I got my copy of Jessica Valenti’s newest book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women last week. If the editor-in-chief of Feministing continues to crank out books at this pace, I’m going to suspect that she harbors a secret Calvinist work ethic. Four books in two years is a remarkable achievement.
The Obama Administration offers hope that the long national embarrassment known as the abstinence-only movement is soon to be finished. Early signs are that funding for more comprehensive sex education will eventually come through, and that government support for the “purity movement” — a hallmark of the Bush years — is at long last coming to an end (though not rapidly enough for many of us.) Jessica’s timely, accessible book looks at the damage wrought by the “purity myth” and at the noxious agenda which hides behind the cry that “True Love Waits.” Her book went to press too early to include the most recent findings on the failures of the abstinence movement, which is a pity; all the best research indicates that a focus on “purity” has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to a spike rather than in a decline in unplanned pregnancies among American teenagers.
In The Purity Myth, Valenti employs the same accessible, conversational style — punctuated by hilarious asides and personal anecdotes — that characterized her first book, Full Frontal Feminism. As several hundred of my students have told me since I first started assigning FFF a year and a half ago, that style works to engage them and to challenge them in a way that a more formally-written text would not. This is not to suggest that my students are incapable of wrestling with books written in academic prose — but when it comes to a subject as personal as contemporary sexual ethics, a breezy conversational tone lends considerable legitimacy to the argument being made. And that tone and that legitimacy are on full display once again in this wonderful book.
The Purity Myth has many strengths, but perhaps the central theme of the text is the thorough and devastating debunking of the notion that a woman’s worth is in any way connected to the amount of sexual experience she has had. For teen girls, bombarded as they are by the twin lies of the abstinence movement and the crass, pornified “Girls Gone Wild” media culture, there’s a desperate need for sound, sensible, compassionate messages that emphasize the simple message that a woman’s sexuality belongs, in the end, to her and to her alone. It is not the property of a father or a future husband (Valenti’s take on “purity balls”, where Dads “date” their daughters and pledge to safeguard their purity, is chilling — particularly for me as a first-time papa to a baby girl). It is not the property of the culture, it is not the property of predatory boys, it is hers.
Valenti offers a hilarious and thorough debunking of the “sex will ruin your life” narrative peddled by most of the abstinence crowd; there’s a wonderful section about the way in which the religious right misuses the hormone oxytocin, by suggesting that this famous “love chemical” will lose its impact if it is aroused or released prior to marriage. One of the ugliest things we do to young women in our culture is teach them — in the guise of concern for their well-being — that one single “mistake” will equal a lifetime of regret. The abstinence movement hammers home a message that women are uniquely vulnerable, and that this vulnerability is less rooted in their capacity to be impregnated and more in their unique feminine psychology, prone as it is to devastation. (I like to call this the “Miss Haversham Myth”, after the character in Great Expectations; I write about it at length in this post.) Valenti makes the case that the promulgation of this myth is less about protecting women and more about fighting a rear guard action against feminism. The fact is, as Valenti makes clear, every single major public proponent of the abstinence movement is funded by or works closely with organizations with explicitly anti-feminist agendas. (Can you name one prominent abstinence advocate who favors paid family leave or abortion rights? Didn’t think so.)
But though the book would be valuable alone for its expose of the abstinence movement, The Purity Myth also touches on the way in which the movement offers a distorted, toxic vision of both men and women. She quotes Michael Kimmel and Bob Jensen (of Guyland and Getting Off fame) at length, noting the ways in which the abstinence movement’s framing of male sexuality as predatory and uncontrollable (and thus women’s responsibility to manage) does violence to men and women alike — though the worst injuries are invariably suffered by women. Jessica writes:
It’s because I care so much for the men in my life that I advocate a re-thinking of masculinity. It’s also because I want a better world for women. Because as long as men are disconnected from women, as long as they’re taught that we’re what not to be, and as long as they believe that the only way to define themselves is through women’s bodies and sexuality, the purity myth will live on.
The best part of The Purity Myth comes in the conclusion, in which Jessica Valenti offers a ringing new vision of feminist sexuality and agency. Quoting at length:
Teaching sex as a moral, responsible act — not to be taken lightly, but also not to be used as a fodder for criticism — has the potential to create real change in young women’s lives. By doing so, we’d be giving young women much needed space to take responsibility for their sexuality. For example, think of the common excuse that young people use when they’ve had unprotected sex: “It just happened.” In these instances, sex is framed not as a deliberate choice, but rather something that just occurred, thus freeing young people — especially young women — from the judgment that’s heaped upon those who actively choose sex. The lack of protection, in fact, “proves” that the encounter wasn’t premeditated; this allows the participants to absolve themselves of guilt. But if having sex is a morally neutral — or positive — act, young women will start making better and healthier decisions, because they’ll feel justified in making them.
Bold emphasis mine. Years and years of working with adolescents leaves me with not a shred of doubt about the basic common sense of that last line.
The abstinence movement has one vision for our little sisters and our daughters. It is a vision rooted less in a respect for their agency and autonomy and more in a twisted theology of the body, a teaching that suggests that biology is destiny and that a woman’s truest worth is inextricably linked with her pre-marital virginity and her post-marital fecundity. It is a vision straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel, but it is no fantasy. It is a worldview rooted in a mistrust of women’s agency and a hatred for women’s power, a worldview in which sacrificial service to fathers and husbands is reframed as liberation and fulfillment. From a Christian standpoint, it is a perversion of the Gospel; from a political standpoint, it is reactionary and dangerous and fundamentally anti-modern. Jessica Valenti’s powerful, broad-ranging treatise is an accessible and important polemic in the struggle against what I can only describe as a malevolent vision of humanity and sexuality.
I know some young people in my life who are getting The Purity Myth this year for their birthdays.