Did you know that 88% of individuals who pledge to remain abstinent until marriage end up breaking their pledge?1 And when they do have sex, they are less likely to use protection?2
95% of people have premarital sex3, but we are still placing importance on our youth’s purity over their health and happiness — especially when it comes to girls. Instead of educating them & trusting them to make their own decisions, we place that power in the hands of others (legislators, doctors, parents, etc). We exercise control by convincing young women that their entire worth is connected to their sexuality: That they cannot be respectable human beings if they have sex, even though every makeup commercial, fashion magazine, and high school popularity contest tells them to be “sexy.”
Feminist writer & advocate, Jessica Valenti, decided to speak out against this and much more in her book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (2010). Perhaps it’s due to my own experience within the purity movement, but this has become one of my favorite, most eye-opening and influential books that I’ve ever read. In fact, I wish that I would have discovered this book sooner, as it helped me to understand the forces at play during my own adolescence. Valenti links several problems to our obsession with “purity.” She provides facts & examples, while still maintaining a personable, informal tone — complete with typical Valenti-style sarcasm. (I personally enjoyed the humorous touch to her footnotes, but I can also see how her writing style may not get through to those with opposing viewpoints.)
In The Purity Myth, Valenti spends a lot of time explaining the damage done by Abstinence-Only Education, far beyond the blatant misinformation & lack of contraceptive use. She calls attention to class exercises that reinforce the idea that you are “dirty” or “unworthy” if you’ve slept with more than one person. She skillfully makes connections not only to slut-shaming, but also how this obsession with virginity plays into a larger rape culture, including victim-blaming. Valenti even points out how the media has created the stereotypical virgin: the beautiful, heterosexual, & caucasian “girl next door,” bringing up questions of sexism, racism, and homophobia.
Valenti calls out the purity movement for not only perpetuating the harmful virgin/whore dichotomy, but sending mixed messages between the two. By focusing so much attention on this one characteristic, we have fetishized it to the point that girls are advertising their virginity on shirts & women are getting plastic surgery to recreate their hymen, because that’s what makes them appealing to men. We have sexualized the very idea of being non-sexual.
Where do we go from here? Valenti doesn’t make an argument for abandoning virginity in exchange for casual sex. She simply wants girls to be able to make their own educated decisions, without fear and slut-shaming. She calls for us to concentrate on the successes of young women today, instead of panicking over their so-called moral decline. If you’re reading this, nodding along in agreement, go find a copy of The Purity Myth. It will open your eyes to how far this obsession reaches, how much control it has over our society, and just how damaging it truly is.
1. Brückner, H., & Bearman, P. (2005). After the promise: The std consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 271-278. Retrieved from http://www.yale.edu/ciqle/PUBLICATIONS/AfterThePromise.pdf
2. Rosenbaum, J. E. (2009). Patient teenagers? a comparison of the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and matched nonpledgers. Pediatrics, 123(1), e110-e120. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-0407 [Available at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/123/1/e110.full.html]
3. Wind, R. (2006, December 19). Premarital sex is nearly universal among americans, and has been for decades. Retrieved from http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2006/12/19/index.html