Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Club Review: The Purity Myth

Title: The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
Author: Jessica Valenti
Genre: Non Fiction, Women's studies

Publisher: Seal Press
Publishing Date: January 1, 2009
Hardcover: 263 pages

Summary: (from Goodreads)
The United States is obsessed with virginity — from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes — ranging from abstinence curriculum to “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials — place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value — and hypocrisy — around the notion that girls remain virgin until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.
Why I read this book:

I had been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it (almost a year ago exactly actually). Since I had also been meaning to take part in a small book club that has sprung up with some bloggers, I figured this book was a nice way to kill two birds with one stone.

I know. I amaze myself too sometimes.


As the summary explains, The Purity Myth is basically about our overall obsession with "purity." Instead of focusing on the more complex and important characteristics of not being a shitty person, say like not stealing or leaving chewed up bubblegum where someone may sit, the virginity movement reduces the conversation down to a black and white idea of morality that revolves entirely around sex. On one side you have the virgin; demur, passive, young, and “good.” And on the other you have the whore. There is little room for anything in-between. The problem with this sort of thinking, besides being outdated and ridiculous, is that anything that deviates from the “good” label is automatically seen as less. Girls around the country are being taught that their virginity is a “special gift” that is “precious” and “worth saving.” As Valenti says time and time again, there is nothing wrong with someone making the personal decision to abstain from sex, but when we emphasize how "precious" it is to remain a virgin then we have to question what message that sends to the girls who decide NOT to wait. In one abstinence-only sex education classroom scotch tape is used to demonstrate how premarital sex makes one (though the message as a whole is always focused on girls specifically) dirty but putting the tape, adhesive side down, on the arm of a classmate that represents a sexual partner. When the teacher pulls the tape up, it is no longer perfectly clear and has lost some of its ability to adhere. (Not the most subtle way to send a message that having premarital sex makes you used and unable to form future “bonds.”) I can't help but wonder what exactly that message is supposed to do or how it helps teenagers.

Valenti ultimately comes to the conclusion that the valuing of virginity, and the devaluing those who aren’t, is hurting our young women. That is the underlining message of this book.

The idea that a woman is either chase and moral or dirty and amoral is obviously not new in anyway. Just look at the Eve vs Mary narrative or the Madonna/whore dichotomy. The ironic part about the virgin/whore dichotomy is that both sexualize women and reinforce the message that a woman’s value is based on her ability to have, or not have, sex. That is the true tragedy of the Madonna/whore dichotomy; a girl is only as good as her ability to not have sex.

Valenti then goes one to talk about how abstinence-only sex education is turning our youth into sexually inept ignoramuses. She also outlines very clearly how abstinence-only education singles out girls and trys to scare them into being "pure." One of my favorite quotes in the book clearly sums up the virginity movement’s obsession with clean vs. unclean is by Darren Washington, an abstinence educator. Washington said, “Your body is a wrapped lollipop. When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it. It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you all you have left for your new partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.” Way to bump up the creep factor there Washington. Unfortunately, that really is what the virginity movement is about. Instead of promoting safe sexual health, the virginity movement focuses on scaring and shaming young girls into filling traditional gender roles. (Valenti also thinks that this is why masturbation and lesbianism is never talked about or considered as a valid form of female sexual expression.)

Seriously, there is so much going on in this book I haven't even covered half of it.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

From page 108:
Making women the sexual gatekeepers and telling me they just can't help themselves not only drives home the point that women's sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are expected to be responsible for men's sexual behavior.
Part of the introduction:
So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they’re simultaneously being taught—by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less—that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain “pure.” So what are young women left with? Abstinence-only education during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night! Whether it’s delivered through a virginity pledge or by a barely dressed tween pop singer writhing across the television screen, the message is the same: A woman’s worth lies in her ability—or her refusal—to be sexual. And we’re teaching American girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable. The sexual double standard is alive and well, and it’s irrevocably damaging young women.

The Purity Myth is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. When I lost my virginity as a high school freshman, I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel changed somehow. Wasn’t this supposed to be, like, a big deal? Later, in college, as I’d listen to male friends deride their sexual partners as sluts and whores, I struggled to comprehend how intercourse could mean one thing for men and quite another for women. I knew that logically, nothing about sex could make a girl “dirty,” but I found it incredibly frustrating that my certainty about this seemed to be lost on my male peers. And as I talked to my queer friends, whose sexual experiences were often dismissed because they didn’t fit into the heterosexual model, I started to realize how useless “virginity” really was.

I started to see the myth of sexual purity everywhere—though in the work I do as a feminist blogger and writer, it wasn’t exactly hard to find. Whether it appears in a story about a man killing his girlfriend while calling her a whore or in trying to battle conservative claims that emergency contraception or the HPV vaccine will make girls promiscuous, the purity myth in America underlies more misogyny than most people would like to admit. And while the definition of “virginity” is fairly abstract (as you’ll see in Chapter 1), its consequences for young women are not. And that’s why I wanted, and needed, to write this book. The Purity Myth is for women who are suffering every day because of the lie that virginity exists, and that it has some bearing on who we are and how good we are. Consider the implications virginity has on the high school girl who is cruelly labeled a slut after an innocuous makeout session; the woman from a background so religiously conservative that she opts to have her hymen surgically reattached rather than suffer the consequences of a nonbloody bedsheet on her wedding night; or the rape survivor who’s dismissed or even faulted because she dared to have past consensual sexual encounters.

I think it's pretty obvious already that I loved this book. Abstinence-only education is one of my biggest rant inducers so this book was a natural fit for me. Valenti's writing style felt natural and witty without being bogged down by really complex feminist theory or anything of the like. I also really appreciated that Valenti attempted to offer solutions for how we can move forward. Too often I read these sorts of books that just leave me feeling pissed off and depressed about the word without any hope on how to look forward (this is what I disliked about Female Chauvinist Pigs).

My only complaint is that book feels like it was very much written for people who already agree with Valenti. While that was great for me, I think some people might be turned off by Valenti's approach.

Rating: 8. Excellent – some laughing and/or crying involved

Comments are closed on this post (book club rules). All discussion can be found at Britni's blog here though. You can also read a review by Sarahbear here.