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
feministing.com.  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
imagine.  

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
man? 

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.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

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Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.