RH Reality Check Interviews: Jessica Valenti, Author of The Purity Myth

Jessica Valenti is founder and Editor-In-Chief of the popular blog
feministing.com.  She has gone on to gain further public and media
attention through her books, Full Frontal Feminism, He’s a Stud, She’s
a Slut
, and, just published in April 2009, The Purity Myth: How
America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
.  RH Reality
Check’s Laura Janoff talked with Jessica about her new book.

LJ: One of the central arguments
of your book is that the obsession with virginity is entrenched in all
of our lives.  What would you say to someone who contended that? 

JV: Unfortunately it’s not
as on the fringes as everyone would like to think. For example the purity
balls are being planned in almost every state, and they’re
federally funded so of course that affects all of us, as does abstinence
only education, although that’s waning a bit. Really the obsession
with virginity is not necessarily as explicit or as public as our pressure
on sexuality and the hypersexualization of women. I don’t
think that makes it any less dangerous.  When you look at all of
the anti-feminist and parent organizations that make up what I call
the virginity movement, they are well funded, strong organizations that
have a really specific agenda, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere.

LJ: When you say that the virginity
movement is afraid of women’s sexuality, what does that mean? What
would the world look like if it were unleashed? 

JV: I don’t know, but I’d
like live in that world, I’d like to be in that world.  I guess
what I mean is how the virginity movement uses this deeply imbedded
fear of a young women’s sexuality unleashed, and if you’re not protecting
it, if you’re not enforcing it, and if you’re not somehow
containing it, what will happen?  And of course the fear for young
women is that we’ll all grow crazy, slutty and promiscuous if there
aren’t very stringent laws.  Yeah, but I don’t know what that
world would look like, I think we’re so far from it it’s hard to

LJ: It almost sounds like it
would attack someone. 

JV: It might. I think what’s
damaging about having this fear is it’s not something that just hurts
women, although it does disproportionally hurt women, but it still affects
men as well, and it effects the way men think of masculinity. It affects
the way men think of themselves, it affects the way men think of themselves
in relation to women.  That’s why I included that quote from
the Primotologist where she said if women’s sexuality is muted in
contrast to men’s, then why do countries the world over have laws
that try to enforce it or destroy it? 

LJ: You wonder at the beginning
of the book what about having sex makes women dirty. Do you feel like
you found the answer? 

JV: I feel like I started to
find the answerIn so many different cultures and for
so many years women have been thought of as inherently dirty. 
Maybe that has to do with our anatomy or maybe it’s just misogyny,
or maybe a combination of both of those things and maybe a whole lot
more. I think that outside of the psychological fear men maybe have
of women’s bodies, I think the positioning of women’s sexuality
as dirty and wrong is a really great policing method.  It’s a
way to keep women in check.  It’s really smart of the church. 
Because it lets you have things like abstinence only and reproductive
rights laws.

LJ: You refer to fathers joking
around about locking up their daughters until they’re of age. 
Even very liberal parents seem to do this.  Why do you think that happens?

JV: I think that the purity
myth is so embedded in our culture and our psyches, it’s hard to escape
even for the most progressive people, the most progressive parents.
You don’t have to be forcing your daughter to take a virginity pledge
in order for the fiction of virginity to affect your life.

LJ: What do you think
you achieve from using your relatively colloquial tone?

JV: It’s certainly
not as colloquial as my last book. Writing in a really accessible way
has always really important to me in terms of my politics and in terms
of what feminism should be about. I think politics should be accessible
to people no matter their level of education or political engagement
for that matter. It wasn’t necessarily a deliberate choice; it’s
just the way I do it. 

LJ: In your footnotes you make
amusing asides, often cracking jokes about what you’re writing about. 
What made you think of this and why did you decide to do it? 

JV: I complete ripped that
off from Mary Roach who wrote Bonk as well as Stiff. Bonk
is a book about defiance behind sex and stuff like that. I just found
it incredibly hilarious and she had a thing where she would put her
asides in her footnotes. And of course I am a big fan of parentheticals
and asides, but I didn’t necessarily want it to interrupt the flow
of writing in the text. It seemed like it’d be a good strategy.

LJ:  It seemed like you
sequestered off women of color issues to a few pages at the end of each
section.  Why not devote a full chapter? 

JV: I’m anti the idea of
separating out women of color as if they’re different, or "here’s
the real story, and then I’ll have an aside on them," that kind
of freaks me out. 

LJ: But that’s kind of what
I feel like you were doing. 

JV: Oh really? Maybe it’s
because of the nature of what the virginity movement.  Three quarters
of what the virginity movement is is upholding this idea of what the
perfect virgin is.  What the perfect virgin is is a skinny white
heterosexual woman. And that’s where they center all that work. 
But that said I think that the women who are punished the most under
the purity myth are the women who are perceived as impure. And that’s
everyone else. My feeling is that the punishments are doled out disproportionately
to  women of color, low income women, immigrant women – 
they’re not painted as this perfect virgin therefore not worth of
discords or pedestals or anything like that.  Maybe that’s why
it’s seen that way, because of the way the virgin name has been tested
in their work. They don’t consider themselves centered on whiteness
but they certainly are.  I think for the virginity movement, after
a full education, your ideal of a virgin is white.  And this is
something that bell hooks and other authors have written a lot about,
about the idea of certain women’s bodies being inherently impure and
already damaged and un-virginal and inherently promiscuous.  So
I think that for the virginity movement the majority of those worth
saving are all white. 

LJ: What’s the deal with
the concept of the sexy school girl? 

JV: I realized after I’d
written the book that I should have written about barely legal porn
too. All that I think is related to fetishized virginity. It’s a way
to make it personally acceptable to find little girls sexually attractive. 

LJ: But why do people want
to find little girls sexually attractive? 

JV: Oh why do they want to?
Ooh.  God knows. I think though part of it is girls are not fully
formed, they’re easier to control, whereas grown women are more likely
to have their own opinions, and maybe less easy to control. I think
that ideal of girlishness, even if it’s not the reality of girlishness,
is very much innocent, impressionable, even meek maybe.  I think
it’s pretty much mired in misogyny. 

LJ: To throw one of your own
discussion questions back at you: what do you think it means to be a

JV: I don’t know that there’s
such a thing.  I mean not really. I mean I think if you ask me
what I think it means culturally to be a man, what it means to be a
man in US culture is just not to be a woman.  It’s just this
oppositional definition, which is really too bad.  But if you ask
me what do I personally believe what it means to be a man, my answer
is I don’t know, because it’s all the way we perceive it. It’s
the way we perceive it ourselves, and entrenched all of these stereotypes,
old gender roles that are hard to pull apart.

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  • invalid-0

    I was going to pass on commenting on this, but I can’t resist. Why are you calling 18 year-old young women “little girls”. Have you seen any 18 year-olds lately? It’s a small point really, but I find it a bit odd.

    Great topic BTW. As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough, now they have this crap to deal with.

  • invalid-0

    I think this author is looking at this subject through a distorted lense. She is so focused on misogny she believes that purity is all about the woman. Wrong. Purity has to be for both boys and girls, men and women. Otherwise, you are only putting the fire out at one end of the forest. It has to be for both sexes. Purity is to teach our kids that the opposite sex is not to be used like an object to satisfy our own lust but to be seen as a person that is to be loved and treated with respect. Purity is also about showing our kids that sex is more than good. It is more than great. It is holy and should be done within the bounds of marriage as an expression of love.

  • invalid-0

    I can’t speak for the author but I can give you my own opinion. IMO this purity movement is nothing more than a twist on the modern-day chastity belt, fear and guilt. It’s not legal to bind up your kids in contraptions anymore so you’re just relying on mental torture now. In Biblical times girls were getting married at 12 and 13 years old. Even in Romeo and Juliet, written in the 1500s, Juliet’s mother considered her nearly an old maid at 13 going on 14. Consider that young people are reaching maturity much earlier now than they did even a couple hundred years ago just because of nutritional advances. It wasn’t a huge sacrifice to abstain from sex until marriage in Biblical days. Now, the average age of first marriage is about 27 years old! The ideal of sex within marriage was in a different time and place, long ago. To expect young people to be bound to this 2,000+ year-old culture just isn’t fair to them. I once knew a 27 year old guy who got married just so he could have sex. He was truly tortured over this. So much so that he entered into a marriage with someone he hardly knew – just so he could be true to this absurd ideal.

  • invalid-0

    I purchased “The Purity Myth” as soon as it was available from The Progressive Book Club, interrupted my reading of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to read it instead. I wasn’t disappointed.

    However, in this interview, the bit about “barely legal porn” at the end is confusing. It seems oxymoronic; if it’s porn, then virginity would seem to be mutually exclusive from it.

    In the book, Ms. Valenti writes that “Women’s sexuality and desire are natural, and we need to frame these concepts as morally sound if we want to free our daughters from the confines imposed upon them now.” Am I wrong in thinking that she is being a bit hypocritical, that she is wanting to confine the expression, and appreciation of, young women’s sexuality? For instance, does she want to raise the age of consent for the models on Suicide Girls to 21?

    I don’t think that men want to see young models because of some Lolita-ish fetishism: I think the same aestheticism that attracts us to fresh flowers and bright colors, rather than wilted flowers and shades of grey, is at play. At any rate, I also don’t think that the men who purchase “Barely Legal” magazine necessarily want the models therein to be virginal. In fact, they probably want to believe that they’re experienced.

    Thanks for posting this interview. I consider myself a fan of Ms. Valenti, even if I do have this minor disagreement.

  • invalid-0

    Free our daughters, confine the men! Yes, I think the “progressives” still have some work to do on this.

  • invalid-0

    First Chastity belts were not for kids. They were used by men to put on their wives to try and make sure they didn’t cheat on them while they were gone for long periods of time.

    Second, I think you’re looking at history through 21st century eyes. People back in the 11th, 12th, or even the 1st centuries were not bombarded by sexual images through TV and other outlets. Sure, people still liked sex but it was not the “be all, end all” that today’s society has made it into. This obsession is hurting our nation and our children. Our children are having babies of their own at age 12!

    Sex within marriage has worked before and it can work in this day and age too. It worked just a mere 100 years ago or less. Why is today different? We have to ignore the lie that we should give into our most lustful desires and have as much sex as we can with whoever we can.

  • invalid-0

    People today are NOT consumed by sex. We are NOT obsessed with sex. We all have lives of which sex is a part of. Stop letting your imagination run wild. You’re the one who is obsessed with curtailing the sex lives of other people. You might try minding your own business. Yes, there are a few girls out there having babies at 12. This has been going on since the dawn of humanity. Mary was likely 13 when she gave birth to Jesus. This was commonplace and, in fact, normal in her time. Just because some girls are having babies at 12 doesn’t mean we live in any more of a depraved state than in the past. I think the whole “sex within marriage has worked before” is just a lot of bunk. You might be surprised to learn that 60% of the babies born to Puritan women were conceived out-of-wedlock. There were a lot of shotgun weddings back then too. Why do you think men were fitting their wives with chastity belts in the good old days? And exactly who is proposing having “as much sex as we can with whoever we can?” I’ve not seen that proposed anywhere on this website. There are real lies and misinformation within the “Purity” movement. They’re not helping our young people, they’re hurting them.

  • invalid-0

    Exactly. Chastity Belts were used on WOMEN by their HUSBANDS. At the time these were used, men walked around cheating on their wives all the time, and it was a norm. The church even backed this sort of thing up, as a way of preserving male virility and repressing female sexuality. The church even told married women that sex was bad, and that they should refrain from engaging in sex with their own husbands.

    What you may consider to be a “better, more moral” time period was actually a time period which embraced double standards, misogyny, and the like, in a society slanted toward male privelege and female subordination.

    Besides, many cultural factors regarding sex up to this point have been swayed in favor of granting men sexual pleasure, while keeping women in the mindset of “don’t enjoy it, just have the babies and don’t complain.”

  • misledyouth

    Not just America, I believe that in every nation, there is someone guilty of the obsession with virginity that hurts young women. Child pornography and internet porn addiction fuels it bigtime. :(