You don't have to look any further than the mainstream media to understand why author Jessica Valenti believes there is a moral panic in America over young women's sexuality. It's hard to know what to believe when Tyra Banks and Oprah Winfrey are sounding alarm bells over an epidemic of teen sexuality, while at the same time Esquire magazine is asking "Where have all the loose women gone?"
This constant hailstorm of mixed messages is just one of the many topics that Jessica Valenti explores in her latest offering, The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Here, Valenti argues that "a combination of forces -- our media -- and society-driven virginity fetish, an increase in abstinence only education, and the strategic political rollback of women's rights among the primary culprits -- has created a juggernaut of unrealistic sexual expectations for young women."
The Purity Myth is the most recent book from Valenti, founder and executive editor of Feministing.com, an online community for young feminists. Valenti has also written Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, and He's a Stud, She's a Slut...and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know. Like The Purity Myth, each of Valenti's books employs the informal, conversational tone that makes Feministing so popular among readers.
The Purity Myth is a necessary book at a time when purity balls between fathers and their daughters -- who are as young as six years old -- are federally funded and when abstinence-only educators are comparing young women to "poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled [lollipops]." Valenti argues that "proponents of date nights [between fathers and daughters] and purity balls argue that they're aiming to protect girls from sexualization, [but] by focusing on girls' virginity they're actually positioning girls as sexual objects before they've even hit puberty."
Valenti goes as far to argue that virginity doesn't exist at all, rather it's a myth perpetuated by male-led institutions, which "have always been the ones that get to define and assign value to virginity." She argues that this is especially obvious because there is no working medical definition of "virginity."
The narrow model of purity, according to Valenti, is unachievable to most. "The desirable virgin is sexy but not sexual. She's young, white, and skinny. She's a cheerleader, a baby sitter; she's accessible and eager to please ... She's never a woman of colour. She's never a low-income girl or a fat girl. She's never disabled." What is just as disturbing, notes Valenti, is that the purity movement not only fetishizes virginity, but also youth, touting the ideal woman as "young, naïve, and impressionable. Being independent, assured, and grown up has no place in this disconcerting model."
The Purity Myth relies heavily on Valenti's own research and observations, which in many cases is informative and even humourous. However, the book begs for first-hand experiences and interviews from within the purity movement and from those opposing it, but unfortunately these are rare.
While the first few chapters of The Purity Myth detail the disturbing messages of the purity movement and how they are implemented, Valenti retreats to familiar territory about half-way through the book, repeating many of the arguments she put forth in Full Frontal Feminism. Of course, these issues such as victim blaming, rape culture and the mainstreaming of pornography are inextricably linked to the purity myth, Valenti often fails to present new information to readers.
Overall, The Purity Myth is an insightful counter-argument to the barrage of purity-pushing books that have appeared in recent years, including Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs and Unhooked by Laura Sessions-Stepp, each of which blame feminism for the apparent "hook-up" culture that they say is contaminating young women.
The antithesis of these books that advocate traditional gender roles and use fear tactics to position female sexuality as shameful, The Purity Myth encourages readers to value women for the positive roles they play in society and not for their chastity. In its final pages, Valenti mentions just a few of these young women who are working toward positive change in their communities, including rabble.ca contributor Jessica Yee.
Valenti hopes that young women will learn from these positive examples, valuing themselves for far more than fitting into a narrow mould of femininity and chastity. "Imagine a world where moral turpitude for women was based on our making decisions for ourselves-not on our bodies, our sexuality, our skin color, or the number of sexual partners we've had. Imagine a world where women had nothing to be ashamed of," she writes.--Jessica Rose
Jessica Rose is a regular contributor to rabble.ca's book lounge.