Virgin or whore? According to current news and media, our generation can't seem to decide. For every report of a young woman sexting nude photos on her iPhone, there seems to be another of girls pledging their abstinence at the Purity Ball across the street. Depending on who you ask, we're either just saying no to hooking up, or living the Sex and the City lifestyle, gossiping about sexual conquests over brunch, in between stocking up on emergency birth control. The message we're getting is clear: for some reason, a woman's sexual purity (or lack thereof) is not merely the choice or preference it is for men—it's a reflection of her morals and values.
Jessica Valenti, author and Feministing.com founder, is sick and tired of it—and she cuts through the bullshit, exposing and debunking this disturbing message in her new book, The Purity Myth, writing "While boys are taught that the things that make them men — good men — are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs."
Valenti exposes this obsession with purity, noting that "Virginity and chastity are reemerging as a trend in pop culture, in our schools, in the media, and even in legislation. So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they're simultaneously being taught — by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less — that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain 'pure.'"
But it's not just the school slut (a label Valenti herself was subject to after sleeping with a high school boyfriend) who's suffering because of our society's purity fetish—it's all young women. "The lie of virginity — the idea that such a thing even exists — is ensuring that young women's perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality," writes Valenti. We sat down with the writer to hear more about the purity myth:
What inspired the book idea?
It's been on my mind for a really long time, but then through writing on Feministing and starting to cover stories there, I saw this trend of how people were covering hookup culture and the link those stories had to anti feminist organizations, to conservative politics, and to legislation that concerned young women—and I started to see the way it was all coming together in this really bizarre way.
What's the biggest myth or misconception about sexual purity or virginity today?
The main misconception of virginity is that it exists! There's no medical definition. It's a completely cultural invention. It's such a huge deal and yet it's so amorphous. There's no real way to define it at all. Also, the sexual double standard is still alive and well.
So men are part of the myth?
Totally. I don't think you can dismantle the myth of sexual purity without talking about sexuality and the way it's constructed, not just for women but for men as well. Women are talking a lot more about sexuality these days, but I don't think we're doing a lot of talking about male sexuality. Men are put into a box just as much as women are.
It's been assumed that men feel a certain way about sex for so long, that we don't even question it.
Exactly. And I feel like men should find this really insulting, that people are saying to them, "you're an animal, you can't control yourself. You have no ability to have emotion about sex"—I think it's a really insulting, dehumanizing way to look at men. So when people say feminists are anti-men, it's like, no we're not. We're trying to open up these conversations so that men can benefit as well.
How does the purity myth factor into porn?
The main problem I see with pornography is not pornography as a theory, but mainstream pornography as it is right now and the industry as it is. I find it really disturbing. And that's not to say there isn't woman-friendly and feminist porn out there, but I think a lot of the mainstream porn I see is so much based on humiliation and calling women whores. I find it really problematic, and I think a lot of it is a result of the purity myth and a result of not being more open about sexuality. If we were more open, if we had more discourse, and if we didn't have this binary way of looking at women and sex, then i don't think that that kind of pornography would be that popular, frankly.
So how do we have that discourse on a personal level, with people we date or friends?
I think just being honest—like there's no shame in your number of partners, and de-stigmatizing that. And if you're a guy and a guy friend calls a woman he just slept with a whore, calling that out. Just thinking critically about the stuff we talk to each other about when we talk about sex. I think too often when we have conversations with our friends or with our partners, they fall into these really familiar patterns and really familiar narratives. And you're not really thinking about what you're actually saying. Just saying the small things can make a big difference in changing how people think about sexuality.
What are your thoughts on celebrities publicly declaring their decisions not to have sex until marriage?
By talking about how you're not having sex, you're still positioning yourself as a sex object. You're putting the focus on your sexual life, whether it's the lack of or having a lot of sex. It's not like I have a problem with Miley Cyrus talking about not having sex, but talking about purity and the fact that you're not having sex as a way to place yourself as morally higher is hypocritical, because you're still putting the notion of sex in people's heads. You're still talking about your sexuality, and you're still putting your sexuality out there as important above all other things. In terms of role models, i don't think sexuality should have anything to do with it. I don't think someone should be a bad role model because they have sex or that someone should be a good role model just because they don't.
What change do you want to see in how we perceive and approach women's sexuality?
I don't want young women to continue to grow up in a world that shames them and gives mixed messages about sexuality and tells them that all they're worth is their bodies and their sexuality. There's no room in this model for women who are really good people who like to have sex and that's fine. 95% of Americans have sex before they get married. But within the conservative moment, you never hear about those people—it's just like, girls are hooking up and getting drunk and going wild. Especially when you consider the legislation being built around it—the purity myth is no longer just this cultural construction, it's this cultural construction that's informing real-life policy and real-life legislation that's really fucking women over.