Friday, April 30, 2010

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

This book was honestly the first piece of feminist literature I have read. It didn't really tell me anything I didn't know, per se, but it did emphasize and coalesce thoughts and ideas in my mind.
The hypothesis of this book is that people (the book points at men, but realistically women are involved, too), for a myriad number of reasons, mostly religious, are obsessed with female virginity. Girls are seen as having this magical thing called virginity, which the author argues is technically undefinable, which must be "saved" for their husband. This idea creates a number of problems. Firstly, girls (and women) do not have ownership of their bodies, creating a situation where women will not become educated about health care, family planning choices or prevention of STDs. Secondly, girls who no longer have this magical virginity are seen as "damaged goods" or less worthy of pretty much everything (family, relationships, etc.). These rules generally only apply to "innocent looking white girls" as opposed to any "women of color". These ideas also create an odd relationship between women's value in society and their sexuality, which, when you think about it, is really strange. Why would what you do in the bedroom have anything to do with your job, or your life outside the bedroom? For some reason, however, sexuality is tied to morality. This book makes a lot of valid points, has sufficient footnotes (although not extensive) and is written to a younger generation. I wasn't totally thrilled with the way the book was written. Being an academic, I tend to like books that are well written and well cited. I am also a bit snobbish and like to read books by authors who should be an expert in their field. Valenti writes like a blogger, and I found the whole book to be written like one long blog post. Not bad, just different from my academic reading. I did, however, really like this subject matter. In case you are wondering, here is my opinion on the whole thing:

I grew up attending private school all the way through high school. I know where a lot of these ideas in this book are coming from. I saw them firsthand, saw them developing over time into something that is now marketed and paid for by our tax dollars. I started high school at this really tiny Conservative Christian high school in a town near to where I grew up. There were literally less than 30 kids in my freshman class. The people were nice enough and I quickly made friends with a girl called J. J was a little different, wore "grunge" clothes and has pierced ears and a streak of blonde in her dark hair. Although people liked her, she didn't really have many friends, definitely no girlfriends. She told me one afternoon that one of the teachers had molested her the year before, when she was in 8th grade. I'm not sure what exactly had happened, but when I got there, the teacher had been relieved of teaching duties and was transferred to the "administration office". As far as I know, he was never punished. Even then, I remember a attitude of "she wears weird clothes and does her hair weird so she must have deserved the molestation somehow". I don't remember being bothered by this attitude at the time, but I certainly am now.
At this same school, we had PE last period. All the girls changed in the bathroom and headed out to the soccer field. I remember some girls coming in late to change, having just met their boyfriends behind the dumpster for a quickie bj. This was shortly after signing the "purity contract" with their pastor and parents, swearing before Christ to stay a virgin until marriage. Needless to say, I did not sign said contract, and there was no pressure from my parents to sign it.
After I left the school, the married Algebra teacher got a 16 year old student pregnant. The last I heard, he had left his wife and had gotten an apartment for him and the 16 year old and the baby. I wonder how they are doing now?
After we all graduated (I switched to a new school in my sophomore year), I returned to a friend's house for a big graduation party, including all the people I had started high school with and some others who were a class above or a class below us. The girl's parents were out of town, so we all spent the night at her house and drank wine coolers and hung out. At some point in time, the girl who gave the party, G, was looking for her boyfriend, F. F was nowhere to be found, although he did turn up sometime later. He had taken another girl, A, back into the bushes behind the house for a little hanky-panky and had left her there. It turned out to be my job to help A on with her panties, as she was too drunk to get them on properly.
In high school health class, we were blatantly lied to about the effectiveness of birth control methods and how the pill works. And the teacher was supposedly a nurse!
I've also been on the receiving end of quite a bit of the virgin/whore dichotomy. I have a pretty outgoing personality, and I like to meet new people. I've been accused of being too flirtatious, of being slutty because I want to go dance on the dance floor, or being a whore because a lot of my friends are guys.
Most of these stories are harmless, silly things that happen in high school (and, arguably, beyond). The thing that concerns me the most is the hypocrisy. The telling people one thing and doing/living another. Hypocrisy is the number one reason I highly dislike organized religion, and would never subject my children to any of it's bs. I would rather be up front with my children about sex. About birth control, condoms, STDs, the whole thing. Be up front, educate yourself and then at some point, when your kid grows up, they have to take responsibility for themselves. And you have to trust that you gave them a good enough education that they will insist on using a condom, or getting yearly checkups, or advocating for women's health. I'd hope to raise responsible, socially aware kids than kids that are so ignorant they don't know if a blow job can get them pregnant (trust me, I've had this conversation....).
As a biologist, the thing that concerns me the most is the lack of education. The dirty lollipop or the dirty piece of tape, the idea that a girl (or woman) is "used" - the whole thing is ridiculous and disturbing. Along with the paternal ownership of a girl's body - the whole idea is just inane. And, call me silly, but I'd want my kids (or anyone else's kids, for that matter) to be equipped with as much education on subjects as possible, before they are faced with the decision to have sex or not have sex.
The upside? I've started reading more about this whole "feminism" thing. Turns out? I guess I am one :)
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