By Christina Kiely
Maria Finitzo’s film The Dilemma of Desire, a documentary about female sexual desire, was difficult to pitch and sell because, according to Finitzo, “People were afraid of it, they think it’s about porn or are worried they’re going to see people having sex.” Instead, the film delves into the essential, surprising, and often sad truth about most women’s understanding of their own sexual desires and their own bodies.
Finitzo’s film features a disparate group of women each taking on the dilemma of desire in their own unique and powerful way.
Before I started watching the film, I really didn’t know what I was in for.
Maria Finitzo: Most people don’t know what they’re in for and that probably was one of the reasons why it made it so hard to pitch, because it’s kind of a big concept: female sexual desire. But I came into the film from a fairly intellectual approach rather than boots on the ground like this is what you know it feels like to have desire but more like this is what gets in the way of our desire.
Where did the idea for the film stem from?
I’m a social issue documentary filmmaker. I look at things that get in the way of individuals, those human beings having agency over themselves, their own behavior and the totality of who they are. I wanted to look at the way anybody born female is treated sexually. I read a book back in 2012, by a journalist, Daniel Bergner, called The Science of Female Sexual Desire or What Do Women Want. The journalist went around the U.S. and Canada and he interviewed scientists who were studying female desire with females as subjects as opposed to men and the upshot of the book was that women have as robust as sex drive as men, they’re simply told lies about it to reinforce patriarchal structures.
I thought, okay, what are women supposed to do with that information and how do I make a topic like that cinematic? So the first person I found was [the artist] Sophia Wallace, [she] was amazing. And 20 years ago when [Professor] Lisa Diamond started that work, she was an outlier everybody said no you crazy we don’t change our attraction you know you’re straight or gay or whatever. Then I added [Professor] Stacey Dutton and then [tech designer] Ti Chang.
What these women did is give me a framework for how to start – because they were all working in a different way around the issue. And they speak easily about these issues. Sophia Wallace talks about the clitoris as if it’s making popcorn. But what I found in my research was a lot of women couldn’t even say the word clitoris and they didn’t know what their bodies look like and had a lot of deep shame – we all have. It’s the way we’re brought up.
There are so many issues that you took on in the film. When you started production had you decided what all of those issues were going to be, or did it blossom as you went along?
I never really know where it’s going to go or how it’s going to end up because I’ve chosen to have people be in my film and what I do when I do that if I allow their stories and their voices to guide me. All of the women were amazingly open about an intimate part of their life and not after you’d been with them a long time, [but] the first time I interviewed them!
So what that made me realize was that this is something that we want to talk about that no one talks about and people are eager to talk about. Becca’s story, not knowing whether or not she’d ever had an orgasm – she’s not alone you know.
I noticed that two of your DPS were men. Were you ever concerned about having men in the room for some of these intimate conversations?
So what was interesting was my DPs were really great guys and never once did somebody say wait, what’s that guy doing here? I always had women on the crew and people of color, it was a very diverse crew and it never was an issue. I think that that spoke to two things: one is to the men who were in the room, and it spoke to the fact that I just think we are tired of being silent.
For me it was important because I wanted to engage men. I didn’t want the film only to be a film that women or people who identify as women watch. I wanted it to be a film all human beings watch.
Was there anything really surprising that happened while making this film?
I interviewed a group of young women we met at a bar and I asked them if they participated in “hook-up culture.” They said, “Oh yes!” So I asked, “What do you like about it?” They said, “It makes us feel really good, makes us feel powerful.” I said, “I get that.” Then I asked, “Do you get any sexual pleasure out of it?” “Oh no!” “Oh! So why not?” “Oh, well it’s just too much trouble.”
So I’m going to give you my body so you can enjoy my body but MY getting pleasure from you is too much trouble! So that’s where our daughters were and some still are. And that comes from the way we teach sex ed.
So people born female don’t have a sense of entitlement or understanding of their bodies and that’s how we ended up with [the] gymnasts allowing that man to sexually assault them, some of them in front of their parents, because they never thought they could speak up and say, “Stop it.” That’s what we’ve done and we can’t quite seem to get away from punishing the women, and I use that term inclusively, for the behavior of some men. It’s always our fault because we arouse men to do horrible things. It’s in literature, it’s in mythology, you almost can’t get away from it.
Starting with the professor of Biology and Physiology who noticed that in Gray’s Anatomy you don’t actually have an image of the clitoris is so interesting. And I thought it was very smart to have an intellectual person who’s in the field say, “Oh my God, no one knows what this looks like. How can that be?”
They’ve wiped women out of the text. And it’s not just the text of biology but it’s in the history text, it’s the art text. I mean how long did it take for us to know that the people who got those guys to the moon were African American women?!
What was something you learned in addition to the true shape of the clitoris, while making this film?
I love to make films because I always learn something. And what I was able to do when I made this film was enter into a world filled with young people who were challenging all of the notions around gender and sexuality and then I got to experience that conversation in a way that helped educate me. And I do hope this film starts a conversation.
NYWIFT is screening Maria Finitzo’s The Dilemma of Desire as part of our Member Screening Series May 20-24, 2021, followed by a Q&A with Finitzo and subjects Ti Chang and Stacey Dutton on Monday, May 24 at 5 PM ET.
Check back here for a video recording of the conversation soon.
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