Interview with Melissa Tapper Goldman

@mtgoldman: at your service. Writing/design/video/strategy. I also work on two women’s oral history projects.

What would you like to tell us about your film “Subjectified”. What can young women learn from this documentary? Was it important for you to shoot it? Did you learn from it?

Subjectified is an oral history of young women’s experiences with sex in the U.S. The movie follows nine women’s personal accounts of growing up and experiencing their sexuality. The participants come from very different places and contexts: religious and secular, different races, ethnicities, sexual identities, and places of origin. The stories are different from each other, but they are all honest and authentic. It’s not easy to talk about sex, especially with people who have made different choices than yours, but it’s important that we can understand other people’s life stories with empathy.

Too often, people use sexuality to control or shame other people. Listening to authentic stories is the best way to push back, but it’s rare to encounter the stories in the first place, except maybe from our close friends. Typically in the media, we only see women’s sexuality when it’s there to titillate, or as part of a morality tale where women are punished for their sexual expression. I hope that by listening to women speak in their own words, viewers can understand how sexuality fits into people’s life stories and senses of self. We may also see elements of ourselves in the movie. Sometimes this can cause embarrassment, judgment, or discomfort. By watching other people muster the courage to speak freely, I hope we can also extend some of this empathy toward ourselves.

People can watch Subjectified online and share their own stories through the Do Tell tumblr project. The video is available worldwide streaming through Amazon and Reelhouse. Learn more at subjectified.com.

You write and show the reality of female sexuality: masturbation, orgasm, sexual intercourse. What is your motivation to explore these topics, so fundamental for women?

The reality of female sexual experience is almost never honestly depicted, and almost never depicted from a first person perspective. We rarely hear women explore these topics for their own reasons, outside of a sexual context. This is because of the taboo associated with sexuality, but it’s also because we simply don’t have the outlets to begin the discussion.

Language is very important for making sense of our lives, so there are serious consequences for not having a well-developed language to describe sexuality. This language comes from actually talking about sexuality. You can see this in the imbalance of vocabulary that we have to describe anatomy or experiences—words that often describe male anatomy or sexual response. This can affect us personally, like not understanding how our own bodies work or what is pleasurable to us. This prevents people from having healthy or satisfying sex lives and relationships. It also has broader social implications, making it harder to identify and stop sexual abuse.

How do you think we can put an end to the distorted idea of female sexuality, and its exploitation as a product for profit? In which ways can this type of subjugation and exploitation be harmful for women?

I do believe in the power of sharing stories. Showing that there are real people with real feelings behind these experiences can be transformative. These conversations can happen between lovers or even between friends. Families teach us very important lessons about sex (sometimes damaging lessons that require years of work to undo). Part of this work happens in our personal lives, where it’s up to each person to treat others with dignity and empathy, and to insist on this treatment for ourselves. In some ways, it’s hardest to be kind to ourselves, especially for women.

Generating empathy requires ongoing, active work, since the message is out of sync with how sex is presented in pop culture. I don’t think we should expect for-profit media or industries to do this work for us. Even if a beauty magazine sometimes prints an affirming message, or if porn sometimes portrays sex between equal partners, these media products don’t exist to teach us health, they exist first and foremost to sell. As long as we are limited to learning about sexuality from commercial media, we will see the same issues of objectification and sexualization: sex that exists not for all participants, but for one consumer.

Popular media has also produced critical, life-saving positive effects. It’s been instrumental in shifting the conversation about gay rights, sexual diversity, gender identity and transgender issues, to name a few. To me, the question is not about whether media is essentially good or bad, but whether we are expecting the right things from it.

The alternative to sexualization in commercial media is learning and talking about sexuality in our lives: from our communities and families, from our friends and our partners. This requires being able to communicate openly in safe contexts to counterbalance the strong messages that come through from commercial media, messages that take on huge importance when they’re the only ones—when there is silence in our personal lives.

You have mentioned in an interview for Cosmopolitan that, through advertisement, young women are fed a negative image of their own bodies; and that that image leaves them embarrassed and uncomfortable. In which way can this type of negative ads harm the sexual future of young people? How can they learn to value themselves, to value their bodies, and to live their sexuality in a more fulfilling way?

There have been great people working on this problem for years, activists including Jean Kilbourne and Anita Sarkeesian and writers like Jennifer Pozner and Janet Mock, among many others. It’s hard to say whether we’re making progress. The media landscape is constantly shifting, and social media has created new pathways for communicating outside of centralized, commercial media like magazines and movies. Personal blogs on sites like Tumblr allow people to analyze and reframe media, so we understand its impact. I started a crowdsourced blog of personal stories about sex called Do Tell to allow more people to share their first person stories about sex and continue the conversation from Subjectified. I do think that when we can call out exploitation, we have the chance to change the narrative and reclaim some of its power. (http://dotellstories.tumblr.com)

Why is women’s sexuality still silenced? Your film contributes to revert that situation, but what is there still to do in order to create the conditions for women’s sexuality to be seen as something natural and positive?

There are certainly people who benefit from women’s sexuality being silenced. The silence maintains a status quo, so you can draw your own conclusions about whose interest that serves. Women’s sexuality is not the only sexuality that’s silenced, too. Queer sexuality, the sexuality of disabled people, the sexuality of transgender or gender nonconforming people is also silenced. And not all women’s sexuality is silenced equally and in the same way, as issues of race, religion, and ethnicity also tie into how sexuality is policed.

There’s plenty of work that every individual can do in our own lives. We can take care to speak about sex as an important, healthy, and natural part of life. We can avoid “slut shaming” or talking about other people’s sexual expression and choices in a way that belittles or tries to control them. I don’t want to speak in black and white about shame, because social norms do play an important role in protecting children and those who cannot or do not consent to sex. It may seem counterintuitive, but slut shaming contributes to a culture that tolerates and excuses rape.

The best tools at our disposal to resist the negative effects of silence are listening and engaging our empathy—for others and for ourselves—and seeking to understand people’s experiences of sexuality with an open heart.

Thanks for your time, and all the best wishes for your work.

Project Genesis by Pleasure
Interview: Pedro Marques
Translation and Correction and: Mariana Vieira

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