Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: The Purity Myth (Jessica Valenti)

Image found at Goodreads

Publisher: Seal Press, 2010
Notes: I took this book out of the library.

A brief summary: "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." (from Goodreads)

My thoughts: I read this book in a day, because I couldn't put it down. I'm not someone who usually stands up and declares herself a feminist, but the issues that Valenti covers in her book really got me thinking. Here is one such example:
"The desirable virgin is sexy but not sexual. She's young, white, and skinny. She's a cheerleader, a baby sitter; she's accessible and eager to please (remember those ethics of passivity!). She's never a woman of color. She's never a low-income girl or a fat girl. She's never disabled. 'Virgin' is a designation for those who meet a certain standard of what women, especially younger women, are supposed to look like. As for how these young women are supposed to act? A blank slate is best." (p. 30)
Valenti has a strong voice, citing statistics and facts with ease—but without getting overly technical. She reminds us that this obsession with virginity is connected to submission and youth, with a renewed interest in keeping women under thumb. But virginity in our contemporary society has become a commodity, with the commercialization of abstinence balls and virginity vouchers. How can we make virginity into a commodity, though, when there's no actual definition for it? Valenti's discussion of the definition of virginity—or lack thereof—is especially interesting.

One theme that I noticed in this book was this interesting dichotomy between clean and dirty, good and bad. While this is a common thread throughout history, it makes me wonder if this focus on ordering the world (to give it meaning) emerges out of the post-materialist world.

I agree with Valenti that it's extremely worrying that teenagers receiving abstinence-only sexual education are unprepared for their sexual relations and lack any sexual health knowledge. As Valenti remarks, teenagers with abstinence-only sex ed are still having sex. But they're also not using condoms, believing them to be ineffective, or any other forms of birth control. This problem of misinformation is rampant and worrying.

Valenti argues that despite the virginity movement's obsession with "hookup culture," it's not as widespread as one might be led to believe. Young women are still dating, getting married, and having children. She says, "It's just another figment of the virginity movement's very active (and sexually obsessed) imagination. It's telling Americans what they want to hear—salacious stories about young girls having lots and lots of sex—under the rhetoric of helping women." (p. 60)

The virginity movement has its own arsenal of weapons against sex and filth, including purity balls. I had only heard of them nominally in the past, but reading about them really creeped me out. In purity balls, young girls (as young as eight years old) go on "dates" with their fathers, pledging their virginities to their fathers for safe-keeping (bringing to mind images of either incest or property ownership), and commit themselves to remaining pure for their husbands. Reading about purity balls made me feel like I was reading a modern-day Flowers in the Attic or some other V.C. Andrews novel.

I was also saddened by Valenti's chapter on rape and sexual assault. It was terrible to read how women have been dehumanized, particularly through the media's coverage of sexual violence. I have to admit that I often find myself thinking, "well, that was a poor decision to be doing x, y, and z." But being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no reason for women to be abused! This goes back to another issue that Valenti focuses on, which is that much of sexual assault prevention is placed on women, not men.

I do have a couple of qualms with the book. One is that I perceived some disdain from Valenti regarding religious beliefs and purity. I think that while purity balls and chastity commitments are creepy, religions all have elements of purity to them. She focuses considerably on Christianity and chastity, with sex never being for pleasure. But I'd like to see her recognize sex in other religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam, where men and women are recommended to have sex for pleasure. They could have a strong role in Valenti's recommendations for the future, especially in education and counterculture.

Moreover, sometimes I think her sarcasm and frustration can be a bit distracting, sometimes making generalizations.

I won't go much farther, since I don't want to give the entire book away. This is a fantastic read, and extremely thought-provoking, regardless of where you stand on the issues. The resources and discussion questions at the end of the book are useful for reflecting and finding more information about women, sexuality, virginity, and health. Having read this book, I'm looking forward to getting back to Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger after having read this book.

Rating: 4 stars


  1. Jess, I've been meaning to read this one for a while. I'm glad you liked it, but I have to agree with you on the religious aspects. What bothers me is that many feminist writers disregard religious beliefs or dismiss them. As a Christian, I have a tough time reading these things sometimes. I wish there was more Christian feminist writing out there.

  2. I don't think you'll find her unbearable, but you may be uncomfortable at times. I don't know what branch of Christianity you identify with, but I would say that anyone who is an evangelical Protestant (or is sympathetic to evangelical Protestantism) would find her comments offensive. Catholicism isn't mentioned outright, but the Christian purity balls, chastity commitments, etc. seem to be more common in Protestant-majority communities. However, I think you'd find this book really interesting, so if you read it, let me know what you think!

    I agree—Christian feminist writing would be cool! I would also like to see more Muslim feminists who aren't either embittered by institutional Islam or obsessed with human rights. There are definitely niche areas for those types of writings, but I want more about the Christian/Jewish/Muslim/etc. feminist next door!

  3. Totally just added this book to my must read list! Loved your description and the subject matter is something I feel really strongly about so I'm pretty sure I'll dig on this book.

  4. I hope you like it, Andrea!