Why Is America So Obsessed with Virginity?

As a concept, virginity is more dangerous than not, because it puts us into these virgin or not categories, which doesn't really give us a very nuanced perspective or understanding of sexuality.
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Think you know the meaning of virginity? You'll be surprised to find out what Jessica Valenti discovered. In her new book The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, the founder and executive editor of Feministing.com takes on the virginity movement, and argues that it's high time we disassociate female morality and sexuality. Recently, I sat down with Valenti to discuss the book, the myths, and what's going on at those Purity Balls.

So, what is the purity myth?

The purity myth is the lie that virginity or sexual abstinence has some bearing on who we are as people, as good people, women in particular. More specifically, what the book talks about is how that lie and how that myth is really a driving force in a lot of the conservative moves to regress women's rights and to reinforce traditional gender roles. So, how they're using this myth of sexual purity, this fear of young women's sexuality, to promote their agenda for women.

You argue in the book that America is obsessed with virginity, female virginity specifically, and that there is, in fact, an entire movement fuelling this obsession. How exactly do you define the "virginity movement?"

The virginity movement, specifically, is a group of--and they certainly don't call themselves the virginity movement--conservatives, anti-feminist organizations, legislators, all with this really specific agenda in mind for women that's definitely regressive, definitely old school, definitely traditional. But instead of using the normal ways of pushing their agenda they're really focusing on young women's sexuality as not only a scare tactic but as a salacious way to get their point across.

One of the more fascinating things that's revealed in your book is that there is actually no official medical definition of "virginity."

Right. Isn't that crazy!

How, then, is virginity defined by those who are working so hard to defend the so-called purity of girls and women?

The virginity movement uses the definition of virginity that's the most culturally accepted one--heterosexual intercourse. And I think that limited definition of virginity is probably why so many virginity pledgers have oral and anal sex, because they don't necessarily see it as infringing on their virginity.

So young people are engaging in sexual activity, and considering themselves still virgins because they say "If I have oral sex I can still be a virgin..."

Right. And that's what I found really interesting when I interviewed Hanne Blank who wrote Virgin: The Untouched History, which is this amazing history of virginity. The reason she started to look into the definition of virginity was because she was answering young people's questions on this website she ran, and a lot of the questions were, "Am I still a virgin? I did such and such." And she was like, "I don't know? Do you want to be?" She told all these really interesting stories of how young people will--I think she calls them Process Oriented Virgins--make excuses, like "Oh, yeah, I had sexual intercourse, but that's not really when I lost my virginity. I really lost my virginity when I did this." Or "I really lost my virginity when I had an orgasm." Everyone has different definitions for it.

In some ways, virginity, as it's defined by the virginity movement--

It's completely irrelevant.

And, if purity equals virginity then virginity is a myth, as well.

Right. Oh, I definitely think that virginity is a myth. I think that virginity is a huge lie. Having your first sexual encounter certainly is important, and I don't mean to demean anyone's understanding of their sexuality or how they want to think of themselves in that way. And I think that can be a really powerful experience and a wonderful first thing. But, as a concept it's more dangerous than not, because it puts us into these virgin or not virgin categories, which doesn't really give us a very nuanced perspective or understanding of sexuality.

Speaking of danger, what are the things that abstinence only educators are actually teaching young children, particularly girls, and how are they dangerous?

Oh, there are so many! I don't think it's any secret that most abstinence only education is medically inaccurate. They lie about contraception in terms of its failure rate; one class was taught that condoms cause cancer. What ends up happening for a lot of these kids is that they've been taught that birth control is ineffective or birth control is dangerous so they don't use it.

Outside of the medical and health dangers there's also a social message being taught in abstinence only education, which is that boys want sex and they'll do anything to get it and girls own sex and have to keep it. It's up to young women to be the gatekeepers of sexuality. There's a lot of talk about dressing a certain way, you control what men think of you. It's this very disturbing message that somehow young women have control over male sexuality, and that you shouldn't get a guy too excited. Which, of course lends itself to all sorts of victim blaming and sexual assault situations and things like that. So, that's also very dangerous.

Recently teen mother Bristol Palin was asked about using contraception and she said, "Everyone should be abstinent...but it's not realistic at all." Do abstinence only supporters and educators actually think what they're doing works? Or is there something more to it?

I think there are a lot of folks who believe that it truly works, because they have these kids and they're pledging their virginity. You know, not understanding that, of course, if you get a 14 year old in front of their community members and church members and parents they're going to pledge their virginity. It's not like they're going to say no. So, yeah, I think [they think] they're being effective. But, they aren't honest about their larger agenda--that this isn't about keeping kids healthy, this isn't about teaching young people to make good choices sexually and morally. It's about reinforcing traditional gender roles in a really, really specific, rigid way. It's about relaying specific messages about sexuality and what's appropriate. And, of course, that's being straight and married and having kids.

The people behind the virginity movement go to great lengths to connect purity with abstinence, one of the more shocking examples are Purity Balls - which, you note, are federally funded. What are Purity Balls and why are we paying for them?

[Laughs] Purity Balls. I could talk about Purity Balls all day. Purity Balls are essentially daddy-daughter dances where young girls at some point in the evening will pledge their virginity to their fathers, and their fathers, in turn, will pledge to be the caretakers of said virginity. If you can watch a video it's very, very disturbing. The language they use is mired in ownership and these really old school, antiquated norms about daddies owning their daughters. There's one video where the fathers give the daughters a necklace--it's a lock and a key. She keeps the lock and he keeps the key until the day she gets married and he gives the key/penis to her future husband. Very, very disturbing.

[Purity Balls are] put on by crisis pregnancy centers, which are federally funded through abstinence only education money. What's really interesting about them is when people started to complain, "Where are the mother-son purity balls?" and people started to call them out on their patriarchal bullshit, if you will, they create something called Integrity Balls. Integrity Balls are mother-son dances, but instead of the son pledging his virginity to his mother and his mother pledging to protect his virginity until he gets married, the language is, "I vow to be abstinent because I don't want to do that to someone's future wife or someone's current daughter." It's still framed in this language of women-as-property.

Is this rooted in religion?

Purity Balls are definitely rooted in Christianity and Evangelical stuff, absolutely. But, I don't think it's necessarily relegated to one religion. A lot of folks are having the purity balls. More broadly, the idea of virginity and women's morality being tied up with virginity, young women being good when they're virgins, that's certainly not just a religious thing. It's a pretty culture-wide thing, I believe.

How does feminism factor into the virginity movement?

The most interesting thing to me about the virginity movement and what reveals their true agenda--that it's not just about helping women--is the fact that they're so antifeminist, and the fact that a lot of the books that are written about this, a lot of the speakers, either have ties to antifeminist organizations, like Independent Women's Forum or Concerned Women for America, or straight up blame feminism for the woes of young women today. They're very direct in saying that they think feminism is the problem, which I think is really telling--what does it say about their movement that they think that women's equality is a problem for women?

Admittedly, I never identified as a "feminist" in my teens and early 20s, and as recently as last weekend heard a close female friend, who's 30, insist that she's not a feminist. What would you say to young women and girls who are reluctant to identify as feminist, especially those who are strong, independent, self-determined individuals? What is it about feminism, or the notion of feminism, that turns them off?

There are a couple of things. There are a lot of folks out there that don't identify as feminists because of more political reasons. A lot of women of color don't identify as feminists because of the racist history of the movement. I get that. But overwhelmingly what you see are a lot of women, especially young women, who have feminist ideals, who believe in feminist issues, who don't call themselves feminist because they're afraid of being called a man-hater or they're afraid of being called ugly--whatever bizarre antifeminist stereotype they believe. Or, they're afraid of being questioned. This is [true] for much younger women I've spoken to who are like, "I don't really know all that much about feminism and I don't want someone to be like, what is it about?" Young women already feel apprehensive in terms of talking about politics, and stuff like that, so [there's a] fear of being called out.

What I find really interesting about it is, once I do talk to younger women about feminism, and once you debunk those antifeminist myths and make clear that not only are these myths untrue but they exist for a reason, that they're really strategic, then they're like, "Oh. Yeah. That's true." So I think that it doesn't take much.

To get more young women, or women in general, on board...

Exactly. And the truth is there are a ton of young women out there who are doing feminist work who don't identify as feminists. And that's okay with me, too. You don't need to call yourself a feminist in order to be doing great feminist work. People often ask me that: Well don't you think it's important that they call themselves feminists? Not for me it's not. For them, though, there's a real benefit in calling yourself a feminist because you have access to this community and this support system that you may not know is there. So that's why I really try to encourage young women to not only keep believing in those feminist values, keep fighting for them, but also to identify as feminist for their own sake, and for their own well-being.

You write a lot about pornography in the book - how does pornography relate to the myth of purity?

Oh, God. So much. Mainstream pornography is very much tied up in the virgin-whore thing. They have virgin porn, they have barely-legal porn. This idea that the sexiest women are not women, they're girls. Then, of course, there's the whore porn where you have to do the most dirty, disgusting horrible things to someone. Porn plays into this dichotomous, binary vision of sexuality, that girls are either innocent and need to be taken advantage of, or they're whores who just want...I was going to say something disgusting but I won't. But, of course, as I say in the book, there's a lot of great feminist porn out there.

Yeah, you argue that there is a progressive approach to pornography.

I do think that. It's difficult because feminist porn is really dwarfed by the mainstream pornography industry. It's difficult to be like, "Oh it's fine because there's feminist porn," when there are a couple of feminist porn makers and this huge, multi-billion dollar porn industry. But, the answer of the virginity movement and the conservative movement has been trying to put it away and hide it which has not been effective, and just makes things worse. Instead of doing that, why don't we talk to the women, few as they may be, who are making progressive pornography, who are looking at sexuality in a complex way. Why don't we look to them for answers, not just about sexuality, but about pornography. When we talk about pornography why aren't we talking to the people who are actually doing it right?

The purity movement has such a specific idea of what purity means--it's only white, female, heterosexual purity. Where do homosexuals and women of color fit into the picture?

Well, they are the impure ones. If some of us are pure and innocent, then the rest of us are dirty and bad. Certainly with women of color I'm not the first person to say this. It's not a new idea that they're so hypersexualized, that they're never considered the virgin, that they're never considered innocent. But I would argue that the same is true for queer women. They're queer--they're the "other" in that way. Any deviation from straight, vanilla, procreative sex is impure, dirty, wrong. That's why I even think masturbation is seen as impure--because it's not procreative, because it's purely for pleasure, it's bad. So lesbian sex, or gay male sex for that matter, is wrong, impure, dirty, bad. Which not only says terrible things about their homophobia and heteronormativity, but also says terrible things about what they think about sexual pleasure and its place in the world.

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