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too many f-words: teenage bodies and the purity myth

Posted by pocochina on January 16, 2010

So my last read of the few months away from my hectic school life has been The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti.  Her very strong thesis – that young women are harmed by the cultural script that values them for what they have (or, more appropriately, have not) done sexually – is backed up by a decent book.

I got the same feeling as I read The Purity Myth as I did reading FFF.  It’s not so much disagreement with JV’s arguments, or dissatisfaction with her scope of argument, but rather the feeling of a review study session with friends for an exam I’m ready for.  You know, it’s still fun to be with your friends, and it’s not like you wouldn’t be thinking about it anyway, but you’re not treading any particularly new ground.  And that’s fine.  I was aware that I wasn’t really the audience for FFF – a few years too old, and far too deep in feminist theory already – but I still enjoyed the brisk, breezy read.  I was a little bit surprised to find the same feeling happening in The Purity Myth.  It seems like a direct authorial choice to speak to young women instead of about them.  And I like that, I do, but I wonder if she’s not underestimating women whose feminism (whether it’s called that or not) is mature enough to be questioning the concept of virginity.  The importance of virginity in American gender roles lies deep, and it takes a lot of work to even get down there.

My main issue with the book, though, is that I feel like I read half of a very good argument.  By that I don’t mean that JV didn’t present and demolish any potential counterarguments.  There aren’t many counterarguments at all to her thesis, and certainly very few that I would consider valid.  She deftly addresses the arguments social reactionaries have made in favor of the purity myth, and gives them exactly the amount of respect they deserve (to wit:  none).

Her portrayal of young women who have sex is intelligent and respectful.  She stays away from the contemptible concept of “readiness,” which conflates the experience of PIV sex with intellectual or emotional maturity, and is in a lot of ways the flip side of the purity myth.  She’s very clear that the choice to have sex at any given time in one’s life is neither morally better nor morally worse than the choice not to have sex.  She also recognizes, commendably, that “kids will do it anyway” is not necessarily the most encouraging argument nor the best way to respect teenage agency.

She does, however, take the “kids will do it anyway” party line, which I think is a bit problematic.  Half of all teens will do it anyway.  That’s a lot if you think teenage sexuality is inherently bad, but about right if you think that teen sex is something that may or may not be appropriate, depending on the teen.  Yet the book is pitched, almost unwaveringly, to those teens who do.  I’d argue that compulsory chastity hurts just about all young women, no matter where they fall on the purity matrix, but in very different ways.

Because really?  Abstinence-only schmeducation doesn’t work if it’s appreciably different from what kids are getting at home, or from the wider culture.  But if your culture or family does back up the idea of chastity as virtue, sex as for marriage, and marriage as forever?  Abstinence only education is fucking terrifying.  And those lessons don’t magically evaporate once you learn that it’s all a lie, or start having sex, either.

The lack of attention for the long-term effects of enforced chastity indoctrination is a part of what I’m officially convinced isn’t just an unwanted side effect of necessary work focusing on young women, but a deep and scary vein of ageism running through JV’s work.  What the hell is that slap at “cheesy goddess feminism” (for which this specific author has previously received and acknowledged criticism)?  I’ll tell you what it is.  Ewwww, paganism, ewwww, Second Wave, ewwwww, old ladies.  God, they’re so embarrassing!  Nerds!  Hey, JV, you may plan on dropping dead at thirty-five, and far be it from me to question someone else’s priorities, and I really am glad you’ve had a good run of it and all, but that doesn’t exactly help the cause.

We feminists like to point out that the myth that men are sexual omnivores who will fuck anything that moves without morals, discernment, or restraint is insulting to men.  While that’s true, it’s hardly the point.   Not that I go around cavalierly insulting men (except, you know, for sport, or when they have annoyed me personally and mightily) but my concern for their poor feelings pales in comparison to the damage this myth does to the self-esteem of women and girls.  The cheapening of male desire sinks het sexual attraction to Aptovian levels of baseness.  It doesn’t just excuse men for bad behavior, it excuses men for being attracted to such foul and animalistic creatures as women.  Not only is our one purpose being sexually attractive, but we’re not even good at it.  None of us.  No matter how hard we try, it’s not us, it’s the vile iniquity of our male counterparts causing sexual attraction.

And, of course, desire is complicated.  It’s influenced by a lot of things – hardwired predisposition, socialization, social status, homosocial norms – and it’s usually an inherently selective thing, and youth is an awkward and horrible time when desire is often twisted, denied, or left unexpressed.  So really, it turns out, men and boys do not generally fuck everything that moves!  And if you’re a girl – smart or fat or disabled or the wrong color or awkward or glasses-wearing or somehow intimidating – and those guys who will fuck anything don’t [seem to] want anything to do with you, then what are you?  You’re not anything.  You’re nothing.

Performing purity might be a little attractive then, no?  It gives you something to offer.  If someone will ever want it, you monstrous thing.  And around and around we go.

Chastity-peddlers no doubt argue that sexuality in young people encourages body anxiety and self-loathing.  That might be true.  What is certainly true, but disappointingly only a ghost of a glossed-over presence in TPM, is that the gendered standards of sexuality and purity certainly encourage body anxiety and self-loathing, in a lot of ways.  The puritanical self-denialist expectations underpinning abstinence-only anti-education are just as present in our diet-obsessed culture.  If you in any way deviate from the expected female behavior in any way, you deserve pain.  If you’re thought to have sex, you deserve slut-shaming, pregnancy, and STIs.  That’s what abstinence only education is about – ensuring negative consequences to sex, not preventing sex at all.  Likewise, if you’re what passes for “fat” at that age, you deserve fat-shaming, humiliation, and hunger.  It’s not a coincidence that “modesty” looks an awful lot like dressing to hide your body.  The hatred of flesh on female bodies looks an awful lot like the hatred of visible female secondary sex characteristics.

These issues aren’t unrelated.  Making someone deny herself food by way of making her insecure about her body is a pretty easy way to fuck up her sex life for at least the short term, if not forever.  The issues I gathered from my years of adolescence, horrified at my body, terrified of sex, repulsed by food, didn’t just up and go away when I turned 18, or 20, or 25, or had sex, or became a feminist and did The Vagina Monologues, or passed any other lifetime milestone.  Social control of female bodies through the denial of basic human needs – food and sex at their forefront – is very much a direct tool of groups wishing to keep women at a relative level of social powerlessness.  And it only starts with young women.

Now, I doubt very much that JV disagrees with any of this analysis.  However, none of it makes it into the book – she simply informs the reader that “the perfect virgin….[i]s never a fat girl.”  But this isn’t true, or is at least too oversimplified to be of any use to the reader.  Sure, genuinely fat girls are often desexualized and thus disqualified from good virginhood, but virginity can also be a way for these girls to qualify for Good Girl status they’ve otherwise be denied, which ends up increasing the pressure to remain chaste.  That’s no small thing.  Convincing those girls that they deserve to have sex and enjoy their bodies is going to be a much different task than simply doing away with abstinence-only brainwashing.  She also, somehow, misses the way in which girls who develop early read as fat, or the way fat girls often develop breasts earlier than their thin counterparts, thus sexualizing them against their will to their classmates as well as random strangers.  How, how in the name of God, are girls supposed to gain information about sex when they’re terrified to draw any scrutiny to their bodies?

You could argue that this is outside the scope of a relatively short book, but I’m not buying it.  First of all, I’ve just done it in an hour and a few hundred words.  There’s also an entire chapter spent on the revelation (brace yourself) that abortion bans are actually about punishing women for sex.  And this is the ultimate weakness of an otherwise strong book – there’s a lot of time spent on 101 type issues, while the deeper implications of a very important thesis are left to the reader’s imagination.  Moreover, because those deeper implications pertain to populations which are doubly victimized, this book feels a bit as if it is about the privileged and pretty.  And there are genuine reasons to write a book with that focus – policy, after all, is made with these people in mind, and not those who live in the margins of overlapping oppressions.  But this artificially limited focus means that TPM is a weaker, shallower book than it clearly could have been.


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