Virginity has no bearing on a person's worth, yet 'purity balls' and shaming victims make our culture more medieval than modern
Where does a woman's value lie? In her brain? Her heart? Her spirit?
According to right-wing culture warriors, "between her legs". That's what underlies the emphasis on virginity as "purity", and the push for abstinence-only education. And it has very real consequences, most recently articulated by Elizabeth Smart.
Smart, who was kidnapped and held for months while her captor repeatedly raped her, recently discussed how her religious background made her feel worthless after the first rape – how she understands why others wouldn't even try to escape, if, like her, they were taught that a sexually "impure" woman had nothing to offer.
Smart's speech is largely being interpreted as a critique of abstinence-only education, but she's pointing to an entire culture that fetishizes purity. The more extreme versions of our collective obsession are seen in conservative Christian churches, which offer purity rings, purity balls and sermons that insist wives give their virginity as a "gift" to husbands. But purity culture is mainstream, even in a country where sexualized images of women are on every magazine rack and "Girls Gone Wild" series thrive.
Abstinence-only education is just one example of our bizarre relationship with sex, which can be seen most clearly in the way we treat women. Women and girls being sexy for someone else is more or less OK, as long as no actual sex occurs, and as long as the version of "sexy" has appropriate markers of being middle- or upper-class. Women who exhibit a degree of sexual agency by acting – rather than only appearing attractive – or women perceived as inappropriately powerful or aggressive inevitably face being branded sluts and whores.
The idea that sexual activity damages women and makes them lose their value was articulated by Smart:
"I think it goes even beyond fear, for so many children, especially in sex trafficking. It's feelings of self-worth. It's feeling like, 'Who would ever want me now? I'm worthless.'
That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other. And that's how I'd been raised, that's what I'd always been determined to follow: that when I got married, then and only then would I engage in sex.
After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn't run because of that alone."
Smart's case is an extreme example. But right-wing purity culture damages all women, not just survivors of sexual assault. Feminists have been making this point for decades, perhaps most comprehensively in Jessica Valenti's book The Purity Myth. Valenti notes that the cultural emphasis on virginity teaches young women that their moral center is in their crotch, not in their minds or hearts.
This culture tells women that their bodies aren't really theirs; bodies are only bargaining chips, which can be devalued like a new car driven off the lot. Women aren't inherently valuable, the thinking goes, except so long as we have untouched vaginas to give our husbands (because our partners are always husbands). Virginity trumps intelligence, humor and compassion. The notion that both partners might benefit from having dated around, experimented, and figured out what they enjoy and want from a healthy relationship? It doesn't even register.
It's a view so out of touch that calling it "retro" seems quaint. It's more medieval, harkening back to when women were sold into marriage by their fathers and virgins were the most valued goods. Yet it's on display in schools across contemporary America, at father-daughter "purity balls", on right-wing radio, and in church youth groups.
The dehumanization that purity culture inflicts was described by Smart in her speech when she talked about the sex education:
"I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, she said, 'Imagine you're a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that's like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you're going to become an old piece of gum, and who's going to want you after that?"
Smart says those words rang in her memory. She felt ruined.
Of course, Smart wasn't ruined. There are a lot of words that come to mind when listening to her – resilient, intelligent, thoughtful, wonderful – and neither "ruined" nor "devalued" are among them. Her message is crucial: value isn't maintained, lost or compromised with sexual penetration. We are inherently valuable.
Smart emphasizes a crucial point: sexual assault is a crime, plain and simple, and survivors should be supported, not judged. A cultural emphasis on sexual purity leads to the kind of judgement that Smart internalized. Surely, purity advocates would say that they don't intend to hurt victims – that rape isn't a woman's fault, that she can still be pure of heart after the assault. But that, too, speaks to the fundamental misogyny of purity culture: a woman who has sex forced upon her may still be "good", even if her stock has decreased. Women who act on perfectly natural sexual desire, on the other hand, are tainted physically and morally.
It goes without saying, but it's too important not to repeat: men are not judged as women are for consensual sexual activity. Men who have sex aren't chewed up pieces of gum or moral failures – they're studs.
Men who are raped or sexually assaulted, however, find themselves similarly marginalized. While the feminist movement has done excellent work in creating space for survivors to report crimes and open up, American-style masculinity doesn't leave a lot of room for understanding male victimization. Abstinence education routinely teaches young women that they need to control the brakes of sexual responsibility, putting a halt to the men who only know how to accelerate. There's little recognition of male agency, much less encouragement of men and boys as anything but tough, aggressive and brutish. That has devastating consequences for men and boys who are sexually violated; there's not much language that doesn't feel emasculating.
The same churches that peddle purity don't tend to think very highly of homosexuality; that homophobia, coupled with sexual shame, silences many boys and men who are assaulted by other men. For those who are assaulted by women, the broader cultural assumption that men always want sex puts up even more barriers to reporting and dealing with that abuse.
Purity culture hurts all of us, and it adds an extra level of shame to sexual assault. Smart is just one example. Imagine if the young woman from the Steubenville case lived in a world where consensual sex and sexual assault were understood as two very different things, with no grey area. Imagine if there weren't anything shameful about consensual sex or being sexually assaulted, and that the latter were considered an awful violation – taking a good, healthy, mutually pleasurable activity and turning it into an act of violence. If Jane Doe from Steubenville lived in that world, the media would have told her story quite differently, if there even were a media narrative. No photos, no crude, jokey captions. Her own friends wouldn't have testified against her at trial; they would have stepped in to stop the assault as it was happening.
Imagine, too, if the young women who tragically committed suicide after similar photos circulated around their school, had lived in a world where "sexual purity" didn't exist as a concept, and where women's bodies were considered fundamentally their own. In that world, the shame would fall on the young men who allegedly assaulted them. There would be no bully's satisfaction for circulating photos of either any sexual activity, consensual or not, because neither scenario would be considered humiliating.
As Frank Bruni says in an excellent column about the sexual double-standard:
"Men get passes, women get reputations, and real, lasting humiliation travels only one way."
We all have have qualities and make choices that speak to our kindness, empathy, ethics and intelligence. Whether or not we're sexually "pure" simply has no bearing. But a culture that fetishizes virginity is a culture that's awfully bad for women and men, and that's particularly painful for the survivors of sexual violence.
[Elizabeth Smart via Flickr user KOMUnews]