I recently read The Purity Myth by feminist writer Jessica Valenti.
At first, I really identified with this book. I’ve been through many Christian sex education classes and I’m only just beginning to realise some of the deeper effects this has had on my sexuality and the way I view gender roles.
When I got my first boyfriend at 14/15, my mother gave me a sex talk. She sat me down on the bed pulled out a tissue. She began ripping this tissue into shreds: “This tissue is your purity. Every time you give your body to a boy, a piece of yourself is ripped away and you can never get it back. You can never be whole again. One day, when you find a husband, all you will have to give him is a ripped up, incomplete, worthless tissue. Sex is special. Sex is sacred. So save it for marriage.”
This is pretty much the only time she’s ever attempted to “teach” me about sex. Every other time she has mentioned sex to me is basically having a go at me for wanting to have it.
Of course, when I was 14/15, I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to marry this boyfriend of mine. He was my true love, so we got a little bit sexual, the tissue thing didn’t mean a whole lot to me.
However, when this boyfriend dumped me, feelings of shame and regret consumed me. I had sinned against God, I had sinned against my parents, I had sinned against my future husband, I had sinned against my own body. I was dirty, tainted and tarnished. I would never be completely pure again. I asked for forgiveness and eventually got over it, as my doubts grew and faith dwindled.
Now I’m an atheist, and I’ve been thinking about this rather traumatic experience. I don’t understand why sexual activity makes someone dirty, I don’t understand how it takes something away from me. It is just another life experience. The skewed Christian view of sex is what makes people feel dirty, used and empty, not sex itself.
These Christian conservatives describe sex in extremely negative terms. It results in the loss of one’s health, self esteem, freedom, happiness. My thoughts on this echo Valenti’s:
“When did sex become such a downer?…These are fighting words for those of us who see sex as a healthy expression. Would it be so terrible to talk about sex in a way that acknowledges how wonderful it can be?”
When I began actually having sex, it turned out to be great for my health, self esteem, freedom and happiness. Obviously, sex isn’t so great for every teenager. But Christians shouldn’t hide the fact that it can be.
Another thing that Valenti wrote really stood out to me and challenged my thinking. I used to think abstinence was about self-respect because it ensures your partner values your heart and personality more than your sexuality, but as Valenti explains, the purity thing can easily turn people into sexual objects:
“By focusing on girls’ virginity they’re actually positioning them as as sexual objects before they’ve even hit puberty.”
In Pop Culture, the value of a person is often determined by how sexy they can be. In Christianity, the value of a person is often determined by their virginity. The church would never admit it openly, but illustrations like my mother’s tissue make it pretty clear. Either way, an individual’s value is determined by sexuality, not their personality, not their morality. These world views are just as shallow as each other.
There were some things in Valenti’s book that I disagreed with though.
It focused on how females are affected by the Purity Myth, and barely said anything about it’s effects on boys and men. I guess that’s the feminism coming out, but it seemed more like sexism to me. I’m not American, so perhaps the situation there is different to what I have experienced, but in my school and church, boys have been encouraged to be abstinent just as much as the girls have. If anything, they’ve probably had it shoved down their throat even more than the girls have, because they (supposedly) have a sex-drive that is more difficult to control.
Another thing I didn’t really like about the book was how Valenti blamed struggles women go through on patriarchy. She argues that men want to control women’s sexuality, that they do not trust women to make responsible decisions about their own bodies. I think religion is the culprit, not men. The men are just obeying the Word of the Good Lord.
Despite this, The Purity Myth is an important book and it addresses some deeply damaging effects of Christianity.