I originally wrote this book review for Epinions.com in July 2009. I reposted it on my original blog on September 5, 2015. I am reposting it again as is.
Pros: Points out how women’s rights are affected by legislation regarding sexuality.
Cons: A little too rabidly feminist for my taste. Not that well written.
When I was a teenager, it seemed like everyone was having sex except me. As a 13 year old, I vividly recall a girl in my 8th grade English class telling me about how she’d gotten “laid” by her boyfriend the previous weekend. At the time, I didn’t even know what “getting laid” meant. As I got older, I learned more about euphemisms for having sex and watched as my friends gained an unnatural appreciation for turtlenecks, thanks to the hickeys left by their boyfriends. On my high school graduation day in June 1990, three of my classmates were so pregnant they could have given birth on the football field as we collected our diplomas.
Once I got to college, I truly did feel like a minority because I wasn’t having sex. On more than one occasion, I walked in on a roommate who was in the middle of intercourse. More than a couple of my friends had pregnancy scares. And there were a couple of times when I found my friends crying in the bathroom, despondent over a sexual relationship gone bad. Strangely enough, I still felt like a freak for not having those experiences when I was in my 20s. I waited until I was 30 years old before I finally gave up my virginity. Now that I’ve done the deed, I couldn’t be happier that I waited. Not having sex made my life much simpler.
Jessica Valenti, author of the 2009 book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, did not wait until adulthood before she had sex for the first time. Indeed, Valenti lost her virginity at the tender age of 14. Her then boyfriend marked the event by drawing a heart on the wall with the couple’s initials and the date. Soon after their sexual union, Valenti found herself the object of derogatory remarks. Suddenly, because she’d had sex, Valenti was considered “at risk”. When Valenti’s mother found a condom in her purse, she warned that no man would want to marry her if she was promiscuous.
Now an adult, Jessica Valenti is a blogger and a feminist who has written articles for Ms. Magazine and The Guardian, as well as several books on feminism. In The Purity Myth, she takes on the supposed attitude that girls who have sex before marriage are somehow “damaged goods” and that the virginity movement is somehow hurting women. She rails against abstinence only education, the religious right, and misogynistic attitudes that she claims reduce women to mere objects, vessels that are only as good as their ability to carry babies.
Valenti’s prose is indignant as she highlights cases in which women are treated as second class citizens because they’d had sex. She cites one case in which a woman tried to get a “morning after” pill when her boyfriend’s condom broke and was subjected to the third degree by the medical establishment. The woman ended up getting pregnant and had an abortion.
Valenti writes of another woman who was attempting a home birth and went to a hospital for fluids. When the hospital staff saw that she had a scar from a c-section, they told her she couldn’t leave the hospital to give birth at home. When the woman snuck out of the hospital anyway, a police officer was dispatched to her house. He shackled her and brought her back to the hospital against her will, where she was forced to submit to another c-section. The woman sued, but lost. Apparently, according to state law, the fetus’s rights trumped her own.
Valenti discusses purity balls and “daddy/daughter dates”. Purity balls are father/daughter dances in which young women “pledge” their virginity to their fathers, promising to wait until marriage to have sex. Daddy/daughter dates supposedly show young women that they can be loved by a man, yet not engage in sexual activity. Valenti seems to think that both concepts are creepy and, I have to admit, on some level I agree with her. Even though these events are supposed to discourage girls from having sex too soon, there’s something about them that strikes me as innappropriate and vaguely incestuous.
Valenti also writes a great deal about how difficult it is nowadays to get an abortion and how so many of the laws regarding abortion were created by men. Indeed, Valenti seems pretty damned angry at men, whom she seems to think still subjugate and oppress women. She jeers at the sex education offered in schools today, which focuses only on abstinence and, by the way she describes it, serves to keep young people in the dark about how they can have healthy sex lives as teenagers.
I’ll be honest.
As someone who did wait a long time to have sex, I have a hard time swallowing Valenti’s assertions that teenagers should be having “healthy” sex lives. I don’t feel this way because I’m religious. I feel this way because I think it’s impractical for teenagers to have sex. Sex complicates relationships and, let’s face it, can cause problems on a variety of levels from health-related to legal. However, I also understand that many young people are going to have sex regardless and I agree with Valenti that a person’s decision to have sex should not define their goodness or moral status.
Like Valenti, I bristle whenever I read a news story about women who get in legal trouble because of something they did while they were pregnant. Valenti cites one memorable case from 2004 in which a Utah woman was charged with murder because she refused to have a c-section and one of her twins died. While I think it’s sensible for pregnant women to follow competent medical advice, I also think pregnant women are starting to become a special class of people in which others feel it’s perfectly okay to protect them from themselves, all because they’re nurturing another life inside their bodies. It seems the rights of pregnant women are starting to slide down a slippery slope, as some legislation is drafted to protect the rights of unborn children over the rights of their mothers.
I agree with a lot of what Valenti writes… so why does this book rub me the wrong way?
First off, I don’t think The Purity Myth is particularly well written. Valenti’s prose reads as if she’s standing in front of a crowd, angrily ranting about the oppression of women. She uses a lot of repetitive phrasing that I found a bit irksome after awhile. She also uses a lot of distracting footnotes and endnotes. The footnotes mostly consist of secondary comments that she could have either omitted or included within the paragraphs. The print is double-spaced, which may make it easier for some people to read, but also serves to pad the book a bit.
Secondly, while I agree that sometimes women still get the short end of the stick, I also think that life can be just as unfair for men. I don’t really like the very angry ranting tone of The Purity Myth because I don’t think it really strengthens Valenti’s case. While I can see and agree with Valenti’s points regarding the rights of pregnant women, I have also witnessed firsthand how men’s rights are often trampled on once those kids are born.
Valenti writes a lot about rape and how many people (women included) think that rape victims somehow “ask” to be raped. But she also seems to imply that most men subscribe to the attitude that women ask for rape. I have known a lot of males who take a rather piggish view toward women, especially regarding rape. However, I’ve also known a lot of wonderful, sensitive males who don’t take that attitude. I don’t like to see an entire gender get painted with the same broad brush.
Finally, while I agree that there’s nothing “dirty” about sex and it shouldn’t be a shameful act, I truly believe that teenagers are better off if they don’t have sex and it shouldn’t be encouraged. Valenti refers to her graduate school years a lot when she makes her points. With that in mind, I will refer to my graduate school years, when I worked with pregnant teenagers and teenaged mothers. While most of the young women I worked with loved their babies, they also had a tough time finishing their adolescence as they took care of their children.
I agree with some of Valenti’s points about women’s rights, particularly when it comes to reproduction. But I don’t like her excessively angry tone and I don’t agree that America is obsessed with virginity. In fact, given my personal experiences growing up in America, I’m inclined to think that just the opposite is true. Moreover, I don’t think virginity hurts young women. If a young woman can have casual sex outside of marriage or a serious relationship and avoid the baggage that can come with it, more power to her. But I have seen with my own eyes how casual sex can be complicated and make life difficult. And I managed to live just fine without sexual intercourse for a good portion of my life. For me, the best part about waiting is the fact that my husband truly is the best lover I’ve ever had.
I think The Purity Myth is worthy reading for those who are interested in women’s studies and sexual politics. I have no doubt that a lot of women will agree wholeheartedly with Valenti’s viewpoint. I just don’t happen to be among that group of women. I guess I’m just not as liberal as I thought I was.
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