Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Purity Myth

Erin (Toni) Williams posted this on Facebook. It's so well-written, honest, and relevant to our blog I thought I'd share. Plus, I'm teaching this book in Girls Studies in the Fall.

I really liked this Amazon.com review for the book, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, by Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com. I haven't read the book yet (I'm definitely getting it though), but I'm already thinking of all the "slut shaming" I participated in as young as 5th and 6th grade and throughout the following decade or so. In junior high and some of high school I was definitely influenced, on some level, by the idea that women who are sexually active before marriage are worth less than "pure" women who wait.

In my mind, this did not generally apply to men, because, after all, the point so often reiterated was that we girls, as future wives, would be expected to sexually please our future husbands, in particular on that all-important wedding night, when a “used” woman just wouldn't do. The thought of disappointing my potential spouse with a tainted sexual history frightened me even before I had any desire to be sexually active. Yet I never carried out that line of thinking to assume that, conversely, I should have similar expectations of MY future husband--not that he should have an equally "pure" sexual background, nor that he ought to satisfy me sexually. (I won't even get into those presumptuous expectations of marriage that existed in the first place.)

In 8th grade, "Project SOS" ("Save our Students") came to my public junior high school and gave a presentation on the importance of waiting until marriage. Afterward, we were asked to take our own pledges of abstinence and were given a contract, which, at the age of about 13, I signed--slowly, reluctantly, but convinced I was doing the right thing. Years later, I (and many others) got around this vow by renegotiating virginity so that "everything but" was OK sexually--just not penis-vaginal penetration. Working with younger students today who express the same sentiments, I realize how heteronormative this idea is: They’re stumped when asked, if ONLY penis-vaginal penetration counts for sex, then does that mean same-sex partners can’t have sex?

Another concept that emerged as a result of the abstinence-only ideology was the stigma that certain girls were "dirty." This was often used to refer to any female considered to be promiscuous, and it conjured really gross visual imagery of, in my mind, literal dirt and grime. "Dirty" also implied that a girl was probably infected with an STI, and in doing so, the term not only perpetuated the belief that having an STI is a shameful thing, but that it only happens to girls who are slutty (and therefore are basically asking for it). That's the kind of thinking that leads people to NOT use protection, because if they generally stick to monogamous relationships or don't consider themselves to be "dirty" or "slutty," they don't feel they have to worry about getting infected. My mom has told me she used to hold her tongue when she listened to my sister and I write off certain girls as "dirty," even though she, having come of age in the 60's and 70's and generally being older and wiser, understood that STIs and HIV/AIDS are not limited to certain *types* of people.

So this has turned out to be a MUCH longer note than I expected to be. It's just that, as much as I (fortunately) hear people criticize abstinence-only education for practical reasons--it withholds important factual information about condoms, birth control, STIs, etc.--I rarely hear people denounce the use of virginity as a way for girls to determine their own self worth, and, subsequently, to judge the worth of others. Dammit, I wanted a purity ring. They were pretty and feminine. They stood for something good and important; really, just the fact that they were symbolic endowed them with a certain power. After all, no one was going to give me a ring for anything else--not for being smart, or funny, or nice. Was it because those characteristics weren't worth rewarding?

Years after I had intellectually dumped the abstinence-only ideology, it remained, deep down, ingrained in me emotionally. The truth is, a lot of those early "everything but" sexual experiences were pretty damn negative and degrading, and I'd have been happier to have avoided them altogether. In fact, they're part of the reason I first became interested in feminism. It’s confusing—just as girls’ worth is often tied up with expectations of sexual purity, it is also contradictorily shaped by societal messages about being sexy and sexual as well. I guess, in my experience, it was kind of…pick one or the other. If you wear a purity ring, you can justify abstinence because you have this higher calling to answer to—both God, and your future husband. Otherwise, if you’re not sexually active, you're just a prude; something is wrong. The point is, I feel like girls are pulled, on one hand, to abide by the moral-based abstinence-only ideology, and on the other, by the social pressures to conform to certain standards of beauty and sexuality that are mostly about pleasing males. The choice to remain abstinent or become sexually active (and all that entails) is one that should be empowering, but I feel like in BOTH cases, our value is related to someone else's expectations of what is right and wrong, and in both cases, our autonomy is left out of the picture.

And THAT is why I’m interested in this book, and that’s why this particular book review caught my attention, because it brings to light many of these issues. I’m definitely not speaking for every female in this rant, not even my closest friends, as we’ve had an incredibly wide variety of experiences concerning our own religious beliefs, sexual experiences, and more. I think some girls were more confident than I was, and may have felt less torn about some of these issues. I also realize that males generally experience a whole different set of expectations, probably relating more often to the importance of sexual prowess than chastity, but I'd be open to hearing more perspectives. I look forward to reading The Purity Myth so that it can help me articulate a million other thoughts I’ve had but didn’t know how to express. Here’s what the book review says, from http://www.amazon.com/Purity-Myth-Americas-Obsession-Virginity/product-reviews/1580052533/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_helpful?ie=UTF8&coliid=&showViewpoints=1&colid=&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending:

"I suppose the fact that this book left me wanting more can be both a positive and negative thing. Overall, this book offers a fresh perspective on why the virginity/chastity/purity movement is harmful to young women. Jessica drives home the point that young women are more than whether or not they've had premarital sex and society/media has done a poor job of acknowledging that, as the stories we hear about women and sexuality often reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy.

Too often young women are depicted as tainted, unlovable and dirty unless they adhere to a strict model of what the Christian Right deems acceptable sexuality. The book discusses at great length abstinence only sex education classes where girls are being taught that they are like a "used lollipop" if they have sex before marriage, and worse for young women (and men) the book offers evidence that some educators are flat out lying to students. (e.g. exaggerating the failure rates of condoms and discounting or even denying their effectiveness in preventing STDs)

One thing Jessica points out that I never really thought about before is that "...young women who are sexually exploited are often young women of color from low-income communities who are perceived as inherently loose, unredeemable and hopeless." If you think about it this is true, because you have to be a "certain" type of girl to be thought of as a victim of sexual crime in the media (young, pretty, usually white - definitely a virgin). Otherwise, the woman is thought to be complicit in her attack. (she's on the streets anyways, she likes it, she's a slut already...etc).

Many many good things about this book, but what I would've liked to see more of is discussion on how the purity movement affects friendships between young women and they way we treat each other as women. As someone who grew up religious and was guilty of "slut shaming" others for something as innocuous as "making out", I was part of this movement and indoctrinated with thinking that sex before marriage = slut and was thus very concerned with my perceived purity/lack of "sluttiness."

I'm sure there will be many people on the right who will accuse the author (and pretty much all feminists) of promoting promiscuity but that's not what this is about at all. This book is about presenting a radical idea that sex and sexuality is more complex and nuanced than "pure" vs. impure", "virgin" vs. "whore." It's about being honest and breaking the cycle of judgment and ridiculous standards that most people don't adhere to here.

I'm actually surprised I haven't seen more reviews on this book, but I hope I do because as someone who has been on both sides of this movement I'm interested in hearing more discussion from both sides. But like Jessica, I'm tired of hearing the "feminists want girls to be slutty" argument. Overall, this is a really good book. So good that I just changed my review from 4 to 5 stars (I didn't want to seem like a gushing fangirl... but whatev, maybe I am. Sue me). But hey, at least I read the whole book before posting a review on it... :)"

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