What is virginity? Something physical? Spiritual? Or perhaps even something political? Not only in the Middle Ages was the subject a topic of lively debate, even today it has maintained its meaning. Whether eagerly awaited, feared or supposedly without shame, today losing one’s virginity is still connected to emotion. Shaped by culture, religious affiliation and one’s own character, this important step on the path from childhood to adulthood is experienced by each of us very individually—regardless of how detailed the sexual education one has had.
I became interested in the subject as a filmmaker almost ten years ago, after an animated dinner party amongst women, and began to search for literature in the US and Europe to learn more about the cultural, psychological and physical background behind virginity and deflowering. With amazement, I realized that very little has been (and is) written about this subject. There were either books written by psychologists concentrating primarily on psychoses connected to the loss of virginity, or sociologists, anthropologists or evolutionary theorists who hypothesized on the subject. I found very little information about why so many youths today consciously choose a chaste life until marriage and to what extent this decision is supported or even demanded by their environment.
People who are open to the subject of virginity, quickly realize how unbelievably fascinating and complex it is. “A big issue about a little tissue,” joked a friend from New York who outed herself as an early seductress on the evening of that fateful dinner party, when I became aware of the subject. At first, others said: “It wasn’t anything special.” But the longer the evening lasted, the more honest the stories became. “I was 14. Actually I didn’t even want to have sex, but my boyfriend was a few years older and pressured me until I let him talk me into it.” – “My boyfriend broke up with me because I wouldn’t go to bed with him.” – “At some point, I didn’t care who my first lover was. I just wanted to get it over with.”
Deflowering (or losing one’s virginity) is a once in a lifetime event that cannot be repeated. Virginity is thus considered a gift, award, barrier or taboo. Virginity only has meaning amongst humans. Not even our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, whose sexual behavior and social structures are often strikingly similar to our own, are interested in the slightest in virginity or let it influence their decisions. We invented and developed it, propagate it through our cultures, religions, legal institutions, through art and scientific work, and we have made it into a patriarchal instrument that defines and controls the social role of women even today.
I am interested not only in what way this power is exercised, but also how young women today deal with this behavioral corset that one has tied on them. And I wanted to look into this by observing the Wilson family, the founding family of the Purity Balls. After a short period of time I noticed that even the Wilson children have dreams, desires, vanities (not only passed down from their father)—and sometimes question their faith.
What made the family ideal for such long-term observation was the ambivalence they trigger. It is not an intellectual ambivalence—I know very well what I think of the content of their statements and how to evaluate them—but more an affective one. As an observer, one is thrown back and forth, finds them likeable and then insulting. During filming it was extremely difficult for us to talk about anything else in the evenings or during meals. Our conversation always returned to the Wilsons. Our all-female and consistently feminist crew was unbelievably fascinated by this family who provoked contradictory and alternating emotions: sympathy as well as aversion. For me, that made them even stronger protagonists for our film—and far more dangerous missionaries.
My world—my philosophy, religion and attitude towards sexuality—is completely different than the Wilsons’, and it would be against my nature to adopt the family’s ideas, sympathize with them or trivialize them. I am, however, convinced that exactly these feelings of ambivalence one develops when meeting the Wilsons provokes the audience to understand this family’s cosmos and to stay with them for the whole film.
I am very grateful to the Wilsons for allowing me and my crew to observe their world for two years. I respect them and their way of life, even though I am unable to accept it for myself. All the same, it was important to me that they—like all protagonists in my films—are treated with respect and dignity and not put on display and made laughable. I am convinced that one can scrutinize a way of life without trivializing it. To trivialize it would mean not taking seriously the political influence that this movement possesses; a movement that places its persuasive power in mythical and symbolic “bait” and a call for primordial longing.
Thus, it is of particular importance to me that the film release be accompanied by discussion led by representatives of all philosophies and religious orientations. The subject is not only cause for ardent discussion in the US where the religious right exercises their political power and pushes for abstinence education as part of their campaign platform. In Switzerland as well, sexual education and the choice of literature in schools has become subject of emotional debate.
I hope that VIRGIN TALES can become impetus and catalyst for many interesting discussions and a serious examination of a topic that decisively shapes the lives of a large number of women, and men as well.
- Mirjam von Arx