Review: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

“There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality – and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls ‘going wild’ aren’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. 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. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.’

Jessica Valenti is touted as one of the great feminists of our generation, being named among the Guardian’s Top 100 women for her efforts in bringing feminism to the mainstream media through her popular blog, Feministing.com. Her book The Purity Myth was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim and has even been made into a film.

In The Purity Myth, Valenti explores the concept of virginity and how various conservative organisations have manipulated the idea of sexual purity to pin women’s morality to their sexuality.  It is arguably somewhat limited in its view; the concept of female purity is an issue the world over but Valenti focuses solely on its impact in the United States. Nonetheless, she provides a solid argument, supported by well-chosen statistics and quotations from both pro-abstinence movements, to highlight the flaws in their methods, and well-known feminists, including bell hooks.

The book is broken up into clearly defined sections that flow well from one to the next. Valenti dissects the concept of virginity itself, of which there is no conclusive medical definition, to the various facets through which the myth of sexual purity is fed to young women. Particular attention is devoted to discussion of abstinence-only sex education, which received over $178 million in federal funding at the time of The Purity Myth’s publication, despite providing young people with dangerous and incorrect information about contraception and sexual health.

Her writing style is fast-paced, interspersed with witty footnotes. It does make it a light, easy read, coming in at just under 200 pages. At times, however, it feels like Valenti is just skimming the surface of the issues discussed. There is still much more that could be said, particularly regarding the treatment of women of colour and women from low-income households by the purity movement. Valenti mentions these cases but in brief detail. Some may enjoy her snarky tone, finding it makes the book more accessible, but it can often feel too blasé and almost patronising, given the seriousness of the subject matter.

At times it may feel that Valenti is preaching to the choir. Her target audience, those already familiar with feminist rhetoric and the concept of female sexual purity and its treatment, may not find a great deal of brand new information in this book. However it is a well-structured argument and a good resource to refer to when looking for facts and figures on abstinence movements and purity in general. The Purity Myth is definitely worth a read although it may not prove to be the groundbreaking seminal text on the treatment of purity that it stakes claim as.

Rachel Knott

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One thought on “Review: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

  1. The problem is that it isn’t just women’s morality at stake, it is young men’s morality too. Sexual “purity” extends to both sexes and it is a mandate from God that expresses His heart for covenant. Sexuality is best expressed within the covenant of marriage, one spouse/sexual partner for life. Our culture teaches that sexual immorality is acceptable, Jesus teaches that it is not. Which is better? Let the consequences decide. No judgement from me; no one is perfect. But that’s not the goal. Perfection is not the goal. Purity extends far beyond sexual intercourse and goes into the mind. What kind of movies are we watching, what kind of music do we listen to? What kinds of words to we use to describe sex, the opposite sex, and what value do we place on sexuality?

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