I’ve recently started reading Jessica Valenti’s book ‘The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women’. The book is simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. It argues that America’s intense focus on chastity and purity is damaging to young women. Through analysis of the controversial abstinence-only curriculum and ‘purity balls’ to the opposite end of the spectrum with “Girls Gone Wild” – Valenti suggests that there is more and more emphasis on the idea that a young woman’s worth rests entirely on her sexuality and morals are linked purely to sexual behaviour, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and compassion.
I grew up in a the UK in a Christian household, the eldest of three daughters of Salvation Army Ministers and, while purity was, of course, a part of moral discussions and guidance within our family – at no point did I ever feel that my worth and value as a young woman lay solely in whether or not I remained a virgin until marriage. My parents placed kindness, compassion, honesty, generosity, gentleness, courage, faith and love much higher on the agenda. In talks around purity with my mum (my dad tended to steer clear of such discussions!), we were taught that our body was our own, the importance of self-respect and not taking decisions lightly or rushing into it. While abstinence was spoken about, at no point did I feel that I would be shunned, dismissed, devalued or unloved if I lost my virginity before marriage. And for all this, I am always thankful. I am thankful that my parents saw the importance of building up our value as young women on far more than our sexuality. They gave us a love of people and taught us to value people for who they are, not their experiences. They taught us kindness, honesty and compassion, and that the importance of being generous with our time, our patience, our talents and our gifts. They taught us that we are beautiful and to be strong and courageous young women. And not once was any of this linked with whether we were virgins or not!
In America, the right-wing push for abstinence-only education and emphasis on sexual purity has very real consequences. It builds a world where a young woman’s value lies not in her heart, her soul, her mind or her spirit, but rather ‘between her legs’. This has particular consequences for survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Elizabeth Smart – now an activist against child abuse and sexual exploitation – was kidnapped when she was 14, raped and held for nine months before she escaped. She has spoken about how abstinence education and purity culture is what is responsible for making her feel worthless, defeated and devalued. If all of our value is determined by what does or doesn’t happen between our legs then it implies that you either have value, or you don’t.
“You have value, you will always have value, and nothing can change that.”
– Elizabeth Smart –
Abstinence-only sex education increases the shame and fear many young people (both male and female) experience regarding sex. In turn, this can make it more difficult for survivors of sexual assault, abuse and rape to speak out or get help. If I am continually told that the most valuable part of who I am is my virginity, than what I am really being told is my only value is my sexuality. And if that purity is gone, whether through my own choice or through the ordeal of assault or rape – how can I find value in myself as a person? Where do I find my self-worth if my only value has been taken away? What kind of a message is that to send to young people?
We must teach young people from a very young age that they are worthy of love no matter what happens. Your body is your own, and you have an intrinsic and infinite worth that no one and no thing can possibly take that away.