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Cannonball Read V: The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

By Lollygagger | Book Reviews | February 1, 2013 | Comments ()


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This is a nearly impossible review to write, as this book is amazing, infuriating, and endlessly quotable. I like to write in my books (I know, the horror), underlining passages, commenting on paragraphs, dropping the occasional "the FUCK" in the margins, and fiendishly circling page numbers so I know which ones REALLY need to be remembered. In the case of this book, nearly every page has at least one passage underlined. And I was being conservative with my pen.

Jessica Valenti is a feminist who has spent much of her life spreading the (shockingly controversial) idea that women deserve social, political and economic equality. This doesn't just mean that she supports the basics like, say, equal pay for equal work; it means she explores the real issues that affect women on a regular basis. She examines the systemic issues, the roots of discriminatory treatment, and makes connections that initially seem obtuse but, given her thorough research and excellent ability to connect the dots, become clear and obvious to anyone willing to think critically.

I read her book Full Frontal Feminism this fall, and plan to read Why Have Kids at some point this year. But this book has caused my blood pressure to rise so much that I think I need a palate cleanser to clear my mind of the absurdity of the anti-feminist movement.

As the subtitle of The Purity Myth suggests, Valenti's book explores "how America's obsession with virginity is hurting young women." The overall thesis can be summed up pretty well with this quote:

"For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don't really care what women do sexually, and neither should you. In fact, that's the point. I believe that a young woman's decision to have sex, or not, shouldn't impact how she's seen as a moral actor."

There is so much good in this book that I clearly won't be able to do it justice. But I'm going to try to point out some of the things that make it so great. Valenti doesn't (as some of her more ignorant critics claim) propose women go out and have a lot of sex. She doesn't propose that women not have sex, either. Instead, she chooses to frame the discussion around why women are judged based on *not* having sex, while men are judged on other things. As she puts it in the first paragraph: "It's time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they're sexually active."

Anyone who has attended high school in America can probably almost immediately bring to mind the image of a classmate who was a 'slut,' and, as such, not a 'good' person. I find it embarrassing to think back to how sexual activity was used as a proxy for determining the (negative) value of an entire human. It wasn't always the case; not having had sex (at least at my high school) didn't peg someone as good or bad, but there were definitely some people who were talked about.

Valenti focuses on all the different ways this idea of purity hurts women of all ages. Many of you are probably familiar with the Madonna / Whore dichotomy (possibly thanks to a scene from Sex and the City featuring Charlotte talking to Trey about her sexual needs); Valenti looks at the way it is reinforced on a regular basis through all sorts of different venues, and how that hurts all women. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense: if my value is tied up in whether or not I still have an intact hymen, that implicitly means that nothing else I do matters. If all that I am good for is staying 'pure' for my future husband then there's no need for me to access any other opportunities, like, say, a solid education or a career.

The first chapter in the book - and the one that disturbed the heck out of me - focuses on Purity Balls and virginity worship. These FEDERALLY FUNDED displays of paternal ownership reek of creepy incestuous relationships, but operate under the guise of helping young women to 'save' themselves, with their fathers promising to protect their virtue. Again, as though a girl's virtue can be found between her legs and not in her brain.

From here, Valenti discusses many more related topics in fascinating and disgusting detail, including: the dangers of abstinence-only education; the racial and economic implications of the fact that some women are already seen as 'spoiled' by virtue of the way they look or the community in which they live; the misinformation spread by anti-feminist organizations; the way that purity is sexualized, contributing directly to the objectification of young women; and myriad other interconnected topics. From an exploration of how society has decided only certain women can be raped, to how this traditional understanding of purity leaves out many people from the get go (where do lesbians fit in, for example?), Valenti hits each topic directly, using straightforward language backed up by solid research and a whole lot of facts.

Some of the best writing is in the area of sexual assault. I dare you to read chapter five without either throwing the book at a wall or at least going to the liquor cabinet for a stiff drink because it is BLEAK.

But it is so important. I plan to gift this book (along with Full Frontal Feminism) to my nieces and nephews when they are old enough, because the information is important, and it isn't just up to women to change these bizarre notions of a woman's worth. While some readers may have tuned out at my first mention of feminism, consider picking it up - whether you are a woman or a man, this book will open your eyes and hopefully motivate you to action.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of lollygagger's reviews visit the group blog, and then check out her blog, a s k's musings.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • John

    When I read "America's obsession with virginity" I assumed it was some kind of parody, or that the book was written in 1915. There are still a few stragglers on the battlefield who I guess need to be put out of their misery, but that battle is over. I suppose that as long as ANYONE still believes in that imaginary 1950s America, people can still don their armor of moral virtue and pretend they're brave for attacking it. "Obsession with virginity" certainly doesn't describe the America I live in, not by a long shot

  • LibraryChick

    This is why my parents gave me "the talk," told me to come to them if I chose to be active so we could take care of contraception, condoms, and other safety issues, and pretty much trusted me to be an individual responsible for my own behavior. It was pretty much don't ask, don't tell, since then, and it worked out fine because I was armed with the knowledge I needed. No babies out of wedlock yet, but at least I'm finally at an age where folks wouldn't care as much if it happened now. If only my peers had been as kind about respecting my privacy as my parents.

    In the 1996/1997 school year I was judged in high school for allegedly "doing it" with an ex (I'll call him The Jerk) when I hadn't. Even more embarrassing, I also had to tell my parents about the whole thing, as my mom was a school custodian. She and her coworkers would have been the first to see anything written about me in the bathroom stalls or locker rooms. Only two fellow students (both girls) had the guts to ask me point blank if I had. (Perhaps they would not have judged me if I had, but I always appreciated they asked me themselves.) The guys who were curious would just ask the folks I dated after The Jerk. Mind you, this meant two years after the fact, guys I dated were still having to answer the question of, "Hey, did The Jerk put it to your girlfriend back in the day?" Some of the ones who asked my then-significant others even claimed The Jerk told them himself. (When I finally confronted The Jerk about this over the phone, he denied it, but there were too many others who talked for me to believe otherwise.) How embarrassing that anyone I dated after that had to defend my honor (and also thus have to defend their own celibacy while dating me). Somehow a simple "None of your business" just made folks assume I did something I should not have, even if it truly was none of their business.

    In 1999 there was the nationwide discussion thanks to President Clinton about whether oral sex counted as "sex" because of the media obsession with a penis penetrating a vagina as the only true (heteronormative) definition of the word.

    There was also the entire obsession with Jessica Simpson keeping her precious "gift" for Nick Lachey until her marriage to him. Do I really need to keep going on about this?

    No one should be forced to be in the closet about celibacy, regardless of the reason, just as no one should be forced to advertise one's sexuality. As long as nosy, small-town America exists (and especially openly religious America), this is an issue. If it doesn't describe the America you know personally, good for you, but please don't deny someone else's reality. Oh, and even if you don't think it's happening in America, don't worry, non-virgins are still judged as whores in many other countries. I'm glad John isn't obsessed with the issue.

    It's hard for those of us who have been judged to feel otherwise. I should also note women are just as bad as men, if not worse about it. In undergrad I still remember one youngish, single female professor other female students hated because she was attractive and other male students drooled over her. (She dressed more fashionably, but there was never too much skin exposed.) Some girls started the rumor this single female prof was getting it on with another young male professor in the same department. Since I knew how it felt to be part of such mean-spirited rumors, I told a senior professor in the department. I was concerned such unfounded rumors would put the young lady out of the running for tenure. He informed his colleague of the rumors in a very delicate, fatherly way. It's sad we both had to protect her from some girls' bitchy rumors, as her sexual behavior (or lack thereof) should have been no one's business.

  • mswas

    Excellent comment. Well done

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    No one said feminism is perfect because people aren't perfect. There was
    a nasty division between two generations of the Pankhurst family
    because they had very different views on where black women fit into the
    picture. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, but she was also
    alienated a lot of her would-be or initial allies through her utter
    refusal to give a damn about women of colour, working class women,
    non-suburbanites and women who didn't fit general hetero-normative
    specifictions. Susan Sontag, and the like were criticized as
    navel-gazing moralists with aims that were self-absorbed and superficial
    when women across the world had 'real problems' that were being ignored
    by the movement. Gloria Steinem was considered to be too strident and
    radical for a populace that felt alienated by not being feminist
    enough, or for not being the 'right' kind of feminist to a lot of
    people. Today, it's said to take the easy way out by blaming patricarchy
    by rote or ignoring their place in the feminist landscape and looking
    for false problems in order to disavow themselves of having any kind
    hand in their own diminishment. Perceived or real, none of these issues
    have been entirely resolved, but it is not long for the scrap heap
    because its untempered heart is bigger than the imperfect people who try
    to carry out its tenets. But by that same token, you've got to know
    what feminism really is before you negate its aims.

    Feminism isn't a see-saw and the ascension of women doesn't mean the downfall of men.

  • Lollygagger9

    Perhaps if you read the book you would see the evidence? Because it's pretty much all around. Shoot, were you around in the early 2000s? Because a good chunk of the country was pretty interested in whether Britney Spears had done it yet.

  • John

    Well, if "obsession" means "somebody mentions it" I suppose the description's accurate.

  • Guest

    It was more than "mentioned", and that "somebody doing the mentioning" was adults and the media. Pop star or no, adults speculating about a teenage girl's virginity is creepy; it's equally creepy with the Jonas brothers.

    Also, just because something doesn't describe the America you live in, doesn't mean that it's not a reality for other people.

  • John

    Britney turns 32 this year. If you have to go back 14 years to find a time when virginity was a topic of conversation, it proves my point more than yours, no?

  • Guest

    Let me give you some recent examples then: Julianne Hough, Taylor Swift, Jordin Sparks, Miley Cyrus, Lolo Jones, Adriana Lima, etc. ad nauseam.

    You could also just do a little googling of your own because you would see that there are a lot of articles about this topic and that they are in mainstream publications or sites. Facts - they're not just for trivia challenges anymore!

  • John

    Whether "America" is "obsessed" with virginity isn't settled by finding a few instances. There are certainly people in America so obsessed, but it's ludicrous to characterize the whole culture that way. Maybe in 1915.

  • John

    I mean, I get thousands of hits from a Google search for muffins, but thar hardly proves that America is obsessed with muffins.

  • TK

    You're being deliberately obstinate, and it's annoying.

  • Lollygagger9

    No. It's not just about famous people. If you genuinely think that abstinence and 'sleeping around' are not issues today, it seems no amount of evidence short of me typing the book out in full here will convince you.

  • Guest

    This is the book I give to every teenage girl I care about. Thanks for writing about it.

  • BlackRabbit

    The question is, though, how do I give it to my niece without it seeming creepy? Not really a book you'd stumble across in a casual search, I'd think.

  • Guest

    Never thought about that angle. I gave it to my much younger cousin, but then I'm female, too. If you're a guy (?), perhaps conspire with a like-minded woman in your family and let her be the "gifter" to your niece?

  • jennp421

    I haven't read this one, though based on the review, I probably need to get around to it. If you haven't yet, I would definitely recommend checking out Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney Martin. She was also a contributor to Feministing back in the day.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Can I just get a brief explanation of how the Purity Balls are federally funded?

  • Lollygagger9

    My understanding is they are (although less often now) a component of abstinence-only programs, which school districts could pay for with certain federal grants.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Thank you. I was hoping it was something indirect along those lines.

  • Malin

    Great review. This is clearly an author whose work I need to check out.

  • ,

    "anti-feminist movement"

    Wait, there's a movement? Like, with meetings and rallies and stuff, and "Down with Feminism" signs and the like? Do you sign up and get a card?

    Or is that the anti-conservative movement's longhand for "GOP"?

    Anyway, when I was in high school, the "good" girls were the ones who would bother to even talk to me, much less have sex (though that would have been fine too) and the "bad" ones were those who wouldn't.

    At least that's how I made the distinction.

  • Lollygagger9

    Oh no, it's an actual name for a movement. People who do not understand feminism think it is something to oppose. It'd be funny if it weren't so sad and harmful.

  • Ryan

    I was abstinent up until I got married at 20. I went to public school even inner city schools that had drugs and gang violence on a weekly basis. She is wrong to think that only women get judged by this. I hid the fact that I was a virgin from a lot of people because I knew the reaction I was going to get. and the times in which I did tell others about it, yes I was judged. I think its ridiculous how its ok for her to be a feminist and if guys are then masculist then its wrong and insensitive to women. But when feminist judge men for that belief isn't it being hypocritical?

  • alwaysanswerb

    The problem with your comment, and the millions out there like yours, is the immediate jump from "this happens to women" (i.e., what is actually written in the book) to "we, as feminists, declare that this DOESN'T happen to men, and in fact men are entirely responsible for all of these bad things" (which is not written, even once, or even implied, in this book.) Like, dude, take a step back from the impulse to talk about how feminists are wrong and hypocritical for some imagined slight and focus on what the book is actually talking about, which is a serious problem worth discussing?

  • Lollygagger9

    It sucks that you felt judged for your decisions about sex. I'd imagine you think your worth as a person doesn't lie with your sex organs. This book looks at all the ways that affects women, but it does also talk about how that hurts men too. And it seems you may not be totally clear on the purpose of feminism - I'd strongly suggest checking by out a book on the topic so you can better understand the difference between that and, say, the MRA movement.

  • Rooks Nine

    I would have needed this book a long time ago. It would've explained why exactly the churchy people of France insisted on checking Jeanne d'Arc's virginity before they believed her. Twelve year old me sat in front of the TV that night with a cocked head thinking 'What on earth does that have to do with anything??'
    I had a sheltered childhood and I was seriously confused.

  • psykins

    Ah I fucking love this book! Wrote all over my copy and then lent it out and never got it back - no worries, though, hopefully she'll pass it on to someone else!

  • Awesome review of a great book. Loved reading it, but it took me a while to recover from it. I grew up in a conservative Christian environment (though THANK GOD not one so conservative that it involved that most creepily unholy father-daughter tradition, Purity Balls), so revisiting those ideas always makes me shudder. Once you have it pointed out to you how much female virginity is prioritized in our society you start seeing it everywhere.

  • Guest

    Amen.

  • lilianna28

    Full Frontal Feminism is one of my favorites- I've bought it three times to "loan out for keeps" because once it's read, it begs to be passed along. I will admit to owning The Purity Myth and being easily sucked away from it into lighter fare because it is so damn depressing. I'll pick it up again, thanks for the reminder.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Great review. I have always found the purity balls to be among the creepiest "celebrations" in our culture and the way we often trace a young starlets path from teen abstinence queens to fallen women (e.g. Britney Spears; Miley Cyrus) has always really disturbed me. So I'm thrilled you brought to my attention a book that examines this subject backed by some solid research. Definitely adding this to my amazon list.

  • Guest

    It's got to the point where even father's first dance with the bride kinda skeeves me out, because it calls up all of these associations for me. I know it shouldn't, but I'm that far gone.

  • VK

    Oh, purity balls are dances? I was picturing teenage girls carrying around glowing white orbs or something.

  • Kala

    Yep. They're like a cross between debutante balls and weddings except you basically marry your dad.

    And now I have to go drink the pain away.

  • Rooks Nine

    Eh, me too. I was starting to think along the lines of... Ood.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Not only are they dances, but they're usually a father-daughter affair where at some point in the evening the fathers usually take some pledge to protect their daughter's "purity", which is just...oh god, ew (shivers).

  • kilmo

    Great review! I love reading the social history genre.

    I would recommend reading Elizabeth Abbott's The History of Marriage. She goes into how the puritanical roots of marriage and how virginity is a commodity, etc, etc.

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