Review: The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti

This summer has been one long lesson in disagreeing with people I agree with. As a liberal girl growing up in Louisiana, I have been far more accustomed to disagreeing with people I disagree with, but here in this liberal university town, I am surrounded by a whole bunch of people who agree with me. This is really nice in a way, as I can say things about gay rights to someone I hardly know without fearing that I have just inadvertently issued the opening salvo of a debate. But in another way, it is frustrating. When people who disagree with me ignore arguments that prove them wrong, or repeat little sound-bytes that don’t really mean anything, or fail to give any genuine consideration to the views they hold, I consider that to be evidence that they are Wrong. And I am Right. No such pleasing dichotomy presents itself when I spot similar problems in the remarks of people who agree with me.

Oh, and also, when I disagree with people who agree with me, I start to feel like I am conducting that nasty kind of one-upmanship where you are only disagreeing to prove that you are the most open-minded participant in the conversation. And I do not want to be that girl. It reminds me of how my ex-boyfriend used to describe church camp. He said that no matter how holy anyone was being, someone else was going to find a way to be holier, like, “I don’t think telling ghost stories on our bunk beds is the best way to walk with Jesus right now.”

Which is why I’d rather disagree with people I disagree with.

Which brings me to Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, a book about a topic dear to my heart, which is the reducing of women to their sexuality, and valuing (or more often devaluing) them on that basis. I really enjoyed Yes Mens Yes!, a collection of essays about women and sexuality and consent that Valenti co-edited, and I have been looking forward to reading The Purity Myth ever since I learned of its existence. I enjoy righteous indignation as much as the next person, and I really think that when it comes to society and women’s sexuality, much righteous indignation is warranted.

Valenti is an engaging writer, and I agree with her of course and I think the problems she’s describing and the people that perpetuate them are wrong. Of course. But I have heard a lot of these arguments before, so they did not please me with their novelty; and if I didn’t already agree with her, I would not be moved by the arguments she presents in this not-very-weighty book. I would think she was sharply and (here’s the key point) not always convincingly dismissive of studies that might suggest conclusions contrary to her beliefs. I would think she made no effort to be respectful of her ideological opponents, and this weakened the book. I would think, as indeed I do think, that she was not careful about providing context to the examples she claimed were highly significant.

She notes that men’s magazines are a good place to look “if you want to see the purity myth in action”, and cites in particular an article from an online men’s magazine called “Training Your Girlfriend” (to give you sex whenever you want it). Okay, that’s gross, and it’s disrespectful to women and it does, as she claims, reinforce “the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers and men the potential crashers”. All v. bad.  But like, have you seen all those girly magazines? That have all the big screamy headlines about training your boyfriend to bring you sparkly presents and marry you tomorrow in a costly but tasteful wedding? I dunno, it seems unfair to get mad at men’s magazines, when women’s magazines are equally culpable for the reinforcement of unfriendly and reductive gender roles.

Or in another part, Valenti quotes Douglas Rushkoff’s essay “Picture Perfect” where he says that his high-school desire to “go steady” with a girl “had nothing to do with her, really. Her purpose was merely to assert and define my masculinity….She had only to prove I was not a fag.” Valenti says “Women cannot continue to be the markers by which men measure their manliness.” Well, no, but that’s not really what Rushkoff is saying. If a dude wants to prove he’s straight, going out with a girl kind of works. Right? Am I crazy?

Whoever had this book before me wrote in the margins in pencil (tsk), and in one spot when Valenti says some religious group feared girls having the chance to have sex “without consequences”, it said in the margins “Why should sex have consequences?” And I just wanted to share that with y’all because it made me laugh. Why indeed? And why food also? I would like to be able to eat a whole pack of Oreos without my skin breaking out. Universe, please arrange this.

Because this review has been quite negative, I would like to reiterate that I almost completely agree with Jessica Valenti. I read The Purity Myth for Women Unbound, and I STILL BELIEVE that society is full of crap and father-daughter purity balls are creepy. And this is another reason I don’t like disagreeing with people I agree with, because I have to spew disclaimers all over the place or else feel like I am arguing on behalf of the people that want to stop Gardasil and refuse to give people emergency contraception. What about you, internets? How do you manage when you disagree with people you agree with? Would you rather be able to praise your political candidate in ringing tones in front of all your coworkers, or bask in the agreeable feeling of being in a persecuted (but Correct!) minority?

People what also had read this book:

Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Peace of Brain

Tell me if I missed yours!

43 thoughts on “Review: The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti

  1. I usually agree to disagree; I’m quite lucky to live in a liberal town in the South and go to a women’s college, but then again, most cheerfully liberal people I know don’t believe asexuality exists, so I’ve had to adapt. (How does one exactly respond to “I feel sorry for you?”) I’ve been very much looking forward to The Purity Myth, but I’ll look at it with a grain of salt.

    Needing to prove your sexuality reeks to me of insecurity. Shouldn’t you go out with someone because you like them, rather than going out with someone of the “appropriate” gender simply because you want to prove you’re not gay? While I’m sure it happens, especially among the younger people, I’ve personally never encountered a queer person who dated someone to prove their sexuality.

    • Yeesh, how DO you respond to that? It seems perfectly unanswerable.

      Oh, it’s definitely insecurity. I don’t mean grown-ups should go out with people to prove their sexuality. But when it’s a high school kid, I don’t think dating to prove your sexuality has to do with demeaning women. It has to do way more with trying to prove that you’re “normal”, which a lot of high school kids spend a lot of time doing.

  2. How interesting. This was an early book for me so a lot of it was new, and I found it excellent. I didn’t have to be persuaded to anything, but I hadn’t heard a lot of what she was saying. I wonder if that is part of the reason that I enjoyed it so much.

    • The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking that I’d like it far better if it were the first time I’d heard the ideas. I do agree with most of what she’s saying. I like the collection of essays she edited more though.

  3. I know exactly what you mean – that was pretty much my gripe with “Enlightened Sexism” – lots of repetition, but not a whole lot of new and persuasive argument, or context provided. That said, I think amymckie has a good point: if you have already seen these arguments, of course they cannot be novel – but if it’s your first time encountering them, they could be very powerful. I feel a little disappointed, tho – I loved the title and I hoped for lots of new insights.

    And I’m giving the teenager with the pretty girlfriend a pass. How many people in high school date JUST because they like someone? In high school, everyone has something to prove, and everyone is feeling pretty fragile sexually and emotionally.

    • Yeah, I think I may have been extra annoyed at the book because my expectations were high. I heard the title of it maybe a year ago, and I was crushed our library didn’t have it. I wanted to love it, but I loved Virgin: An Untouched History much more better.

  4. That comment about church camp is hilarious and so true! ‘You just read six books of your Bible? Well I read twelve and I think you could have done if you hadn’t have chosen to spent time with TV instead of Jesus.’

    I disagree with other Christians all the time. I agree with their essential beliefs, but there is a whole load of crazy stuff that’s layered onto ‘essential Christianity’ that I think is absurd. Like father daughter purity balls. And abstinence rings. And Yoof bibles. And I make my feelings clear. 🙂

    • Hahahahaha, oh my gosh, I wanted my ex-boyfriend to tell me church camp stories EVERY DAY. It’s just so outside my experience, because I never went to camp, and I wasn’t super-duper involved in my church.

      I disagree with other Catholics so, so often! And then they call me a cafeteria Catholic. :/

  5. I totally agree with you on how both men’s and women’s mags have the same bizarre hunt-and-snare orientation. And of course I agree on the Oreos.

    I also have trouble when I disagree with people like you say – ending up arguing a position I don’t think but you get backed into a corner. Or I get too emotional and sarcastic. So, often I just don’t say anything anymore. Or I go home, marshall statistics from google, and send an email! :–)

    • *laughs* Oreos are glorious!

      Backed into a corner is exactly right! Suddenly you find yourself arguing on the side of chastity balls, just because you can’t take all the demonizing of the opponent! (Not chastity balls exactly. I would never argue on behalf of those.)

  6. I’m like Rhapsody–I can get emotional and sarcastic. Or worse, I can get carried along with an argument at the moment I’m reading or hearing it. So if I want to argue, it tends to be in writing, and people somehow take that much more seriously.

    One of the things I like about the tv show Glee is how much fun it makes of the “celibacy club” with a side swipe at a father-daughter celibacy dance.

    • Oo, I forgot all about the celibacy club. They kind of phased that out after Quinn got pregnant.

      I get incredulous, which is not conducive to good arguing. Instead of properly arguing I go “You can’t seriously think that,” because I can’t imagine how anyone could seriously think that. :p

  7. I really like your response to the “Why should sex have consequences” in the margin. When we compare it to overindulgence in food it makes sense. All choices, decisions, paths will have outcomes. If you’re reckless with your eating habits, physically you’ll be unhealthy.

    I think what happens is (and this is a generalization) women get fed up with being defined by their partners or “keeping their virginity” that they just go out there and sorta act compulsively in the opposite direction to get all “in the face of the man” (? the man? lol)

    • It seems to me all different women do all different things in response to all different messages. I’m all for changing society so it doesn’t have this insane fixation on “purity” for women, but pretending sex doesn’t have consequences isn’t necessarily the way to go about it (I think).

  8. I read The Purity Myth pretty close to when it came out, and I was already a pretty big fan of Valenti, so I did really enjoy the book. While I didn’t find much new info in it, I feel like for someone unfamiliar with some of the major tenents of feminism would get a lot out of it. I think it would be a wake-up call to a lot of women. And personally, I enjoy Valenti’s writing style because I tend to be a bit sarcastic and snarky myself in person (not as much on the internet, I don’t have that talent like some people do) and when I read something she’s written, I feel like she’s talking directly to me, and I respond well to that sort of thing.

    But I do love that you thought so deeply about this one, and I am so with you on the women’s magazines thing. I know what you mean about the difficulty about disagreeing with people you agree with – especially in this case, you want people to understand the point that Valenti is trying to make, but you don’t particularly agree with the way she made it. I so get it.

    As always, excellent review.

    • I like the snark, but not the sort of polarizing way she goes about it. Or I don’t even know if polarizing is the right word, but I didn’t like the sort of I’m-completely-right-and-this-other-thing-is-completely-wrong attitude she had. I liked her essay in Yes Means Yes!

      Yes, you are exactly right. I want people who are advancing views that I also hold to do it in ways that I approve of. :p

  9. It always bothers me when people who are arguing a point don’t show the other side. If anything else, it shows that you are actually educated in the topic and have considered all sides before choosing the one you’re arguing or presenting for. This is, of course, the general you.

    I’m sad this book wasn’t more… academic. It’s such an interesting topic, but I do think that people get carried away with their views and become preachy and extreme when their initial intentions may have been to provide a calculated and researched opinion. I know I found this to be true when reading articles for my Psych of Men class– maybe it’s a gender studies thing?

    I think you said something along these lines but with such a topic, one would think that the author would try to use strongly convincing arguments to make those disagree with her or are on the fence about the idea rethink what they think. It should not bolster their views.

    Ah well! I’m off my soap box. Great review!

    • I read a depressing article the other day about how people don’t change their opinions even after they learn new evidence that proves them wrong or casts doubt on what they think. In fact in a lot of cases, new evidence makes them believe their wrong opinion MORE. I know I have observed this to be true anecdotally (including in me! I have been known to sneer at studies that prove something I don’t believe, and be like, Pfft, I find a flaw in their methods), but it was sad to see it demonstrated in a study. Which I probably only believe in because I already believe what it says. Sigh.

      • I so believe this! Now they will have to do studies to find out what actually *does* make people change their opinions. They’ve done one with music that proves people start liking kinds of music based on exposure time.

  10. Oh, I so understand what you mean about disagreeing with people you agree with. I used to live in a highly conservative community, and I disagreed with people all the time (so much so that I had a reputation for being a shrill feminist time), and it was a relief to move to the DC area and surround myself with more liberal folks.

    But then I get all cranky when they only want to argue against caricatures of people who are more conservative, and I always want to say, “Well, it’s more complicated than that really.” and “Well, they aren’t intentionally treating their daughters as property.” and “Well, they mean well and have a fair point about sex having consequences.” So then I feel like I’m defending the people I disagree with, when I’m really wanting people to engage more substantively with the issue. Maybe give the other side some credit for what they get right and trying to see things through their eyes.

    • Same here, Teresa. Although I am not someone who likes to jump into these discussions in person, the defense in my head has much the same unsettling effect.

      Moving to a friendly, arty, liberal college town gave me the same feeling of giddy unreality as if I’d moved to Candy Land. It never wore off in the 7 years I was there. Moving away again has been almost as strange.

      I always find it more pleasant to be be surrounded by people (a little) more liberal than me than (a lot) more conservative than me. But I suppose family-of-origin comes into it, too. If one felt oneself to be part of a like-minded unit, that could be cosy, and might make disagreeing with outsiders more enjoyable.

    • Teresa–Yes! Exactly! I come from Louisiana, and although my nuclear family is liberal, there is a branch of my extended family that is quite conservative. When other liberals make their caricature conservatives to argue against, I feel angry on behalf of my non-caricature family, and I end up feeling like I’m defending views that I absolutely hate.

      Trapunto–Maybe I’m not in the right friendly liberal arty town. I kinda want to go back to my home. Though part of that is because of the air conditioning and the food and the puppy.

      Also, defenses in your head are so satisfying! I have extremely long arguments with people in my head, especially people I can’t really argue with because I was eavesdropping on them. :p

  11. Interesting review! It’s frustrating when books that you agree with don’t work quite as well as you want them too. I’ve had that happen with some feminist books before — I agree in principle, but just not with the method or argument of the piece.

    • Precisely. I had some similar experiences when I was taking my queer theory class, with some of the articles we were reading. It can be very hard to be fair to the other side when you feel they are damaging you. But everyone should still do it!

      (I’m saying that but of course I don’t always do it my own self.)

  12. The first couple paragraphs cracked me up. I read a different Valenti book (Full Frontal Feminism) and had similar issues with her. I’m so glad I’m not the only one!

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one too! But I am also a little sad. I want to be friends with all the feminists in the land! Why must they let me down?

  13. When disagreeing with someone you agree with, you must do that one eyebrow arch and give the ‘Oh really’ look. I usually just shut up; I’m not good at being disagreeable. And I can’t do that one eyebrow thing, unfortunately. I still want to read this book.

    • I try to shut up although I do not always succeed. I try to gauge how wrong the person is and weigh it against how awkward it’s going to be if I argue with them about it. And yeah, I can’t do the one eyebrow thing either. If a genie gave me three wishes I swear to God one of them would be to be able to raise one eyebrow. FORGET WORLD PEACE.

  14. One of younger sisters has perfected that look, Care! It is absolutely quelling! And yes, she mostly agrees with the people around her when we are in a family situation, being an intellectual conservative. Whereas I, who agree with almost nothing when I am in in a family situation, have foolishly perfected the look of abstracted interest and the ill-timed, nervous laugh.

    I am *loving* this review and these comments, Jenny.

    • I’m loving the comments too! Especially the ones that validate my experience. I think the internet was invented so the people of the world could all go OH MY GOD ME TOO. :p

  15. I live in a place where we all get paid to disagree even if we agree…if that makes any sense at all. It might not so let’s call it lobbying and move on. Ah, Washington, DC. 🙂

    Anyway, I picked this book up one day and promptly put it back down. I had a vague sense that it would annoy me to no end and I’d end up winging it across the room (and that’s just cruel to the book) so I put it back down and walked away. I’m glad I did.

    It’s a great review though and thanks for the chuckle this afternoon. Now, I must get back to disagreeing…Congress is in session…

    • I have always been curious what it would be like to live in Washington DC. I hear there is a mad amount of political engagement there. It sounds interesting! Good luck with your disagreeing–do you find it is too disagreeable? Or not?

      • I technically don’t live in DC, but I can almost see it from my house, so I guess that sort of counts. There’s more political engagement than I’m used to but not as much as you might think. Everyone has political opinions (more so than where I’m from), but not everyone is actively involved in politics. None of my close friends are, and I’d have to go pretty far down my list of acquaintances to find even a lobbyist.

        It’s actually a nice place to live. Lots of theater and Ethiopian food.

      • We’re in DC proper about 6 blocks from the White House. Outside of work and the once in a while obligatory cocktail/smooze things, you can escape the politics all the time discussions. No matter what C-SPAN broadcasts, we don’t all sit around talking about Congressional committee hearings. At least I don’t. 🙂

  16. This has been on my “To Read” list for a long while, and in spite of your review I’m still very curious about it. Do you ever read the Feministing blog? Jessica is one of the editors there, and I have a similar attitude about her writings there as you did with her book. I do agree with almost all of the main theses, but sometimes she comes off as too black and white over issues that do contain some shades of gray.

    Happy to see such a lively discussion taking place here!

    • I’ve read it before, but not regularly. I am always trying to find ways to balance my internet time to encompass the book blogs and my own book blog and email and Facebook and the websites o’ interesting articles like Salon and Arts & Letters Daily & all. And I’m afraid political blogs are the ones that tend to drop off the edges because they make me pessimistic. :p But it’s good to know I didn’t just imagine the black-and-white thinking problem in this book.

  17. You’re not the first to tell me that Valenti makes no effort at all to be respectful of those with different opinions, which is really a pity regardless of how abhorrent those opinions can be. It’s especially a pity because that’s likely to make people get defensive rather than listening to all the good points she’s making. I have a feeling I’d also find this disappointing, though like Amy said maybe it’d work for someone finding these ideas for the first time.

    • I don’t even necessarily mind that she’s disrespectful of the groups with whose opinions she disagrees–I’d feel happier if she weren’t, but it’s not my main objection. I think mainly I’m bothered by her failure (well, refusal) to engage in any meaningful way with the standpoints of her opponents.

    • Can I recommend Hanne Blank’s Virgin: An Untouched History? It doesn’t cover all the same territory, but it touches on a lot of the same issues; and as well, it’s a really interesting history of the concept of virginity. I loved it.

  18. If the author’s arguments are that bad, I definitely don’t need to read this. I’m pretty good at disagreeing with people but I HATE it when people decide they need to act like an ass to get their point across, then it becomes personal. Luckily that doesn’t happen very often, so it’s discussions are usually “agree to disagree”.

    Father-daughter purity balls give me the creeps too. 😦

  19. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Wimp Factor, The Purity Myth « The Literary Omnivore

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