The Purity Myth

How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women


By Jessica Valenti

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From the bestselling author of Sex Object, a searing investigation into American culture’s obsession with virginity, and the argument for creating a future where women and girls are valued for more than sexuality

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-only 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 virgins 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.


“A gutsy young third-wave feminist.”
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—LINDA HIRSHMAN, The Washington Post
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“ . . . an irreverent guide to why young women should embrace the F-word.”
—EMMA PEARSE, New York Magazine
“Valenti’s book, packed with sound advice and solid research, is filled with enough wit and sass to convince young women that feminism is far from boring—that it is, in fact, necessary.”
—PATRICIA JUSTINE TUMANG, The Women’s Review of Books


“I believe that there is an ideal of fastidiousness in the world. An ideal of impossible purity in a world that is, in its very essence, impure.”
MARY GORDON in I Need to Tell Three Stories and to Speak of Love and Death

THERE IS A MORAL PANIC IN AMERICA over young women’s sexuality—and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls “going wild” aren’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity—the idea that such a thing even exists—is ensuring that young women’s perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.
A combination of forces—our media- and society-driven virginity fetish, an increase in abstinence-only education, and the strategic political rollback of women’s rights among the primary culprits—has created a juggernaut of unrealistic sexual expectations for young women. Unable to live up to the ideal of purity that’s forced upon them in one aspect of their lives, many young women are choosing the hypersexualized alternative that’s offered to them everywhere else as the easier—and more attractive—option.
More than 1,400 purity balls, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers at a promlike event, were held in 2006 (the balls are federally funded).1 Facebook is peppered with purity groups that exist to support girls trying to “save it.” Schools hold abstinence rallies and assemblies featuring hip-hop dancers and comedians alongside religious leaders. Virginity and chastity are reemerging as a trend in pop culture, in our schools, in the media, and even in legislation. So while young women are subject to overt sexual messages every day, they’re simultaneously being taught—by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less—that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain “pure.”
So what are young women left with? Abstinence-only education during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night! Whether it’s delivered through a virginity pledge or by a barely dressed tween pop singer writhing across the television screen, the message is the same: A woman’s worth lies in her ability—or her refusal—to be sexual. And we’re teaching American girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable. The sexual double standard is alive and well, and it’s irrevocably damaging young women.
The Purity Myth is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. When I lost my virginity as a high school freshman, I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel changed somehow. Wasn’t this supposed to be, like, a big deal? Later, in college, as I’d listen to male friends deride their sexual partners as sluts and whores, I struggled to comprehend how intercourse could mean one thing for men and quite another for women. I knew that logically, nothing about sex could make a girl “dirty,” but I found it incredibly frustrating that my certainty about this seemed to be lost on my male peers. And as I talked to my queer friends, whose sexual experiences were often dismissed because they didn’t fit into the heterosexual model, I started to realize how useless “virginity” really was.
I started to see the myth of sexual purity everywhere—though in the work I do as a feminist blogger and writer, it wasn’t exactly hard to find. Whether it appears in a story about a man killing his girlfriend while calling her a whore or in trying to battle conservative claims that emergency contraception or the HPV vaccine will make girls promiscuous, the purity myth in America underlies more misogyny than most people would like to admit. And while the definition of “virginity” is fairly abstract (as you’ll see in Chapter 1), its consequences for young women are not. And that’s why I wanted, and needed, to write this book. The Purity Myth is for women who are suffering every day because of the lie that virginity exists, and that it has some bearing on who we are and how good we are. Consider the implications virginity has on the high school girl who is cruelly labeled a slut after an innocuous makeout session; the woman from a background so religiously conservative that she opts to have her hymen surgically reattached rather than suffer the consequences of a nonbloody bedsheet on her wedding night; or the rape survivor who’s dismissed or even faulted because she dared to have past consensual sexual encounters.
My reasons for wanting to write this book aren’t entirely altruistic, however. I was once that teenage girl struggling with the meaning behind my sexuality, and how my own virginity, or lack thereof, reflected whether or not I was a good person. I was the cruelly labeled slut, the burgeoning feminist who knew that something was wrong with a world that could peg me as a bad person for sleeping with a high school boy friend while ignoring my good heart, sense of humor, and intelligence. Didn’t the intricacies of my character count for anything? The answer, unfortunately, was no, they didn’t. It was a hard lesson to learn, and one that too many young women are dealing with nationwide.


On Love Matters, a pro-life, pro-abstinence website, pictures of smiling young women who are “saving themselves” are featured next to quotes about virginity and marriage. Kimberly Gloudemans, Miss California Teen USA 1997, beams under her brunette coiffed hair and a rhinestone tiara. Next to her picture, the caption reads, “It’s been echoed to teens over and over aga in . . . we have no morals, no dreams, and no future. But I know I am not a part of that same generation. In fact, millions of teenagers are finding out the same thing about themselves. . . . We have morals and are standing up for what we believe in. . . . Because of that I am saving sex for marriage.”
I’ve always found the idea of “saving” your virginity intriguing: It’s not as if we’re packing our Saran-wrapped hymens away in the freezer, after all, or pasting them in scrapbooks (admittedly, not the best visual—my apologies). But packed-away virginities aside, the interesting—and dangerous—idea at play here is that of “morality.” When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens (though the preferred words are undoubtedly more refined—think “virginity” and “chastity”): if we have them, when we’ll lose them, and under what circumstances we’ll be rid of them.
While boys are taught that the things that make them men—good men—are universally accepted ethical ideals, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs. Literally. Whether it’s the determining factor in our “cleanliness” and “purity” or the marker of our character, virginity has an increasingly dangerous hold over young women. It affects not only our ability to see ourselves as ethical actors outside of our own bodies, but also how the world interacts with us through social mores, laws, and even violence.


Women are pushing themselves and punishing themselves every day in order to fit into the narrow model of morality that virginity has afforded them. Some of us get unnecessary plastic surgery—down to our vaginas, which can be tightened, clipped, and “revirginized”—in order to seem younger. Others simply buy into old-school gender norms of ownership, dependence, and perpetual girlhood.
And don’t be mistaken about the underlying motivations of our moral panic around the hypersexualization of young women. It’s more about chastity than about promiscuity. T-shirts sold in teen catalogs with I’M TIGHT LIKE SPANDEX emblazoned across the front aren’t announcing sexiness; they’re announcing virginity. The same is true for “sexy schoolgirl” costumes or provocative pictures of Disney teen pop singers. By fetishizing youth and virginity, we’re supporting a disturbing message: that really sexy women aren’t women at all—they’re girls.
If we’re to truly understand the purity myth, we have to recognize that this modernized virgin/whore dichotomy is not only leading young women to damage themselves by internalizing the double standard, but also contributing to a social and political climate that is increasingly antagonistic to women and our rights.
Virginity fetishism has even made its way into politics and legislation. In 2007, Republican South Dakota representative Bill Napoli described his support for a ban on abortion that allowed no exceptions for rape or incest by relaying a (quite vivid) scenario to a reporter. He explained under what circumstances the procedure might be warranted: “A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated.”2
I found this moment so telling: Napoli couldn’t help but let his misogyny and paternalism seep into his abortion sound bite, because, to him and to so many other men (and other legislators, for that matter), there’s no separating virginity, violence, and control over women’s bodies. When it comes to women who are perceived as “impure,” there’s a narrative of punishment that underscores U.S. policy and public discourse—be it legislation that limits reproductive rights through the assumption that women should be chaste before marriage, or a media that demonizes victims of sexual violence. And, sadly, if you look at everything from our laws to our newspapers, Napoli isn’t as far out of the mainstream as we’d like to think.


Women—especially young women, who are the most targeted in this virgin/ whore straitjacket—are surviving the purity myth every day. And it has to stop. Our daughters deserve a model of morality that’s based on ethics, not on their bodies.
It’s high time to do away with outdated—and dangerous—notions of virginity. If young women’s only ethical gauge is based on whether they’re chaste, we’re ensuring that they will continue to define themselves by their sexuality.
In The Purity Myth, I not only discuss what the purity myth is and reveal its consequences for women, but also outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies. Not just because we deserve as much, but also because our health, our emotional well-being, and even our lives depend on it.

the cult of virginity
“He said it was men invented virginity not women. Father said it’s like death: only a state in which others are left . . . ”
The Sound and the Fury
IN THE MOMENTS AFTER I FIRST HAD SEX, my then-boyfriend—lying down next to me over his lint-covered blanket—grabbed a pen from his nightstand and drew a heart on the wall molding above his bed with our initials and the date inside. The only way you could see it was by lying flat on the bed with your head smashed up against the wall. Crooked necks aside, it was a sweet gesture, one that I’d forgotten about until I started writing this book.
The date seemed so important to us at the time, even though the event itself was hardly awe-inspiring. There was the expected fumbling, a joke about his fish-printed boxers, and ensuing condom difficulties. At one point, his best friend even called to see how things were going. I suppose romance and discretion are lost on sixteen-year-olds from Brooklyn. Yet we celebrated our “anniversary” every year until we broke up, when Josh left for college two years before me and met a girl with a lip ring.
I’ve often wondered what that date marks—the day I became a woman? Considering I still bought underwear in cutesy three-packs, and that I certainly hadn’t mastered the art of speaking my mind, I’ve gotta go with no. Societal standards would have me believe that it was the day I became morally sullied, but I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact—so it’s not that, either.
Really, the only meaning it had (besides a little bit of pain and a lot of postcoital embarrassment) was the meaning that Josh and I ascribed to it. Or so I thought. I hadn’t counted on the meaning my peers, my parents, and society would imbue it with on my behalf.
From that date on—in the small, incestuous world of high school friendships, nothing is a secret for long—I was a “sexually active teen,” a term often used in tandem with phrases like “at risk,” or alongside warnings about drug and alcohol use, regardless of how uncontroversial the sex itself may have been. Through the rest of high school, whenever I had a date, my peers assumed that I had had sex because my sexuality had been defined by that one moment when my virginity was lost. It meant that I was no longer discriminating, no longer “good.” The perceived change in my social value wasn’t lost on my parents, either; before I graduated high school, my mother found an empty condom wrapper in my bag and remarked that if I kept having sex, no one would want to marry me.a
I realize that my experience isn’t necessarily representative of most women’s—everyone has their own story—but there are common themes in so many young women’s sexual journeys. Sometimes it’s shame. Sometimes it’s violence. Sometimes it’s pleasure. And sometimes it’s simply nothing to write home about.
The idea that virginity (or loss thereof) can profoundly affect women’s lives is certainly nothing new. But what virginity is, what it was, and how it’s being used now to punish women and roll back their rights is at the core of the purity myth. Because today, in a world where porn culture and reenergized abstinence movements collide, the moral panic myth about young women’s supposed promiscuity is diverting attention from the real problem—that women are still being judged (sometimes to death) on something that doesn’t really exist: virginity.


Before Hanne Blank wrote her book Virgin: The Untouched History, she had a bit of a problem. Blank was answering teens’ questions on Scarleteen1—a sex-education website she founded with writer Heather Corinna so that young people could access information about sex online, other than porn and Net Nanny—when she discovered that she kept hitting a roadblock when it came to the topic of virginity.
“One of the questions that kept coming up was ‘I did such-and-such. Am I still a virgin?’” Blank told me in an interview. “They desperately wanted an authoritative answer.”
But she just didn’t have one. So Blank decided to spend some time in Harvard’s medical school library to find a definitive answer for her young web browsers.
“I spent about a week looking through everything I could—medical dictionaries, encyclopedias, anatomies—trying to find some sort of diagnostic standard for virginity,” Blank said.
The problem was, there was no standard. Either a book wouldn’t mention virginity at all or it would provide a definition that wasn’t medical, but subjective.
“Then it dawned on me—I’m in arguably one of the best medical libraries in the world, scouring their stacks, and I’m not finding anything close to a medical definition for virginity. And I thought, That’s really weird. That’s just flat-out strange.”
Blank said she found it odd mostly because everyone, including doctors, talks about virginity as if they know what it is—but no one ever bothers to mention the truth: “People have been talking authoritatively about virginity for thousands of years, yet we don’t even have a working medical definition for it!”
Blank now refers to virginity as “the state of having not had partnered sex.” But if virginity is simply the first time someone has sex, then what is sex? If it’s just heterosexual intercourse, then we’d have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing. And even using the straight-intercourse model of sex as a gauge, we’d have to get into the down-and-dirty conversation of what constitutes penetration.b
Since I’ve become convinced that virginity is a sham being perpetrated against women, I decided to turn to other people to see how they “count” sex. Most say it’s penetration. Some say it’s oral sex. My closest friend, Kate, a lesbian, has the best answer to date (a rule I’ve followed since she shared it with me): It isn’t sex unless you’ve had an orgasm. That’s a pleasure-based, non-heteronormative way of marking intimacy if I’ve ever heard one. Of course, this way of defining sex isn’t likely to be very popular among the straight-male sect, given that some would probably end up not counting for many of their partners.
But any way you cut it, virginity is just too subjective to pretend we can define it.
Laura Carpenter, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, told me that when she wrote her book, she was loath to even use the word “virginity,” lest she propagate the notion that there’s one concrete definition for it.2
“What is this thing, this social phenomenon? I think the emphasis put on virginity, particularly for women, causes a lot more harm than good,” said Carpenter.3
This has much to do with the fact that “virgin” is almost always synonymous with “woman.” Virgin sacrifices, popping cherries, white dresses, supposed vaginal tightness, you name it. Outside of the occasional reference to the male virgin in the form of a goofy movie about horny teenage boys, virginity is pretty much all about women. Even the dictionary definitions of “virgin” cite an “unmarried girl or woman” or a “religious woman, esp. a saint.”4 No such definition exists for men or boys.
It’s this inextricable relationship between sexual purity and women—how we’re either virgins or not virgins—that makes the very concept of virginity so dangerous and so necessary to do away with.
Admittedly, it would be hard to dismiss virginity as we know it altogether, considering the meaning it has in so many people’s—especially women’s—lives. When I suggest that virginity is a lie told to women, I don’t aim to discount or make light of how important the current social idea of virginity is for some people. Culture, religion, and social beliefs influence the role that virginity and sexuality play in women’s lives—sometimes very positively. So, to be clear, when I argue for an end to the idea of virginity, it’s because I believe sexual intimacy should be honored and respected, but that it shouldn’t be revered at the expense of women’s well-being, or seen as such an integral part of female identity that we end up defining ourselves by our sexuality.
I also can’t discount that no matter what personal meaning each woman gives virginity, it’s people who have social and political influence who ultimately get to decide what virginity means—at least, as it affects women on a large scale.


It’s hard to know when people started caring about virginity, but we do know that men, or male-led institutions, have always been the ones that get to define and assign value to virginity.
Blank posits that a long-standing historical interest in virginity is about establishing paternity (if a man marries a virgin, he can be reasonably sure the child she bears is his) and about using women’s sexuality as a commodity. Either way, the notion has always been deeply entrenched in patriarchy and male ownership.
Raising daughters of quality became another model of production, as valuable as breeding healthy sheep, weaving sturdy cloth, or bringing in a good harvest. . . . The gesture is now generally symbolic in the first world, but we nonetheless still observe the custom of the father “giving” his daughter in marriage. Up until the last century or so, however, when laws were liberalized to allow women to stand as full citizens in their own right, this represented a literal transfer of property from a father’s household to a husband’s.5
That’s why women who had sex were (and still are, at times) referred to as “damaged goods”—because they were literally just that: something to be owned, traded, bought, and sold.
But long gone are the days when women were property . . . or so we’d like to think. It’s not just wedding traditions or outdated laws that name women’s virginity as a commodity; women’s virginity, our sexuality, is still assigned a value by a movement with more power and influence in American society than we’d probably like to admit.
I like to call this movement the virginity movement.c And it is a movement, indeed—with conservatives and evangelical Christians at the helm, and our government, school systems, and social institutions taking orders. Composed of antifeminist think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and Concerned Women for America; abstinence-only “educators” and organizations; religious leaders; and legislators with regressive social values, the virginity movement is much more than just the same old sexism; it’s a targeted and well-funded backlash that is rolling back women’s rights using revamped and modernized definitions of purity, morality, and sexuality. Its goals are mired in old-school gender roles, and the tool it’s using is young women’s sexuality. (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!) And, like it or not, the members of the virginity movement are the people who are defining virginity—and, to a large extent, sexuality—in America. Now, instead of women’s virginity being explicitly bought and sold with dowries and business deals, it’s being defined as little more than a stand-in for actual morality.
It’s genius, really. Shame women into being chaste and tell them that all they have to do to be “good” is not have sex. (Of course, chastity and purity, as defined by the virginity movement, are not just about abstaining sexually so much as they’re about upholding a specific, passive model of womanhood. But more on this later.)
For women especially, virginity 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.


On Sale
Mar 24, 2009
Page Count
300 pages
Seal Press

Jessica Valenti

About the Author

Jessica Valenti is the author of multiple books on feminism, politics and culture. Jessica is also the founder of Her writing has appeared in publications like the New York Times, the Washington PostNation, and Ms. magazine. She is currently a columnist at the Guardian US. Jessica lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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