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The Purity Myth

September 14, 2010

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity is Hurting Young Women
by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press
2009 $24.99 263 pages

Valenti takes a thoughtful look at the idea of virginity, how it’s symbolized, fetishized, how it can’t be measured, and how it sets up a dichotomy for women between pure-passive-ideal, and problematic sullied-sexual. Reading this right after both a book exploring Christian pop culture and a book about rock stars as dads made for a fascinating juxtaposition.  The last chapters of Radosh’s book address the purity balls that begin Valenti’s discourse, making for a really interesting bridge between the two.

And forcing me to think about the disturbing, gruesome idea of purity balls, or of fathers taking their daughters out on “dates,” to reinforce the idea of fathers as the guardians’ of daughters chastity, til the daughters are handed off to husbands in marriage. Yikes!

I spent most of Valenti’s book cringing, or angry. Where Radosh, exploring purity balls in a pop Christian context, is anthropologically bemused at weird customs, Valenti is angry and often incisively sarcastic. And she brings the reader along for the whole troubling ride. I spent most of reading this book alternately cringing and being outraged, being glad I grew up in New York, and even in a Catholic school, had decent, sane sex-ed. Thank God! How did abstinence ed ever get to be federally funded, anyway?  But New York doesn’t make me immune… This is the kind of book that stays with you, makes you more alert to questioning media and news.

Timely, then, for the  media coverage about Ines Sainz being harassed by the Jets to show up on the news. And make me mad on a whole other level. What does it matter how she was dressed? As a football fan and a media consumer, this makes me very angry. Bad enough that Jets players were being disrespectful jerks, but every time I read about news coverage that questions how she was dressed, I want to scream.

It’s right there- in rhetoric about sexuality and ownership and purity, in Valenti’s book. As I was reading this, reading about Girls Gone Wild, conservative moral panic about girls being powerless… I started to wonder about other people choosing to read Valenti’s book. I like the idea of high school and college classes discussing it- high school teens would be fine with Valenti’s pithy humor and conversational prose. I wonder, though, if the people reading it are the ones who, like I did, will have their beliefs confirmed and echoed. Women should own their bodies and decide about their sexuality. Sex isn’t bad. It’s a good idea to be informed about it. What you say, “no,” or “yes please” decides whether you want sex, no matter what you wear. Being reminded that not everybody takes these assumptions for granted, and being reminded of media constructions that pervasively don’t… just makes me angry.

I’d kind of like to mail a copy to Elisabeth Hasselbeck. (Again, the football connection for me. Mrs Conservative Whackjob on the View is the wife of a football player who used to be my fantasy QB. Didn’t drop him cause she’s awful, but because he wasn’t giving me yardage.)

But I think– that this is the kind of book that won’t necessarily change someone’s beliefs, but provide an array of sources for evidence and well structured arguments, for someone getting into this kind of discussion, or paying keener attention to media messages.

Fortunately for this kind of book making me fume– Valenti does conclude with a few chapters and resources on further taking action. Blogs and books for further reading and understanding. Acknowledgments that it’s hard to enact a vision of “a post virgin world” where virginity is irrelevant and a sexual double standard is atrocious– yes, absolutely. But she provides a convincingly inspired map to further reading, even ways to inspire legal and social activism and greater discussion.

Don’t know what I’m going to read next… I’m working my way through Buffy Season 8, which might be a very good follow up here.

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