I just finished Jessica Valenti’s 2009 book, The Purity Myth. As the founder of Feministing.com and the author of several books (most recently, 2012′s Why Have Kids?), Valenti tackles the virginity movement in the U.S. from multiple angles. On Valenti’s agenda are topics like the commodification of female sexual purity, the pervasive reach of abstinence-only sex education programs, the legislation of women’s sexuality, and the deeply entrenched views of masculinity and femininity that slyly reinforce and uphold the ideals of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family.
As a feminist who considers herself relatively well-read, I admit I haven’t actually consumed that much canonical feminist literature. The last feminist book I can remember reading was Kristin Rowe’s The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy – Women, Politics, and the Future, which was–to be honest–a bit of a slog. Before that, all I can think of is Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift, which was required reading for a sociology class in college. And although Hochschild’s book was a riveting read that contextualized my parents’ marriage in ways I’d never anticipated, her presentation was replete with such overwhelmingly depressing conclusions with regard to traditional gender roles that the book left me feeling a bit deflated (I guess it should be reassuring, then, that The Second Shift was published in 1989).
What I particularly enjoy about Valenti’s writing is her relentlessly energetic, organized, and constructive unfolding of facts in a way that doesn’t necessarily bog one down with the scary thought that nothing will ever change. The Purity Myth doesn’t come across as an argument; instead, Valenti’s skill for keen, concise analysis simply bolsters her main themes and lays out a clear trajectory for her weighty thesis, one that encompasses a wide range of topics, sources, and point-counterpoints.
While The F Word attempts to explain the lack of a centralized feminist movement in the U.S., The Purity Myth dives straight into explaining why a centralized feminist movement even matters by examining one of the most frighteningly well-financed and omnipresent forces in contemporary American society: the virginity movement. Citing real-life examples from the National Advisory Council of the Abstinence Clearinghouse to former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, Valenti elegantly deconstructs the virginity movement’s most potent myth:
The lie of virginity–the idea that such a thing even exists–is ensuring that young women’s perceptions of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality.
That excerpt is just a taste of what Valenti posits in the scope of her book, a scope that is impressively detailed and nuanced, the depths of which I won’t even try to summarize effectively. Along with tackling many different proponents of the virginity movement, Valenti openly challenges her detractors to “try actually responding to the points [she's] making” instead of repeating “hackneyed talking points about feminists’ wanting girls to be slutty.”
Among her writerly strengths is Valenti’s careful choice of anecdote. Some of her chosen selections of facts and figures still haunt my brain, like the reference to a 2006 Maryland court that ruled the following:
Once a woman consents to sex, she can’t change her mind. Not if it hurts, not if her partner has become violent, not if she simply wants to stop. If she says yes once, nothing that happens afterward is rape.
Admittedly, Valenti could have devoted more time and research to explaining how non-white women fit into–or don’t fit into–these antiquated notions about the purity and virtue of womanhood. Although she alludes to the idea that “women of color, low-income women, immigrant women…are not seen as worthy of being placed on a pedestal” when it comes to valuing and prizing female virginity, she doesn’t do much beyond mentioning their absence in the narrative of purity pledge balls and media coverage of rape and sexual assault against women. Similarly, I also wish Valenti had cited more queer perspectives like Tristan Taormino and others who have contributed to the debate on female sexuality still taking place in feminist circles.
But in any case, Valenti does cover most of her bases, and she does so pretty effectively. The Purity Myth is well worth a read, and in the aftermath of 2012–which brought us the likes of Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin–the misogyny’s still brimming and these issues are still resonating.