Sunday, January 30, 2011

Good Reads: THE PURITY MYTH by Jessica Valenti

After infiltrating the Silver Ring Thing last week, I wanted to learn more about Christian purity culture and its ramifications. Jessica Valenti's 2010 book, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, discusses purity culture and its assumptions about sexuality.

The Purity Myth argues societal obsession with (female) virginity, abstinence-only education, and backlash against women's rights have placed unhealthy and unrealistic sexual expectations on women. By defining women's worth chiefly through their virginity, purity culture objectifies women by reducing them to their sexuality, while devaluing other traits such as honesty and compassion. The essence of virginity culture is that women cannot be trusted with their sexuality. Valenti urges readers to resist virginity culture and construct healthy, egalitarian visions of human sexuality.

Valenti demonstrates that virginity itself is a nebulous concept, with no universal medical definition. Virginity, rather, has been defined by male-dominated institutions as a way of ensuring the patrilineage of offspring and enforcing male ownership of women's bodies. The author observes that the virginity movement usually associated virginal purity with young, white, heterosexual women -- thereby deeming low-income women, women of color, etc. unfit to be placed on a pedestal. Even in this day and age, the virgin/whore dichotomy lives on.

Valenti explores various facets of the virginity movement, including abstinence-only education, abstinence pledges, and purity balls, many of which have a conservative Christian slant. Too often, the virginity movement promotes stereotypical gender roles, misinformation about sex, and outright antipathy toward feminism, all to the detriment of young women.

Troubling messages about female sexuality also pervade the surrounding culture. For example, Valenti devotes a chapter to commercial pornography, arguing that both pornography and the virginity movement depict female sexuality as passive and subservient. Another chapter on legislation discusses how right-wing laws restricting abortion, emergency contraception, and reproductive technologies reflect paternalistic views that women can't be trusted with their sexuality (and are frequently punitive toward sexually active women). The Purity Myth's chapter on sexual violence demonstrates how rape myths blame women who do not fit society's image of "pure". A chapter on masculinity discusses how stereotypical masculinity is entwined with fear and disdain for women, from television commercials to Religious Right rhetoric. Valenti argues that as long as men are disconnected from women, and taught to define their masculinity through the use and abuse of women's bodies, the purity myth will persist.

The last chapters of The Purity Myth offer a plan of action for transforming sexual attitudes in society. Valenti provides concrete strategies for challenging mainstream porn culture, critiquing media, promoting pro-woman legislation, and combating abstinence-only sex education. To boot, she offers readers a vision of a post-virginity world where women are trusted with their sexual and reproductive choices and right-wing voices no longer have a monopoly on the language of morality.

While not about the Religious Right per se, The Purity Myth offers profound insights into how many right-wing Christians understand sexuality. The model of sexuality critiqued in the book is precisely the model found in many Christian abstinence-only curricula and virginity pledges -- one that conflates virginity with morality, condemns sexual expression outside of marriage as impure, promotes sexist gender roles, and erases LGBT sexuality. For critics of the the Religious Right, as well as anyone in favor of a healthy and just sexual ethic, The Purity Myth is a must-read.

For additional commentary on The Purity Myth, visit the following links.

Jezebel: The Purity Myth's Jessica Valenti Talks Virginity, Weddings & Miss California

Marie Claire: Jessica Valenti Debunks the Purity Myth

The Book Lady's Blog: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Spine Creases: Review: The Purity Myth

Brazen Beauties: The Purity Myth: More Than Just a Silver Ring Thing?

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