Booknotes: Purity Myth

Just finished Jessica Valenti's latest book, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. It's a quick read (really! I wasn't shirking those reading assignments for class in favor of feminist political analysis . . . again!), and give a nice overview of some of the current conservative and mainstream trends for policing women's sexuality: specifically, the use of the elusive notion of girlhood "purity" and "virginity." She ranges widely over a constellation of cultural narratives about sexuality that all have at their heart a fear of mature adult women's sexual pleasure and sexual agency. Whether it's conservative purity balls and father-daughter dates or the mainstreaming of misogynist pornography and ubiquitous slut-shaming and sexual violence that punish women, the agenda, Valenti argues, is the same: propping up an oppositional view of gender ("men" and "women" are mirror opposites of each other, and blurring of the categories 'male' and 'female' is dangerous to society), often at the expense of women and girls.

I particularly appreciate the way Valenti foregrounds the importance of valuing the ability of women and girls as moral actors, capable of making decisions about their own sexual lives -- particularly when given access to a full range of resources (as opposed to a one-size-fits-all "just say no until marriage" toolkit, which spreads misinformation and ignores anyone who does not fall into a narrow heteronormative model of human sexuality). In the chapter on sexual education she writes:

I'm not going to reinforce the "they're [teens] are going to do it anyway" argument. I believe it's time to take a stance on sex education that isn't so passive--young people deserve accurate and comprehensive sex education not just because they're going to have sex, but because there's nothing wrong with having sex. [emphasis hers] Allowing educators to equate sexuality with shame and disease is not the way to go; we are doing our children a great disservice. Not only are we lying to them, we're also robbing them of the joy that a healthy sex life (as a teenager or in adulthood) can provide (120).

She goes on to describe the profound distrust of women that has been written into state and federal laws that regulate specifically women's sexual descision-making, effectively giving us the legal status of "moral children" (189).

Valenti provides, in the final chapters, practical suggestions for shifting this discourse of fear and proscription to one of sexual agency. Perhaps because I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what it means to approach fellow human beings with intrinsic respect for their personhood, even when we profoundly disagree with their values and choices, I was particularly struck by the way she frames her vision with the concept of trust:

Trusting women means . . . trusting them to find their way. This isn't to say, of course, that I think women's sexual choices are intrinsically "empowered" or "feminist." I just believe that in a world that values women so little, and so specifically for their sexuality, we should be giving them the benefit of the doubt. Because in this kind of hostile culture, trusting women is a radical act (198; emphasis mine).

While obviously fighting for a healthier sexual climate for women and girls does not end with trust, I don't know if there could be a much better beginning.


  1. It's actually quite amazing how people can take the most natural thing in the world and make it so shameful.

    And yes, sex is very healthy. it's a form of exercise, it releases those feel good hormones, and in the best of situations can lead to a closer bond between partners.

  2. I haven't read "The Purity Myth," so I can only comment in a very limited way about it.

    Jessica Valenti is absolutely the wrong person to be writing about this subject: she doesn't understand what she's criticising. Certainly, she (and others) feel very strongly about their viewpoints and their end of the spectrum of this issue, but that does not correlate to an understanding of those with whom she disagrees. I would bet anything that she didn't sit down and acquaint herself with Theology of the Body, Christian teachings about the why of abstinence, or anything that might help her understand the thinking behind the chastity movement.

    The result is, inevitably, a series of straw-man arguments about the nature and beliefs of the chastity movement. The biggest issue I see is the conflation of the chastity movement with the pornography movement (in, make no mistake, a book entitled "The Purity Myth"). Our side takes a single, hard-line view on pornography: it's bad for the people watching it, exploits the people in it, and is bad for society. The reason is not because we don't want sex workers to be empowered, but rather because it treats human beings - who are valuable, spiritual, and emotional creatures - as if they are commodities. How this translates into thinking that there is something wrong with having sex is beyond me.

    As I've mentioned many times before, the data contradict many of the claims of the feminist sex-positive establishment - conservatives enjoy sex more than their liberal feminist peers; married, Protestant women are the most likely to orgasm from sex; and married women find it to be more fulfilling than their single counterparts. Furthermore, the majority of teenagers who have sex regret their decision and specifically wish that they could have waited longer. A noted paediatrician said that depression should be considered a STD: she saw numerous teenage girls who had sex and become horribly depressed as a result.

    We can and should trust teenagers to make their own decisions, but part of that is letting them make informed decisions - about not just the benefits of a particular action, but the risks. The experiment of the sexual revolution has taught us that those risks are real and numerous; they encompass not just the physical (abortion, unplanned pregnancy, a rise in STD rates despite increased access to condoms, etc) but also the psychological.

  3. Bridget,

    I'd suggest reading the book before you hypothesize its shortcomings. I think "The Purity Myth" is quite clear on how the purity/abstinence only movement and mainstream pornography are similarly rooted in essentialized views of gender and sexuality, and depend upon a vision of women's sexuality -- particularly -- that offers only two options: virgin or slut.

    Similarly, I agree with you that teenagers should have access to a full range of information about human sexuality. So does Jessica in "The Purity Myth." However, demonstrably, abstinence-only curricula and activists are systematically attempting to spread misinformation and prevent young people from responsibly exploring their own sexual selves and sexual relationships. That to me is a clear sign of distrust in young people -- especially young women.