The politics of purity balls and virginity fetishes

The myth of sexual chastity is not a topic for the faint of heart in as puritanical a society as 21st century America remains. Witness the “purity ball” phenomenon that evolved from the conservative evangelical movement in Colorado Springs.

Jessica Valenti, editor of the blog Feministing.com, is out with a new book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, and she pulls no punches.

In an excerpt published at Alternet.org, the central question is the double standard that exists in American culture: Boys are taught that the things that make them good are universally accepted ethical ideals; women are told our worth lies between our legs.

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). 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.”

It’s a provocative viewpoint, to be sure, and a timely one as the Congressional budget conference committee meets to reconcile the chambers’ different spending plans which will determine future funding for abstinence-only education programs, including purity balls.

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Wendy Norris

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