The virginity fetish

Why is our culture so obsessed with girls' chastity? Author Jessica Valenti talks about how purity balls and "barely legal" porn both feed the same idea: That a woman's worth is between her legs.

Published May 16, 2009 10:40AM (EDT)

The world wants a piece of 22-year-old Natalie Dylan -- and not because of her glossy pout, smoky eyes or heaving chest. It's something far more coveted than beauty: her virginity. In a bold move that made headlines around the world this fall, Dylan put her purity on the auction block, promising Mr. Right Price a chance at deflowering her. The current high bid for this supposedly priceless commodity: $3.8 million.

That's just a sideshow in pop culture's chastity circus: Take 16-year-old "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus, who has publicly vowed to wait until marriage, or the raft of other tween idols -- the Jonas Brothers, Disney's Selena Gomez and "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks -- who like to flash their silver purity rings for the cameras. Toss in the popularity of "barely legal" porn, purity balls and costly "hymen repair," and you might start to wonder: What's with the virginity fetish?

That's the question Jessica Valenti, founder of, answers in "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women." As Valenti, the current poster girl for third-wave feminism, writes in her typically snarky tone: It's not like we can just put our "Saran-wrapped hymens away in a freezer" or paste them "in a scrapbook." (Well, we could, but who would want to?) Those types of, uh, vivid arguments are also found on her popular feminist Web site, which bears a logo of the classic mud-flap girl giving the finger. Mixing rude-girl slang with the academic jargon of a feminist textbook, the 30-year-old Rutgers University lecturer knows how to make feminism accessible to a young, apathetic audience: Her first book, "Full Frontal Feminism," featured a generous heaping of the F-word (not the one found in the title) and a butt-naked lady on the cover.

"The Purity Myth," however, is far more mature -- and not in the X-rated sense. Valenti takes on the many ways that a woman's morality and personal worth are tied to her sexual purity -- from abstinence-only education to blaming rape victims, honor killings to finger-wagging over hookup culture. She 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.

Valenti recently sparked controversy by announcing that she's getting married in the fall: Conservative columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez called her a "feminist bridezilla," while some feminists declared she was bowing to the patriarchy and being a traitor to gay rights. One thing is for sure, though: When she walks down the aisle, she will be unceremoniously stomping on the very symbols of pre-nuptial purity that she rails against in her book. The bride will not wear white.

Valenti recently stopped by Salon's San Francisco office during the West Coast leg of her book tour to talk about Bristol Palin, fathers dating their daughters, and the "lie" of virginity.

You start the book by announcing that virginity … doesn't actually exist.

I did not know this [before I wrote the book]. I interviewed a woman named Hanne Blank, who wrote this great book called "Virgin: The Untouched History." She worked at a Web site for teens about sex called Scarleteen, and the question she got most often from teenagers was, “I did such and such, am I still a virgin?” She was like, “You know, I don't know!” So, she went to the Harvard Medical School library to try to find a standard definition for virginity, and she couldn't find one. Apparently, there is no medical definition at all.

Virginity is completely culturally constructed, 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. Queer people are totally excluded -- if you're a lesbian with a number of partners, are you considered a slut? Probably not.

Well, you'd probably be a virgin according to certain definitions --

Right. And if you masturbate constantly, does that make you a slut? What seems to make women “dirty” is the dick.

It seems that, culturally, we can’t conceive of a woman who masturbates a lot but doesn’t have sex. Our brains would explode trying to contemplate the idea.

[Laughs] That’s absolutely true. I hate to sound super women’s studies prof, but it really is phallocentric.

So, what's so harmful about the idea of women “losing” their virginity?

It means that we've lost something that we can't get back. It ties us, and our morality, to our bodies in this way that makes me really uncomfortable. You don't hear people talking about men "losing it" in quite the same way.

For a man it's an accomplishment, not something lost?

Right. 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.” There's real commodification there.

The label “slut” is just one of many punishments used against “impure” women – what are some others?

Oh, there are so, so many. I argue in the book that a lot of reproductive rights policy is used as punishment for women. So much of it is mired in the idea that women shouldn't be having sex before marriage and, if they do, pregnancy is their punishment. There's also disproportionate punishment for women who are seen as impure from the get-go -- queer women, women of color, low-income women, immigrant women.

Generally, though, the most obvious form of punishment is for victims of sexual assault. If a woman isn't a virgin, she's sometimes blamed for the assault. And then sometimes it has nothing to do with virginity. I wrote about the case of a New York woman who was raped and murdered. She was faulted in the media because she had been out at a bar drinking late at night.

That brings up another question: There's plenty of drunken carousing that goes on among the college set, and sometimes two people get equally drunk and have sex. Some people say this is “gray rape,” a situation where consent is fuzzy. Is there anything to that argument?

I think it's a warmed-over new name for date rape. The term came about from Laura Sessions Stepp, who wrote a slut-shaming, moral-panic book called, “Unhooked.” I didn't think the term would get much traction, but then Cosmo ran a story on it.

I don't believe in gray rape. The issue of consent is not necessarily as complicated as we make it out to be. This is actually something that we talk a lot about in the anthology I edited with Jaclyn Friedman called "Yes Means Yes," which talks about enthusiastic consent. The purity myth is related to this as well. We can reframe sex as something that should be a collaborative, partnered event. And, if we redefine consent as not the absence of a “no” but a presence of a “yes,” then maybe we'll actually get somewhere.

You would think it would make for better sex, right?

Exactly! There's a great metaphor that one of the essayists used: You wouldn't dance with someone who was just standing there staring at you. It's more fun to dance with someone who's dancing back. I think men aren't taught to care about that. Instead it's just about getting something, whatever that elusive something is.

Let's talk more about men. There are countless movies about the high school geek who is on a mission to lose his virginity. So, obviously men are affected by the purity myth?

In terms of male virgins, I don't think they're affected nearly as much as women. As you said, male virgins are presented in this jokey way in U.S. culture -- you see them in a doofy movie and that's pretty much it. I think the way that they're most affected is in how they're taught to interact with women and to define themselves in oppositional terms. To be a man you just have to not be feminine -- don't be a girl, don't be a pussy, and don't be a sissy.

You make a connection between the purity movement and porn industry in terms of how they sexualize the virgin/whore dichotomy. Can you explain that?

It's strange. I think that both "Girls Gone Wild" videos and abstinence-only education classes tell women that what's most valuable about them is their sexuality. Porn has all of this “barely legal” and “virgin porn” stuff, where the most fetishized woman is the virgin. It's the same thing with abstinence-only and the purity pushers: The most revered person in their world is the female virgin.

The virginity movement tries to fight against porn, but not really in the ways that you would expect. They spend a lot of time talking about pop culture and TV, not talking about poor conditions for sex workers -- things that actually impact women's lives. Instead, they target consensual sexual encounters between adults and little old ladies selling vibrators at, you know, [sex toy] Tupperware parties. The purity movement needs porn, so they can point at it and say, “ Look, look see all this terrible stuff that is happening!” And then they don't actually do anything about it.

What do you think about the young woman who auctioned off her virginity?

I don't know why we're so surprised by it. This is going to sound terrible, but that's essentially the same thing the abstinence movement is saying: “Hold off until you can auction off your virginity to the person with the biggest ring.” It's really the same thing, only done in a more explicit and economically honest way.

I think it's really interesting whom we decide to call whores. [Natalie Dylan] is a whore because she's being really upfront and honest about it. But you would never think to call a woman who is getting married [for financial security] a whore.

Because she’s going about it in the prescribed way?

Right, she’s appropriately selling her virginity in a way that benefits the dudes around her.

Why do you think the abstinence movement has embraced Bristol Palin?

Well, I don't think they had a choice, really. The interesting thing is that the abstinence-only movement shames teen moms and often tries to get them kicked out of school. In this case, they had to publicly embrace her to show what good Christians they are -- but I don't think that's the treatment that any other teenage pregnant girl would get.

Bristol embodies all of these contradictions behind the purity myth. First, she said that abstinence wasn't realistic. Now she's promoting abstinence and trying to prevent teen pregnancy -- but also saying that her baby is the best thing that's ever happened to her.

How is it that a pop star like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson can announce their virginity at the same time that they're successfully marketed as a sex symbol?

Because they're being exactly what pop culture wants them to be, which is the sexy virgin available for our consumption. We're able to watch them writhe around in music videos, but they're still good girls, so you can also prop them up as role models.

What was really interesting with Spears was that the media and public turned on her once she got pregnant, had a woman's body, became a little heavier, and could no longer be seen as this untouched virgin. People had to look at her as a full-grown woman and not a little girl. That's when they started to deride her and call her a whore, which goes to show that the women we fetishize most are not women but girls.

Which suggests that the purity movement is kind of … impure.

Oh, super impure! Oh my god, are you kidding? Purity balls? I remember watching a video of one with my dad and he was like, “I cannot watch this.” He got really visibly upset. There are just no boundaries at these events -- or with the whole "dating your daughter" trend.

What's that?

Focus on the Family started this mini-campaign to get fathers to “date their daughters” to show them good male role models, I guess. But really the point was taking your daughter out on dates so she knows what to expect when she goes out on real dates -- as if a girl's father is a stand-in until a future sexual partner comes along. The idea that fathers can't interact with their daughters without talking about sex or modeling a romantic relationship is a really disturbing one.

Now, here's a fun topic: Vaginal tightening, labia reductions and "re-virginization" procedures are becoming increasingly popular. What makes the cost and pain worth it?

They're the fastest-growing form of plastic surgery in the U.S.

[Cringes] Is that true?

Yeah, I know -- I'm, like, crossing my legs, “Ahhh!” It seems to be a couple of things: One, a lot of women are going into doctors' offices with Playboy magazines and saying, “I want my vulva to look like that.” There's also this trend of women getting it for their husbands or partners, to make themselves a virgin again for their 20th wedding anniversary.

What I find really fascinating is that in Africa and places outside the U.S. we call it female genital mutilation. But, because you pay $4,000 for it here, it's a designer vagina? It's ridiculous! It's just another way of fetishizing virginity and young vaginas.

That's interesting that women are going into doctors' offices with Playboy, because it seems like women have no other reference for what “normal” lady parts look like. It seems like the surgeries would only perpetuate that problem.

There was actually an OB/GYN organization that called the surgeries really misleading, because so many women don't have an understanding of what a normal vulva looks like. Women think if they don't have -- I don't want to get too explicit -- but if they don't have something that looks a certain way, that they are abnormal.

So, what do you advocate, how do we escape the purity myth?

That was the hard part of the book. It's such a deeply ingrained double standard. What I try to promote in the book is more real-life, everyday stuff that you can do to lessen the effects. For example, making sure that abstinence-only education isn't being taught at your kid's school and teaching them about media literacy. Also, to really open up the door for a conversation about a more nuanced, complex sexuality.

It seems like there's the potential for the wife/whore dichotomy to backfire on the purity movement.

Yes, yes. You're giving women two options: You can either be the virgin or the slut. Once you have sex and you're not the virgin anymore, you have to commit to the other. The binary can definitely have what is an unintended effect of leading young women to have a lot more sex than they normally would.

Right, “I'm already a fallen woman, so why not have fun?” So, here's a pressing question: Is it possible nowadays to be both the wife and the whore? [Cracks up] I mean, is there a way to embrace both of those roles -- to be the committed wife and the sexually driven woman?

Within your relationship you can do whatever you want. But I don't know if there is a way, culturally, to do that. I'm racking my brain trying to see if there are any examples. I don't know that there are.

I'm thinking about Maxim-style celebrities, and I can't think of any who are sexual and respected in a real way.

No, I can only think of sex symbols who are respected in a guys-wanna-fuck-her way. Maybe Angelina Jolie. But she's an oddity.

Well, that's a depressing note to end on.

I'm gonna go out and have a drink.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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