Tikkun Olam Tuesday: The Purity Myth

I have already mentioned my love for Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but I have specifically been enthralled by her year-long series about Sexuality and The Church. Many of the books on the reading list for this series didn’t seem like a good fit for me – I would get too frustrated reading them, too focused on hermeneutics, or I feared that they would make me cry. However, Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth seemed right up my alley. Just the kind of thing that this one-time Cultural Studies major would love.

Having finished The Purity Myth, I am beyond frustrated and not sure what I think exactly. I am particularly confused because I expected to fully support her argument/writing from beginning to end. I was cheering Jessica on through all of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, but hit a wall in Chapter 3.

I love where Jessica began. What I kept thinking as I read the beginning of her argument was that she makes such a good point – counter-culture is just the other side of the same coin that is mainstream culture. You can’t shift paradigms with a counter-culture; large shifts can only be made when one thinks out of the box. If there is mainstream culture and counter-culture, what is most compelling is to think about the 3rd option. This is where I thought she was heading.

But then Jessica got really bogged down in telling the reader not only what Conservative Christianity is doing to set women back a century, but also what their “true intentions” are. It is her value judgments about what Conservative Christian writers/churches/etc “really believe” that I found difficult to wade through.

There were glimmers of what I was hoping she would say and the arguments I was hoping she would make. In Chapter 3 “Forever Young,” p.62-63, Jessica writes

“Bratz dolls, provocative Halloween costumes, and panty-less pop singers dominate public discourse and outrage, while even more obvious (and, arguably, more dangerous) sexualization of girls – like trafficking, rape, and child pornography – isn’t given nearly the same amount of attention. It’s no coincidence that these more serious issues are ones that overwhelmingly affect low-income girls, girls of color, and young women who don’t match the American virginal ideal.”

I was really hoping that she would discuss human trafficking, rape, and the plight of women outside of the United States in more detail. It’s like the story Rachel Held Evans wrote about Zarmina; her experience impacted how Rachel felt about your own experience as a Christian and a woman. What do the stories of women elsewhere in the world tell us (women of any faith or religion) about how we should treat women in the United States? And is the way we treat women in the United States complicit somehow in the way women are treated around the world? If we, in “developed nations,” reduce women to their sexuality, do we and can we have any authority to protect women in the rest of the word from being reduced to their sexuality and suffering because of it? Which is to say nothing about violence against women in these “developed nations.” I kept waiting for her to go in that direction, but instead she spent the bulk of Chapter 3 telling me what was “really going on” at Purity Dances.

Jessica actually echoed the frustration that I was feeling in a footnote in Chapter 3, on page 67,

“When I first came across purity balls, I wondered if my feminism had jaded me too much. Maybe they were just daddy/daughter dances that I was imbuing with sexual meaning. So I showed my father some video footage of a purity ball and asked what he thought. The color drained from his face and he said, ‘Jessica, that’s truly fucking weird.'”

Sigh… perhaps her father wasn’t the best audience for that question? I don’t know.

I can’t speak about Purity Dances with any authority, so while I may think they are ‘weird,’ I can’t speak to what is “really going on” within that particular area of Purity Culture. And, problematically, I just didn’t feel like I could trust that Jessica had any more authority to evaluate Purity Dances than I did. I am so frustrated by my lack of reliable primary sources on this topic. The only place I could think to come from was to compare a Purity Dance to a Bat Mitzvah. While the Bat Mitzvah as an institution is fraught with its own complicated pitfalls – particularly as it relates to the potential cost of the event – as a rite of passage I think it’s focus is good. The process of becoming Bat Mitzvah focuses not only on Biblical education, but also on ownership of one’s own Judaism. There is actually a prayer that the parents say during a Bat Mitzvah, abdicating all responsibility for the child’s ritual life from that day forth. This, when done correctly, is empowering and seems like a much better model for our daughter’s stepping into religious life as young women. However, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to write off any Father-Daughter dance as all-bad. In fact, while I was reading this chapter, Sarah Bessey wrote beautifully about her father taking her daughter to a dance. It would seem that from Jessica Valenti’s writing in this chapter, that she would see no value in any (Grand)Father-Daughter dances. It seems to me that Jessica’s focus, while not entirely wrong, is at least slightly off.

I kept reading the book, rushing through it in fact, hoping that she would revisit the groundwork that she laid down in the first two chapters. And she did at the very end of the book, but only in a footnote! Here is what I was hoping she would say the whole time, but she hid it in a footnote! In Chapter 10, “Post-Virgin World,” on p. 213, Jessica says

“For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t really care what women do sexually, and neither should you. In fact, that’s the point. I believe that young woman’s decision to have sex, or not, shouldn’t impact how she’s seen as a moral actor.”


(In all fairness to Jessica, this message echoes throughout the book, but I felt like she consistently buried it, devoting only a sentence here or there to this idea. Like in Chapter 4, “The Porn Connection,” on p. 96, when she said “the thing is, naked women aren’t the problem – a woman believing her only value is sexual is what’s dangerous.” Yes, Jessica, Yes! I so wanted her to say more about this. And I just felt like she didn’t.)

I truly felt like this was the message of the book, but it got so lost in her condemnation of Conservative Christian women writers. And yet, I didn’t feel like Jessica offered a flushed out model to replace the specific Conservative Christian model that she spent so much time condemning In Chapter 5, “Classroom Chastity,” on p. 120,

“I believe it’s time to take a stance on sex education that isn’t so passive – young people deserve accurate and comprehensive sex education not just because they’re going to have sex, but because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Allowing educators to equate sexuality with shame and disease is not the way to go; we are doing our children a great disservice. Not only are we lying to them, we’re also robbing them of the joy that a healthy sex life (as a teenager or in adulthood) can provide.”

So I’m left wanting more from Jessica. In Chapter 10, Jessica discusses ways for women to get involved in pro-women causes and conversations, but I wanted more. How do we teach young women that they are so much more than their sexuality, while also answering the question of what they should “do with” their sexuality? Can a teenager even have a healthy sex life? She puts that claim out there, but where is the evidence to back that up? Just because I don’t believe that teenage or pre-marital sex condemns a woman to a life of poverty/shame/disease, does that mean that necessarily it follows that teenage or pre-marital sex is necessarily healthy and joyful?

I also wish that Jessica had handled with more care the Conservative Christian women writers with whom she disagrees. How do we find a way to support women whose view of sexuality and gender roles is so radically different from our own? Are we really pro-women if we can’t find a way to respect those women who disagree with us? As I have been reading recent news stories about the Women of the Wall and I pray that they will be safe, I can’t stop thinking about how hard it is to be a woman. It should always be safe to be a woman when you are with other women, right? Can’t we at least start there?


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