The Purity Myth–Book Review

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

Book reviewed by Lena Schmidt

“Any way you slice it, women’s identities are so tied up with whether or not we’ve had sex, or how sexual or abstinent we are, that it’s become almost impossible to think of ourselves as women outside of that framework. And really, while it’s pop culture that gets the most attention in this regard, it’s the virginity movement that’s reinforcing the notion” (79)

There is no working medical definition for virginity. Most Americans support comprehensive sex education.  And yet federal money sponsors archaic purity balls and misleading abstinence-only education. In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti uses cringe-inducing anecdotes, examples, and a colloquial, yet serious tone to address these issues. Valenti demonstrates that the conflation of sexuality and morality, the passive model of womanhood upheld by the virginity movement, the misinformation provided by abstinence-only programs, and messages espoused by religious institutions and the media are hurting young women.

The “purity myth” is the idea that women can be pure and that if they are, they are good. Valenti argues, however, that the forces of sexism, homophobia, racism, and money make this standard practically impossible. As Valenti notes, historically, interest in virginity was about establishing paternity. And although each woman gives virginity personal meaning, the current social and political definitions affect women on a large scale (22). Valenti argues that the main objective of the purity myth is to enforce traditional gender roles. She explains, “virginity has become the easy morality fix. Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think about, not what we care about and work for. Just if/how/whom we have sex with” (24). Valenti explains that programs that promote this doctrine have an anti-feminist social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention. As one purity ball proponent says, “We want to do everything we can to help them enter marriage as pure, whole persons” (69). Valenti finds boiling down a girl’s ability to be a “whole” person to her being a virgin problematic and challenges us to differently measure women’s worth.

Valenti takes issue with abstinence-only programs and purity balls, the most visible and well funded arms of the virginity movement. Most of us are aware of how subject girls are to inappropriate sexual attention, and how younger and younger women are presented as sex objects in the media. What is news, though, is how this sexualization is coming from someplace other than an easy-to-blame hypersexualized pop culture—it’s also coming from the virginity movement” (69). For example, “while proponents of date nights [between fathers and daughters] and purity balls argue that they’re aiming to protect girls from sexualization, by focusing on girls’ virginity they’re actually positioning girls as sexual objects before they’ve even hit puberty” (69). This message, combined with abstinence-only education that “tell[s] young people that using condoms is like playing Russian roulette,” means they’ll be less likely to use a condom, not that they’ll be less likely to have sex (105). Valenti cites a 2007 study from Congress which found that middle school students who had received abstinence-only education were just as likely to have sex as teenagers as those who had not. So, Valenti notes, “if students who take abstinence classes are just as likely to have sex as their peers, but have less information about how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs—or worse, believe they cannot prevent pregnancy and STIs at all—that leaves them completely unprotected” (119).  Bottom line, according to Valenti: girls are sexualized by many arenas of society, given little guidance to develop into sexually healthy adults, and punished for any non-pure behaviors.

Valenti insists virginity shouldn’t be revered at the expense of women’s well-being. With all the focus on young girls “being good,” where is the purity movement when a woman is raped? Or contracts cervical cancer? Or has a baby? Or comes out as lesbian? This lack of support, arguably, is what is really hurting young women.

This conundrum is particularly harmful to young women of color and women who have survived coerced sexual behavior. Valenti points out, “in the media, the sexuality of young women of color—especially African Americans and Latinas—is never framed as “good girls gone bad” (as it generally is with white girls); rather, they’re depicted as having some degree of pathologized sexuality from the get-go. This reinforces a disturbing cultural narrative: that “innocent” white girls are being lured into an oversexualized culture, while young black women are already part of it” (47). Similarly disturbing, “federal guidelines for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs associate sexual abstinence with all things virtuous and sexual activity with a life doomed to failure. Not only is this untrue, but it serves to inflict greater harm upon those who have survived coerced sexual behavior. Such messages are likely to cause further feelings of hurt, shame, anger, and embarrassment…” (109). This attitude is particularly troubling as Valenti reminds, “Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them” (151).

To combat the purity myth and encourage healthy development of sexuality, Valenti offers the following suggestions:

  • Take a sex positive approach: Trust young people enough to tell them the truth about sex and sexuality–that it is supposed to be pleasurable!
  • Support comprehensive sex education: “it’s time to take a stance on sex education that isn’t so passive—young people deserve accurate and comprehensive sex education not just because they’re going to have sex, but because there’s nothing wrong with having sex.”(120)
  • Rethink/redefine masculinity: “Because as long as men are disconnected from women, as long as they’re taught that we’re not what to be, and as long as they believe that the only way to define themselves is through women’s bodies and sexuality, the purity myth will live on” (187)

This book is highly recommended for teachers, counselors, parents, or anyone concerned with the world young women grow up in today. The book is also recommended for young men and women interested in learning some complexities of the world they live in, and how they can use their knowledge to challenge systems that oppress them.

To learn about and support comprehensive sex education in California, become a member of TeenNow California: