Title: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women
Author: Jessica Valenti
Release Date: March 2009
Publisher: Seal Press
Genre: Nonfiction; women’s studies; sexuality studies
Rating: 3 out of 5
Jessica Valenti argues in The Purity Myth that the United States is obsessed with virginity. She asserts that those associated with the abstinence movement are perpetuating the virgin/whore dichotomy, which sets up only two kinds of women: one to be admired and emulated and the other to be disgraced and shunned. Valenti opposes the idea that a sexually active woman is “tainted” or “impure” and thereby unworthy, and she protests against the movement’s emphasis on chastity, marriage, and parenthood.
She comments, “In this mess of chastity expectations, objectification, and control of women, we have lost a very fundamental truth: Sex is amazing, and there’s nothing wrong or dirty or shameful or sinful about it.”
In particular, she takes to task:
The abstinence teacher who tells her students that they’ll go to jail if they have premarital sex. The well-funded organization that tells girls on college campuses that they should be looking for a husband, not taking women’s studies classes. The judge who rules against a rape survivor because she didn’t meet whatever standard for a victim he had in mind. The legislator who pushes a bill to limit young women’s access to abortion because he doesn’t think they are smart enough to make their own decisions. These are the people who are making the world a worse place—and a more dangerous one, at that—for girls and women.
If you already believe that the abstinence movement is harming young women, you will like this book. If you don’t, you’re not likely to change your mind.
There were many parts of this book that I enjoyed. However, I came to it hoping for a clear-eyed, well-argued account of the effects of the movement toward abstinence and virginity. I wanted to recommend the book to my friends who remain on the fence about the issues that Valenti discusses.
This book instead only reinforces the dichotomy between supporters and detractors of abstinence. Much of her prose reads like, well, a pugilistic and snarky blog entry, dominated by her strong opinions. She openly derides those who support the virginity movement, and suggests that her side is the only one to see the finer nuances of the point:
“[F]or those who buy into the virginity movement, the only alternative to being a virgin is being a whore. There’s no in-between for them; there are no shades of gray when it comes to sexuality. . .”
Rather than seeking to build a bridge to the other side, Valenti sets up a fort on her side of the chasm.
That being said, there were many points made in the book that bear repeating.
Valenti begins by exploring how society has put youth on a pedestal. The increasing sexualization of young girls, she explains, cuts both ways—childlike innocence is valued in women of all ages. She observes, “Young women are being trained to be not autonomous adults, but perpetual children whose sexuality is strictly defined and owned, like that of traditional wives-in-training.”
One of the more powerful chapters of the book is devoted to abstinence-only education. More than just teaching children to say “no,” Valenti writes, “abstinence-only curricula . . . are built on outdated notions of gender norms and sexist stereotypes about sexuality and relationships, and ultimately seek a return to traditional gender norms.” Valenti argues that the abstinence movement is not supported very broadly within U.S. society, despite the federal funding it receives. She supports her statements with solid research:
According to a study published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 82 percent of Americans support programs that teach contraception as well as abstinence, and half of all Americans oppose abstinence-only education altogether. Even among those who describe themselves as conservatives, 70 percent support comprehensive sex education.
Valenti’s professional experience includes working at the National Organization for Women’s legal defense fund, and she has a good handle on legislative issues. Valenti proposes that men—still predominant in politics and policymaking—are making the laws about women’s bodies, seeking legislation ranging from blocking minors’ access to the over-the-counter “morning after” pill, to requiring the father’s note of approval before a woman can have an abortion, to requesting that women report miscarriages within 12 hours for fear of facing murder charges. In Valenti’s opinion, a push toward laws such as these signifies that women aren’t trusted to make their own decisions.
Valenti cites disturbing cases of violence against women, such as that of a young woman who was drinking late at a bar and was kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, and dumped beside the road. Another appalling case involved a woman in the Air Force who was raped and, when she reported the crime, was charged with “indecent acts”—essentially being punished for her own rape. In cases such as these, women are often criticized for making poor decisions when they “know better,” but Valenti takes umbrage at the blatant victim-blaming attitude of the media and authorities by stating unequivocally, “Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.”
While I appreciate her in-depth criticism of violence against women (and how it is handled in the media), the mention of violence against men was virtually nil. The only time she even mentions the rape of men is while criticizing an Axe body spray advertisement featuring women harassing and sexually assaulting the men who use Axe. In interpreting the ad as solely making “light of actual violence against women,” Valenti herself trivializes very real sexual violence against men.
The author does touch upon the often-overlooked issue of hypermasculinity, though. She comments:
As much as the virginity movement is based upon the idea that a woman’s worth is dependent upon her sexuality, it’s also mired in the belief that traditional masculinity is superior and its preservation is necessary.
Valenti discusses the harmful effects of masculine ideals upon both men and women; men are supposed to be strong, insensitive, and, above all, NOT womanlike. Not only does this ideology create inequality between the sexes, but it also humiliates men who reveal a sensitive or passive personality, often questioning their sexuality and “manliness” and therefore their very worth.
Which brings me to another one of Valenti’s points: queer sexuality is completely overlooked in an abstinence movement that “seeks to create a world where everyone is straight, women are relegated to the home, the only appropriate family is a nuclear one, reproductive choices are negated, and the only sex people have is for procreation.” I’m not surprised; many of the conservative and often religious forces behind the abstinence movement are also anti-gay.
While Valenti has some interesting comments to make about the abstinence movement and its effects upon women’s empowerment, her points are occasionally weakened by her bias. However, I did enjoy many parts of the book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the abstinence movement and feminism.