Genre: feminist non-fiction | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The United States is obsessed with virginity — from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes — ranging from abstinence curriculum to “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials — place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value — and hypocrisy — around the notion that girls remain virgin until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.
Jessica Valenti has long been one of my go-to feminist writers from the third wave, and when I heard about this book I must have instantly downloaded it, only to forget about it for several years.
What is The Purity Myth?
According to Valenti, the Purity Myth is America’s cultural obsession with young women’s virginity, which she argues is harming young women especially. She discusses what she terms “the cult of virginity” that arises out of conservative, religious fears of female sexuality, as well as our culture’s obsession with “girls gone wild” and female passivity. She points out the huge problem with abstinence education, from the way it spreads misinformation about contraception and abortion, to the way it indoctrinates young girls to think of themselves as nothing more or less than their sexuality.
*Trigger Warning: this book includes in depth discussions of rape and sexual assault. Please practice self-care.*
Valenti’s style bridges the academic with the accessible.
This is the third of Valenti’s books I’ve read, and I still really enjoy her writing style. She makes a compelling argument, but her voice is very accessible and down to earth, almost as if you’re reading an email from a girlfriend. I see this as a huge positive to reading any of her work. I could’ve read this in high school and still understood her major points and she doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to appear unnecessarily academic.
Valenti does a pretty decent job of talking not just about white straight women; she’s constantly reminding the reader that women of color are disproportionately affected by the myth—in fact, they’re automatically viewed as impure by virtue of not being white—and she points out again and again the way queer students are erased and stigmatized as well. I also appreciated that she puts her personal life into the book, talking about the experience of losing her virginity in a way that adds to her overall argument—that teen sex isn’t the problem, that we need to give girls agency and provide them with accurate information to make informed choices about their sex lives.
why is this book important?
As laughable as The Purity Myth might sound, particularly to the anti-feminists out there, I believe it’s an important topic, even eight years after its publication.
I went to a private Christian school in what I affectionately term “the Bible Belt” of the U.S., where I was lucky enough to survive adolescence relatively unscathed. I was not educated about safe sex in high school, obviously; instead, our eighth grade class got to hang out with a former graduate, who told us how happy he was that he waited to have sex until he married the love of his life. He even went as far as to tell us we should just wait to have our first kiss on the wedding alter—which was supposed to be romantic, I guess?
While I didn’t necessarily attend a purity ball or pledge my virginity to my father or anything that extreme, I feel that I’m pretty intimately aware of the purity culture Valenti talks about. I stand behind her argument, that the cultural obsession with keeping women pure affects all of us. Even when I had long left behind my virginity and debunked the myth surrounding it in my own life, I still felt a sense of guilt about having premarital sex—I felt dirty, even when I knew intellectually that I wasn’t.
So, yes, I think this book is important, but it’s nowhere near perfect.
As much as I enjoy Valenti’s laid-back writing style, I noticed particularly with this book that it’s heavy on footnotes. I’m not talking about footnotes for references—those are understandable to me. Valenti is what I’m going to call, for lack of a better word, a parenthetical writer. She’s constantly interrupting herself with asides, and instead of putting them in the text (or deciding that they’re not necessary at all), she throws them in a footnote. Now, some of these are both hilarious and completely relevant to her argument; some of them are merely asides that don’t really belong in the text. I get that, I really do. But for me, reading this on my kindle was a jarring experience; I kept checking these footnotes, half the time wishing the note had been in the text and the other half of the time being annoyed that I had to pause my reading to look at something pretty much irrelevant. Again, this is my opinion, but it’s something that made this book less than a 5 star read.
Overall: definitely recommended for those interested in the topic of misogyny, particularly as it relates to young women in American culture.
I enjoyed reading this book, because it confirmed things that I’d felt for a long time without putting it in words or analysis. The last chapter includes a wealth of information about how we can fight against the purity myth, from participating in online activism to fighting back against legislation. Valenti leaves the book with not only a list of references, but a handy list of purity myth facts—a great summarization of important info that can be easily accessed (especially for those angry political arguments at family gatherings, am I right?). I’m glad I read this book and I feel a renewed hope for the future of the feminist movement.
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