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Sex

The cult of virginity

“Purity pushers” and the dangers of the new chastity movement

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Want to challenge the myth of sexual purity? Don’t pledge your virginity to your father.
Illustration: Danny Hellman
Lynn Comella

Thousands of father-and-daughter “purity balls” are held across the country every year, and they go roughly like this: In elaborate ceremonies, young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers, who, in turn, vow to honor and protect their daughters’ innocence until their wedding day. The fathers don tuxes, the girls wear ball gowns and together they glide lovingly across the dancefloor, arm in arm, in a kind of ritualized chastity waltz that resembles a very creepy—not to mention age-inappropriate—prom date.

Jessica Valenti, feminist blogger and author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity is Hurting Young Women, argues that purity balls are part of a much larger “virginity movement” that’s breathing new life into a very old idea: The moral worth of women is contingent upon what we do sexually.

Yep, the virgin/whore dichotomy is not only alive and well, but, according to Valenti, it’s being mobilized by evangelical Christians, right-wing politicians and conservative policy-makers, who are advocating a return to traditional ideas about purity and old-fashioned gender roles that resemble an archaic Leave It to Beaver past. (Or, in other words, a less-complicated time when those darn feminists weren’t confusing everybody with their gibberish about equality.)

Valenti’s book was recently made into a must-see movie by the Media Education Foundation, and the film brings “purity pushers,” as Valenti calls them, and their well-orchestrated campaign of disinformation, into sharp and disturbing relief.

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The Purity Myth
Watch the documentary The Purity Myth online at mediaed.org.

The “virginity movement” is like an octopus with many moving parts. There’s abstinence-only education in schools, T-shirts that say “Pet your dog not your date,” purity balls, rings and bracelets, and conservative social policy that restricts the availability of birth control in an effort to protect the sexual virtue of young people.

Pop culture isn’t innocent, either. There’s the celebration of “virgin celebrities” like Miley Cyrus and Jessica Simpson, the latter of whom is regarded as a role model for young girls not because of her brains—“Is it chicken? Is it tuna? Who cares? I’m pretty!”—but because of her vow to remain a virgin until marriage.

Collectively, these purity parts form a formidable whole and construct a powerful cultural message that tells young women that what they do in bed, including when and with whom, is the sum total of who they are.

This, it’s fair to say, is bullsh*t.

Girls’ ability to be good people, Valenti argues, should be based on much more than whether or not they are having sex. Boys, for example, are taught that valor, honesty and integrity make them good men. And when they do have sex, they are never called “slut”; they are called “dude” and are invited to fist-bump other manly dudes. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to cross their legs and never come home pregnant. The stakes for young women when it comes to sex are high, and the sexual double standard is impossible to ignore.

Since 1996, nearly half a billion dollars has gone to fund abstinence education, yet recent research shows that 80 percent of federally funded abstinence-education programs contain false information about sex and health, including stunning tidbits like these: Masturbation is selfish; there is nothing called safe sex; birth control can make you sterile. Sex, in other words, is not only dangerous—it can kill you.

Moreover, there’s increasing evidence to suggest that abstinence programs simply do not work. In fact, research shows that teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are actually more prone to engage in risky sexual behavior—unprotected anal sex, for example—that leaves them susceptible to sexually transmitted infections.

“I’m concerned about sex education and what’s going on in our classrooms,” Valenti tells me. “Abstinence education is a hard thing to undo. We have a generation of young people who have learned incorrect information in schools and who have been lied to. We have young adults who don’t have any idea about how to use contraception or how it works. We can take abstinence out of schools, but what do we do with those people who’ve already had it?”

One thing we can do is to make sure that good human sexuality classes exist at colleges and community centers. Another is to support sexuality education websites, like Scarleteen.com, that cater specifically to young people and provide comprehensive and accurate information about a range of sexual issues.

But we can also work to smash the purity myth and challenge the idea that there are virtuous women who deserve our support and empathy and non-virtuous women who deserve what they get, especially when it comes to sexual assault and rape.

“I think young women—women of all ages, actually—are figuring out how to negotiate this dichotomy,” says Valenti. And there are ways to push back against this insidious cult of virtue, she tells me. You can call out a slut joke when you hear one; and if you see a victim-blaming headline in the newspaper, you can write a letter to the editor.

And if you really want to challenge the myth of sexual purity, here’s an idea: Don’t pledge your virginity to your father; that’s just weird.

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