The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

As an avid Feministing reader, I’ve been familiar with Valenti’s work for quite a while but had never picked up one of her books until now. Her first two books, Full Frontal Feminism and He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, seemed a bit too Women’s Studies 101 for where I’m at, so I passed on reading them. But when I heard about The Purity Myth I knew I just had to read it; as a staunch anti abstinence-only advocate, I hoped I would find more substance in Valenti’s book than I found in the somewhat disappointing Virgin: An Untouched History by Hanne Blank. (I freely admit to my own research-ery snobbery–if your book doesn’t have a plethora of footnotes, I’m not going to believe your arguments.) Despite a few issues I had with the book, me and my highlighter were quite pleased.

The Purity Myth aims to tear apart the virginity movement–the conservative movement that posits that young womens’ moral value is entirely dependent upon their sexuality. Despite the fact that there is no firm definition or physical validity of “virginity,” young women are repeatedly told that their worth hinges upon what they don’t do–worth through passivity!

“You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a ‘good’ (i.e., ‘moral’) girl and therefore worthy of praise […] Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters–not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for. Just if/how/whom we have sex with” (24).

Why Jessica, you had me at at hello. Going on to discuss purity balls, slut-shaming in rape trials, abstinence-only teaching in high schools, and the “men want it more” mentality, Valenti covers a wide range of topics under the purity umbrella and how each of these topics illuminate a movement that denies women the ability to define and discover their own sexuality.  Virginity debates are almost always centered upon women, (“boys are naturally more sexual, if you’re a good girl you don’t let it happen!”) and as girl’s bodies become the moral minefield, the virginity movement aims to keep women innocent, to keep women girls, to keep women without agency.

Valenti does a great job at pointing out who the virginity movement is aimed at: young straight white girls. Not only are they blind to the GLBTQ community (what’s lesbian sex?), but women of color aren’t targeted by the virginity movement because, well, they’re not worthy of putting on that pedestal. (Read the lovely bell hooks for more on that.) “‘Innocent’ white girls are being lured into an oversexualized culture, while young black women are already a part of it” (47). Some agenda indeed. And it’s total bullshit.

In undoubtedly the best chapter, “Beyond Manliness,” Valenti breaks down the traditional gender roles of “boys will be boys” and “women are chaste” and only briefly touches upon the larger topic of how masculinity affects the virginity movement as well:

“Women cannot continue to be the markers by which men measure their manliness. And while the myth of sexual purity is primarily about women, it’s impossible to dismantle the notion that women’s worth is connected to their sexuality without also dismantling a conception of masculinity that is reinforced so fully that it is a myth. We’re only as pure or impure as men deem us to be–they’re the ones with that power to define and control” (181).

Overall I really did enjoy this book. But let me also admit that I have a girl-crush on Jessica Valenti. I think she’s awesome, witty, a great writer, and I envy her career. I enjoyed this book…and yet I had hoped for more.  Part well-researched, part conversational, you can tell she got her start in blogging because she includes witty and tangential footnotes (ex: “Apparently, the virginity movement is not just concerned with the high rates of teen sex–it’s combating the evils of Bonne Bell Lip Smackers as well!”) that were distracting and borderline unnecessary. Also, some of her points are clearly tinged with personal bias and blanket statements; although I agreed with what she was saying I couldn’t help but cringe when she made these statements because I could just see the other side poking holes in her argument. Like I admitted before, I’m a research freak–I want arguments backed up by more than just opinion, even if I agree. And as the chapters flitted from topic to topic, I began to lose the common thread of Valenti’s argument as she attempted to cover too much.

Here’s the thing: adolescent sexuality is an awkward topic. Parents fear it, and understandably so: little Bobby and Sally are growing up and it’s tough to witness and I get it that parents want to protect their children. But adults must treat young adults like just that: young adults. We need to trust young women to make decisions about their bodies and stop assuming that “we” know what’s best for them. If the virginity movement was really about being strong and making decisions outside of peer pressure, then if a young adult chooses to have sex on their own accord because they want to we must not shame them but arm them with materials to protect themselves and their decisions. Sex is natural and enjoyable, and shaming women into believing that their entire worth is based upon an imaginary state of being that we’ve labeled virginity is unacceptable. As Valenti closes the book:

“Take a look at the work these young women and others are doing. Now tell me it matters whether they’re virgins or not (it doesn’t) or that their contributions to society have anything to do with their sexuality (they don’t). […] let’s spread this message about all young women across the country: that we’re more than the sum of our sexual parts, that our ability to be moral and good people has to do with our kindness, compassion, and social engagement–not our bodies–and that we won’t accept any less for any longer” (215).

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One response to “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women

  1. gracklesmalarkey

    i really want to read this! thanks for the great review. I’ve been thinking about the big V a lot lately, how its a less definitive idea for Queer youth. check out my very unintellectual, but personally political posting. I’d love to know what you think. thxs

    http://gracklesmalarkey.wordpress.com/2009/05/19/v-is-for-virginity/

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