Virgins and lesser humans

A review of The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

This book made me pretty angry.

It's not that I disagree with Jessica Valenti's arguments in The Purity Myth:  How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women.  It just bothers me that women, teenagers, and even younger girls are being manipulated and actively lied to by their parents, teachers and religious leaders. These women and girls are being judged by only one standard: whether or not they have sex.  The message they're being given in no uncertain terms is: if you're an unmarried female who is (or has been) sexually active, you're just not as good as a woman who's still a virgin.

Granted, any young woman who chooses to delay or avoid sex for whatever reason she chooses isn't really making a wrong choice.  But, according to some individuals and groups, young women who make the choice to engage in sex, whether or not they make the choice willingly and deliberately, somehow become lesser human beings.  This act becomes the only standard by which their character is measured.  Like an inverted form of pornography, women's worth is being judged only in terms of their sexual status as virgins.  And the weapon some of these individuals and groups use against young women who fall from this pedestal is shame.  Because the only worthy goal for women is to save this "gift" for marriage, where she'll give it to her husband.  Actually, as Valenti points out, she's given in marriage by her father, whose role is to safeguard her chastity until almost literal ownership of said chastity is passed to the daughter's new husband/owner.

Valenti describes purity balls, where girls as young as nine years old are dressed up in formal wear and taken to an event where they pledge to their fathers that they will remain chaste until marriage.  And, really, what nine-year-old girl wouldn't do that, if only because everyone else in the group was doing it?  Other attempts at damning the sexually active attempt to equate chastity with being a piece of candy, once some guy has licked it and sucked it, you just can't put it back in its wrapper.  Who would want it?  Other reinforcement techniques include group exercises where "used" women are equated with a piece of tape stuck to a boy's arm.  Once that boy rips it off, that piece of tape has picked up dirt and hairs from the boy's arm, and lost some of it's stickiness-- making that piece of tape (that girl) less likely to be able to bond firmly with another boy.  Another group indoctrination technique would equate a sexually active woman or girl as a used tissue, which was thrown on the ground while the group was encouraged to step on it.

Is this really how we want to teach young people to treat their fellow human beings?

Valenti also makes the rather provocative assertion that these images of pure young women usually focus on a specific type of chaste girl: one who is attractive, slender, straight, and white.  This seems to me to possibly stem mostly from the socio-economic circumstances of the families that support the political agenda that the purity movement is aligned with rather than any overt racism on the part of the purity movement, but Valenti makes the more confrontational claim that non-white women and girls are viewed as somehow less pure (or viewed as more inherently sexual) in a white-centric cultural view.

And some of this is being funded by your tax dollars under the heading of abstinence only sex education.  The hope is that young women will choose to avoid sex out of an idealized valuation of chastity and inflated fears of any kind of sexual activity, rather than giving them the knowledge to make an informed decision to be, or not-be, sexually active.

This volume will probably be useful in rallying the already converted.  But I doubt that it will be read by many who don't already sympathize with feminist views.  This is one of those issues which seems to leave no room for debate or nuance.  Whatever side you choose, if you're not in agreement with the side I'm on, you're just wrong.  Which is kind of a shame.  I do think it's a book worth reading.  And discussing.

I should point out that the book is pretty extensively foot-noted and has a pretty good-sized index for a relatively slim volume.  (Pretty wide spacing of the text on the pages, too, causing me to wonder, in my less-charitable moments, if Valenti had to cheat a little to inflate the page count.)  Also included are questions for discussion and a list of additional resources including organizations, web-sites, blogs and books.

Valenti also has a web site where you can keep up-to-date with news and views from a variety of feminists.


I recently read a book on a similar topic, Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank

I'm apoplectic from the wise-acre comments swirling in my head.