REVIEW: “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009
CHALLENGE(S): Women Unbound Challenge
Finished 25 Jan 2010
This is a book which combines three topics I am very passionate about – feminism, sexuality and religion – so as soon as I heard about it I knew I had to read it. From the front flap:
“The United States is obsessed with virginity – from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is an important and timely critique about why this is so, and why it’s problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a young woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness and altruism.
Valenti takes on issues ranging from abstinence-only education to pornography, and exposes the legal and social punishments that women who dare to have sex endure. Importantly, she also offers solutions that pave the way for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity, including a call to rethink male sexuality and reframe the idea of “losing it.””
I wasn’t aware at first that this was written by the author of the Feministing.com blog, which I’ve been following on and off for some time now – I was recommended it through a livejournal community and was pleasantly surprised when I found out. The book is characteristically direct, and certainly pulls no punches. It is quite refreshing, actually, to find an author so willing to speak candidly about female sexuality and to attack head on the damaging social customs that affect women and girls in that respect. In particular, something she wrote about rape has stayed with me:
“Now, should we treat women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.” (p.151)
This quote is basically characteristic of the whole book: it exposes implicit assumptions in both the media and in society about women and their sexuality (in this case, that women are in some way responsible if they get raped) and blows them right out of the water. It was like a punch right between the eyes for me, because I have never thought of things on quite those terms before. As far as rape is concerned, I would never blame the victim – but how often have I said, in correlation, that she shouldn’t have been there, or should have taken better care of herself? “It wasn’t her fault, of course, but…”? I do think that, on some level, given that rapes do occur people (especially women) should try to avoid those behaviours which make them most vulnerable; this seems like common sense. But when it comes down to it, no matter what someone was doing, if she gets raped, it’s because someone raped her. You may or may not have heard about a case recently where a woman’s rapists were acquitted because she had expressed gang rape fantasies online, regardless of the fact that in this case she did not give consent (full story here). This is the sort of thing Valenti is talking about. The blame is being placed on the woman in question, not where it really belongs: on the people who forced her to have sex against her will.
Of course, the book isn’t solely about rape – not even primarily, actually. The main focus is the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy that labels and values women according to their sexual history, and especially the religious influences on the “purity” ideal. Valenti explains clearly how the idea that women should be “pure” (i.e. virgins until marriage) is both incorrect and damaging. For the most part, I already agreed with what she was saying; when I was a teenager, I found a website (now lost to the ether of cyber-space, unfortunately) that detailed the way virginity was actually non-existent except as a social standard. I was a very confused and sheltered teen at that point, only gradually coming to accept and understand myself as a sexual entity, and a lot of my anxiety revolved around the idea of a “virgin,” what one was, how one could tell, and so on. As Valenti argues, in point of fact “virginity” is an empty word, a term that is virtually meaningless. There is no physical way of determining whether a woman is a virgin (and yes, it’s almost always a woman whose sexuality is under the microscope in this way). The hymen, which has historically been used as a measure of this exalted state, is unreliable at best – many women are born without them, lose them through non-sexual activity early in life, and can even grow them back. Without physical evidence, Valenti argues, virginity is reduced to the wishy-washy, “someone who has not had sex.” At which point, you’re left with the question of what constitutes sex in the first place.
Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read and I have to admit much of the content made me rage at the sheer stupidity of human society. However. Valenti gives us hope for the future and also helps to illuminate the way forward for women’s rights advocates, which was a much-needed antidote to such things as purity balls and the like. She also addressed the way these issues are damaging to men as well, which I thought was particularly worth reading, as it is an angle often missing in feminist work.
To be honest, I was rather too emotionally invested in the topic to give this one an objective review. I do however believe it is a very interesting, eye-opening book and well worth a read.