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The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
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The Purity Myth (original 2009; edition 2009)

by Jessica Valenti

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4242324,938 (4.14)47
Member:lalachan
Title:The Purity Myth
Authors:Jessica Valenti
Info:Seal Press (2009), Kindle Edition, 277 pages
Collections:Your library, Non Fiction
Rating:****
Tags:non fiction, library book, Jessica Valenti, culture, sexuality, virgin, manliness, gender roles, abstinence, pornography, feminism

Work details

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti (2009)

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Is America a dystopian society when it comes to its neglectful and abusive nature towards its women?

I ask this question honestly, not to shock or offend, but because I genuinely want to know. I'm not saying America is the worst country in the world for a woman to live, just that the 'virginity movement' comprising of powerful conservative, Republican and Christian groups, have a worrying number of ideals in common with Al-Qaeda.

As a Brit, I'm spoilt. I take my country for granted for its forward-thinking laws and policies concerning women. I'm extremely lucky to be living here; my mother's parents could've decided to travel west in the 1950s instead of east from Barbados. Thank you, grandparents. The state of equality in the UK is better than I realised, though far from perfect. And of course, we still get the ridiculous comments spouted by those who should know better.

Defining virginity and sex is difficult, but the former's invention seems to be about determining paternity, placing value on and commodifying a woman who's never had sex. Tell that to this 15 year-old Saudi girl who barricaded herself in her bedroom after being married to her 90-year-old groom for a £10,000 dowry. This kind of thinking encourages paedophilia, human trafficking and prostitution.

Fetishizing virginity implies that any woman who has had sex is less important, less discriminating in her choice of partner, because she's seen as "dirty". But there's still hope for them. 'Secondary virginity' was invented for those that've sinned to redeem themselves by pledging abstinence until marriage. For many pledging abstinence isn't a choice, expectations from parents, peers, church and/or the local community, puts pressure on the child to conform.

Language used in the father's pledge to help their daughters stay chaste and the daddy/daughter dates, yes dates, are unbelievably pseudo-incestuous. That the girls are supposed to replace a sexual partner and relationship with hugs and dates with their fathers, is unequivocally creepy inadvisable.

As 95% will have pre-marital sex, it behooves us to teach factual sex education and methods of contraception, unfortunately the pervasiveness of federally funded abstinence-only sex education sees children being taught to 'believe drinking a cap of bleach will prevent HIV, and a shot of Mountain Dew will stop pregnancy,' that all contraception is ineffective against STIs, abortions are harmful, and shaming them into doing their will. Not surprisingly, STI rates have increased since abstinence-only's inception.

I fail to understand why grown adults will spread false and misleading information to children who will ultimately have sex, will do so without being armed with the information to keep themselves and their partners safe from pregnancy and disease, and feel ashamed about it afterwards, as they were taught.

Confoundingly, if they don't use contraception, they may have an easier time obtaining an abortion (which is difficult in itself) than the morning-after pill. Sigh. I was pleased to read that parents and pupils are fighting back by complaining to school boards, setting up Facebook groups and surreptitiously filming these "lessons" and posting them on YouTube.

For anyone interested in truthful sex education, Valenti recommends http://www.scarleteen.com/.

I believed we British were completely safe from abstinence education and was momentarily frightened by Nadine Dorries' abstinence bill which was thankfully withdrawn in January 2012. Phew. I'm not surprised this came from the woman known for abandoning her job as a Member of Parliament to eat ostrich anus in Australia for a few weeks, and yet I am surprised and horrified to see it had reached a second reading in Parliament before the outcry quashed it.

'In 2006, Playboy listed [b:Lolita|7604|Lolita|Vladimir Nabokov|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327871906s/7604.jpg|1268631], Vladimir Nabakov's novel about a pedophile who falls in lust with his landlady's twelve-year old daughter, as one of the "25 Sexiest Novels Ever Written."'
*chokes*

Blatant sexualization of children. My guess is they'd approve of the legal online kiddie porn showing child model photos in bikinis since they basically founded the modern porn revolution in the 1950s, and was accelerated with the help of the internet, video cameras and webcams.

Usual complaints about the degrading and debasing nature of porn against women are present, and to combat this, woman friendly porn is something Valenti is very much in favour of, but objectification and dehumanization has taken on a new face: Real Dolls -woman replacements for the men who buy them. They're tailored to a buyer's exact specifications and can basically do whatever they want to them without consequences. An interview with a repairman is disturbing: 'he spoke about badly mutilated dolls with their breasts hanging off, their hands and fingers severed.' Whether they're men turned off real women by porn, simply intimidated by independent women, or unable to attract a woman for their misogynist attitudes, isn't clear but the danger they might represent to a real woman in future, is.

An antidote to porn culture are Disney's purity porn stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus who embody the 'desirable virgin'. The 'desirable virgin' is sexy, young, white, skinny, passive, middle class, girl-next-door. So if you're fat, of a low income, independent, disabled, a lesbian, or a woman of colour -you are not desirable.

In fact, lesbians don't exist to those of what Valenti calls the 'virginity movement', perhaps because most involved in it are conservative/Republican and/or religious (Abstinence Clearinghose and the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) are the major players), viewing homosexuality as "unnatural". Sex for pleasure also doesn't appear to exist to those of the movement, only pro-creative sex with your husband is valid or allowed. Most feminists disagree, and therefore they're the natural enemy of the virginity movement, by promoting equality and sexual liberation (i.e. casual sex).

I was shocked by the mistreatment of some pregnant women and the antiquated prioritization of the life of a foetus before the life of the mother and the tragic consequences. The reverse is true for the UK. The former risks the life of mother and baby, while the latter risks the life of the baby alone. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

One woman in labour had her legs shackled together and an unnecessary c-section was performed on her against her will. Though devoutly religious and pro-life she gave a talk to a pro-choice audience declaring she had been "raped by the state." I completely agree with her. That's a reprehensible way to treat a pregnant woman.

When I started reading [b:Rape Is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis|16056736|Rape Is Rape How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis|Jody Raphael|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352351464s/16056736.jpg|21842624] the author quoted Valenti (multiple times, I later learned) which prompted me to brush off my copy of this book to read before continuing, and the Public Punishment chapter is what I was waiting for. Women and children punished and blamed for their own rapes. Both Valenti and [b:Rape Is Rape|16056736|Rape Is Rape How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis|Jody Raphael|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352351464s/16056736.jpg|21842624] reference the Cassandra Hernandez case, the Air Force airperson raped by three colleagues who were all given immunity for sexual assault if they testified against her on an indecent acts charge, which included underage drinking. 'In effect, she was charged with her own rape.'

'Women get raped because someone raped them' and for no other reason. Alcohol and clothing aren't factors, 'the presence of a rapist' is. Sickeningly, a 'judge in Philadelphia ruled that a sex worker whom multiple men had raped at gunpoint hadn't been raped at all -she'd been robbed.' It was "theft of services."

The Department of Justice estimates 'half of all victims will not call what happened as rape.' As long as it was against your will, forced or coerced, it's still rape no matter what the victim thinks. Or a judge. One judge disallowed the use of the word 'rape' because it was prejudicial. 'In a heroic move (if you ask me), she refused to abide by the judge's rule: "I refuse to call it sex, or any other word that I'm...encouraged to say on the stand, because to me that's committing perjury. What happened to me was rape, it was not sex."'

"The tragedy of machismo is that a man is never quite man enough." ~ Germaine Greer

"[b:Femiphobia|835044|The Wimp Factor Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity|Stephen J. Ducat|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1178765452s/835044.jpg|820658]" - the fear of being feminine, is often used to punish men e.g. forcing male prisoners to wear pink to offend their hypermasculinity, because 'nothing is worse than being a woman.' Some men 'revel' in the never-ending struggle for 'dominance and "seduction," which can become predatory -is par for the course among young men. And it's not just what's defining their sexuality, it's what's defining them as men.' But this is deforming men, narrowing their emotional range and depth and reinforces the purity myth because they're defining themselves through and controlling women's bodies and sexuality.

[a:Ariel Levy|11286|Ariel Levy|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1264626308p2/11286.jpg]'s [b:Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture|18745|Female Chauvinist Pigs Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture|Ariel Levy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348153192s/18745.jpg|1483372] was critiqued by Valenti. She agreed with me when she says, 'she fails in that she seems to have little sympathy for the women she interviews' and 'telling young women they're being taken advantage of isn't necessarily the best way to effect change.' And she goes on to say 'there is a middle ground between rabid antiporn Dworkinizing and Girls Gone Wild vapidity.'

Girls Gone Wild - a popular example of deplorable "humilitainment" and exploitation Valenti condemns as one of 'the most sexually predatory groups in America today...it's a roving band of would-be rapists and assaulters who get treated like celebrities wherever they go.' Here, it's shown a few of those employed by GGW were in fact criminals, one of which was a serial rapist.

Valenti postulates the virginity movement's repressed sexuality has unwittingly created the very thing it seeks to eradicate: raunch. Repressing sexuality and shaming people for having it creates a guilty hunger for outlets, like porn (oh, the hyporcrisy), thereby encouraging sexual liberation to fulfil those needs. And that the movement requires the prevalence of raunch to stay relevant, because if they succeed by sanitising the world and abolishing women's rights, what more do they have to campaign for, or against? If they no longer have a cause, they have no power. I'm not entirely sure about this last part. Maintaining the new social order of oppression (with dissemination of propaganda, and so on) would require effort and resources, and someone has to be in charge of that, right?

Criticisms

You didn't think I'd have any, did you?

*It occurs to me that when [vaginal rejuvenation] surgery is performed on women in Africa, we call it female genital mutilation, but in the oh-so-enlightened United States, we call them designer vaginas. You know, American women are empowered.

A footnote has never made me so angry. There should be no sarcasm or snark in that paragraph. American women ARE empowered. They CHOOSE to have surgery by TRAINED SURGEONS in CLEAN HOSPITALS. In Africa, the barbaric practice of FGM primarily consists of a clitoridectomy forced on millions of girls between infancy and age 15 often in unsanitary conditions by butchers, leaving them with long-term serious consequences. Tell me, what American woman would choose to have their clitoris removed? I recommend she read Alice Walker's [b:The Color Purple|11486|The Color Purple|Alice Walker|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166478450s/11486.jpg|3300573].

Another footnote is also not quite right, critcising an anti-choice columnist 'who actually asserted that abortion providers and Chinese people eat foetuses!' This is true. Mary Roach visited China to find they actually do. Just because it sounds outrageous, don't dismiss it as untrue.

I wonder if Valenti has ever read [a:Mary Roach|7956|Mary Roach|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1212527264p2/7956.jpg] because their evocative informal writing styles are quite similar, containing many, many footnotes and personal choices and accounts of their lives. Personal taste will dictate if readers will like this style, for me, it worked like a charm.

Bias. Although I've never encountered American abstinence-only sex education or the other explored issues, I'm sure there is some degree of bias. I can't say for certain how much because Valenti does a brilliant job of reinforcing her points with as much evidence as she can find, but her frustrations prevented her from researching my first two points of criticism. What else has she overlooked, or perhaps exaggerated?

There's no question Valenti makes an impassioned plea to the public to change attitudes. However, understandably, her use of exclamation points increases with her frustration and incredulity at the people, institutions and cultures she criticises. Snark becomes more noticeable, translating into an attack on the "enemy" rather than a call to open dialogue with them. Though it's quite clear previous clashes between sides show few are willing to understand the points Valenti makes and that this book is actually a way of bypassing The Enemy to the public, the very people she wishes to inform, hoping to ignite discussion and encourage meaningful changes throughout society.

Those in power to change the dynamic who are currently doing real damage are the abstinence teachers, well-funded organisations, judges, and legislators.

Ideally I'd like to see this book studied and discussed in schools and universities to combat the dangers this age-group faces from the outset. I'd advise them to read it over a number of days because I got whiplash and headaches from all the head-shaking and frowning I did in response to horrendous opinions on and the treatment of the women within these pages.

The Purity Myth is a passionately urgent and profound call-to-arms to all rational minds, male and female, young and old, to take up the cause of women and equality to finally give women power over their own bodies and sexuality once and for all. ( )
  Cynical_Ames | Sep 23, 2014 |
In "The Purity Myth," Jessica Valenti does a pretty bang-up job of getting the reader worked up, horrified, and furious about the "purity myth" disseminated in America...that is, as long as the reader picked up the book expecting to be worked up, horrified, and furious.

To be clear: I'm not suggesting that any feminist should be sugarcoating or pulling their punches. The issues outlined in "The Purity Myth" - such as abstinence education, particularly unfair treatment of women of color, the truly abominable sacrifice of the rights of pregnant women in favor of their fetuses, rape culture, virgin vs. victim - are very real, very terrible, and very pressing. But reading "The Purity Myth," you get the idea that Valenti is very much preaching to her self-actualized activist choir. The book is peppered with snarky one-liners, sardonic footnotes, and open hostility toward some causes. At first (for me, at least) this was gratifying, but it got old pretty quickly. Valenti is a blogger, and it shows; while her snarkiness is well-suited for 500-word rants, I can't help but feel she's doing herself a disservice by alienating anyone on the fence. "The Purity Myth" isn't going to convert anyone, but it is going to make anyone who already agrees feel really, really smug.

That said, I really enjoyed the structure of the book. I thought the chapters flowed smoothly. Valenti skillfully presented a blend of ideas, statistics, often nauseating anecdotes, and (thankfully) ways to combat the problems that she identified. Truly, it was enjoyable to read, and it successfully made me angry. I also thought Valenti did a decent job of separating the word "feminist" from some of the many misconceptions about its "universal" meaning.

Finally, I'd like to draw out Valenti's habit of attributing an enormous amount of malicious intent to the organizations she's attacking, as though there were a secret cabal of abstinence-only educators explicitly planning the best way to take as much power away from women as possible. While I definitely wouldn't call this approach "victim-blaming", I think she might be assuming too much self-awareness in those people she's attacking. Part of the horror of the purity myth is that those still caught in it really, truly think that they are doing a favor for women with their behavior. Most of them aren't evil, they've just got enormous blinders on; they're not the enemy, the institutionalization and internalization of those beliefs are. Until that institutionalization is eliminated, women won't be able to make the kind of progress that feminists are hoping for. I don't think Valenti is unaware of this, but I think she often loses sight of that in the fun of picking apart some of the more ridiculous aspects of her opponents; I would encourage readers to try to keep their eyes on the prize. ( )
  | Aug 5, 2014 | edit |
Jessica Valenti is a clear and educated Feminist who does her research and is one of my favorite Feminist writers for the contemporary woman looking to understand how social and cultural standards and expectations can hurt women to this day. Valenti gives me hope that we can all recognize and make change in our lives to better the lives of all women, young and old. ( )
  marthaearly | Jun 6, 2014 |
Outstanding. Who would have thought that a church-based movement would elevate "purity" and "virginity" above basic ethical behavior (lies, theft, violence)? ( )
  Netherto | Oct 17, 2013 |
Disturbing and fascinating. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
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"I believe that there is an ideal of fastidiousness in the world. An ideal of impossible purity in a world that is, in its very essence, impure." -- Mary Gordon in The Story of Mary Gordon
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For Andrew
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There is a moral panic in America over young women's sexuality -- and it's entirely misplaced.
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"The United States is obsessed with virginity--from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is a critique about why this is so, and why it's problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a young woman's worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness, and altruism."--From publisher description.… (more)

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