Life Imitates Heart

Feminist Book Club: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

My friends and I created a feminist book club on Facebook to engage and discuss feminist topics. Our inaugural choice was The Purity Myth by writer and feminist activist Jessica Valenti.
The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti (via Goodreads)

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti (via Goodreads)

The subtitle of the book says it all: “How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women”. The focus of Valenti’s novel is the double standard that girls and women face when it comes to sex. We are living in the 21st century but many people still believe that women must be the gatekeepers of sex, that it is their duty to neither desire nor engage in sexual activities while also delicately managing the sexual urges of men.

As an outstanding feminist activist and writer, Jessica Valenti uses The Purity Myth to call bullshit. She argues that “the purity myth” — the myth that girls are only pure, wholesome, worthy, and desirable if they’re sexually inexperienced — as well as our country’s obsession with female virginity, harms the very girls this idea wants us to believe is protecting them. A woman’s value, her personhood, and her morality are all reduced to a single act or lack thereof. Apparently, women can’t both have sex and be good. Perhaps worst of all is that the purity myth is perpetuated through so many avenues (Valenti discusses creepy-as-all-hell purity balls, abstinence-only education, slut shaming, porn, law, masculinity and sexual violence against women), but never takes into account what it is that young women actually want.

Valenti also addresses the societal white-washing of the purity myth. Purity, here, is made of one cloth: white, straight, and cisgender. Women of color are not afforded the same model of purity (nor are members of the LGBTQ+ community). Women of color are measured by different standards; standards that assume, from the beginning, that by not being born white, a WOC’s impurity is assumed. A default. The purity myth wrongly perpetuates a stereotype of victimized white women against promiscuous women of color.

If you haven’t come across Valenti’s work before, she is a force. She takes no quarter in her dissection of our country’s (female) virginity obsession. At times the book was repetitive, but all to hammer home Valenti’s point: the purity myth harms everyone: young women, young men, and the parents/caregivers that raise them. Valenti has an entire book full of insightful arguments, but she leaves the most important one for the end. Women, it turns out, are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about sex. They do not need to be policed, shamed, or made to feel their bodies are a commodity for only other people to partake in and enjoy. Women are autonomous, free-thinking, free-feeling individuals with their own autonomous desires.

In one of the final chapters of the book, Valenti says, “trusting women is a radical act.” You don’t have to look further than the way we treat most rape allegations to understand how deeply conditioned we are to mistrust women. Trusting women may be radical, but it’s necessary. Pulling the wool over their eyes or shaming their choices doesn’t stop them from acting on their desires, it just allows them to act without being well-informed. It asks them to be a passive participant in a two-person act. And under the light of the #MeToo movement, it also hinders their ability to express what they want and don’t want in a sexual relationship.

Trust your daughters, The Purity Myth urges. Open up the dialogue, answer their questions. Provide them with the tools they need in order to engage in healthy, communicative relationships. Discard the outdated notion that women have to both protect and be protected because, listen, we got this. We have enough to deal with without the whole country’s misguided concerns lining our underwear.

4/5 stars

Quick note: The Purity Myth was published in 2010, prior to many changes President Obama’s administration made to the national sex ed curriculum, including allocating government funding to comprehensive sex ed programs. It would be interesting to see a follow up to this book to learn how attitudes, beliefs, and statistics changed during Obama’s eight years in office.

Trump, of course, has gutted that funding and replaced it with abstinence-only programs (which have been proven ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy).

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