Book Review: The Purity Myth

Abstinence classes that tell girls they’re dirty and used unless they “save it”; a culture that doesn’t believe women who are raped; porn-based beauty standards for our genitals; a moral compass for young women that’s based solely on sexuality. . . . There’s no doubt that we have a difficult fight ahead of us, but I know we’re up for it.

So begins the final chapter of Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. A world without all of those things sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? From my perspective, it sounds like a world that all would enjoy and want, not just those that wear the labels of “liberal,” “progressive,” or “feminist.” And yet, of course, there is much in Valenti’s book that would be hotly disputed by those who self-label as conservative, or perhaps even moderate.

The core of her message is that, in American society, we have reduced female moral agency to be equivalent to an individual female’s sexual “status.” Is she straight, white, middle class? A virgin until marriage? Check the “good” box. Is she queer, a woman of color, of a lower socioeconomic status? Not a virgin? Check the “bad” box. It’s a passive morality, Valenti argues, one that is predicated not on what a woman does but rather what she does not do.

The book brings together many strands to support her argument, and does it well. I found familiar authors and titles gracing her pages: Robert Jensen and his book Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; Ariel Levy and her book Female Chauvinist Pigs; Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl; Michael Kimmel’s Guyland; Cristina Page’s How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America; Natalie Angier and her wonderful Woman: An Intimate Geography; Meenakshi Gigt Durham’s The Lolita Effect. What Valenti does, and skillfully, is to weave all these important pieces into a coherent whole, and tie the issues together.

Inherently, she argues, padded training bras, purity balls, raunch culture, and more, all add up towards one goal: reversing the gains of the feminist movement. Putting women back in “their place,” and reverting towards the so-called traditional gender roles.

If you know me in real life, you can imagine the look on my face at the idea of traditional gender roles. I’ve been doing my best to turn gender roles and expectations on their heads since I was a kid, and while I do make choices that seem ‘traditional,’ it’s just that: these are my choices, not my only options. I’m not stuck nor limited.

If you don’t know me in real life, you may be surprised by my diatribe against traditional gender roles. After all, I’m a mother who stays at home and homeschools her children. From the outside, or even from this blog, you don’t get much more traditional-seeming than that. For goodness’ sake, I even drive a minivan. As I said above though, these are the choices that I have made, not a role in which I am trapped. I don’t feel that all women should make the same choices as each other, but rather that each woman should have agency to make her own choices for her own life.

And, ultimately, that’s what the book emphasizes: that women are not property, that we don’t need to be covered (akin to a breeding mare or cow), that we have moral agency. Virginity has no universal or medical definition; reducing women to the state of their virginity seems ludicrous and sad–at best.


Sara said...

That song came out my last year of high school. It was an empowering song that became almost like my anthem as I went off to college. My husband and I were discussing yesterday of all the negative thoughts, ideas and images that are flooding girls today at younger and younger ages. Now that I have two girls, I really have my work cut out for me to ensure they are raised to not get lost in the midst of all that cr@p. It's tough when it is bombarding you from every corner though.
I too am a SAHM who homeschools.....by choice. I could easily be out working and was actually our main source of income several years ago.
Bravo on the great post! The traditional ideals for women frustrate me. I have no doubt that the women who were in my local homeschooling group thought I was the spawn of satan. I no longer attend that group;)

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