VIDEO: Gabbing About Abstinence and “Giving It Up”

Emily Douglas

Jessica Valenti goes on the "Today Show" to promote the idea that women and girls aren't reducible to their sex lives, and correct the record on abstinence-only.

Calling those who aren’t ostensibly culturally conservative, woman-shaming or misogynist out for their prejudices around girls and sexuality isn’t easy.  Unlike in the case of a Leslee Unruh, for example, not everything that comes out of such a person’s mouth will be offensive.  But every once in awhile she’ll will tip her hand, revealing that she thinks a woman’s worthiness is tied up in how much sex she has, as opposed to how much she "keeps" for herself and her eventual husband.  That’s why it’s exciting to watch Jessica Valenti, author of the new book The Purity Myth, take on the Today Show’s Hoda Kotb and Kathy Lee Gifford, and Lakita Garth, an "abstinence champion" and author of The Naked Truth, who views about women and sex are a little more obvious.

"You were 36, right, Lakita?  And why did you remain a virgin?  Because," says Gifford, "it’s a lot easier to give it away than keep it."  (You can’t see her wink, but I bet she did.)  Giving, keeping — these are transactional terms that imply that women lose something of value when they have sex for the first time.

Jessica puts her thesis plainly: "The ‘purity myth’ is the lie that women’s sexuality has some bearing on who we are and how good we are," she says.  Young women are so "much more than whether or not we have sex."

That’s true, and it’s true that abstinence-only programs, in addition to spewing lies about condoms, HIV, and contraception, push retrograde notions of virtue that tie worth to sexual (in)activity.

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But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about teen sexuality, or offer teens fact-based information, or use evidence to counter claims like this:

Kotb offers some irrefutable scientific evidence (I’m kidding) that sleeping around leads to a bad life: In her high school, "girls who slept around ended up with not great lives," she says. "And those that didn’t did much better."  Even if this were true, wouldn’t it be a call for comprehensive sex ed, so all women, even those who "sleep around," can end up leading  stable and accomplished adult lives?  Or do on some level we want to punish those who don’t conform to the purity myth?

The problem, Jessica explains, is that there are only two extremes available for women — when in reality most women are somewhere in between.

Finally, Kotb puts it to them: do those abstinence-only programs work? "A complete public health failure," says Jessica.  

Jessica emphasizes that we can "teach women to value themselves" by focusing on girls’ accomplishments, achievements, and educational attainment, not on their sex lives.  "Except," says Gifford triumphantly, "that what they do with their bodies has consequences for the rest of their lives."  Yes, it does.  Which is exactly why they need comprehensive sexuality education.


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