Nerve is proud to present an excerpt from The Purity Myth, a pointed exposé of America's virginity obsession by Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti. We've read the whole thing, and it's a harrowing and fascinating examination of some of our culture's most warped values. The Purity Myth is available this month from Seal Press; click here to order on Amazon.

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."

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.

We're teaching American girls that their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable.

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, 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 boyfriend 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.

Commentarium (20 Comments)

Apr 20 09 - 2:01pm
ML

I have a mad feminist crush on Jessica Valenti right now. Great article. I'll definitely read the book. I'd love to see more writing from such an overt feminist standpoint on nerve.

Apr 20 09 - 3:14pm
ls

This was not my experience as a young woman at all (I'm 25 now). I come from a religious (though not evangelical) family, and even went to a religious school up until high school. Despite all that, virginity was always treated as a burden by myself and my teenage friends. We didn't want to have sex with just any old guy, so we were always in a mad race to find a boyfriend so we could get rid of it.

Apr 21 09 - 12:24pm
FL

I think racking up the numbers is overrated. When I was younger I couldn't wait to get some notches in my bedpost... I lost my virginity at 18 and felt like I had some catching up to do. Now at 27 I wish I slowed down a bit and realized that the less is best - I'm not yet in the double digits but only one away. It is good for women and girls to explore their sexuality, but I also believe it is good they still consider it precious.

Apr 21 09 - 1:48am
NUR

I have long thought that the single most dangerous "value" is the connotation of female virginity with female worth. I see both men and women (not boys and girls, but grown adults!) who have the most insane ideas about women based on her sexual history, or lack thereof. I was raised to believe premarital sex was wrong, and while I shook that off and had sex in my early 20's I was surprised by how internalized the message was: I've had sex, I did something wrong, I'm bad. My mother was not upset but told me to never tell my future husband! This was in 2005! Thank you for writing this book, I am very excited to read it and to see there are others who feel the way I do.

Apr 22 09 - 12:46am
jls

just wanted to agree with "ls". while i enjoyed this article, this was not my experience at all. i remained a virgin long after my friends were sexually active not out of any morals, but just because i hadn't found anyone i wanted to sleep with.

my virginity felt like a deep, shameful secret for years and my friends that knew openly teased me about it. more to the point, i never found a man who found my virginity alluring at all. when i finally lost it it at twenty, it just felt like a relief to be "normal". and i never told the guy.

this is deeply colored by my own experience, but i always felt there was far more pressure to be sexually active than not.

Apr 22 09 - 11:24pm
MG

I greatly enjoyed this article as it has made me realize how I have fallen prey to the purity myth. I wrote a response to it on my blog (http://herstorjournal.blogspot.com), and already a friend has told me how much she appreciated the posting, and she ordered the book on Amazon. I have my copy coming, as well. :-)

Apr 23 09 - 1:40pm
ch

Where are you from? Adolescent girls are having sex in droves. 50% of black teenagers have herpes; every girl I knew in high school had at least one abortion and the illegitimate births in this country are over 37% for whites; 57% for Hispanics and almost 80% for blacks. Chastity is not overrated; it is a safeguard for the aforementioned results that inherently damage one's life. Morals is not a dirty word. Hard to live up to maybe, but the concept has endured for some since the beginning for a damned good reason.

Apr 05 11 - 7:27pm
ED

Huh? Chastity might be a safeguard, but since the invention of birth control, chastity has become obsolete. Sex is fun. Why not allow ourselves some harmless pleasure. Also, I think your stats might be incorrect.

Dec 12 11 - 10:31pm
LW

It's not really a debate about whether girls are having sex or not. There are plenty of reasons why people choose to have sex, including natural sex drive. The question is how girls feel about themselves because of their sexual activity - are they ashamed? Do they have sex but have low self esteem because of it? Do they feel sexy and accomplishd? Do they understand why sex may or may not be a good thing for them at that point in their lives? Has anyone helped them think about this in a reasoned manner that speaks to their personal ideas of morality and identity? The author is not advocating an abandonment of morals, but rather a reexamination and healthier definition of them.

Apr 23 09 - 2:27pm
sen

wanted to agree that as a girl, i had always felt far more pressure to become sexually active than to stay chaste. FAR.

Apr 23 09 - 8:00pm
JL

Hate to be the one to call major bullshit on this, but that's what the book sounds like: bullshit. Although it's true that there is a contradicting media pull for women and girls to be "pure" and "seasoned," I would say that that point in itself debunks the author's whole argument. Women should follow an ethical compass not defined by their bodies? Ethics are the collective values of the society, and when society is clearly pegging you as a saint or whore, then ethics kind of go out the window. This of course feeds into the current trend of communal thinking where everyone is expected to share the same values and -isms: feminism, environmentalism, evangelicalism, etc. If you don't, then some media figure will condemn YOU and everything you stand for, which ultimately means the whole country stands around pointing fingers at each other calling each other "amoral" and "incompassionate" for a plethora of bullshit reasons. And obviously, Jessica Valenti is no different.

The problem is, our bodies, our virginity, and our morals are all very personal things. Ethics are the things that you can take or leave. To have morality based on them is ridiculous, if not downright stupid. How you treat your body and your vagina, though perhaps not virginity, is a very accurate moral indicator: most people would agree that there are serious emotional, psychological, and physical consequences. Not everyone should glorify virginity, but sex has to do with how much you value yourself with this very intimate act between two people. It's not just some unsubstantial fun to throw around.

I am completely not a virgin, and was not very emotionally cautious about the people I was having sex with. I deeply regret that I didn't wait till I was maybe a little older and better judge of character to share it with someone who would be able to appreciate it and me because it is not separate from me; it's a part of who I am.

Mar 27 11 - 4:27pm
Jessica Metaneira

Wrong. You can be a very moral person and still be sexually adventurous.

Apr 23 09 - 8:53pm
LT

Thank GOD! I have been saying these things for years (I even wrote a paper about them in college with a strikingly similar title...) and finally I feel vindicated and not like I'm the only one in the world that finds our society's virginity fetish so disturbing. Reading this was almost better than sex...

JL-I don't think she's saying that we should treat sex casually. She's only saying that girls are encouraged to measure their self worth in terms of their sexual experience, or lack thereof, and that that is harmful. It's perfectly valid to be concerned about girls becoming sexual active at tender and vulnerable ages, but we should do so because we care about their emotional and physical well-being, not because we equate sexual inexperience with moral purity.

Apr 24 09 - 1:21am
fm

you need to look into the laws of modesty in judaism:

http://desiretoshare.com/romance.htm

Nov 18 10 - 2:51pm
Dave2

"Despite all that, virginity was always treated as a burden by myself and my teenage friends. We didn't want to have sex with just any old guy, so we were always in a mad race to find a boyfriend so we could get rid of it."

Just look at the language youer' using. "Virginity was a burden", and we wanted to be rid of "it".

Valenti's point is that there is no "it", because virginity is not a thing. At most, it's a state, but as she shows, it's not even definable as that.

"Chastity is not overrated; it is a safeguard for the aforementioned results that inherently damage one's life. "

Well, first of all, not all of the aforementioned results "inherently damage one's life". Neither abortion nor illegitimate births do that. And second, yes, chastity would prevent them, but so does protection and birth control. And chastity has its downside too!

"Morals is not a dirty word."

No, but chastity has nothing to do with morality. To equate the two is indeed "dirty".

"Ethics are the collective values of the society, and when society is clearly pegging you as a saint or whore, then ethics kind of go out the window. "

Uh, WHAT?

No, that's not what ethics are. That is sometimes viewed as what morals are, but either way, most people believe in a view of ethics that is more grounded in reality than that.

That is, ethics concern what is actually *right and wrong*, not what a given society thinks is right and wrong.

And by no serious ethical theory is promiscuity ethically wrong.

"you need to look into the laws of modesty in judaism:"

Why?

Apr 05 11 - 7:23pm
ED

I agree with Jessica Valenti. I lost my virginity at 16, and nothing really changed. I still consider myself to be a good person. People do really make a huge deal out of nothing.

Dec 03 11 - 2:16am
DonHerbarni

I enjoyed this, great stuff! Stop by and say hi sometime hotels in windermere

Dec 12 11 - 10:26pm
LW

Hm, don't know why I'm just finding this now two and half years after it was published, but I think this is a really important topic for us to be talking about as a society. I think the idea raised in this article of the dichotomous attitude towards sex is actually more prescient than the emphasis on purity. Absolutely, I believe that there are a lot of very negative attitudes perpetuated by emphasis on purity, and that this shows up in surprising ways throughout our culture. At the same time, though, there is this massive tide in pop culture that hypersexualizes teens and people in general. So whether you felt like a bad person because you had sex in high school, or you felt pressure to lose your virginity, either one is unhealthy and both are messages that are communicated regularly in our society. Sex drive, sexuality, and sexual decisions are all very personal and people should be encouraged to make these decisions for the right reasons. Namely, for what works for you, your lifestyle, and your personal ideas of morality, and not what your family, peers or favorite television show tells you. People should be helped to understand the sometimes very serious consequences of sexual decisions (AIDS in the absence of proper protection, broken hearts, the responsibility of creating a life and whether you believe in abortion or not should that situation arise- because no birth control is 100%), but this should by no means be equated to an ethical decree. I just think that as a society we need to provide people with a healthy perspective on sex - to feel comfortable with sexuality in its many permutations, to not be confused by mixed messages, to balance responsibility with fun.

Dec 12 11 - 10:43pm
LW

Shoot, I forgot to mention that even if you decide that sex in high school is ethically wrong, for example, this does not mean that it has the ability to completely define you as a person or as a moral being. So let's say that you believe that abortion is murder, and that it is wrong to create a child you can not care for. I would argue that this opinion ought to be respected, because people have the right to define what feels right to them and what doesn't. In that case, it would be irresponsible to have sex when you are not in a position to raise a child if need be. Using birth control significantly decreases the immorality of the action, particularly if it is a highly effective method like the pill, unless of course you also believe that contraceptives are murderous. Making an irresponsible decision, however, does not make you a terrible, irredeemable person! I have a moral code that I try really hard to stick to, but that doesn't mean that I don't ever slip up. I don't think "now I'm a horrible person, ruined forever." I think "I'll do better next time." That's the point. People are more complicated than "good' or "bad". Behaving irresponsibly in one area of your life does not make you universally bad or irresponsible. The problem is when people start defining an entire person's character based on their behavior in regards to one specific ethical guideline, when there are hundreds or thousands of ethics within any given ethical system.

Jun 24 12 - 8:40pm
EK

This just makes me mad. I am a virgin, but not because I want to be a 'good-girl' or because I've never had a boyfriend, but because I believe that my body is a temple, and my virginity is a gift that I believe my husband should receive on our wedding night. I don't care if that makes me seem 'uncool' or 'not hip', your worth is not in your body, but in the fact they we are daughters of a King and God who fights for our hearts. In saving my virginity, I am not making a statement, but rather protecting my heart. I want my husband to explore sexual things with me when we are married, I am not a piece of meat, but rather a beautiful gem meant to be treated with tenderness and respect. That is not saying that if you've had sex you are no longer a gem, you are! Women everywhere are gems, no matter who you are or what you've been through. Your virginity has nothing to do with your value, you are valuable because you were created as you. I may be a romantic and a lover at heart, but I will fight for the things I believe in. Sex was created as a beautiful, sacred thing and our society has turned it into something to be thrown around like it's no big deal. Sex is not only physical, but emotional and beautiful, something sacred and should be treated as such.