by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009
Review by Christian Perring on Sep 30th 2010
In The Purity Myth, JessicaValenti argues that the current emphasis on girls maintaining their virginity in order to stay pure is doing more harm than good. It comes from religious doctrines that have no place in public policy. Indeed, she finds these religious views of conservatives and evangelical Christians to be anti-feminist, and lead to the condemning of women who do not conform to their standards. Valenti claims that it is this group who are defining sexuality in the USA today. She argues that we would be much better off paying less attention to outdated notions of purity and instead focusing on making young women confident and able to make good decisions about their sexual lives.
Valenti is an editor and contributor at the Feministing.com blog, and much of the argument of the book consists in setting out news and opinion from the blogosphere. Her writing is full of energy, and chapters are divided into short sections, giving plenty of examples to illustrate her case. There are some clarificatory notes at the bottom of the page, and then notes at the end of the book documenting her sources. So the book is full of surprising and rather odd stories about politicians, churches, schools and families celebrating and promoting young women's virginity, which Valenti tends to report with a light air of scorn. For example, she quotes Darren Washington, author of A Dummies Guide to Sexual Abstinence, saying:
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 your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.
The point here is that the abstinence movement equates sex with dirt. Since the overwhelming majority of young people do have sex before marriage (and why should sex stop being dirty after marriage?) the message is that most young women are impure. Valenti argues that this sort of view is often behind the media frenzy about the sexualization of young women and the frequent suggestions that teens and preteens are having sex earlier and more often these days. Valenti says that there's little evidence to support such alarm, and the reaction of insisting on abstinence, is counter-productive. Consistently she argues in favor of more education for children so they can make good decisions about if they want to engage in sexual activity, when to do it, and who with. This should be combined with political action to reduce the exploitation of women and the pernicious messages of the purity movement. Indeed, she argues that their ideas about sexuality are the same as those promoted in the porn industry, with a different twist. Both want women to be desirable to men rather than promoting women's independence.
While Valenti has a weakness for the hyperbolic, and her anecdotal arguments are far from watertight, this books makes a plausible case. What's most alarming is the extent to which tax dollars are going to support the purity movement, when there's good evidence that abstinence programs and initiatives not only don't have much success, but mean that those teens who do have sex often don't prepare for it. While the book stretches out an idea that could have been well expressed in one well-written article, it is still a valuable contribution to the recent literature on the political dimension of youth sexuality.
· Review of Sex and the American Teenager: Seeing through the Myths and Confronting the Issues, by R. Murray Thomas
· Review of Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank
· Review of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, by Laura M. Carpenter
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York