The Purity Myth has been a long time coming. The sexual double standard has irked me since I was a teenager, and the framing of sexually active women as "dirty" has fascinated me for just as long. But it was really the work I do on Feministing.com that led me to write this book. I started to notice a trend emerging in the stories we were covering — whether it was pop culture or policy, there seemed to be an obsessive focus on young women's sexuality. Not exactly news, I know. But this focus went beyond your run-of-the-mill objectification. Moral panic articles about "girls gone wild" and spring break madness were popping up around the same time books about "modesty" and the dangers of "hooking up" were all the rage.
In fact, in 2007 alone, nearly 1,000 news and magazine articles referred to the "girls gone wild" or "raunch culture" phenomenon. The topics of these articles ranged from general finger wagging about girls' supposed promiscuity and spring break, to op-eds about college women's slutty Halloween costumes. We were all spring-break hussies and Pussycat Dolls in training, it seemed. One article for Newsweek even wondered whether America was raising a generation of "prostitots." (That would be slutty toddlers.) Another piece from the Washington Post said that young women hooking up and having sex was tantamount to "a mental health crisis on American campuses." And wasn't just limited to the media. Also in 2007, five books were released, all arguing that sex was ruining young women. One book, Unprotected by Miriam Grossman, told readers that sexually active young women are more likely to be depressed and more likely to commit suicide. In Prude, the author writes that pre-marital sex "often condemns young women to a life of poverty and deprivation." Another publication, a short booklet meant for college women put out by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, essentially said that young women who have sex are going to end up sad, lonely dropouts with HPV. (Given the fact that 95 percent of Americans have sex before getting married, and not 95 percent of us are depressed, diseased dropouts — I think it's safe to say these "statistics" are just scare tactics.)
On the policy end of things, the FDA was holding up emergency contraception and conservatives were driving themselves into a frenzy over the HPV vaccine — all because of fears that young women would become promiscuous. (Seriously, it even came to light that an FDA medical official wrote in an internal memo that over-the-counter status for emergency contraception could cause "extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B.")
So I started to think about how all of these things were linked — the moral panic over women's sexuality, the renewed focus on abstinence and virginity, and the link they all had to conservative organizations and the movement to reinforce traditional gender norms. And that's how The Purity Myth was born. I wanted to look at how the conservative movement uses the fear of young women's sexuality to promote a regressive agenda for women, and how cultural messages about chastity and virginity influence the way young women are perceived (by themselves and society).
And that's really what the myth is: this lie that women's sexuality has some bearing on who we are and how good we are. The purity myth is ensuring that young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. Because whether it's delivered through a virginity pledge or by a barely dressed tween pop singer writhing across the television screen, the message is the same: A woman's worth lies in her ability — or her refusal — to be sexual. After all, when young women are taught about morality, there's not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens (though the preferred words are undoubtedly more refined — think "virginity" and "chastity"): if we have them, when we'll lose them, and under what circumstances we'll be rid of them. While boys are taught that the things that make them men — good men — are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs. Literally. Whether it's the determining factor in our "cleanliness" and "purity" or the marker of our character, virginity has an increasingly dangerous hold over young women. It affects not only our ability to see ourselves as ethical actors outside of our own bodies, but also how the world interacts with us through social mores, laws, and even violence. ("Good" girls need to be protected, and "bad" girls need to be punished — even today.)
Women — especially young women, who are the most targeted in this virgin/whore straitjacket — are surviving the purity myth every day. And it has to stop. Our daughters deserve a model of morality that's based on ethics, not on their bodies. If young women's only ethical gauge is based on whether they're chaste, we're ensuring that they will continue to define themselves by their sexuality. It's time to teach our children that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they're sexually active. In The Purity Myth, I not only discuss what the purity myth is and reveal its consequences for women, but also outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn't include their bodies. Not just because we deserve as much, but also because our health, our emotional well-being, and even our lives depend on it.
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Jessica Valenti — called one of the Top 100 Inspiring Women in the world by The Guardian — is the author of four books on feminism, politics, and culture. The updated second edition of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters was released this month.
Books mentioned in this post
Jessica Valenti is the author of Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters