Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On The Purity Myth

Jessica Valenti has written an interesting book on the American abstinence movement with its Purity Balls on one side and the Girls Gone Wild popular culture on the other hand. I participated in a TPM Cafe Bookclub discussion on the book, but I didn't contribute very much, partly because of still having a bit of a flu and partly because of realizing that I wanted to take the topic international and that wasn't the drift of the conversation at the Cafe.

The Purity Myth is alive in the United States and its supporters certainly grew in power during the Bush era. But the consequences of 'sexual impurity' are much more devastating for women in many other cultures. The merest suspicion of 'sexual impurity' can be a death sentence for women in some cultures and the value of young women is very much connected to their virginity. Virginity is needed for making an acceptable marriage (which may be the only feasible way for a woman to survive), chastity is needed for keeping that marriage. But note that the same requirements don't apply to men anywhere as rigorously. If anything, men are encouraged to pursue 'sexual impurity'(nudge-nudge).

That's the traditional way the game has been set up, in my humble (well not so very humble) opinion. This does NOT mean that (heterosexual) women don't want sex or that all (heterosexual) men are trying to get through those walls of virginity. What it does mean is that the consequences from premarital or extra-marital sex are very different for men and women in traditional cultures. It is mostly the women who get punished. And that's where the roots of the U.S. Purity Myth are found, too.

But western industrialized societies also have a totally different myth about sex, having to do with images of sex from popular culture and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Playboy magazines and now the Internet porn sites. I'm not sure what this myth should be called, but I'm pretty sure it's a myth, with certain expectations about 'appropriate' forms of sex for women and men, and much of it is focused on male desire and male pleasure. It's between these two myths that I see young teenage girls suspended by the culture, as if they'd have to choose between them and them only.

All this comes across as written by an anti-sex feminist, which I'm not. I'd like those young teenage girls to find their own sexuality, in a society which doesn't tell them that they have to save themselves for marriage or to give blowjobs at the age of thirteen in order to be a good person. Indeed, Jessica's book very much stresses the importance of viewing women's ethical standing on the basis of their whole lives rather than linked to their virginity or chastity.