I just finished reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (thank you L for letting me steal that from you over break!! And here is the post you asked for!). It took me just a few days to finish it; I basically tore through this book. It spoke directly to my experience, growing up in a liberal household and religious community and in a conservative Christian town, while also receiving popular culture messages surrounding sexuality. I received the very message Valenti discusses throughout the book: “good” girls wait to have sex until marriage, “bad” girls don’t wait. I did receive a more nuanced message from my parents (wait to have sex with someone that you love and loves you back), but the overall attitude in school among my peers was pretty black-and-white. Girls are no longer to be admired if they have sex; you are now a slut/whore/easy, etc. Girls who remained in Christian youth group, who attended church, who had the jock boyfriend, but who stopped sexual activity before it reached vaginal intercourse were still “pure” and “good.” I remember hearing about girls who had oral sex or who were fingered in movie theaters or who had sex, or who got pregnant, and they were severely slut-shamed in whispers. However, I recognize I had a somewhat different immediate peer group: band dorks. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls got it right: band dorks are probably some of the most sexually active kids that I knew in high school. My best friends in high school were in band (like I was), and they had sex around the same time I did. It was something that we went through together, although it did take me a while to disclose the information to other close friends for fear of slut-shaming.
I decided to use Valenti’s questions for discussions at the end of her book to talk about the themes I read about. So much of the book was shocking and overwhelming that it will help me give some structure to this post. While I already “knew” much of what she discusses, the clarity of her writing and severity of case examples overwhelmed my initial brainstorming for how I wanted to respond to the book.
Defining virginity is difficult for both J and I. I think I would define it as the period of pre-pubescence, when the idea and/or practice of sexual activity has not become a part of day-to-day mind activity and/or physical activity. I realize this is pretty open and perhaps vague, but it makes so much more sense to me then claiming virginity is somehow linked to the first time one engages in some sexual practice. I would liken virginity and loss of virginity to passing through puberty. I think defining virginity this way takes away a lot of the power that the virignity movement has ascribed to virginity. If virginity was thought of as a similar biological, physiological, mental, emotional process as puberty is, it no longer has some religious, mystical, and powerful hold over a very real and inevitable transition that humans go through. I think before opening up our relationship and critically thinking about so many different aspects of sexuality, I most likely would have answered this question very differently. I probably would have defined virginity as the state before one has vaginal intercourse, even though before I would have thought this was a ridiculous definition. I just didn’t really know how to have a more nuanced and creative definition.
Valenti is big on the idea that women should be brought up to recognize that many other values, besides purity, define them as human beings. Women in our society are seen and judged in terms of their sexuality: virgins are good, sluts are bad. If you have had sex, you are dirty, and that’s that. If you wait to have sex until you are married, you are a pure and moral woman. Being respectful, open-minded, community-minded, optimistic, and hardworking are values that I would hope young women have instilled in them. I would hope that women can grow up to be critical thinkers and reflectors, capable of engaging in thoughtful dialogue and creating meaningful relationships. None of these values or abilities are dependent on sexual activity; sexual activity and one’s sexuality is one part of one’s experience as a human being. And although I would argue, and I think Valenti would argue as well, that sexuality is a hugely important aspect of being alive, it should not be the sole defining factor in judging a person’s worth.
The idea that female sexuality is “dirty” is something that still affects me. Every time I discover a new fantasy of mine, I have to actively work through the validity of that fantasy: is this okay? Is this wrong? Should I be allowed to do this? And every time I go home or talk to my mom, I realize that topics come up that make me feel guilty or ashamed of exploring my sexuality. Most recently, while visiting for the holidays, J and I went to a new sex store. When we came home, my mom asked what we had been up to and I told her. She said, “Oh, oh, I don’t know want to know.” It made me feel like sex is something that polite people don’t talk about, that respectable people don’t talk about, that good girls don’t think about. Critically thinking about this concept of female sexuality as “dirty” has been important for me in my path toward sexual fulfillment and happiness, and being able to understand the need for others to seek out sexual fulfillment.
One really interesting aspect of Valenti’s book is the idea of the virginity fetish (fetishizing young girls and women). According to Valenti, this fetish with young girls and women as “pure” is just as dangerous as the hypersexualization of girls and women. Both fetishes are consumed with female sexuality and controlling and molding it to fit a certain image: virgin or whore.
Creating a more positive vision of women’s sexuality, while not sexualizing youth, means giving youth and young women accurate and sex positive information so that they can decide for themselves whether or not to have sex. It means treating the topic of sex as a normal part of the human experience: it can be positive, negative, mistakes can be made, and lessons learned (although we need to continue to work to dismantle the system of patriarchy that still allows the pairing of violence and sex). It means teaching all youth how to safely have sex, how to prepare for both emotional and physical consequences of having sex (both positive and negative), and how to maturely and appropriately negotiate sex- and not only birth control usage, but learning how to communicate what kinds of sexual activities are wanted and needed to make the experiences enjoyable. Creating this kind of sex positive culture means engaging both men and women, and not only creating a positive image of female sexuality but dismantling the stereotypical image of masculinity. It means getting rid of abstinence-only sex education, which is based on treating female sexuality as dirty and wrong and something to be saved for a husband, and telling legislators that laws should uphold and strengthen the legal and medical rights of women.