Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Review: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

I'd heard good things about The Purity Myth online, and decided to check it out when I came across it at the library a few weeks ago. I'm very glad that I did; Valenti's takedown of abstinence-only advocates is not only comprehensive, well-researched, and informative, it's hilarious. Valenti's sense of humor shines through even the most disturbing parts of the book (purity balls, anyone?) and carries the reader through some pretty depressing material. I would know. I've lived it.

In some ways, I'm lucky. I came of age just as the True Love Waits and abstinence-only sex education movements were taking off, so while I have definitely had a number of negative life experiences as a result of them, I managed to avoid their more recent excesses like purity balls. Purity balls, for the uninitiated, are parties in which fathers and daughters go as a couple, and the father presents his daughter with a ring, symbolizing her promise to him to not have sex until she's married. My teenage self would have preferred drinking bleach to attending such an event, and I'm consequently thankful that it was never an issue.

I also lucked out in the sense that I didn't have my entire childhood inundated with that foolishness, that I managed to catch the last gasping breath of the sex-positivity of the early and mid nineties. The first time I ever heard of True Love Waits was when I was about thirteen. I was in the Youth Room of my church at the time,* and there was a giant stack of paperback bibles whose covers read, "THE TRUE LOVE WAITS BIBLE," in glossy, colorful bubble letters with shiny foil accents. I didn't take one since I already had at least three bibles at home,** but I was confused as to what that phrase meant (waits for what, exactly?), and why it required a whole special bible. I found out a week or two later, when the youth pastor gathered us all together and exhorted us to sign a pledge saying that we wouldn't have sex until we were married.

I didn't sign.

I'd like to say that I was motivated by a sense of moral outrage at a balding thirty-year-old's interest in my (as-yet nonexistent) sex life, that I was galled at the onus of everyone staying pure being entirely placed on young women, or that I was casting off the oppressive shackles of fundamentalist christianity once and for all, but none of that was true at the time-- I didn't have those realizations until two or three years later. At that point, I didn't want to make a promise to god that I wouldn't be able to keep. I figured that even if premarital sex was a sin (having read the bible cover to cover by then, I knew that it was open to interpretation rather than a set-in-stone commandment)***, I was better off only committing the one sin (having premarital sex) than two (having sex and breaking a solemn promise to god). There was also a pretty big part of me that thought I was too young to be thinking about that stuff, anyway. I was largely uninterested in boys until I was about fifteen.

In the years following that moment, I was subjected to a number of speeches on the subject, all of which included a heavy dose of guilt and the usual hard sell to sign a pledge card of some kind. Time and again, I refused. With each successive lecture I heard, the more disillusioned I became. I grew increasingly resentful of adult intrusion into my (still-nonexistent) sex life, and all of the peer pressure that came with it. Every time the pledge cards got passed around and I refused to sign them, the teens around me who did sign them would give me weird looks. Every time we were encouraged to give verbal confirmations of our pledges and I remained silent, everyone else would stare at me. Every time the "Stand up if you're saving yourself for marriage!" ritual happened and I remained seated, other people would whisper and point at me. Shunning and well-meaning but patronizing and irritating lectures inevitably followed. I've always been a fairly reserved person, so to say I was displeased at the way True Love Waits (et. al.) had given everyone and their mother license to pry into my private life (nonexistent or not) is the understatement of the year.

I guess it goes without saying that the Yay Abstinence! crap I was exposed to as a teenager eventually offended my nascent delicate feminist sensibilities.**** It didn't take me long to notice that the majority of the purity rhetoric was targeted at the girls, not the boys. The guys got off easy; while they were expected to sign the cards like everyone else, they were never subjected to exercises in "you're totally worthless and dirty if you have premarital sex," in which the youth pastor/facilitator/lecturer would do things like pass unwrapped candies around the room, having everyone touch them, and then asking a boy (it was always a boy) if he wanted to eat it, then pouncing upon the inevitable grossed-out reaction with the usual slut-shamey platitudes. I also don't ever recall seeing a guy wearing a purity ring, nor hearing of a guy being told to change the way he looked or dressed because he was leading the young ladies of the congregation into perdition (yes, that did happen to me. I wore a shorter skirt the following week).

Why yes, my adolescence did strongly resemble the movie Saved!

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to avoid abstinence-only sex education more or less altogether. I did get to experience a snippet of it during my last year of attending public school (sixth grade), where I learned that since condoms don't work, there's no point in using them, birth control pills give you cancer, and oral sex can get you pregnant. That there were eighth graders with children at that school (South-Doyle Middle: yes, I'm calling you out) should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. Once I transferred to private school the following year, such talk all but ceased. I dimly recall a few episodes of the original Degrassi in seventh grade and a three-hour-long "Sex Seminar" in eighth grade (which, while featuring the unfortunate "sharing fluids" game,***** was mostly medically accurate and didn't involve calling sexually active women dirty, untouchable whores), but beyond that, it wasn't discussed. It was a two-edged sword: on the one hand, I wasn't exposed to any more inaccurate information that could have gotten me knocked up or infected with some variety of crotch rot. On the other, I didn't get nearly as much information as I should have, putting me at risk for getting knocked up or some variety of crotch rot.

I would like to take this moment to thank the librarians at that school for maintaining subscriptions to magazines like Glamour or Cosmopolitan. That's where 90% of my sex education came from; in those days, both magazines frequently published articles about safe sex, comparisons of different contraceptives, and, most importantly, critiques of abstinence-only sex education. I don't think they do that anymore (from what I can gather scanning the covers in the checkout line at the grocery store, anyway), which is really a shame. Nevertheless, it's a pretty sorry state of affairs when teenagers have to resort to fashion magazines to get medically accurate, non-judgmental information about sex.

You don't have to take my word for it. The Purity Myth backs up pretty much everything I've written here: that a myopic focus on virginity harms young women, that abstinence-only sex education is totally ineffective, that purity balls are gross and creepy and, most importantly, that the push for female chastity feeds into the backlash against the feminist movement that's been plaguing us since the eighties. Throughout the book, she discusses the multitudes of potential negative consequences that abstinence advocates and their ilk have on women and society as a whole. It's quite compelling, and I'm of the opinion that everyone (but especially parents, educators, and teenage girls) should read it. 5 out of 5 stars.

*Brief backstory: I was raised Southern Baptist, and want to church three times a week more or less every week until I was around seventeen, when my mother finally caved and stopped forcing me to go. If I'd been given any choice in the matter, I would have stopped going at around fourteen.
***No lie. The literalists take a lot of liberties and do some serious word-stretching to make the case that premarital sex is prohibited--unless you're willing to also make the argument that it's okay to stone a woman if she's found to not be a virgin after she's been married (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), there's little basis for it in the original text.
****I didn't start identifying as a feminist until I was 15, a few years after my initial exposure to True Love Waits.
*****Ten students are given a half-full Dixie cup of water, one of which contains a small amount of sodium hydroxide. Everyone "exchanges fluids" with three (or whatever arbitrary number) people by pouring some of their water into the other person's cup, then allowing the other person to pour some water into theirs. Once they're done, the facilitator places phenolphthalein into the glasses, turning "infected" liquid pink and educating everyone about why condoms are important (if the facilitator doesn't suck) or that ALL SEX IS BAD AND WILL MAKE YOU DISEASED FOREVER (if the facilitator does suck, which seems to be more likely than not).


  1. I've heard of this book for a while, but haven't gotten a chance to read it.

    This reminds me of one particularly bad sex-ed class in high school where we were told that condom manufacturers purposely poked holes in their condoms before selling them*, so using condoms wasn't effective so just don't ever have sex!

    * I'm guessing it was so that people would have to buy more when they failed? I thought the argument of a manufacturer damaging their own product before selling it so you'd buy more, especially when it was essentially a medical/safety device utterly nonsense and didn't catch the "why" reasoning.

  2. Oohhhh great review - I love that you include so much personal information to back up what Valenti says in the book! I am *SO* happy that these purity balls haven't caught on at home, nor have the pledges (at least last I knew) with the Baptist church. Oh please let it not cross the border!!!!

  3. Dave, I've had a number of conversations with conspiracy theorist anti-choicers who INSIST that Planned Parenthood intentionally gives out faulty condoms so that more women will have abortions.

    I really wish I was making that up. *sigh*

    Anyway, everyone knows condom companies don't damage their own problems because then women would get pregnant, and hey! No need for them for a long nine months, right?

    Amy, I don't always like to put myself out there, but I will when I think it's important. Abstinence-only sex ed does a HUGE disservice to teenagers, and those of us who have experienced it need to speak out.