Rewire Interviews: Jessica Valenti, Author of The Purity Myth

Laura Janoff

Rewire's Laura Janoff spoke to Jessica Valenti about liberal parents, schoolgirl fetishes, and women's sexuality unleashed.

Jessica Valenti is founder and Editor-In-Chief of the popular blog  She has gone on to gain further public and media
attention through her books, Full Frontal Feminism, He’s a Stud, She’s
a Slut
, and, just published in April 2009, The Purity Myth: How
America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
.  RH Reality
Check’s Laura Janoff talked with Jessica about her new book.

LJ: One of the central arguments
of your book is that the obsession with virginity is entrenched in all
of our lives.  What would you say to someone who contended that? 

JV: Unfortunately it’s not
as on the fringes as everyone would like to think. For example the purity
balls are being planned in almost every state, and they’re
federally funded so of course that affects all of us, as does abstinence
only education, although that’s waning a bit. Really the obsession
with virginity is not necessarily as explicit or as public as our pressure
on sexuality and the hypersexualization of women. I don’t
think that makes it any less dangerous.  When you look at all of
the anti-feminist and parent organizations that make up what I call
the virginity movement, they are well funded, strong organizations that
have a really specific agenda, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere.

LJ: When you say that the virginity
movement is afraid of women’s sexuality, what does that mean? What
would the world look like if it were unleashed? 

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JV: I don’t know, but I’d
like live in that world, I’d like to be in that world.  I guess
what I mean is how the virginity movement uses this deeply imbedded
fear of a young women’s sexuality unleashed, and if you’re not protecting
it, if you’re not enforcing it, and if you’re not somehow
containing it, what will happen?  And of course the fear for young
women is that we’ll all grow crazy, slutty and promiscuous if there
aren’t very stringent laws.  Yeah, but I don’t know what that
world would look like, I think we’re so far from it it’s hard to

LJ: It almost sounds like it
would attack someone. 

JV: It might. I think what’s
damaging about having this fear is it’s not something that just hurts
women, although it does disproportionally hurt women, but it still affects
men as well, and it effects the way men think of masculinity. It affects
the way men think of themselves, it affects the way men think of themselves
in relation to women.  That’s why I included that quote from
the Primotologist where she said if women’s sexuality is muted in
contrast to men’s, then why do countries the world over have laws
that try to enforce it or destroy it? 

LJ: You wonder at the beginning
of the book what about having sex makes women dirty. Do you feel like
you found the answer? 

JV: I feel like I started to
find the answerIn so many different cultures and for
so many years women have been thought of as inherently dirty. 
Maybe that has to do with our anatomy or maybe it’s just misogyny,
or maybe a combination of both of those things and maybe a whole lot
more. I think that outside of the psychological fear men maybe have
of women’s bodies, I think the positioning of women’s sexuality
as dirty and wrong is a really great policing method.  It’s a
way to keep women in check.  It’s really smart of the church. 
Because it lets you have things like abstinence only and reproductive
rights laws.

LJ: You refer to fathers joking
around about locking up their daughters until they’re of age. 
Even very liberal parents seem to do this.  Why do you think that happens?

JV: I think that the purity
myth is so embedded in our culture and our psyches, it’s hard to escape
even for the most progressive people, the most progressive parents.
You don’t have to be forcing your daughter to take a virginity pledge
in order for the fiction of virginity to affect your life.

LJ: What do you think
you achieve from using your relatively colloquial tone?

JV: It’s certainly
not as colloquial as my last book. Writing in a really accessible way
has always really important to me in terms of my politics and in terms
of what feminism should be about. I think politics should be accessible
to people no matter their level of education or political engagement
for that matter. It wasn’t necessarily a deliberate choice; it’s
just the way I do it. 

LJ: In your footnotes you make
amusing asides, often cracking jokes about what you’re writing about. 
What made you think of this and why did you decide to do it? 

JV: I complete ripped that
off from Mary Roach who wrote Bonk as well as Stiff. Bonk
is a book about defiance behind sex and stuff like that. I just found
it incredibly hilarious and she had a thing where she would put her
asides in her footnotes. And of course I am a big fan of parentheticals
and asides, but I didn’t necessarily want it to interrupt the flow
of writing in the text. It seemed like it’d be a good strategy.

LJ:  It seemed like you
sequestered off women of color issues to a few pages at the end of each
section.  Why not devote a full chapter? 

JV: I’m anti the idea of
separating out women of color as if they’re different, or "here’s
the real story, and then I’ll have an aside on them," that kind
of freaks me out. 

LJ: But that’s kind of what
I feel like you were doing. 

JV: Oh really? Maybe it’s
because of the nature of what the virginity movement.  Three quarters
of what the virginity movement is is upholding this idea of what the
perfect virgin is.  What the perfect virgin is is a skinny white
heterosexual woman. And that’s where they center all that work. 
But that said I think that the women who are punished the most under
the purity myth are the women who are perceived as impure. And that’s
everyone else. My feeling is that the punishments are doled out disproportionately
to  women of color, low income women, immigrant women – 
they’re not painted as this perfect virgin therefore not worth of
discords or pedestals or anything like that.  Maybe that’s why
it’s seen that way, because of the way the virgin name has been tested
in their work. They don’t consider themselves centered on whiteness
but they certainly are.  I think for the virginity movement, after
a full education, your ideal of a virgin is white.  And this is
something that bell hooks and other authors have written a lot about,
about the idea of certain women’s bodies being inherently impure and
already damaged and un-virginal and inherently promiscuous.  So
I think that for the virginity movement the majority of those worth
saving are all white. 

LJ: What’s the deal with
the concept of the sexy school girl? 

JV: I realized after I’d
written the book that I should have written about barely legal porn
too. All that I think is related to fetishized virginity. It’s a way
to make it personally acceptable to find little girls sexually attractive. 

LJ: But why do people want
to find little girls sexually attractive? 

JV: Oh why do they want to?
Ooh.  God knows. I think though part of it is girls are not fully
formed, they’re easier to control, whereas grown women are more likely
to have their own opinions, and maybe less easy to control. I think
that ideal of girlishness, even if it’s not the reality of girlishness,
is very much innocent, impressionable, even meek maybe.  I think
it’s pretty much mired in misogyny. 

LJ: To throw one of your own
discussion questions back at you: what do you think it means to be a

JV: I don’t know that there’s
such a thing.  I mean not really. I mean I think if you ask me
what I think it means culturally to be a man, what it means to be a
man in US culture is just not to be a woman.  It’s just this
oppositional definition, which is really too bad.  But if you ask
me what do I personally believe what it means to be a man, my answer
is I don’t know, because it’s all the way we perceive it. It’s
the way we perceive it ourselves, and entrenched all of these stereotypes,
old gender roles that are hard to pull apart.

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