Elevate Difference

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women

Let me begin this review by professing my support for Jessica Valenti's overarching purpose in The Purity Myth: to expose the trope of sexual purity as deeply entrenched in American culture and to demonstrate the harmfulness of this trope on young American women. I agree with her assessment of the state and nature of "purity" (indeed, race theorists and sexuality theorists have long since questioned the value of the concept of purity), and I applaud her commitment to the social, psychological, sexual, and ethical flourishing of young women.

It disappoints me to be disappointed in this book. The Purity Myth is best suited to affirm the beliefs of someone already in agreement with Valenti's main points and is unlikely to have much effect on someone who is either on the fence or who might require sound arguments, solid reasoning, and logical coherence to appreciate the efforts made in this book.

Valenti's prose sparkles in her blog writing. She is witty and humorous. Though in this book it is unclear precisely what point her humor is meant to make. Is it meant to make palatable an insidious social problem that, without humor, might be ignored because of its crushing ubiquity? Perhaps. Her pot shots at previous boyfriends, her droll tales of her own sexual experiences, and her unsubtle eye-rolling when discussing other people's research all have the effect of obscuring and dulling her otherwise sharp observations and assessments.

Worse, when Valenti discusses the research done on young women's sexual habits, she unproblematically scoffs at those who report that women who engage in sexual activities at younger ages report higher incidence of depression. Perhaps she criticizes these studies because they don't differentiate between women who were molested or assaulted at young ages (who might be expected to report depression); women who consented to sexual activities believing that the 'magic' of sex would solve their other insecurities and uncertainties (who might also be expected to report depression); and healthy, happy, well-adjusted women who freely consented to sex with a reasonable expectation of what sex is and what sex is not (who might not be expected to report depression). Unfortunately Valenti doesn't make this clear, and she runs the risk of implying that reports of depression linked to early sexual activity are fabrications of the pro-purity faction, which effectually undermines women's reports of depression and makes women who do report depression related to their sexual experiences into the dupes of the pro-purity movement. Further, had she discussed this research in greater depth, she could have convincingly argued that the authors she critiques help to support one of her own points: women report depression not because of sex itself, but because of past sexual trauma or the accumulated moral meanings sex has taken on in our purity-obsessed culture.

One of the reviewers of this book delighted in Valenti's "wit" and "sass," which helped to convince the reviewer that feminism isn't boring. One of her best-stated, most concise points appears in a footnote: "a young woman's decision to have sex, or not, shouldn't impact how she's seen as a moral actor." If such strong statements as this one were not swaddled in pages of "sass," this would be a book that could support future academic endeavors as well as popular movements and conversations in order to undermine the myth of purity. As it stands, The Purity Myth is a comfortable affirmation for feminists who already know that feminism is not boring.

Written by: kristina grob, May 1st 2009

I find Valenti's logic in this one flawed (though I don't like her other work either). We can't let purity hold us back so go forth and sleep around, oh ye young women? Please. Most women I know who became feminists - radical ones, unlike Valenti's palatable mainstream version - had bad sexual experiences early in life (consensual or otherwise) and realized there was something in that. They didn't think, "Aw hell no, everybody go get busy as a means to empowerment!" It's one thing to disagree with our culture's attitudes about purity (I certainly wouldn't call it an "obsession," though I don't run in the same white liberal circles as women like Valenti who seem themselves so fixated on purity balls, which most of America never even hears about); it's another to keep writing books about non-topics.

It feels like all of her books (and her work in general) focuses on her own personal revenge against the big bad world that has hurt her so terribly. I'd have sympathy for that if she brought new thought, original analysis, even respect for others, to the table. As it is now, I'll be glad when her time in the spotlight is over and issues that critically affect women will start to take precedence in the media.

I share your disappointment in being disappointed. Honestly, that's how I feel about all of Valenti's books. Good ideas but severely underdeveloped. I wonder if they make any sense to readers who are not familiar with feminist lingo. For example, the "Yes Means Yes" anthology attempts to come up with solutions for eputting an end to "rape culture" without ever explaining what "rape culture " is.