The Purity Myth: An Introduction


Last year when I read Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth for the first time, it was an eye-opening experience. It was an integral part of my feminist “awakening,” I guess you could say.  

It seemed only appropriate to revisit the book a year and one boyfriend later, to re-examine how my views on the concept of purity and womanhood have changed and developed.


There’s a famous quote from Shirley Chisholm that gets passed around in feminist circles a lot: “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl.'”


There are certain expectations, certain qualifications, certain ways of being, that are so integrated and so deep down that many women do not even realize they are there. It is often the role of feminists to highlight those ways in which we engage in our own oppression, and that is the role Valenti’s book played for me. I’d had glimmers of the double standard, but it wasn’t until I saw it laid out before me and realized that I had lived a large part of it that I actually thought about it with any real depth.


What is the “purity myth”?


Put simply, it is the idea that a woman’s worth is somehow inherently and inextricably tied to her body, and quite specifically, her sexual activity. That being a good person, for women, depends on whether or not their legs are open or closed.


This is a huge thesis to challenge within the church. I recognize that some of my readers are going to be upset about this topic, but it’s time it was addressed in more detail than I’ve given it previously, especially as this concept of sexuality has informed so much of my feminist writings and opinions. So, today, I’m offering some preemptive clarification:


This is NOT what I’m saying: I am not saying that the church has no role to play in sexuality. I am not saying that those who save sex for marriage are somehow evil or wrong or oppressive. And I am not telling women to go out and have sex all over the place.


Here is what I am saying: There is a problem with the double standard in how we have portrayed sexual activity and maturity in the church between men and women. This problem centers on the linking of whether or not someone is “good” to how far they have gone sexually, regardless of other overriding qualifications or motivations (the ethic of passivity mentioned yesterday). I will be using this space to explore the problems associated with tying (particularly female) ethical judgment solely to sexual activity, and the role the church has played in reinforcing the double standard.


So I’ll open up the discussion space now: What were you guys taught about virginity growing up? Has that changed as you've grown older?