Director and producer Maria Finitzo addresses the historical stigmas and mixed messaging surrounding women's sexuality in her new film, THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE

Director and producer Maria Finitzo addresses the historical stigmas and mixed messaging surrounding women's sexuality in her new film, THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE

After realizing her own lack of knowledge regarding her sexuality, Finitzo took to film to urge an open conversation. GOOD DOCS sat down with her to discuss her revelations, and the pressures, and obstacles while making THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE. Interview Conducted by Madeleine Mount-Cors

Could you briefly describe

THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE is a film that examines women’s equality through the lens of how we are treated as sexual beings. It starts from a very early age when the truth about our anatomy and our pleasure is essentially withheld from us, starting with sex education.

Not only aren't girls taught about pleasure, but the clitoris is also omitted entirely. The film examines what happens when girls start their sexual life with the lie of omission. Girls aren't ever taught about the clitoris, what it's for, where it is, and even what it looks like, and that's a lie that ripples out into the lives of girls and women throughout the rest of their lives. 

What prompted your interest in female pleasure and sexual health?

I have been making films about girls, women, and the many things that get in the way of them having agency over their lives most of my career, and the different institutions, whether it’s structural misogyny, sexism, or more subtle ways that we’re told that we aren’t equal. One thing that I was very interested in was looking at the landscape for young women today.

When I grew up in the ‘60s, everything was supposed to have changed with the Women’s Revolution. We were supposed to have attained equality and be able to talk about our bodies and pleasure. When I was thinking about this film, my daughter was in college, and I noticed that the landscape that she was growing up in was a more dangerous place to be.

Instead of having a world in which we embrace the fact that young women should be free to behave in whatever way makes sense to them sexually, they were, in fact, operating under the same set of restrictions that young girls and women did in the 1950s; nothing had changed. I was very interested in looking at all cultural, social, religious, political, and institutional ways the truth about women's pleasure is denied or erased

Sex education is still very taboo and it’s not as progressive as it should be. So, I definitely resonate with that. 

When I was growing up, there were guardrails; you were supposed to act a certain way, and if you went outside those guardrails, all hell would break loose. Then we got rid of the guardrails, and so young women were told, "Oh, there are no guardrails! Go out and do whatever you want, just like men." When in fact, if young women do that, they are subject to being shamed, criticized, and seen as something other than upstanding human beings.

Were you motivated by any of your own personal experiences to make the film? 

Not my own experience. I’m always curious about what’s going on right now in the world, particularly around the issues that women and girls face. I had read a book called What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Sexual Desire by Daniel Bergner. He had gone all over the country, interviewing scientists studying women's sexual desire to figure out whether we had any. The book's upshot was that women have just as a robust sex drive as men; it's a scientific fact.  Women are simply told lies about it to reinforce patriarchal structures. That’s really what interested me because we still have a system in place, the patriarchy, which wants to control all human beings, wants to control the most intimate aspects of their lives. 

There are kinds of messages that people get, which are simply not true. How are you supposed to take that knowledge and incorporate it into your life when you run up against all kinds of obstacles which tell you that you aren’t allowed to behave this way, or you shouldn’t feel this way, or you should hate your bodies or the way you derive pleasure is not a legitimate way of having pleasure. 

That’s what I was most interested in exploring in the film, and it was also very clear to me that if women and girls can be lied to about the simple truth of their anatomy and where their pleasure comes from, then they can be lied to about all kinds of other things as well.

Lies are the first way you can oppress someone. You withhold the truth from them. Power is easily taken when the truth is replaced with a lie. This whole film is about how women can access power both politically and personally, and if you cannot access the truth about your body then you can’t even get to step two, which is how you’re going to make your voice heard in all kinds of situations: the bedroom, the boardroom, the classroom, the church, and civil society as a whole. 

A person’s sex life is very personal and intimate, but then you relate it to larger power structures.  And you obviously do this by following several subjects through the film, so how did you meet or decide who these main subjects were going to be? 

When you have an idea for a film, it’s always a good idea to figure out how you’ll make it cinematic as opposed to a book or an article. One of the ways of doing that is to look for real people who are in this case the four women experts whose work and life revolves around this issue: Sophia Wallace, Stacey Dutton, Ti Chang, and Lisa Diamond. The first person I found was Sophia Wallace. Although I know Lisa Diamond is featured in Daniel Bergner’s book, she’s one of the scientists he interviewed, so I knew about her as well. You’re looking at these four people whose work and life centers around an issue because you’re going to go and interview them, and see the work they do or the art they make, so that’s one thing, and it’s all visual. 

I met Lisa and Sophia and then started the film with both of them then Sophia introduced me to Stacey Dutton. Sophia had met Stacey Dutton when Stacey had brought her to Agnes Scott College to show her work to the entire college. Next, I was introduced and referred to Ti Chang by a number of people; she came on later in the film, probably about two years into filming. She was the last person we added. As an industrial designer, her perspective was a unique perspective that I didn't already have in the film and one that I thought was very important.

As we all know, the products we use in our life- if they’re beautiful products and they’re well designed, we love them. They make us feel good. Ti wanted to create elegant products for women that could be worn around the neck or left on their bedside table. I thought that was a really important perspective because it’s just another way women and girls get the message that their sexual desire is shameful or dirty. Products we’re supposed to use for pleasure are not made well, or they have rabbit ears; they look like dolphins or penises. I thought she brought another great perspective to the film. At some point in filming, I realized that it was important not just to have these four women who easily talk about sex and the clitoris because that’s their work, I wanted to have voices representing a wide range of women who did not easily talk about sex.

Most of us don’t easily talk about sex; we’re not that open. In fact, most people that I interviewed hadn’t ever said the word clitoris. It’s not a word that comes up. That’s why I chose those five women, and I wanted them to be as diverse as possible within some parameters. The women ranged from ages 23-40, and they’re very diverse from a racial standpoint to a religious standpoint and from a sexual orientation standpoint as well. 

Did you consider anyone else to be a main subjects? 

Well at that point, there were nine people in the film, and that’s a lot of people to have in a film. If I was giving advice to a young filmmaker, I would say that’s four too many, but I was making a film that was a big film, and I wanted to include as many diverse voices as I could, so I thought I could juggle nine subjects. There’s always the question, why didn’t you include older women?  Why didn’t you include transgender women? The best way I can answer that is that I want this film to begin a conversation, which I hope will invite other filmmakers to continue the conversation in other films about sexual pleasure in older people or what it means for sexual pleasure in the trans community. Those films are films that should be made by the next group of filmmakers to follow. 

Some of the subjects share very personal details, was that vulnerability a given to being a part of this film, or did the subjects open up more as you developed a relationship?  

When you’re picking someone or asking someone to be in your film, their vulnerability is never a given. What has to happen is you have to create an atmosphere of trust and support, and what most surprised me was how willing and eager they were to talk about this. This one woman said to me, “We never get a chance to talk about this; we just don't talk about it.” When I'm interviewing people, I usually share stories from my own life, which helps people feel like they can share with me. 

I was very honored that I had these five individuals who were so willing to be vulnerable and share their lives. What’s important about them is that you might not see any of yourself in Umnia’s story, but you might in say in Coriama’s, or Becca’s, or Sunny’s, or Jasmine’s. Those women and their stories help the film connect to even a wider audience because we all in some way share the experiences that they talked about. 

And I thought their voices were some of the most valuable quotes from the film, just because they showed how everything is tied together and demonstrated how the overarching theme of oppression starts here. 

Right, imagine if we didn’t teach boys about their penis. How ridiculous? It wouldn’t happen, but that’s what we do to girls. We never tell them they have an organ on their body that’s big, mostly internal, and that’s where their pleasure comes from. We don’t tell them that. If we did, they might make different choices when they decided to become sexual. They wouldn’t look at their bodies solely as a way to provide pleasure for someone else’s body or as a receptacle of someone else’s body. They might look at their bodies as autonomous with the capacity for their own pleasure that they have agency over and they would make different choices. More informed choices. More empowered choices.

It’s not that I’m saying they wouldn’t be sexual, but maybe they would be sexual in a way that said, “Okay, this is going to happen, but I’m going to get something back in return. Or maybe I’m going to get something first? Otherwise, this is not a transaction I want to be a part of.” However, we don’t empower women or girls to say those words. We tell them how to be arousing to somebody else for their pleasure and to make sure they don’t get pregnant. That’s about it, and that’s not an empowering lesson to give at all. 

Who is your target audience? 

I would’ve said my target audience was Gen X and Millennials, but my target audience is actually everyone. I know this because I get emails from people who range in age from 12 to 80 years old. The 80-year-old was a man who said, “I’ve been married to the same woman for 50 years. I thought I knew everything there was to know about women. I did not. I watched your film. Thanks so much.” And then I hear from very young women, who are thankful that there’s information out there that’s presented to them about their bodies that’s not cloaked in shame, lies, or myths. 

The audience is hugely broad. I don’t think anybody wants it to be a one-way street when you come together sexually with someone. I think that people want it to be something that is mutually enjoyable for both parties; I don’t think one party wants to be the one that says, “Okay, this is how it’s supposed to happen.” If girls and women are taught about their bodies, then if you are heterosexual, the burden to know your body falls on your partner. Well, how is a man supposed to know that? I think it’s a film that appeals to everybody because it frees up everybody. It’s taking the burden of performance off men if you’re in a heterosexual relationship, and it’s saying that all bodies are entitled to the pleasure they’re capable of. I think that’s a win-win for everybody. 

What kind of educational materials should accompany the film? How do you imagine the outreach of THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE

I think a study guide would be great for the film. We’ve talked about having Umnia’s story in the target study guide because this is a topic that’s hard for girls and women in the Muslim community to talk about. Therefore, having something that is very specific to their community would be important. Having a study guide that encompasses what Coriama’s work does, which is talking about pleasure in communities of color, talking about pleasure in queer culture, and how pleasure in that sense is an act of resistance, I think that’s an important study guide. And then, a study guide that generally addresses all of the issues in the film, which is how misogyny becomes institutionalized, and that it’s institutionalized in ways we don’t think about.

The medical community knows they don’t ever talk to women about the clitoris; they don’t ever mention the clitoris. Like Stacey Dutton says, “What happens to the clitoris when a woman gives birth? Well, nobody knows.” That’s institutionalized misogyny. That’s ridiculous that nobody says to the woman getting ready to give birth, “Okay, don’t worry about it, here’s what’s going to happen,” or “This is what will happen, and these are the things that might change.” That’s because we don’t really care all that much about women’s pleasure. I think we need a study guide that highlights the environment that we all operate in: there’s no place, no institution you can enter, which will legitimize your right as a human being to pleasure if you’re born female. I’d like to see this film on every college campus in the country, which is a big goal. I would like to see it shown to high school girls. I will consider myself successful the day every young woman entering her freshman year of high school knows what a clitoris looks like, where it is, and what it’s for. 

What did you learn about the clitoris and female sexual pleasure while making the film?

In 2013, I met Sophia Wallace for the first time, and that’s when I learned what my clitoris looked like. Then, I realized that I had never spoken to my own daughter about it and educated her, which made me very sad. I was a pretty “with it” woman, and I’d also fallen into the same trap. I think when you actually learn the truth about your anatomy, it changes the way you think about your body and think about how you might experience pleasure.

I traveled the same journey the people in my film did. When you know the truth, you become more empowered, but you also become a little angry when you realize how much of that truth is withheld from you, and that’s not by accident. It’s withheld on purpose. Who we choose to be sexually is among the most intimate choices we make as human beings. I don't want to live in a world where those choices are criminalized, criticized, or shamed. The way of becoming empowered is to speak about it and speak about the right to pleasure. 

beautifully incorporates the personal, cultural, scientific, and political elements of female sexual pleasure that are ultimately at the core of misogyny and gender inequality. Did you always have this broad vision in mind, or did it become clearer to you as the film came into its own?

You can’t separate the way women are treated as sexual beings from the way they are treated in the world. In the Catholic Church, we start out with the person who’s held up to women as their role model, the Virgin Mary. You start from there, and it’s all downhill. Religion, academia, society, politics, culture-these were all things I wanted to look at because the culture has a huge impact on the way women look at their bodies, and the way we talk about sex. Our bodies are used to sell absolutely everything in this world. Women can be sexualized but not sexual. The objectification of women, that’s just fine but women having ownership over their bodies? That’s not fine. You can’t really make a film about women and sexual desire without looking at the way they’re treated broadly in the world. I always knew that would be a focus but that also made it very difficult because that’s a really big focus. I suppose what helped me focus the film was the work of Sophia Wallace and CLITERACY: the 100 Natural Laws. They touch upon all the lies and myths we are told about not only our bodies, but our pleasure. Her work is just very important because it encapsulates the landscape that we are all in in a very powerful way. 

What do you envision to be the main focus of discussions surrounding THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE? What do you hope to be the premise and outcomes of group discussions about this film in educational settings?

What I’m hoping is that the film will help audiences understand that disconnecting a human being from an essential part of their humanity is a way of disconnecting them from power.  What I hope happens is that this film helps audiences see that to be disconnected from an essential part of their humanity is wrong, and they’re entitled to own their bodies, own their pleasure, and experience pleasure. In doing so, it will enable them to demand more in their lives, not just in the bedroom. It will enable women, girls, and femme-identifying people to demand that their experience be legitimized and respected; not just in the bedroom, but also your experience when you go to the doctor, when you walk into a classroom when you go to pursue a Ph.D., and you have to deal with a very toxic, misogynistic culture, or when you are simply walking down the street and, people seem to think that your body is there for them to comment on.

All of that needs to change. I want people to understand how much of it is around us. We can’t get away from it anymore. When Audre Lorde writes about how the power of the erotic is not only talking about pleasure, she’s also talking about an anti-racist world. The end of her essay is about how once people become so empowered and know the full extent of their lives' capacity, that's how we fight against racism, misogyny, poverty, all of the ills of the world. To disconnect a group from that power is to disconnect you from political and personal power. The film’s not about the clitoris. It’s about how you access your power no matter who you are. 

In the context of the current public health, economic, and political crisis in the U.S., how do you hope THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE fits in? How is THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE urgent for the present-day?

This film is very urgent because we now live in a time when we’re losing access to reproductive rights. We’re losing access to affordable birth control. This film is a rallying cry for everybody to say this isn’t right. This isn’t the way the world is; this isn’t the world we want to live in, and no group should have power over another group. Period. I hope people are moved by this film, and I hope they are inspired to understand the full capacity of their lives.  

Will you continue to do more work surrounding female sexual desire and pleasure?

Right now, I feel like I’ve said just about everything I can say about it. I’d like to see other people make a film about this that talks about these issues from different perspectives. Mine was from a cisgender woman's perspective, and I think there's a huge space for a conversation that needs to take place around these topics by other filmmakers. 

So, THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE is a way to open up the conversation. 

I hope so. It’s a way to invite people in and in a way that’s enjoyable and sometimes funny but also serious. It says to people, “Okay, now you need to continue the conversation that goes beyond what I could contribute.” 

In your opinion, what is the most powerful moment in the film?

It’s hard to say because I think all of the women in the film had very powerful moments. I loved when Umnia came to realize that all of the women in her life that she’d looked up to may have been wrong and that they had been suffering too. This suffering had gone on for generations, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just what was there. I think when Coriama says, “If you lie to someone, they aren’t able to imagine the possibilities of their life.” I think that’s a very powerful moment. It’s a powerful moment when Sophia Wallace talks about the impact the Catholic Church has on women, and holding up the Virgin Mary as someone they should aspire to and how that can lead to a culture of rape. I think the ending is very powerful when all the women come together and read from Audre Lorde. The opening of the film is powerful to me when Stacey Dutton looks at the camera and says, “They’ve wiped womanhood out of the text.” I know a lot of people can be a little uncomfortable with the film because it’s about the clitoris, and they don’t want to say the word, but just ask yourself this, “Do you want to live in a world where your body and the physiological functions of your body are not considered necessary to include in an anatomy textbook? Is that the world you want to live in?”