How to Lose Your Virginity. Directed by Therese Shechter. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 66 minutes.

The Dilemma of Desire. Directed by Maria Finitzo. Los Angeles: Good Docs, 2020. 118 minutes.

Reviewed by Lynn Comella

Finding films for the feminist classroom that facilitate wide-ranging discussions about the social construction of sexuality, in all of its highly gendered and intersectional complexity, is no easy feat. Many educational films that tackle sexuality from a feminist perspective focus on the representational politics of pornography or the sexualization of women in music videos and advertising. It can be challenging, then, to identify films that not only examine the myriad ways that sexual discourses work to create erotic identities, norms, and knowledge but also offer educators multiple entry points for framing discussions. How to Lose Your Virginity and The Dilemma of Desire succeed in doing just this, each exploring issues that go well beyond what their titles suggest.

How to Lose Your Virginity zeros in on the topic of sexual purity and interrogates the various messages young people learn about sexuality. Why is virginity given so much cultural power? In what ways is sexual purity policed and with what effects? How do we make sense of the booming “virginity industry” that sells everything from purity rings to white weddings to hymen reconstruction surgeries, greedily profiting from women’s sexual insecurities? To address these questions and disentangle the heteronormative sexual scripts and cultural myths associated with virginity, filmmaker Therese Shechter interviews sex educators, feminist authors, and academic experts, including former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was forced to resign in 1994 after suggesting that young people should be taught about masturbation as part of sex education.

The film’s strength lies in its conversations with young women, for whom navigating the virgin/whore dichotomy is a seemingly inescapable part of growing up in a patriarchal society and who are taught from a young age that their sexuality belongs to everyone except themselves. Especially notable is the Julliard-trained rock violinist virgin we see touring with pop sensation Lady Gaga. The juxtaposition is jarring; and yet it is this very space of cultural contradiction—the pressure to be sexually pure but also provocative—that young people navigate every day.

The Dilemma of Desire pushes these conversations even further, as a polished, ready-for-Netflix film that examines the role that sexual silence and taboo play in shaping women’s erotic autonomy. The film wastes no time showing that there is nothing straightforward or easy about harnessing sexual knowledge in a culture that routinely denies women sexual agency and information. We meet Professor Stacey Dutton who marvels that even she, a feminist biologist, did not know what her own body looked like because the clitoris is rarely shown in biology textbooks. There’s Sophia Wallace, a queer-feminist artist whose clitoral sculptures and prints were inspired by her grandmother who, before she died, confessed that she was unsure if she had ever had an orgasm—despite birthing five children. For these women, “cliteracy” becomes a calling. We watch Dutton turn a scientific lens on the anatomy of the clitoris while Wallace makes it the object of her feminist art practice. We also follow young women as they shop for their first vibrator, reclaim sexual agency through burlesque, and push back against upbringings that instilled sexual shame rather than confidence. The film centers the experiences of women of color and queer women, showing us what truly intersectional feminist filmmaking can look like.

Each film offers useful starting points for feminist conversations about sexuality, especially discussions about the state of sex education in the United States and the power of capitalism to shape desires. Possible assignments might include asking students to research state laws that inform school-based sex education, compare abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed curricula, and reflect on their own experiences learning about sex. How to Lose Your Virginity can be paired with Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (2009) and placed in conversation with popular mainstream films such as Saved! (2004) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). The Dilemma of Desire can be taught alongside Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” (1984); the history of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the bible of women’s health; and the pioneering work of feminist pleasure activist Betty Dodson. It would also pair well with The Technology of Orgasm (Maines 1999), which traces the history of the vibrator, and my own work on the cultural significance of feminist sex-toy stores as sites of both consumption and sex education (2017).

Works Cited

Comella, Lynn. 2017. Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin. 2005. Directed by Judd Apatow. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures. 116 minutes.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In her Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 53-59. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.

Maines, Rachel P. 1999. The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University Press.

Valenti, Jessica. 2009. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Saved! 2004. Directed by Brian Dannelly. Beverly Hills, CA: MGM Distribution Co. 92 minutes.

Lynn Comella, PhD, is professor of gender and sexuality studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke, 2017) and coeditor of New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law (Praeger, 2015). Her research has been featured nationally and internationally in outlets that include the New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, ABC Nightline, Sydney Morning Herald, Weekendavisen, De Tijd, and more.