In my Sex, Violence & Christianity course this past semester, I used Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth in order to develop some interesting connections between our culture’s fetishizing of female virginity and the patriarchally-driven dogma of purity. It’s an ideology, Valenti argues, that serves men as it condemns women to be judged by one action alone: whether or not they’ve had sex. Women are not deemed ‘good’ or ‘moral’ based on their intellect, concern for others, what they’ve accomplished, what they think or what they care about, only whether or not they’ve had sex.
Valenti suggests that this purposefully promotes an ethic of passivity. Women are solely judged on what they don’t do. As Valenti argues, “[V]irginity has become the easy answer–the morality quick fix. You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a ‘good’ (i.e., ‘moral’) girl and therefore worthy of praise.” (24)
Virginity itself, therefore, becomes not only a marketable commodity, but just one more means by which men control women. Of course, this is hardly new as the sentiment (and practice itself) has a lovely history that reaches back to the Bible. Women remain nothing more than objects to be possessed, and if the ‘seal’s been broken’ then the value plummets. Let us not forget that the primary problem with Amnon raping Tamar was not that he raped his half-sister, but that he refused to marry her after he raped her (the Bible’s quirky solution to rape). As Tamar herself stated, “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
I apologize for this really brief summary of Valenti’s arguments (it’s far more in-depth and nuanced than what I am suggesting–you know me, I like to speak carelessly). Her book, if nothing else, did get me interested in this whole virginity-vouchers and ‘purity ball’ phenomenon. Perhaps you know all about this, but if you don’t (or even if you do) then click the link below, watch the video, and try really, really hard not to get creeped out. I’ve found it very difficult.
Go ahead, click it. Don’t be scurred.
So, how was it? Sufficiently creeped out? And who is that gal singing to in the song? I’m confused. Confused enough to feel a little nauseous. As if the slow dancing and contracts weren’t enough. And if you scroll down on that page, ask yourself this, Why is the ‘poster gal’ (Teresa Scanlan) for this kind of stuff always a ‘Beauty Queen’? Any thoughts/theories on that one? Please share, because I have some ideas but I’d rather hear from you.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that when I ask my students how they understand the meaning of the word ‘purity’ they always, without fail, associate the term with, and I quote, “little girls”?
Why do you think that is? If you’re not sure, don’t worry, I always ask my students for clarification.
“Why do you associate the term ‘purity’ with little girls?”
“Because they’re still innocent,” a female student responds.
“And just what do you mean,” I press, “by the word ‘innocent’?”
“Well, you know, she hasn’t had sex yet, so she’s innocent . . . she’s pure.”
How thoroughly interesting. But I guess it has to be interesting, right? As Valenti claims when criticizing the ‘virginity movement’, “What better way to get people to pay attention to your cause than to frame it in terms of teenage girls’ having, or not having, sex? It’s salacious!” (23)
I like that word.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.