Although it seems like sex is all around us—on the TV, in movies, in music, on billboards—we seem to have a problem actually talking about it. Enter Subjectified, a new documentary produced and directed by Melissa Goldman. Featuring nine different women from across the U.S., the documentary explores themes including masturbation, pornography, virginity, sexual assault, emotional intimacy, and orgasms and aims to address women's sexuality head on. Goldman took a few minutes to talk with us about the film, sexual health, and why it's a subject so close to her heart.
SHAPE: What first compelled you to take on this project?
Melissa Goldman (MG): I realized that women's stories were missing, and I started to see it everywhere I looked. I started noticing billboards, magazine ads, even primetime dramas that painted female sexuality in a way that never rang true to me. We think that women and sex are everywhere and that we're a culture that's overexposed and can talk about sex, but it's just not true. This illusion makes it hard to grasp the reality that women's real stories are missing, hidden, and even suppressed.
SHAPE: Why do you think we are so afraid to talk about sex openly and honestly?
MG: For many people, there are serious consequences. We're afraid that if we talk openly, we'll be branded sluts, gossiped about, retaliated against at work, or worse. I created Subjectified to help us start conversations by showing us what's really going on in people's lives and giving us some language to begin talking about sex, sexuality, and the issues around them.
SHAPE: How do you think our attitudes about sex compare to those of other countries?
MG: There are many countries where the consequences of speaking out about sex or sexual violence are much higher. This is terrifying, and there are many brave people working worldwide to change the situation. But as far as the developed world goes, the U.S. is far behind most other countries. This inability to communicate makes it hard to share crucial information that we need in order to keep safe and healthy, particularly on hot-button issues such as unintended pregnancy rates among teens.
SHAPE: Women's issues were a pretty controversial topic during this year's election. Why do you think women still aren't given a space in politics to talk frankly about what they want or need?
MG: I've tried hard to keep Subjectified out of politics. That said, prominent politicians appear willfully ignorant of the fact that the people with the most expertise on women's experiences are women themselves. When we make decisions that directly impact women's healthcare and we don't consult any women, the process is broken. The people who care about these issues most are women, and there just aren't that many women in politics. Seventeen percent of U.S. Senators are women, and that's as high as it's ever been. Advocating for women's needs is not comfortable for politicians because it requires change. Nobody offers you change. You have to fight for it.
SHAPE: What do you think needs to change in order for women to have more of a voice when it comes to public policy?
MG: When we can't talk about our own bodies and lives, we can't properly advocate for ourselves. Part of why I made Subjectified was to create a space for women's stories and to show that their voices are compelling and powerful, even though they're not perfect and haven't figured everything out. We need to stop apologizing for trying to be healthy and happy, even if other people are asking us to keep quiet.
SHAPE: What did you learn from making this film? What do you want your viewers to take away from it?
MG: I learned that even if people's experiences are very different from our own, it can be easy to feel empathy toward them if you're willing to really listen. If we want to connect with each other and show respect, we need to listen well to each others' stories and be way less judgmental. We should show our young people respect instead of condemnation, and we should offer that respect to the people in our own lives. What do we get for criticizing each other's bodies, desires, and choices? A bunch of enemies who could be allies. What good is that?
SHAPE: Is there anything else you want your viewers to know about the film?
MG: Real stories about sex and sexuality are so freeing and so interesting, but because they're outside the mainstream, you need to seek them out if you want to hear them. Subjectified is an indie movie—we're not showing at a theater near you. We wanted to find you in your community, so we built Movie Party Kits to help start fun and meaningful conversations in people's living rooms across the country. You don't need to be a feminist (or even a woman) to care about this conversation.