book reviews

Repost: Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women…

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.

Overall

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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condescending twatbags

Overbearing people are hard to bear…

Yesterday, I was on RfM and noticed that someone had bumped up an old post of mine from 2011. It was a rant I posted about “overly helpful” people. In those days, I had frequent dealings with a woman I only knew online who rubbed me the wrong way on a regular basis. I knew her from a message board that is now defunct, but the drama followed me to Facebook. Finally, in 2014, I blocked her. That decision wasn’t without drama, either. I remember when I finally made the decision to banish her from my online world, I said to Bill, “You just wait. Sometime today, I’ll get an email from her.”

Sure enough, later that day I did get an email demanding to know why I had blocked her. I don’t know about you, but to me, when someone uses the block button on Facebook, it means they don’t want to talk to you or hear from you. As I recall, I ignored her message. In earlier times, I had patiently responded to her, even though she bugged the shit out of me. I had finally had enough of her passive aggressive digs and obnoxiously overbearing comments, and realized that responding to her would only prolong the pain.

I was kind of amused to read that thread, especially since I remembered how I was feeling that day in 2011. She had pushed me to my wit’s end. At that time, the message board we were on was still active and I hadn’t wanted to abandon it, because I liked most of the women there. We were also both admins on the board, so we kind of had to “work” together. A few sympathetic people commented. I noticed that the person who bumped that thread to 2020 had similar issues as mine, which was why the thread was reactivated. These were the behaviors I had observed from her that were making me nuts:

* Chiming in with a “more informed” opinion whenever I’d try to express an opinion.

* Usually having some kind of unsolicited “helpful advice” or “fake concern” for me.

* Playing “devil’s advocate” or presenting a contrary opinion to any given subject I raise.

* Was rarely just supportive, but instead seemed to feel the need to “one up” everybody else and be the “voice of reason”.

* Doesn’t seem to understand or care how condescending and annoying she is to others.

In 2012, that message board where I had regular dealings with that overbearing woman mercifully went kerfluey, and most everyone moved to Facebook. It wasn’t long before I needed to unfriend the woman who had irritated me so much. I just couldn’t take her shit anymore, especially since I tried very hard not to engage her. Fortunately, that wasn’t a big deal. She didn’t seem to notice that I’d unfriended her, probably because we had so many mutual friends. She did her thing. I did mine. It wasn’t until November 2014, when she went too far with her disrespect that I finally pushed the block button. She’s been blocked ever since, and I don’t miss her at all.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about people like that woman. Overbearing people… especially overbearing women… really and consistently grind my gears. I’m not sure why I react to them the way I do. It could be because some of my family members are overbearing, domineering, and disrespectful to me and treat me like I’m stupid when I know I’m not. It’s gotten to the point at which I can barely stand to be around them. So now, when someone is like that to me, I tend to react negatively. If the behavior doesn’t change very quickly, the negative reaction turns into outright contempt. I may be obnoxious and opinionated, but I try not to dictate to people what they should or should not be doing in their own lives, especially when whatever they’re doing doesn’t affect me personally. I don’t like overbearing behavior in men, either, but they seem to annoy me somewhat less than women do. I find controlling women very offensive.

This morning I was thinking of all of the women who have been in significant conflict with me over my lifetime and I’ve noticed that the vast majority of them were very controlling and dictatorial, and quite a few employ manipulative, passive aggressive methods to get others to do their bidding. When those ploys don’t work, they become openly hostile, aggressive, and rude. And… I tend to respond in kind, because I resent being told what to do by people who aren’t necessarily any more qualified than I am in knowing what to do.

Maybe I’m just as bad as they are, though. It’s no secret that I’m loud and opinionated, and my father used to criticize me a lot for being “arrogant” and “bitchy”. Personally, I don’t think I was that arrogant as much as I was strong-willed and independent. My dad was a control freak, and he passed that trait on to a couple of my sisters. As a child, I put up with it because I had to in order to survive. As an adult, to some extent, I don’t really have to put up with it anymore. But I have found that I now have an unusual sensitivity to it… and if a woman is particularly bossy or intrusive to me, it’s a fair bet we’ll eventually have a conflict. Most of the time, it’s not worth trying to work things out with this type of person, because they think they’re right and refuse to compromise.

I remember back in 2011, when I was having regular dealings with the woman who had prompted that thread on RfM, she was pushing me close to the end of my patience. After she’d left me a shaming, demeaning comment on some topic we were discussing, I wrote something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but whether or not you realize it, some of your responses to me are very offensive and condescending. It’s upsetting to me, and I feel like you’ve provoked me to respond in kind.”

The thing is, I had really thought about this response before I posted it. I tried hard to be assertive rather than aggressive. I wanted to enforce my boundaries without making things worse. I hoped she could see my side. But she was offended anyway, and didn’t see where she’d done anything wrong. Sure enough, I got a nasty private message in which she spat, “What was the point of apologizing if you were just going to insult me?!”

I remember taking a deep breath and trying, once again, to respond in a way that would not offend her, yet make her realize that I didn’t appreciate her condescending tone toward me. It didn’t work, and the bullshit continued apace for a few more years, with her continuing to feel free to send me private messages and unsolicited emails. The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever inviting her to correspond with me in such a way. She simply felt emboldened to do so.

Finally, about three years later, we reached the straw that broke the camel’s back. She’d left a nasty little passive aggressive dig in a Facebook comment to me. A mutual friend had posted about legalizing marijuana and asked her friends what we thought of it. The conversation was going well until I mentioned that Bill had lived with “pot head roommates” in college and hadn’t liked the way marijuana had affected them. He doesn’t like smoke, and as someone who works with the government, he’s not allowed to use recreational drugs, anyway.

So the passive aggressive bitch writes, “He’s never lived with alcoholics? 😉 😉 “

It’s possible that her comment was completely innocuous, but usually winking smilies imply a hidden meaning… and I had a feeling she was, once again, subtly insulting me, while trying to appear friendly and innocent. And truthfully, by that point, I had become very sensitive to her communications. Like… it was at the point that almost anything she posted irritated me, no matter how inconsequential. But I got the impression that my “frenemy” was trying to imply that Bill is currently married to an alcoholic, and that’s worse than dealing with potheads.

You see, it’s not a secret that I come from a long line of drunks. I drink, too. Maybe I’m even an alcoholic by some people’s standards. However, I have never met this woman in person and we have certainly never hung out over alcoholic drinks. Maybe my personality is because I drink. Maybe it’s simply the way I am. I don’t see how she’d know, since we never met offline. She seemed to be making an assumption or even a declaration that I have a drinking problem, even though we’ve not met and she’s not a mental health professional.

This wasn’t the first time she’d commented on my drinking habits– alcoholic or not. For some reason, she was unusually concerned about what I drink, even when the beverages weren’t boozy. This same woman often used to lecture me because I used to drink a lot of Diet Pepsi. She said that wasn’t healthy, and would frequently offer me an unsolicited laundry list of why it wasn’t something I should be doing. She’s right that diet sodas are bad for one’s health. I have since given up diet sodas, though not because of her “advice”… and I actually rarely drink non-diet sodas now. I mostly stick to bubbly water, if anyone’s curious. But yes, I do enjoy alcohol, and I admit it. Seems like that’s my business and Bill’s, unless I do something that affects other people negatively.

In any case, I’m certain that she knew her comment was shitty, demeaning, and insulting. It might have been one thing if we were friends and she was legitimately concerned. We weren’t really friends, and she was being rude, yet cowardly, as she was trying not to appear like she was insulting me. I didn’t appreciate it, and decided it was finally time for me to drop kick her off my social media once and for all. Even if she hadn’t meant it as a dig, that’s still the way it came across, and I was so tired of fielding those kinds of comments from her. And then predictably sending me an email demanding to know why I’d blocked her– as if that was some kind of serious affront because, according to her, she never does anything wrong— pretty much made me decide that we don’t need to speak again. I might have reacted differently if her approach had been more respectful, but demanding to know why she’s not allowed to harass me in my space is not cool. Taken alone, that comment was easy to ignore. Taken with all of her other little barbs and subtle insults over the years, it was just too much.

The funny thing is, that happened about five years ago, and I have found that I have even less patience and tolerance for overbearing women. I just feel like I don’t have to take orders from people to whom I am not somehow beholden. In other words, if you’re not paying me to work, someone I live with or love, or someone who has the power to arrest me or do something else life altering, I don’t have to do what you tell me to do. I don’t have to accept abusive criticism, insults, or covert hostility. And if you feel entitled enough to issue orders, act holier-than-thou, be hostile, or otherwise act like a passive aggressive creep, you can just fuck right off. Life is too short to deal with people who can’t be straightforward and civilized.

Anyway… I rarely think about her anymore, which is a good thing. I just thought it was funny that thread from 2011 was revived and so many people seemed to relate to it in 2020. I’m surprised it didn’t get more attention when it was a current concern. Clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

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