Book Review: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Posted January 5, 2017 by Renae // 2 Comments

Book Review: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Title: The Purity Myth
Author: Jessica Valenti
Release Date: March 21, 2009
Publisher: Seal Press

Summary from Goodreads:

The United States is obsessed with virginity—from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes—ranging from abstinence curriculum to Girls Gone Wild infomercials—place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value—and hypocrisy—around the notion that girls remain virgin until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex. The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.

When I was twelve years old, my mother gave me the “purity talk” (which is different from the “sex talk”). I was like a water balloon, she told me, and everything I did with a man outside of marriage—holding hands, kissing, sex—would drain a little of the water out of me. And I didn’t want to be nothing more than an empty balloon for my husband, did I? Of course not, I was quick to reassure her.

And that was that.

For, as Jessica Valenti’s work in The Purity Myth reveals, I am far from unique in the lessons I received regarding sex and abstaining from it. Huge amounts of federal money, as well as the considerably powerful religious/conservative organizations, are propogating similar messages every day to teenage audience who, like me, believe what the so-called “expert” adults tell them. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with deciding to abstain from sex, for any reason, the manner in which the purity movement misinforms, coerces, and devalues young women does far more harm than good. To attest to this, the author has compiled information from a wide array of reports, investigations, personal anecdotes, and interviews. Reading The Purity Myth is almost an information overload, and the overall result is a comprehensive look a how the purity platform of the religious right harms not only women and girls, but society as a whole.

What this book does really well is compile information from a variety of sources and present it in a way that will make Valenti’s point for her. Every single page is full of quotes from other books or interviews. I certainly think this is an effective, convincing move, and it helps support Valenti’s point. That being said, I personally thought the text felt a little too quote-heavy a lot of the time. Valenti’s perspective was always made clear, and though I don’t think she was necessarily using others’ words to speak for her, it felt like too much content came from other sources, rather than Valenti’s own brain. Which is not to undermine the effort that the author went to in compiling the data for her readers.

That one technical aspect aside, which honestly just amounts to personal preference, I have no complaints about The Purity Myth. The author tackles not just the obvious aspects of her subject, such as purity balls, abstinence-only sex ed, and the damaging conflation between moral superiority and virginity, but also the more far-reaching issues at play such as abortion, toxic masculinity, and women’s roles outside of their sex lives. Books such as this make abundantly clear the ways in which the patriarchy damages women’s autonomy and attempts to control them, especially in regards to their sexuality.

For a book published almost a decade ago, The Purity Myth is still extremely relevant—too much so. I may have left behind the purity culture-steeped traditions of my childhood, but many other teens are stil being taught exactly what I was. At the end of the book, Jessica Valenti provides a section detailing workable “next steps”—ways to help. This is a good starting place, and one thing that stood out to me was her emphasis on the usefulness of the Internet. As Valenti points out, twenty years ago, you needed to be in New York or Washington, D.C. in order to become a prominent feminist voice. Now all you need is a blog or a social media account. In some ways, the Internet has made raising awareness for and fighting against injustice easier, though at the same time it has also made it easier to disseminate prejudicial, harmful content.

In any case, the book is extremely important to me because of my own background and my current online platform. If I’d read The Purity Myth when I was first figuring my feminism out, it would have shaken my entire worldview. As it is, Valenti gave me lots of great facts and examples to back up my current position. This book is absolutely deserving of its status as a feminist must-read. (And if you’d like an equally excellent, slightly more up to date readalike, I highly recommend Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein.) Books like this me hopeful for a future where girls are no longer warned against becoming empty water balloons.

Renae has written book reviews and other miscellany for Respiring Thoughts since 2012. She loves dogs, Mexican food, mountains, Shakespeare, and procrastinating. She's currently working on an undergrad degree in English/Spanish lit in the Midwest. Connect with Renae on Twitter, Goodreads, and Tumblr.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

    • Renae

      Girls & Sex was really good! I didn’t agree with all of the author’s points (especially regarding pop culture), but it ties in nicely to The Purity Myth.