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!