Jessica Valenti's newest book, The Purity Myth, was released last month. Unfortunately, it took us until this week to get around to giving it the attention it deserves.
In the new release, Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com and the author of three - yes, three - other books, tackles what she terms the "myth" of female purity and virginity. It's a big topic, encompassing not only the aforementioned issues, but abortion rights, sexual assault, and raunch culture, so I felt a straight book review might not suffice. A Q&A - conducted via email this week and last - appears below.
Q: I was somewhat surprised to find that much of the book focused on "traditional" issues of concern to feminists and progressives - the epidemic of rape and victim-blaming, anti-feminist and anti-choice activism and policy, the "porn"/"raunch" culture and sexualization of young girls - in a book about the idea of female purity. In fact, I got the distinct sense that you broached these other issues as a way of introducing them to readers who might not be familiar with them or the ways in which contemporary feminist thinkers approach them; the book felt, at times, like a crash course in Feminism 101 (or should I say, Feminism 2009). I don't mean to suggest that concern over female virginity and purity isn't linked to these issues, but I wonder if, in your mind, a conversation about ideas of virginity/purity wasn't a convenient, fresh way to introduce the broader concerns among feminists to people unfamiliar with them?
JESSICA: Well, the idea from the book really came about from my covering all of the "traditional" feminist issues on Feministing and finding this purity narrative come up again and again – and seeing the ways the issues were all linked. So yes, part of my political project is definitely to make feminism and feminist issues part of the mainstream conversation. But that wasn't really the larger aim for The Purity Myth. I just don't think you can talk about purity and virginity without looking at the very specific and distinct ways that they influence issues like violence against women, sexualization and reproductive justice. They are all related, unbelievably so, especially when you look at the ways that the conservative movement is using old school ideas about virginity to promote a really regressive agenda for women's rights.
Q: What did you learn about notions and ideas of virginity/purity in cultures outside America, whether Western or not? Why did you choose not to include them? I'd love to hear what you had to leave out, for reasons of space or focus or both.
JESSICA: I would love to see a book exploring these issues in other countries or on a global level – but there are two reasons why I didn't want to broaden the book outside of the U.S. The first being issues of focus and my area of expertise, which of course is U.S.-based; the second is that I think that the U.S. is at this really interesting and historical and cultural point where the over-sexualization of women in the media and pop culture is clashing (and sometimes intersecting) with the conservative movement in this peculiar way that is really specific to the U.S. I'm sure most countries have some form of virginity-fetishizing going on, but the U.S. sure does do it with a particular flair! Where else can you find purity balls and vaginal rejuvenations in the same small town?!
Q: I have to say that I was both amused and annoyed by your college roommate Jen's assertion that sex isn't sex unless you've had an orgasm. Although I agree that it is a "pleasure-based, non-heteronormative way of marking intimacy," I also think it discounts the fact that the majority of women cannot orgasm easily from sex - penetrative or not. And I wonder if the embracing of the Virginity Movement on the part of young people - male and female - doesn't stem in some part from an ignorance of women's sexuality and the mechanics of female orgasm. Is it easier for some to call the whole thing off than to delve in to the intricacies, details and complexities of female sexuality? Is female sexuality scary to these "purists" in no small part because they do not understand it? And if so, do any of them betray any knowledge of this?
JESSICA: You know, someone else called me on this the other day and I think you're totally right. So now it's back to the drawing board on how to mark sex!
I also think that you're right that a lot of the virginity movement stuff is mired in a real fear of female sexuality and ignorance of women's sexual pleasure. I mean, a large part of their message is that women don't enjoy sex as much as men and that's why it's important for us to be chaste! The only time it seems to be okay for women to enjoy sex is within the confines of a marriage, and even then you should be enjoying yourself because you're doing God's work and having babies, not because you might like the actual act.
Q: I found it interesting and very timely that, just 24 pages into the book, you counted "pageant queens who run on abstinence platforms" as part of a group of women whom Americans honor for not having sex. What are your thoughts on Miss California, Carrie Prejean, who has become an anti-gay marriage activist and, I believe, is a self-described virgin? How does she fit into the Purity Myth, and how does the purchase - by the Miss California organization - of breast implants for her (which in my mind, serve as a way in which to increase her sexual marketability) work with and/or against this Purity Myth?
JESSICA: I know, it's so telling that these pageant stories keep coming up over and over again! I didn't realize that Prejean identified as a virgin; that makes sense though. I've written about her recently, and what really strikes me is how – as I write in the book – American culture enjoys knocking beautiful women down a peg or two. Now, I am certainly no fan of Prejean and I think her bigoted comments are definitely ripe for analysis – but I think there's a way to do that without talking about her breasts, or trying to slut shame her. And that's what the bulk of the media coverage has been about – enjoying her fall from the pedestal.
But absolutely, the fact that the Miss California organization subsidized breast implants speaks volumes about the way we value women's bodies. I find it so incredibly hypocritical (though par for the course under the purity myth) that this organization would pay to hypersexualize Prejean and then be upset when a somewhat sexual picture of her pops up. Come on.
Q: I was really interested in your repeated mentions of the absence of women of color in the Virginity Industrial Complex, and how the "desirable virgin is...young, white, and skinny." (I wonder if it's any coincidence that the title of the Abstinence Clearinghouse's 2007 conference was "Abstinence Is a Black and White Issue: Purity vs. Promiscuity".) In your research for the book, did you come across ANY advocates for abstinence and/or abstinence-only education who were men or women of color? Why hasn't this aspect of the abstinence movements been given more press, you think?
JESSICA: Oh my god, even better from the Abstinence Clearinghouse's conference was when one year they had a "Wizard of Oz" theme. One of their panels was named "A Horse of a Different Color" – it was the hip-hop dance group. Yeah.
Regarding the absence of women of color in the perfect virgin model – that's been around for a long time, of course. Feminists like bell hooks have been talking about the way black women's bodies are positioned as hypersexual for years. (Mostly because it's a great way for men to have an excuse for sexual assault – you can't "dirty" something that was already "unclean.")
The thing is, there is certainly an abstinence movement in communities of color and purity advocates who are people of color – but they're not really shown in the mainstream abstinence movement. What do you see in the media? You see purity balls and "perfect virgins." What you're also much more likely to see is the white leadership of purity organizations holding up young white women as examples of perfect virgins. I remember watching this great documentary, Abstinence Comes to Albuquerque, and noticing that all of the teachers and abstinence leaders were overwhelmingly white Christian women, and that many of the students were Latina youth.
When you do see abstinence being targeted at young women of color, there's not the same kind of talk of purity – it's more about targeting a group of women that the movement has already focused on as "troubled," and already-sexual.
Q: I'd also like to hear more about the complex intersection of chastity movements with various feminist movements regarding both movements' denunciation of the sexualization of young girls and the marketing of consumer goods to them (i.e. t shirts, panties, etc. with "naughty girl" messages.) What do you think about this crossover? Is there one? Are there other ways in which the two camps intersect/agree? Why or why not? What are your general thoughts on this?
JESSICA: Well I think the biggest difference is that the virginity movement denounces the sexualization of young women and girls, but fights back against it with more sexualization. After all, how is it not focusing on young women's sexuality by talking constantly about their virginity or bringing them to purity balls? If you are telling young women over and over that what's most important is their virginity, that what makes them valuable is their chastity – then you're sending the message that it's the body and sexuality that defines who they are.
With the consumer goods, I found it so, so telling that that abstinence educators and purity pushers would rail against sex, female sexuality in particular, and then sell "Virgins are hot" t-shirts! It's just too funny. Of course, folks could argue that third wave feminism does something similar in its adopting pin-up sexuality, etc, but the big difference of course is that with feminists we're choosing what kind of sexuality we'd like to put out there; with the virginity movement it's adults (and a lot of men) deciding what appropriate sexuality is for younger women. It's anyone and everyone except young women themselves defining young women's sexuality.
Q: You talk quite a bit about the rise of Real Dolls in Chapter 4. What do you think those in the Virginity Movement would make of these dolls and the men who use them? According to their definition of what "sex" is, a male penetrating a real doll would not be "sex" - therefore, I assume that the use of one by a male "virgin" would be a way of maintaining his integrity?
JESSICA: Well, a lot of folks in the virginity movement think that any sexual activity – even masturbation – is sex, so I'm sure they would disapprove! What I found really interesting about Real Dolls, and why I focused on them, is that they pretty much embody what the virginity movement (and our porned culture) thinks of as the perfect woman: there for male pleasure, and unable to voice any opinion whatsoever.
Q: A lot has changed since you researched and wrote this book - the election of a new president, the resignation of a Supreme Court justice, a renewed focus on women's health, gains towards same sex marriage rights in various states etc. - how do you see the events of the past few months affecting the realities regarding abortion rights and sex education you described in the book? How do you see them affecting the virginity movement, with its focus on "sex" as heterosexual intercourse, and its definition of "marriage" as being between a man and a woman?
JESSICA: A lot has definitely changed – and for the better. But unfortunately, I don't think the new administration and some of the legislative gains are going to mean the end of the virginity movement or the obsession with young women's virginity. I think it's incredibly important, of course, that we continue to fight those policy battles – but we have a whole culture to take on as well, and that's the harder fight. Abstinence organizations are in the process of rebranding themselves right now – especially after all of the recent public embarrassments they've gone through from Bristol Palin to study after study proving their infectiveness. So I don't think they're going anywhere. It's up to us to make sure that we fight back against them even harder now, not rest on our laurels.
Q: I'm also curious about the intersection of the Virginity Industrial Complex with the Wedding Industrial Complex. In fact, in Chapter 5, you quote Martha Kempner as saying that abstinence only programs and "educators" are sending the message that "purity is the most important thing and what [young women] should be striving for is a wedding." I'd like to hear you explore the intersection of virginity industry and the wedding industry a little more.
JESSICA: Yes! Well, the big climax (if you will) for virginity movement gals is getting married naturally – because that's when you get to have sex! So many abstinence classes and messages are framed around weddings, marriage and having children. (My favorite example of this is an abstinence billboard that shows a woman in a wedding dress and the tagline: Wait for the bling.) Politically and socially I find it awful because it's promoting this really regressive message that the most important thing to women is getting hitched. I find it personally pretty obnoxious as well because there's a really explicit message there that if you do wait to have sex, then your marriage is better and more pure than others'. That kind of gross moral superiority just pisses me off.
Q: One last thing. Am I sick for giggling maniacally and thinking "impure" thoughts after reading the passage on page 68 from a purity ball promotional item in which the young girl, Katie, goes on a "date" with her dad and says, in response to what flavor of ice cream she would like, says, "I'll have chocolate, Daddy"?
JESSICA: Maybe a little sick, but no sicker than the most of us.
Jessica Valenti is the founder and editor in chief of Feministing.com. In addition to The Purity Myth, she is the author of He's A Stud, She's A Slut, Full Frontal Feminism and co-author of Yes Means Yes. Questions for her? Leave them in the comments and we'll try to get answers.