- Hardcover: 300 pages
- Publisher: Seal Press (March 24, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1580052533
- ISBN-13: 978-1580052535
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 104 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,343,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Purity Myth: How Americas Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women Hardcover – March 24, 2009
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Making a cult of virginity via media stereotyping and “abstinence-only” sex education damages young women, Valenti says, and rolls back women’s rights by emphasizing sexuality and deprecating personal character. Furthermore, the book’s most thought-provoking chapter points up an insidious connection between chastity and pornography: “the porning of America” is vital to those in the virginity movement, which needs increasingly available hard-core porn to justify its extreme regressivism. The dangerous belief that a woman’s primary value is sexual underlies the objectification and sexualization at the heart of the virginity movement’s agenda of controlling and defining women, Valenti maintains. When young women see their bodies and sexuality as commodities, that isn’t caused by porn culture but by “a larger societal message that . . . their sexuality is not their own.” So, is a “post-virgin world” possible? Full of piercing insight and wit (recalling her own sexual initiation, Valenti quips, “I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact”), this is an important addition to women’s studies. --Whitney Scott
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Co-founder and Former Executive Director of Feministing.com, blogger and author Jessica Valenti has a bitch face that never rests. Perhaps this is due to her fierce feminist self being exhausted from her battles against the patriarchy. However, Valenti is a worthy adversary with a Masters degree in Gender Studies from Rutgers University, an armory filled with such weapons as Full-Frontal Feminism, Yes Means Yes with Jaclyn Friedman, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and Sex Object, and she’s always making a racket in articles written for The Guardian.
The Purity Myth reads like a really great news piece. Filled with facts and stories, this book reminds me of the texts I read for gender classes in college. The Purity Myth is a well-written book on an ever more important topic that keeps the reader interested. However, also like college texts, this book is not always fast-paced, and didn’t hold my attention for longer than a chapter in one sitting.
A content warning for readers: this book discusses rape, surgery, pedophilia, and other miscellaneous, creepy, virginity-related things. Because let’s be honest, the emphasis on virginity in our culture is extremely creepy. The “virginity fetish” of America shows that morality is not defined by strength of character; rather, it is defined by the strength of a hymen. Instead of diaphragms, moral compasses are being placed in vaginas. The moral compass is a much less comfortable and reliable form of birth control, though far more common in its use than a diaphragm.
This compass regularly releases large amounts of objectification and patriarchal values in order to keep the body in check with traditional gender roles. Possible side effects of the use of this compass may include, but are not limited to emotional, physical, moral, spiritual, and national political consequences.
Not limiting her writing on the topic to sexuality, Valenti also turns the discussion to race. Virginity is a concept applied almost exclusively to girls, particularly skinny white girls with money in their pockets. They are able-bodied, passive, and must maintain perpetual girlhood for as long as possible. Women of color are stereotyped as highly sexual beings that have a bad influence on innocent little virgin white girls.
Rape is equally racialized, being dismissed by the purity movement as only being real when the woman in question is white, middle class, skinny, a chaste homemaker, chaste who doesn’t drink or use drugs, and dressed in religiously appropriate clothing. And even then, it is disregarded more often than not.
The virginity movement is also a fear of age, of independence; we use plastic surgery, anti-aging creams, and traditional values to stunt the growth of women. At the time of this review, I was reading Shirley Temple’s autobiography. In it, she writes about her body fighting to grow up, while she is typecast in roles that force her to play the girl she once was, but will never be again. Her growing and changing body is ignored by her directors, and she asked over and over again to perform baby roles, to rely solely on her baby face, to not grow into new, more mature roles.
While comprehensive sex educators take on roles closer to doctors and nurses by encouraging people to learn about their bodies, their feelings surrounding those bodies, and to make their own decisions concerning the use of those bodies, the virginity movement makes sure everyone is intimately (and inappropriately) involved in everyone else’s sex lives, whether or not it has any effect on their own lives.
An example of this is surgery. Porn stars often have small labia, used to keep them out of the way of penises, and to improve camera angles. This has led many people to experience a kind of body dysmorphia concerning their vulvas. My own labia are almost elephantine compared to most porn stars, and for all of my childhood and part of my adult years, I there was something wrong with my labia, that they should be so large and hang down so far.
This kind of thinking speaks volumes about our culture. A lot of public sex education is completely worthless, giving impressionable society members unrealistic ideas about their bodies, their lives, and the way things work. Valenti points out that in some countries, this surgery is known as female genital mutilation, while in America, we simply have designer vaginas. On top of all of this, transgender people are fighting for their rights to get surgeries that require approval from a therapist, and yet no one questions the sanity of a person who thinks their vulva needs a nip and tuck and to lose a few years?
The failure of federally funded sex education is between every line of this book. If the sex education in public schools were accurate, people would lead physically, mentally, and emotionally healthier lives. Virginity is a socially constructed concept created by a heteronormative, patriarchal society. The only person who can make decisions for your body (within age limits, of course) is you. Not your neighbors, not your congregation, not your parents; you.
The virginity movement never stops to ponder that sex can be healthy, releasing good hormones that can contribute to mental and physical health and happiness when in combination with good communication and consent. While many concepts are used repetitively throughout the book, Valenti’s ball still hits its mark each time.
Looking for other books on virginity and women’s sexuality? Check out Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History, or Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier.
In this book, Jessica Valenti describes and defies this lesson that women's worth is defined by their sexuality. She rejects the entire concept of virginity as an archaic method of defining a woman's property value. Maybe she comes off as too confrontational to change the mind of a staunch pro-abstinence supporter, but I think her words are exactly what women who have been victims of rape and sexual assault need to hear. I can't afford to buy a copy of this book for every one of my friends who has been sexually assaulted, but I would do so immediately if I could.
"The Purity Myth" was less crude than FFF, but with hilarious commentary throughout to ease the heavy blow of unpacking the virginity movement, it's motives, and how it has irrevocably (and sometimes quietly) changed my entire life. Valenti was articulate and patient in her writing, keeping up a pace that almost anyone could understand and enjoy. Her call to action at the end of the book was clear, and didn't leave me feeling like she'd left any major gaps: she just left me with more curiosity on different subjects she'd touched on. (I am now eyeing my book on feminist pornography on my bedside table.)
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone. I would particularly, however, recommend the book to any feminist who wants a deeper look at one of the most viscous tiers of patriarchy: the virginity movement. Again: incredibly clear, easy to follow, but still thought-provoking and challenges preconceived notions of female sexuality. Excellent. Absolutely excellent.