One of the features of my newsletter, Raise Your Voice, is “Nicole Recommends”, where I give a brief review of a product, organization, film/tv show, service, or opportunity that has the potential to raise awareness on health-related and social justice issues that affect women and girls of color. So when I was asked to review Subjectified, I initially planned to only mention it in my newsletter. However, I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts on this documentary here on my blog because 1) I have never done an actual review on my blog, and 2) I wanted to get the word out about the project that’s connected to this documentary and I think they can be beneficial.
Subjectified uses story-sharing to give viewers an unfiltered look at the sexual histories of nine young women in the United States. Filmmaker Melissa Tapper Goldman describes Subjectified as “a documentary that presents a real, human picture of women’s diverse sexual experiences from around the United States. When it comes to sex, women are so often seen (on billboards or television), but their voices are rarely heard.” What we tend to see in mainstream media is often in stark contrast to what young women are actually experiencing. Other influences, such as geographic region, religion, politics, and family upbringing can also play a role in how young women take on their sexuality. Tapper Goldman set out to answer the question, “What would real stories of female sexuality sound like?”, and the young women featured in Subjectified are just as diverse and their geographic locations.
They share personal stories on varied parts of sexuality and sex, including childbirth, breastfeeding, abortion, birth control, masturbation, body image, sexually transmitted infections, sex education, and surviving sexual assault. Mariluz (age 19) was raised in the Catholic Church, and confidently talks about how her sex life with her boyfriend is filled with playful touches and comfort. Brittney (age 20) shares stories of her Mormon upbringing, being sexually active, and how she has sometimes had sex when it didn’t feel good to her. Joy (age 23) discloses being molested at age 7 and the guilt she’s felt associated with her sexuality, pressure to have sex, and to feel more like an adult. Alexis (23) shared that she was excused from sex education in school due to her religious upbringing, and how sex became real for her when she discovered that she didn’t have to behave the way that adult film actresses do in pornography. Rebecca (23) is a daughter of a southern pastor, abstinent, and shares what kind of sex life she hopes to have with her future husband. “Moree” (24) learned about sex from her father, and shared how her first sexual partner’s decision to wear a condom prompted her to become more responsible about sex. “Vanessa” (25) shares her experiences of being sexual assaulted, her need to feel loved and accepted by her romantic partners, and how pregnancy has affected her body. Jackie (age 26) tells a story of growing up in abstinence-only education in the Midwest. And Samantha (age 28) was excommunicated from her Evangelical church and discussed her attraction to women, despite being raised to believe that women were subservient to men.
I enjoyed the stories of the young women in Subjectified, but the stories I enjoyed the most were from the young women of color:
Raised in the Catholic Church, Mariluz shares that while her parents did not approve of premarital sex, she was never told to remain abstinent. She became aware of societal messages about sex when she was 14 years old, and had her first sexual experience between her sophomore and junior years of high school. What I enjoyed most about Mariluz’s story was the refreshing confidence she displayed. She spoke excitedly about being Latina, and highlighted that she particularly loved her lips, eyes, and hair. She also was very adamant about her need to be treated as a human being. When describing a sexual encounter she had with an intoxicated male partner, Mariluz remembers feeling like an object rather than a person, exclaiming, “I’m not a play toy. I’m not someone who wants to be abused or who will be abused.” Mariluz appeared to be in touch with her body and what she expects from her partners. “Why do something if it doesn’t feel good?” she asks, also sharing that she trusts her body and doesn’t ignore signs of discomfort. Mariluz chooses to use birth control methods, including emergency contraception, birth control pills, and condoms. When asked about the possibility of pregnancy, Mariluz doesn’t want to have a child now, exclaiming, “People who have babies young are idiotic”. When asked what would she do if she were to become pregnant now, Mariluz mentions that she would probably carry her pregnancy to term if she were to become pregnant, but also says, “I wouldn’t want a child their father doesn’t want. How sad is that?” While her parents didn’t stress waiting to have sex after marriage, Mariluz mentions that she will prefer that her children have sex after marriage to avoid unwanted pregnancy and being hurt by their partner. My favorite quote from Mariluz focuses on her advice regarding taking advice from others about sex: “When you have sex, it’s not something anyone can tell you about because it’s you. People can give you advice. You should listen to them, you apply it to yourself, in your own way. You should mold everything to be your own so that it’s comfortable and you’re comfortable with it.”
In contrast, “Vanessa”, a married woman with a daughter, was exposed to sex at an early age, when she was raped by a friend of her family when she was 3-years-old. Vanessa went on to be molested by another family member, of which she shares that she blacked out most of what happened to her and did not remember much until she was a teenager. Vanessa discussed her relationship with her parents and her experiences growing up as a biracial child. Her mother would discuss sex with her, but in a way that would focus more on her mother’s personal problems rather than on anatomy or pregnancy prevention (something Vanessa fears she will in turn do with her own daughter) and her father threatened to disown her if she were to become a lesbian. Vanessa shared her experiences with male romantic partners, whom were physically or verbally abusive to her, and she describes witnessing her own father’s infidelity. Unlike Mariluz, Vanessa was insecure about her physical features, sharing that one boyfriend wanted her to straighten her curly hair and cut it short in order to be more attractive to him. Vanessa reveals that she connected sex to the ideal that a man will stay with her if she had sex with him. Vanessa also described her first vaginal penetration. She revealed her history of sexual assaults to her male partner, but he told Vanessa that he didn’t love her because she didn’t “bleed” . Also unlike Mariluz, Vanessa wanted to have a child at an early age, and when discussing forms of birth control she uses, Vanessa shared her negative experiences with birth control, stating that she wasn’t informed of the depressive side effects that many women experience when using hormonal birth control. Vanessa admitted to not being 100% adherent to using birth control and at times has chosen not to request that a condom be used, quietly saying, and “I probably could say something and it would be ok, but I feel like it’ll be disappointing him. I mean, we always [use the “pull out” method] but I think pulling out is bulls*it.” Vanessa became pregnant at age 24, and shared that her pregnancy was “horrible”, filled with morning sickness, no emotional support from her mother, and an emotionally distant partner. Vanessa says that she wasn’t “in tune” with her body, not knowing that she was in labor for 2 days. When asked about her current sex life, Vanessa says, “There’s a lot of things from my past that get in the way of us having the best sex we could have. I have sex to keep my husband, but I don’t think it brings us together.” She describes sex as an obligation for women, and being important mostly to men, who “can get sex from someone else” if she doesn’t provide it. Despite her history and how she currently feels, Vanessa is optimistic, sharing that she knows that she will be able to experience an emotional bond and intimacy during sex with her partner, but says, “It has to be a partnership.”
“Moree”, a young Black woman recently married with a 5 year-old son, shares she learned about sex at age 8, and that it wasn’t her mother that told her about sex. It was her father, who focused mostly on anatomy rather than contraception. Moree remembers believing that she shouldn’t have sex at an early age, and not due to feeling that sex was wrong. Moree talked about how fondling was more prominent than sex among her friends, and that anyone who became pregnant would be ostracized. Moree remembers being scared when a close friend of hers revealed that she had sex for the first time: “That breaking point when you have a really close friend who first has sex, that’s when you realize—ok, someone’s stepped outside the box. Now, either I have to step outside the box or stay inside the box.” In contrast to Vanessa, when Moree described her first sexual penetration and how she felt “something pop”, her boyfriend was concerned and asked if she were ok. Moree remembers feeling dirty after having sex and feared that her father (whom she lived with) would sense that she had had sex. Moree abstained from sex for some time because she was not comfortable with being sexually active at a young age. Moree admits to not completely protecting herself from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and expressed her concerns of what others would think about a young Black woman being pregnant. Moree was in college when she did become pregnant, and while her mother brought up abortion, Moree’s father encouraged her to move back into his home for support, and Moree says, “There’s no way in the world a 17-year-old can just up and have a baby without somebody’ support.” Moree described her pregnancy, requesting an epidural during labor, and experiencing post partum depression after her son was born. “I felt like a walrus. You want kids, but you don’t want to physically be pregnant,” she says. Moree was encouraged to breastfeed, and shared that some of her friends feared that breastfeeding would cause their breasts to lose shape. When it comes to having sex with her husband, Moree shares, “I see a lot of older couples, and I wonder what their sex life is like. Does it get better? Do you reach a point where [you ask], ‘Is this it?’” Moree often wonders if couples lose their attraction towards each other. “I want to feel like a new girl”, she says. Moree and her husband like to incorporate sex toys into their sex life “to switch it up” and admits “It takes a lot of work to really be in tune with someone’s body.” When asked why she has sex, Moree says that she has sex to relax and feel connected to her husband. Moree’s story ended the documentary, and she says, “Sex can change, and it’s going to change because you’re going to change. It’s ok to have a “teacher” and to be a follower at the beginning, but at some point…if you want to get the most out of sex, you have to be the leader in your sexual encounters. That makes the difference between people who enjoy sex and the people who are just having sex.”
What I enjoyed most about Subjectified are the range of age representation and the varied stories and how many intersecting themes (including race, religion, and family) were including in many of the stories. I also enjoyed how the filmmaker was not very prominent in the documentary, her voice only being heard occasionally to ask questions. Most important, the young women’s stories give a good glimpse into how childhood experiences and family environment often shape adult circumstances, but the willingness to want better for herself was very prominent.
I would be beneficial for me to know more about the process of how the documentary was advertised to potential participants and how the young women were selected . What I would have liked to see an equal ratio of young women of color to white young women. (There were no Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American/Indigenous young women featured.) I also would have liked to have heard stories from young women under age 18. (Given this, parental/guardian consent would have most likely become a factor.) Lastly, I wonder if the number of young women featured takes away or adds to the documentary. Fewer young women could potentially add to a greater depth to the stories, but having nine young women does add to the variety needed in conversations about sex and sexuality today.
If you’re someone who works with young women, or in the sexuality field, or are currently experiencing young adulthood, the stories these young women share may not sound like anything out of the ordinary, or even groundbreaking. And they don’t have to be. The goal of Subjectified is to encourage more young women to share their own stories about sex, sexuality, what has influenced it, and how they want mainstream media to see them. This month, the Tumblr page Do Tell Stories was launched as an extension to Subjectified, an anonymous submission-based social media campaign you can share your personal stories about your sexual history, beliefs, experiences, and enlightening moments. You can also join the conversation by following @subjectified and the hash tag #costofshame. You can also view the documentary online and receive support on how to use Subjectified and Do Tell Stories to your classroom and community.