The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti
I’ve been reading Feministing ever since I first ventured onto the Internet—okay, perhaps not at the exact age of nine, when I unleashed myself upon the Internet (and before the website even existed), but in late middle school and high school? Most definitely. Founder Jessica Valenti started the website in 2004 to create a space for young feminists and stepped away in 2011 because she wanted it to remain so. Part of Valenti’s activism consists of the books she writes, which include The Purity Myth. I’d been meaning to read it, but the production of a documentary based on the book made me actually pick it up.
The Purity Myth posits that women’s morality is being confused with their sexuality, and the way that various movements—most particularly the evangelical chastity movement, but also mainstream pornography—perpetuate that myth. By highlighting abstinence-only education, federally funded father-daughter purity balls (with no corresponding event for boys that place such an emphasis on their chastity), and double standards, Valenti reveals how this is a central tenant of the effort to roll back women’s rights, and dares to dream of a world without it.
I actually forgot to write this review for a few days—not because I didn’t like the book and definitely not because I don’t think it’s useful. But, in a way, because of those two things. In her own non-reviews, Ana at things mean a lot often talks about how accessible texts she reads might be to someone who doesn’t share her political views. I agree absolutely with Valenti, so I’m really just nodding here. Valenti brings an even-handed but mildly snarky attitude towards the proceedings, but there does seem to be an assumption that she’s preaching to the choir; personally, if I were making the same argument to someone who disagreed with me, I’d try to avoid the joking footnote, although they’re already at a minimum here. It’s also very brief, topping out at just over two hundred pages. This isn’t a problem, but it sometimes feel self-conscious when there’s blank pages at the ends of chapters to try and pad it out. So I can’t speak to how this might communicate to someone who doesn’t already agree with Valenti’s central tenet. But it’s still worth reading, for the analysis she puts forth of seemingly benign systems that are rotten once you get a good look at them.
The biggest one being about how the chastity movement is less about emotional and spiritual health and more about the fear of the adult female body, especially if it’s sexual. (A personal quibble: early on, Valenti makes the point that she’s never met a sex-positive feminist who shames others for not being sexually active to contrast against evangelicals who slutshame. As an asexual woman, the side-eyes I sometimes get from people who should know better are annoying, but, then again, it’s hardly as destructive as slutshaming…) I’ve heard stories about abstinence-only education, of course, but I hadn’t realized that exercises such as taking a piece of candy, licking it, and putting it back in its wrapper were explicitly illustrations of female bodies being influenced by sex. (I can’t imagine why I thought otherwise, except that being raised religiously feral has its perks…) Valenti goes much more in-depth about this, of course, and her research really drives home how fearsome some find the adult female body, especially when its a body that, through the changes of childbirth, has proven itself sexually active.
But what I ultimately walked away with is a desire to read Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, an collection edited by Valenti with Jaclyn Friedman. Here, Valenti, disclosing all the way to cover herself, quotes “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar, where Millar ponders the concept of a consent system where it’s not only that a partner doesn’t say no, but that they explicitly say yes. It’s a consent system that’s collaborative and strives to be mutually beneficial, instead of ticking off boxes. That seems so simple, but it destabilizes so much and sheds so much light on the problematic elements that Valenti has been talking about that it seems absolutely groundbreaking. At the end of the book, Valenti challenges her readers to help make a world where a woman’s morality is not based on her sexuality by imagining it, and that’s absolutely a world I want to live on.
Bottom line: The Purity Myth is a slim, fast read, especially for those who already agree with Valenti; I can’t speak to its effect with those who disagree. But its vision of a world where women’s morality is not confused with their sexuality and consent is affirmative instead of neutral is a world I want to live in.
I rented this book from the public library.