Monday, September 26, 2011

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

Title: The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
Author: Jessica Valenti
Publisher: Perseus Books Group/Seal Press
Release Date: April 1, 2009
Pages: 263 pages (paperback)
How I Got the Book: Bought it

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young WomenThe 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. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.


The Purity Myth has been on my to-read list for a while now due to good word about it, my own curiosity about why society slut shames, victim blames, and judges women based on the sex they are or are not having. It took me a while to read, but I finally did it! It's pretty much about how society judges us as women based on how sexual we are and regardless of what our orientation is. Whether you're a straight, gay, bi, trans, or another sexual orientation, the book applies to each and every woman because there is not one of us that hasn't been affected by the purity myth at one point or another. Heck, I'm asexual and the book still applies to me because it's also about the sexuality forced upon women against their wills by society whether or not they actually have any.

The points Valenti makes about the treatment of women in society based on their sexuality are all very true; I read about girls judging another another based on their sexuality in the books I read (YA books, which is probably one of the worst places to drop those damaging messages) and hear teens doing the exact same thing in real life. One friend of mine called another girl a slut for sleeping around with numerous boys and an attempt at intelligent discussion about why she felt that way was useless. The effect the virginity movement has had on teens and the media really shows and I hate that Valenti has to be right about the damage the movement has done.

While I agree with much of what Valenti has to say, there is one minor point where I strongly disagree. On page 28, one of her footnotes says this as she discusses beauty pageants: "Who, after all, can maintain a pearly white perma-grin through humiliating bathing suit competitions and inane questions--all for scholarships that are paltry in comparison to the money spent on gowns and coaches--other than women looking for some serious validation?"

I'm not going to try and say beauty pageants don't have deeply sexist roots; denying that fact is only a waste of time and words. However, I dispute her opinion that women only do it for validation. I was in exactly one beauty pageant (I was thirteen and we do not speak of it) and I didn't do it to be validated; I liked dressing up and I just wanted to have fun. That wasn't how it went in the end, hence the event's status as "we do not speak of it," but I do have one thing to thank it for: teaching me how to strut, which eventually became part of my natural walk.

Back on topic, have you noticed how society has a worshipful relationship with beautiful people? Just look at a tabloid or think back to how the pretty people were treated when you were in high school. Being beautiful can bring you a surprising amount of power, though it comes with its drawbacks the way any kind of power would. Perhaps some of these young women grew up seeing what power came with beauty and entered beauty pageants to use their beauty to their advantage. Maybe they simply loved the spotlight. There are any multitude of reasons a woman could enter a beauty pageant and not all of them include validation.

Chapter five, focused on abstinence-only education and what it does to children and teens, really stuck with me. I remember very little about how sex ed was taught to me, but I know it was abstinence-only education. For one thing, the speaker that came in every Wednesday showed us a horrific, brain-scarring slide show of what male and female genitals look like when afflicted with STDs or STIs. I don't remember learning about birth control, condoms, or and other method of safe sex. For another thing, the school newspaper was barred from writing about safe sex by the principal as recently as last year.

My bad memory led me to do a little research. This is a PDF I found about sex ed in Florida that was made as recently as late 2009 or early 2010. My sex ed classes happened in 2007, so I think this is close enough for use. I did a search for mentions of my county's name and it comes up in a few places: one of them spotlights the gender-stereotypical pamphlets given to students and another one talking two PowerPoints shown to children and teens (the scare tactic STD one I saw and another one that shames teens who have sex).

That PDF and the information it provides support Valenti and the sad yet true points she makes. Young adults are not being properly educated on sex and if they have sex anyways, it's because they have low self-esteem or want to be popular or they're on drugs, not because they want to. The people who abstain from sex and the good ones no matter how rotten their attitudes are and the one who have sex are the bad ones whether or not they have hearts of gold. This is not how people should be taught about sex.

All in all, The Purity Myth is a smart book. It's frustrating how women are treated even in the present time when we're supposed to be equal, and I think it's important for young women to read this novel. I think I liked my trip out of the world of YA and into nonfiction. I might have to do this more often.

4 stars!

What am I reading next?: Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel