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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, May 3rd, 2009
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The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

by Jessica Valenti

Moral Hazard

A review by Laura M. Carpenter

For decades, right-wing tanks and conservative Christian organizations have promoted what Jessica Valenti calls the "purity myth": the belief that virginity separates moral/good women from their immoral/bad sisters. In its blatant attempt to re-establish traditional gender roles, the purity movement backs restrictions on birth control and abortion and vilifies rape victims who are insufficiently chaste.

"There's no room...for the idea that young women could want to be sexy, to have sex, or to express themselves in ways that fall beyond wearing ankle-length skirts and finding husbands," Valenti writes of virginity advocates. "The idea that young women could have a sexuality that's all their own is just too scary."

The purity movement teaches girls that their moral status derives from their sexual (in)activity, while boys learn that being moral means making responsible, adult choices. Although its rhetoric sounds all-encompassing and ostensibly includes boys, its vision of purity is embodied by white, conventionally attractive, middle-class girls. Women and girls of color, consistently hypersexualized in U.S. culture, are never positioned as "pure," nor are women with disabilities or impoverished women. Our nation's obsession with virginity overshadows real issues that afflict women, such as lack of affordable reproductive health care and sexual trafficking. While father-daughter purity balls, virginity vouchers and abstinence rallies are busy celebrating and commodifying virginity, our tax dollars are funding abstinence-only sex-education curricula that use fear and shame to promote chastity outside marriage and provide no (or incorrect) information about contraception or safer sex. Not only are these classes steeped in traditional gender politics that identify women as sexual gatekeepers and men as sexually out of control, they ostracize LGBTQ youth by ignoring their needs for relevant information on sex.

Ironically, the purity movement has much in common with pornography; both idealize passive, doll-like women who desire only to please men. Like pornography, it finds myriad ways to denigrate women. Those who remain virgins effectively remain girls and, as such, can't -- or shouldn't -- be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. The fetishizing of virginity inspires grown women to embrace girlishness via vaginal rejuvenation surgeries and Brazilian bikini waxes. It's hard to miss the connection between this glorification of "innocence" and the backlash against women's advancement in education, work and the public sphere.

My own research suggests that the women (and men) who most prize their virginity are those most likely to be disappointed, even devastated, by first sexual experiences that don't live up to the hype (note: Valenti interviewed me for her book). But given the hullabaloo about its importance, virginity itself eludes definitions. If the first time you have sex is when you lose your virginity, Valenti asks, then what constitutes sex?

"If it's just heterosexual intercourse, then we'd have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing," Valenti writes. She argues that the very concept of virginity is a sham perpetrated on women. With The Purity Myth, she urges feminists and other progressives to stop ceding the definition of morality to social conservatives and asks that we trust young women to make their own intimate sexual choices.

Laura M. Carpenter is an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and the author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences (NYU Press, 2005).

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