What I Learned Talking to Strangers From Different Cultures About Intimacy, Sex and Female Pleasure

Barbara Miller on the journey she took directing her new documentary, #Female Pleasure.

To tell the story of my new documentary, #Female Pleasure, I searched for young women from each of the five major world religions. In my research, I had found that in all the “holy books” (e.g. the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, etc.) – which are still looked upon by many as the ultimate source of wisdom – there are shocking passages that demonize women and their bodies, calling them inferior, impure and sinful. For that reason, I set out to find contemporary, metropolitan women who would break the silence, shame and taboo around female sexuality and dare to speak openly about their experience in the 21st century of being a woman, having a female body and experiencing female sexuality in their culture today.

The first trip I made was to India, where sexual education is mostly banned in schools, more than 90 percent of marriages are still arranged, an alarming number of female fetuses are aborted, baby girls are neglected and killed, and women in all aspects of life are treated as second-class citizens. I flew to Delhi – nicknamed “The City of Rape,” due to the high number of sexual assault cases – to talk with Vithika Yadav.

In the lobby of a fancy Delhi hotel, I met Vithika, a young woman in jeans and an orange, Indian-style shirt with long, shiny hair and a beaming smile. As we talked, our conversation quickly turned to the clitoris and how it was only recently that its real dimensions inside the female body were discovered. About how it’s much more than just a little bud, and about the lack of knowledge about this beautiful organ around the world.

Vithika is the founder of Love Matters, the very first Hindi-English website in India to talk openly about relationships and sexuality. And also pleasure. This energetic young woman is convinced that talking openly about all aspects of sexuality and relationships is the most effective way to break the silence around sexual violence and sexual abuse in India, and to finally change the perilous situation currently facing Indian women and girls.

Vithika Yadav in #Female Pleasure.

Before we started shooting, Vithika said, “It’s hard to grow up as a girl in India with all the sexual harassment and the silence about it. It took me a long time to accept being a woman and having a female body. But today I can finally say: I love sex. I’ll explain to you how I managed to gain this.”

Vithika’s special focus is on pleasure, an aspect mostly neglected in most sexual education curriculums around the world (especially when it comes to female pleasure), and she and her Love Matters team are fighting to change this, against all odds.

I went to upstate New York to meet Deborah Feldman, author of the New York Times bestselling book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, in which she describes her childhood, early adulthood and her first, very difficult sexual experiences in the isolated, ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in New York City. Deborah was 26 when we first met, but had already experienced incredible difficulties in her life. She had been married off to a stranger at 17, a man the family had chosen for her, had a child with him at 19, and lived in a community which believes women are “impure” because of their menstruation. (That belief was also held by Catholics in Europe until 50 years ago and persists in Japanese Buddhism, meaning women can’t become sushi chefs.) For her to become “pure” again and be ready to procreate, Deborah had to go through a bathing ritual each month, a practice which robbed her of self-determination over her body and her sexuality. At the age of 23, she took her son and left both her husband and the Hasidic community, leaving everything she knew behind.

Deborah Feldman in #Female Pleasure.

On the train ride up to meet her, I’d wondered how she felt about her body today, after all she had gone through. Young and radiant with fair hair, she showed no external signs of having been someone who, in order to be “modest,” had for years worn shapeless dresses that covered up her femininity and a wig to hide her bald head. (Hasidic women shave their heads to ensure that their real hair is never exposed.) Nevertheless, she told me she’s still a long way from feeling like she’s regained self-determination over her body. In our time together, I was struck by how full of creative ideas Deborah was. Besides writing, she’s collaborated with both a painter and a photographer to find ways of reclaiming her sexuality. At the time, she was planning to move to Europe, to start over yet again, and while we were still making the film, she made that plan a reality.


How do you talk to a former nun about the female body and female sexuality, things she renounced when she joined a Catholic convent at 19 and decided to dedicate her life to the church as a bride of Jesus? This was a question I was grappling with as I sat at Doris Wagner’s kitchen table. Looking at her kind eyes and soft smile, it’s very easy to forget it was only a few years that Doris escaped the tight grip of a so-called “sacred family,” which not only took hold of her soul, but also her body. Doris dedicated her whole being to God. Her community asked for virginity of the heart, soul and especially the body, but Doris was raped by a much older priest. Told for years to be a good nun and obey her superiors without objection, she was unable to defend herself. Nobody protected or helped her, and she lost all she cared about through this brutal, cruel act.

Doris Wagner in #Female Pleasure.

Talking with Doris about her traumatic experiences revealed a system of female devaluation so much more immense than I’d previously understood. There are two main female figures in Christianity: one is Eve, who is sinful and sexually active, and the other is Mary, a virgin and a mother. For women, there are only two options in life: being a saint or a whore. And it’s all the woman’s responsibility; she’s the one to be blamed.

As I talked with her, Doris shared her profound insights into the dynamics of blaming a woman for being raped, a pattern of shaming, accusing and doubting which is sadly common in all cultures around the world. For #Female Pleasure, Doris invited us to venture into the abyss of her past and accompany her as she fought to bring to justice those responsible – all the way up to Pope Francis – and regain power over her life and body.

The Japanese artist Rokudenashiko is also fighting to regain power over her life and body, but in a very different way. When we first met in Tokyo, she greeted us with a traditional Japanese bow and I tried to bow back in the correct Japanese way I’d learned beforehand. Tokyo is a shiny and hyper-modern city, but unusually quiet. There are countless people in the streets and on the subways, but hardly anyone talks and no cellphones ring. All you can hear is the click of the cameras. Since 2008, there has been a mandatory shutter sound on Japanese iPhones, so as to prevent men covertly photographing young girls under their short skirts, which had become alarmingly common on rush-hour trains.

Rokudenashiko, whose name means “naughty girl,” is wearing a Japanese school girl’s dress, just with stronger colors than usual, red instead of pink. We’re sitting in her colorful living room, which is full of her manga drawings and her playful vagina-art. “Manko art,” as she calls it. That’s the very first word in Japanese I’m learning from her: manko. Pussy!

Rokudenashiko in her “manko art” canoe in #Female Pleasure.

Our translator and cameraman are blushing. No one dares to say the word “manko” out loud in Japan! Rokudenashiko giggles. For her, the vagina is a body part like any other. She loves to see people’s shocked faces when she says the taboo word. And her mission is to eradicate that taboo once and for all through her art.

But she’s paying a high price for her mission. Rokudenashiko has been arrested twice and is facing trial. She is accused of obscenity because of her art, and faces a maximum prison sentence of two years. In a country where it is totally acceptable for huge penises to be carried through the streets for a religious fertility festival, the persecution of Rokudenashiko because of her art seems like a misogynistic double standard.

Talking with this funny Japanese artist, I realize there are almost no differences in the perception of the female body in other cultures. The female body is typically treated as a sexual object for male satisfaction. But as soon as women start to take control of their own bodies and their sexuality, there’s an outcry.

Rokudenashiko invited us to follow her case in #Female Pleasure from an insider’s perspective and discover the contradictions she’s living with every day since she was a girl in Japan.

Leyla Hussein has the dynamic aura of a rock star or a supermodel, but her mission is much bigger. Growing up as a girl in Somalia and later as a refugee of war in London, she experienced what it means to be born as a girl, not a boy. She is a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), but determined that her own daughter should not have to go through the same ordeal. She is now at the forefront of the fight against FGM, which 200 million women and girls worldwide are currently suffering from. Every 11 seconds, a girl is deprived of either her clitoris or her whole vulva.

After half a year of trying to reach her, I finally met Leyla in a London bar. All my initial messages asking her to be part of #Female Pleasure had gone into her spam folder, together with all the death threats and slut-shaming emails she has to endure because of her courageous activities. Talking about female pleasure makes you a target for online attacks.

Leyla Hussein in #Female Pleasure.

When I tell Leyla that I want #Female Pleasure to focus mainly on female sexuality, she says, “Then I’m definitely in!” Leyla fights against the excuses and ignorance she’s always been confronted with when people talk about FGM. She points out that, contrary to the common misconception, it has nothing to do with religion or tradition. The only goal is to control women’s sexuality.

Leyla is a Muslim woman who talks frankly and openly about sex, without sparing our so-called “modern” world from criticism regarding the value and importance of female pleasure. Even though 70 percent of all women can enjoy an orgasm only if the clitoris is involved, almost no school books around the world mention this crucial aspect of female pleasure. Nor is it the focus of most mainstream internet pornography, which is how many kids nowadays learn about sex for the first time. Is this why women all over the world, also in “sexually liberated” societies, fake orgasms and lack the courage to tell their partners what they really want and like?

The five amazing women in #Female Pleasure take us on an eye-opening and empowering journey into the worldwide fight for the right of women to have a self-determined, joyful sexuality. They show us, with their incredible positive energy and courage, how in cooperation with men, we can change our reality once and for all.

Writer-director Barbara Miller’s latest film, #Female Pleasure, is in theaters through Abramorama from October 18. Miller, who was born in Switzerland and studied law, cinema sciences and psychology, worked on the Oscar-nominated documentary War Photographer. She has directed more than 20 acclaimed documentaries, ranging from the Anti-Globalization Movement to Domestic Violence, Youth Violence and The Clitoris. Her award-winning feature-length documentary Forbidden Voices was shown at more than 70 festivals worldwide. She is a member of the Swiss Film Academy and the European Film Academy EFA and is the President of the Swiss Filmmakers Association. (Photo by Jason Ashwood.)