By DAWN ROSE
“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 next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.” –Darren Washington, abstinence educator at the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference
The quote above is disturbingly telling. America is obsessed with virginity, and that obsession is harming both women and men in insidious ways. In “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women”(2009), Jessica Valenti crafts a vivid and compelling narrative about the pervasive American purity myth, which valorizes “pure,” virginal women for their passive femininity, while condemning sexually active women as tainted and immoral. This myth matters—and has consequences ranging from the conservative backlash against women’s rights and the promotion of erroneous and discriminatory abstinence-only education, to complacency towards sexual violence.
Conservative think tanks and anti-feminist organizations, like the Independent Women’s Forum and Concerned Women for America, are leading the charge for the well-funded and well-organized virginity movement. This movement is reactionary in nature: as women in recent decades have made measurable social gains and challenged traditional gender roles, the virginity movement has organized in “seeking a return to traditional gender roles (marriage and motherhood), and focusing on purity is the vehicle toward that end.”
Virginity as a moral proxy is harmful, Valenti argues, as it creates a culture in which girls are valued for their passivity, rather than for their accomplishments. Furthermore, the virginity movement fetishizes the sexualization of young girls, rather than fighting against it. Valenti describes in vivid detail the surge of disconcertingly sexual father-daughter purity balls and antiquated purity pledges, in which fathers pledge to “cover” and protect their daughters in the area of purity.
There is also a spate of virginity-themed products that commodify teen sexuality—t-shirts for young girls stamped with messages like “No Trespassing on This Property, My Father is Watching”, and “Virginity Vouchers”, or credit card-like abstinence commitment cards featuring images of a bride and groom. As Valenti rightly states, by “focusing on girls’ virginity they’re actually positioning girls as sexual objects before they’ve even hit puberty”.
The purity myth hurts men too
The virginity movement’s ideal woman is passive, docile, and relegated to the home. This notion of ideal femininity is harmful for men as well—it creates an oppositional ideal of masculinity that is aggressive and dominant. This has consequences for violence and the perpetuation of rape culture.
If women are the moral gatekeepers of sex, Valenti claims, then the behaviors of men are excusable; rape, sexual assault and violence against women are natural male responses to biological urges. We see this manifested often through victim blaming. The media reporting around sexual violence is often centered on women’s behavior—what she was wearing, what she was drinking, or where she was walking—rather than on the actions of the actual perpetrators.
“Relying on condoms is like playing Russian roulette.”Sex education in the U.S. hasn’t escaped the talons of these conservative think tanks and virginity movement proponents. Research shows that more than 80% of federally funded abstinence education programs contain (or are often laden with) misinformation and false claims about sex and reproductive health. And there is indeed a regressive agenda behind this education. As Valenti unequivocally states: “abstinence-only education seeks to create a world where everyone is straight, women are relegated to the home, the only appropriate family is a nuclear one, reproductive choices are negated, and the only sex people have is for procreation.”
I would argue that of the most severe consequences of the conservative backlash is the increasingly restrictive, anti-choice, and anti-women legislation cropping up across the country. The patriarchal discourse that dominates in the virginity movement presumes that women are incapable of making decisions about themselves or their bodies. This leads to heinous legislative attempts to roll back reproductive rights and hinder access to health services.
“Informed consent” laws regarding abortion are one such example. Created to “inform” women about the “realities” of abortion, an increasing amount of states are implementing restrictive, patronizing laws, from requiring doctors to tell women that abortions “end a human life”, to mandating pre-abortion ultrasounds. If I were to pursue an abortion in my home state of Michigan, it would be required that I receive the following: a written summary of the procedure, illustrations or photographs of fetal development, prenatal care information, and condescendingly enough, parenting information.
The cult of virginity doesn’t apply to all young women. Valenti is quick to explain that women of color and low-income women are generally absent from the purity myth discourse, as they are often hypersexualized. As she says, “how can you be pure if you are seen as dirty to begin with?” Despite these acknowledgments, Valenti lacks a more robust discussion about the commodification of virginity and how this manifests differently on racialized, queer, and trans bodies.
But where Valenti falls a major step short is in explaining how the purity myth serves certain class interests. She lacks an analysis of why the cult of virginity fights to maintain traditional gender roles, and how the subjugation of women and appropriation of female sexuality reproduces capitalism. Her analysis lacks historicity and a rich explanation of the relationship between the commodification of female sexuality and the shift towards atomized family units with the rise of capitalism. To extend her argument, I would claim that insofar as families remain atomized units, each solely responsible for the health and well-being of their offspring, the social cost of reproducing human labor remains low, class inequality is easily reproduced, and collective action is diminished.
Overall, Valenti’s book is a thoughtful and evocative read, and useful in understanding the consequences of the purity myth for American men and women. Though enjoyable, her book is also pointedly U.S. focused, and I found myself desiring an international analysis. It is critical in the struggle for women’s liberation to understand international complexities, and how Western and Eurocentric feminist frameworks can harm women across the globe.
This is particularly relevant in the midst of the current discourse and public outcry surrounding the gang rape and murder in New Delhi. The U.S. media has framed rape culture and the predilection towards violence as a unique character of Indian men, rather than a pervasive problem that is innately tied to the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism.