: one penis and one vagina, meeting for the first time. So what do you do if you don't have sex like that? How do you define virginity loss, if you do at all? How do you talk about becoming sexual? These are all questions the people in the film raise. The V-Card Diaries has stories by people who identify as queer, poly, kinky and asexual as well as straight. And I just did a talk at Harvard's Sex Weekend where we discussed if there was such a thing as queer virginity.

One thing I've learned is that while these communities have specific issues, there's so much shared experience as well. One of women in the film is trans, and is going through her transition in her 40s.  Although she's been sexual for a long time, she's now navigating becoming sexual in a changing body. Listening to her talk about her hopes and her fears, she sounds to me like many other older virgins who are contemplating having sex for the first time.

Watch the trailer:

Photo: Anneliese Paull