June 17, 2014

Purity Culture and Choosing to Abstain:
They are totally not the same thing.

I really struggled before deciding to write this response piece. You see, for one, the author of the original is a teenage girl, and thus it doesn't feel right to snark much.

And for another, I truly see my teenage self in her.

The Christian Post published the column--Hypocrisy from the 'No Slut Shaming' Crowd--on Sunday. It's Father's Day themed piece.

Claire is staunchly defending her life choices against the "liberal feminists". She uses as her inspiration a piece written by Tracy Clark-Flory on May 16, 2009 called the Virginity Fetish. This piece was a delightful interview with Jessica Valenti.

Claire's position can be summed up like this:
This new pressure, namely liberal feminists, accuse me and other teenage girls who wear purity rings and pledge to save sex for marriage, of valuing our virginity too much. Umm, what?
However, this, the central premise of the column, is flawed when you read the article that it references. In fact, the article never references individuals at all--it references Purity Culture as a whole and as a destructive force, something that I, having lived through it, greatly agree with.

Clark-Flory (or really, Valenti, since most of the post is her direct quotes in answer to interview questions) is not arguing that it is wrong for young women to choose to be abstinent. What she argues against is the cultural connotation of virginity.
[Valenti] points the finger of blame back at conservatives and argues that it's the myth of virginity, not "Girls Gone Wild," that's hurting this generation of young women. Those two competing influences have more in common than some might think: Both teach women that their most valuable commodity is their sexuality.
Claire asks, "Why then is my choice being scorned?", when in reality, it's not her choice at all that is being scorned--it's a culture that emphasizes a woman's sexuality, virgin or otherwise, to the exclusion of the women as people themselves.

Claire says:
I made a commitment, before God and my parents, that I would do my best in all things, including relationships. I wear my purity ring as a symbol of faith and that commitment.
I must say, the irony of her slipping in the idea of "doing your best in relationships" and purity while at the same time claiming that the "no slut shaming crowd" is guilty of hypocrisy for judging people that choose to abstain is laughable to me, but I digress.

Clair also says:
Tracy stated that a girl's value shouldn't lie in whether she's a virgin or not. I agree, and the same should apply to those who are. Liberals such as Tracy claim you can be free with your sexuality while in the next sentence implying that unless you are willing to give it all away you are a prude and not worth anyone's time. Unfortunately, I know more than one girl who bought into this lie and, no surprise, they're not happy with the result. Any conversation about it tends to go the same, "How will I tell my husband?"
Again with using "liberal" as a pejorative term. I don't understand this. Is being a conservative equally bad? If it isn't, why is it okay for this to be used negatively?

I'd like to point out, again, that Tracy and Jessica never said that women that don't have sex are prudes. They never said that abstaining was a bad thing. They did say, repeatedly, that societal pressure to refrain from sex for moral reasons was damaging, and again, as someone that grew up in purity culture and came out the other side, I agree.

I also find it sad that this young woman, who later talks about wanting college instead of dirty diapers, defines herself in terms of what her future husband would think of her.

Here's the truth, from a mother and stepmother: If someone is going to look down on my child because of their past sexual exploits, then that person is not, in a million years, worth of my child. If some man looks at my stepdaughter (presuming that she chooses not to abstain) and says, "You are less than because of this", that man gets a boot up his ass. My boot. The one with six inch stiletto heels.

My children are worth so much more than their sexuality.

Repeatedly, Claire argues that Tracy doesn't understand virginity. In fact, what Valenti says on the matter is:
Virginity is a completely cultural construct, and obviously we each have our own individual understanding of what virginity is, but it's often a really limiting version of sexuality that doesn't include certain types of intimacy that are pretty important.
According to Valenti, part of dealing with rape and purity cultures will be "[reframing] sex as something that should be a collaborative, partnered event." That means people, couples, should decide together when they are ready for sex.

My absolute favorite line of Claire's, the one I have saved for nearly the end, is this:
The person who compares love and self respect to prostitution obviously doesn't understand what a purity ring, or even purity in general represents. As a teenage girl, I can not [sic] disagree strongly enough with this portrayal of young women who have committed to preserve their virginity until marriage as greedy, unscrupulous women seeking to purchase financial security at the price of their own bodies.
For context, Tracy's piece mentions that "scandal" where 22 year old Natalie Dylan attempted to auction off her virginity. She used the current bid at that time (five years ago...) of $3.8 million to emphasize the high price that society puts on virginity.

What Valenti said regarding virginity and marriage was this:

As a woman, you have something of value and you're supposed to hang on to it for as long as you possibly can until you get an appropriately shiny ring to "give it up for." That's real commodification there.
She was in no way, as you can see from the context, implying that these are "greedy unscrupulous women". Consistently throughout the piece, Valenti argues that society commodifies virginity--NOT WOMEN WHO CHOOSE TO ABSTAIN. I really can't emphasize that enough.

As for the idea that love and respect are tied to virginity, I think that's a topic for another day. It's also a strawman of epic proportions. Claire is attacking the idea that Valenti has compared the two ideas on some equal ground, that both are seeking to make money from their virginity. I'm not faulting her for this, honestly, because she is young and naive and it's a typical young and naive point to make.

The fact is, those are not at all the grounds that Valenti is arguing the comparison from. She's comparing the commodification of virginity by society--not by individuals. Again, I really can't emphasize that enough.

Over and above the obvious fact that Claire has missed the point, she's also missed out on something far greater. Reducing women to their virginity's status leaves them at significant risks. In some cultures, it's even gone as far as female genital mutilation--the need to prove that a girl is pure, and to make sure she never becomes impure. It leads to women being forced to marry their rapists. In the Bible, not only could they be forced to do so, but they could be stoned. From Deuteronomy 22 (emphasis mine):
20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.
Purity culture is, in fact, damaging. These ideals are, in fact, damaging. They underscore honor killings around the world. Just last week, Iranian journalist-in-exile Masih Alinejad was derided in state-run media. How? They claimed she was raped in the streets of London by three men--because the worst thing that can happen to a woman in a culture underscored by these principles is sex.

At the end of the post, Claire cites statistics on teenage pregnancy and how it impacts young women. It's true that this is an issue that teen parents face. What she fails to realize is that the abstinence-only education that has been presented in our school systems isn't helping matters. Not only does she make this false equivalency, but she also implies that Valenti (well, she keeps addressing Tracy) actually believes fathers should be uninvolved, because Valenti takes issue with dads dating daughters and Purity Balls (both creepy traditions). She argues that studies show that involved dads have kids that make it through college more often. That's true, but I'd ask: How's it relevant? If Claire truly defines her father's involvement in her life as his interest in her purity, then I would say she has proven Valenti's point beautifully.

I very much disagree with Claire's last point:
Instead of joining with liberal feminists like Clark-Flory in scorning fathers who participate in purity ring ceremonies for their daughters, this Father's Day we should honor the young women who stand strong in the face of societal pressure and the men who continue to choose to protect their daughters' purity. To stay pure is no small feat. It requires dedication and willpower. Those who succeed should be hailed as heroes, not shamed.
Choosing to abstain is but one choice for one's sexuality. I don't think anyone should be hailed above any other. Let's instead focus on empowering young people to own their sexuality--whatever they decided to do with it.

I have written before that I grew up in purity culture. I was raised to believe that my virginity belonged to my husband, and I was taught that I would feel incomplete and dissatisfied if I had sex before marriage.

Unlike Claire, I did not abstain. I had sex. My only regret about the situation is the years that I spent feeling guilty for breaking some arbitrary moral standard. To me, it did not feel wrong to move my relationships in that direction. For the most part, I was safe and responsible. Yet I carried that weight of guilt for years--even through my relationship and engagement to the man who is now my husband.

For years, I carried the idea that I was now worthless--and this idea is not unique to women that grew up in purity culture. Elizabeth Smart has spoken out countless times on how her upbringing in purity culture left her feeling worthless and wondering who would want her after she was abducted and raped. She felt like she was the "chewed gum" from so many illustrations. I remember reading her words on the subject for the first time and feeling heartbroken. I connected so deeply.

The bottom line? Young people choosing to abstain from sex is not a bad thing. Our cultural obsession with virginity is not.

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