Virginity “So Uncool” According To Jessica Valenti

Among other things, we at Autostraddle enjoy reading, talking feminism, and watching documentaries. Which is why I’m ecstatic to announce that the Media Education Foundation has just released a documentary based on a book about feminist ideals. The Purity Myth, by founding editor of Feministing, Jessica Valenti, will explore how traditional ideas about virginity have been making a comeback.

Valenti believes that conflicting messages from conservatives who push for chastity and the mainstream media who objectify women are nothing more than two sides of the same coin–one that pressures women to put all their self-worth in their sexuality. She explains that  “the lie of virginity–the idea that such a thing exists–is ensuring that young women’s perceptions of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality.

Like all good documentaries, The Purity Myth offers a bit of voyeuristic appeal. I find this particularly useful because like bedbugs or black holes, purity balls, abstinence-only culture, and conservative pundits are things I like to be aware of but hope to never actually come into contact with.

The idea that virginity might not actually exist is something I hope to hear more about in the documentary. Why is it that our culture (among others) puts so much stock in that magical time in a girl’s life when she’s never had a penis inside of her vagina? As one commentator in the preview points out, plenty of people believe so strongly in the concept of virginity that they have every kind of sex except P-in-V sex in order to remain “pure.”

From a queer perspective, virginity isn’t something that’s so cut and dry. The line between what everyone agrees is and isn’t sex is blurry at best, making it harder to place value on what’s really an arbitrary distinction. This week’s “My First Time” on Nerve–which was adorable! I’ll wait here while you go read it– featured a lesbian who was totally upfront about what virginity means to her.

I know that a lot of people disagree about what virginity means to a gay woman, but virginity is totally subjective, and it really depends on who you’re asking. Some people might say penetration has to be involved, but I think it’s up to the person losing his or her virginity. If I feel like I’ve lost my virginity, then goddammit, I have!

(Autostraddle’s views on “is it sex?” are similarly openminded, for the record.)

When sexuality is framed positively, women gain the agency to make decisions about their bodies and take control of their experiences. Who would have guessed?

You can contact your university about buying The Purity Myth. For news about screenings and discussions, follow Jessica’s tumblr.

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  1. Purity balls? Wait, I’m sorry, WHAT?!
    I can’t even. My dad and I don’t talk about sex. Pledging my purity to him would be the biggest embarrassment of his life.

    On a totally different note, I completely agree with the idea that virginity is a different thing to everyone. I had a friend who did a gap year between high school and college and in that time found BDSM culture and absolutely loved it. We were talking about it and she mentioned that despite all of the play she had done, she was still a virgin because she’d never had a man penetrate her vagina with his penis. Which was not to say that strap-ons hadn’t been used to do so or mouths or fingers etc. When I pointed out to her that for a lesbian, that act may never happen, but I didn’t really consider myself a virgin anyway, she got really quiet. It totally rocked her worldview that you could be non-virginal without living-penis/vagina contact.

    • “living-penis” sounds like something out of a horror movie, like that hand tht just walked around.

      And yes, I would never want to talk to my dad about my sex-life and when it will start. Just, no.

      • I was more thinking about the other side of the coin – what would “dead penis” be? Euuggghhhh…

        It’s like those Twilight dildos where you’re supposed to put them in the freezer so they actually would feel like a vampire…meaning, it would feel “dead”…


    • OOOOHH… Purity “balls” like a DANCE. Got it.

      Nevermind whatever I was thinking…

  2. “we want to see our kids wait before they start having babies, and sex.”

    umm…i think you’re doing it wrong if the babies are somehow coming before the sex.

  3. I saw the film yesterday, in fact. It’s very expository: shows a compilation of images and videos with explanations about purity balls, conflicting pressures on women’s sexuality etc. It’s not heteronormative but is only 45 minutes long and thus doesn’t have the time for a lot of commentary on the concept of virginity, particularly in queer life. It’s an incredibly eye-opening and sometimes disturbing view into the purity culture, though, and I highly recommend it.

    • you are so ahead of the curve! i didn’t realize it was only 45 minutes long, but that’s still 45 minutes that i look forward to seeing.

  4. I really recommend Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank for some discussion of how virginity has been defined and valued throughout history. Also, how awful it has been for people. Like women injuring their own vagina to make sure they bleed the first time. Shudder.

    • I second your recommendation. I enjoyed that book a lot. There was a part in the middle where it got a little dry, but the beginning and the end were both really interesting.

      • Which makes it sound like I didn’t like it – no, I loved it! And I highly recommend it, too.

        There is a whole chapter on hymens, which is way more interesting than it sounds – and another one on virginity tests. Apparently they used to believe that having a higher singing voice meant being more virginal, which is hilarious as the current stereotype about sopranos is pretty much the exact opposite…

  5. It just creeps me the fuck out that girls are pledging their virginity to their own fathers. Sorry, what?!

    I feel sorry for moderate Christians when it comes to the religious Right. To be honest, with the same-sex marriage movement in Australia right now, while I know that the voices of the Australian Christian Lobby and their ilk represent only a minority of Australian Christians, I just can’t stand that the Christian groups put so much money and time into complaining about sex on tv, opposing same-sex marriage and all the other lobbying they do. In contrast, the Jewish and Muslim communities just live and let live while letting their views known within their own community. For example: With same-Sex marriage in Australia, the Aus Christian Lobby staged a counter-rally to the one in support and are putting all this money into challenging it in court. What does the Jewish community do? The Orthadox Rabbi council of Australia releases a statement saying they oppose same-sex marriage. And that’s IT. No bleating in the street or organising for money to be spent to ban it. Just a statement of opposition.

    I cannot believe that much money could be spent on abstinence only education. Separate church and state? Sorry, come again?

  6. Does Valenti actually say *virginity itself* is uncool? Because that’s problematic – no one should be pressured to be sexual if they don’t want to. There was a post on Fetlife from someone who had received this thousands-word screed from some random saying basically that she’s a loser for wanting to wait before having sex and for being a virgin at 18 and that the whole point of life was to have sex often especially before settling down etc. I waited a while too – mostly so I could feel safer within myself and know what to do in case of emergencies – and I did feel conflicted with the “No sex ever!” vs “Sex now or you fail!” messages I was getting.

    That said, I also remember being at a youth conference that had somehow been overtaken by a young Moonies group. They were pro-abstinence too, but they were using it as an anti-HIV measure. According to them, the best way to prevent AIDS is to BE ABSTINENT! Even if you’ve ALREADY got the disease and/or you’re dating someone that is! No mention of condoms or safe sex or whatever. Gwargh.

    • i have read the book, and at no point does valenti shame anyone for being a virgin. her whole thing-ie is that there shouldn’t be such an emphasis on virginity since it’s not actually a medical term and also that people shouldn’t slut shame young girls. very good read, i recommend it to everyone.

    • what e said. i was trying to make a joke out of how everyone in high school/high school movies is trying to lose their virginity to be cooler. it was harder than it should be.

    • Yeah, while I understand the article title is supposed to be a joke, the thing is that there are a lot of people who think criticizing the virginity-over-all movement is the same as criticizing virgins. It’s a pretty common straw man that pro-abstinence types like to use against people like Valenti, because it’s pretty much the only argument they have. And frankly, I’ve seen a lot of ostensibly-feminist sites like Jezebel with a double-standard about slut-shaming and prude-shaming, opposing the former while ignoring or even sometimes encouraging the latter. Jessica Valenti and Feministing have never given me that impression, though, and I’ve read all her books except Yes Means Yes.

      • I want “Don’t judge an article by its title” to be the new “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

        • Sorry, I didn’t mean to be harsh I really loved this article! I adored the book when it came out and didn’t know there was a documentary, too, so I’m really happy to find out about it!

  7. I note the purity obsessed mothers don’t “marry” their sons.. because that would be creepy!

    That girl thanking her parents at the ball, was totes suffering from Stockholm Syndome. Give her a few years..

    Also, Britney – lying her pants off :D

    I wonder what Miley would have to say about this topic now? I love how outspoken she’s becoming..

    • Actually, there are sometimes gender-reversed equivalents of those promises, with mothers and sons, though they usually are not framed the same way and aren’t quite as creepy IIRC.

      The abstinence-until-marriage movement likes to have both boys and girls pledging in order to make it look to outsiders like they aren’t as anti-feminist as they actually are, but when you look at the different reasons they give to boys and girls, the patriarchal nature of it is obvious. Girls pledge to “remain pure” for their future husbands, while boys pledge that they won’t “take girls’ purity from” her future husbands. Ughs all around.

  8. I read the book during the Autostraddle Summer Book Club and it was very, very good. I’m excited there’s going to be a companion documentary!

  9. here is something john green once said:
    “We’ve created this aura around virginity as if one’s virginity is a real and tangible thing—but of course it isn’t. Sex and virginity are socially constructed concepts…Our obsessive focus on virginity and sexual purity doesn’t serve anyone. Losing one’s virginity is not an event; it’s a process. Similarly, weddings are events, and signing your marriage license is an event, but marriages are not events. They are processes.”


  10. wait no way! i definitely submitted that article to nerve. nice to see they used it! yay!

    anyways…purity balls? it just seems to me as if people are putting words in young girls’ mouths before they even have a chance to think about virginity for themselves. in other words, brainwashing. but don’t mind me, i’m just a feminist gay girl who doesn’t think that “the truth is, most women take pride in domesticity.” …the fuck?

    • Yeah, those purity pledges usually last about as long as girls are living with the parents – once they get out into the adult world (college or whatever), they tend to disappear.

      Still, I think that even though they’re normally short-lived, the really patriarchal, awful messages they send to girls about their own sexualities and about what they can expect from guys (assuming the girl turns out to be into guys anyway – I can’t imagine what it’s like coming from that kind of environment if you’re queer, it took me long enough to figure it out) don’t always completely go away and they can be quite damaging. Like, my sister has picked up the idea from her pro-“purity” church that she should not ask guys out on dates, and to do that is to “ruin” their future relationship, and unfortunately, that’s not a message that is going to be contradicted by mainstream dating advice. Even a lot of liberal girls think they are “setting a bad precedent” if they do the asking rather than waiting to be asked.

    • Also, that “pride in domesticity” thing is so incredibly vague – I mean, everyone enjoys the outcome after they’ve done something like clean the house, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy the process. And I think you have to kind of enjoy the process to consider it your “calling in life” like people think domestic duties should be for women.

      • i agree. yes. this whole “purity” concept is broadcast as a protection for females, while i feel as though it is quite literally the exact opposite.

  11. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go barf at the mere notion of a purity ball. What absolute horseshit.

  12. What if every woman were encouraged to be free to pursue her sexuality on HER terms? This is what patriarchal society is afraid of and desperate to control. A Purity ball is so incredibly disturbing and anti-woman. . . and a fantastic way to control a female.

  13. When I was in 8th grade we had to do this thing called “True Love Waits” in my Catholic School. You had to read all about how sex is evil and bad and stds will kill you and boys will steal your soul with their penises. But don’t worry if you’re gay, because gay people don’t really exist. Then you had to make a pledge in front of the whole church that basically said, “I won’t have sex til I’m married” and all the girls who had already had sex just smirked and said it anyway and we all moved on.

  14. So when I was 14, my Dad and I went to one of those in Colorado Springs. A friend and his daughter also attended. We wore formal dresses, had been given purity rings for our wedding ring fingers, we signed contracts pledging purity, had a ceremony where we each laid a white rose at the foot of a cross. And then we ballroom danced for the rest of the evening and fathers prayed over their daughters and whispered “I love you,” to them repeatedly.

    It was some crazy shit ya’ll. I was checking out girls in strapless, curve-draping silky dresses all night and sometimes dancing with them. I don’t think that my parents intended that affect.

  15. As a 28-yr-old virgin who has no problem with other people getting it on before marriage and who has never really had a problem with other people having sex before marriage (despite growing up in a very religious household), I gotta say that I hate how this society looks down on virgins.

    Since college, I have met more people in North America who think it is “a problematic issue” or yes “uncool” being a virgin here than I have met who think it is ok. And I’m talking about people having a problem with ALL virgins (talking down about them and making fun of them) no matter the virgins’ reasons for their virginity. And while 28 may be a little bit old :], an 18 year old should not be getting the same feedback from her peers and society. What I’m trying to say is that I think the problem is that nowadays there are many girls (and guys) who feel pressured to have sex when they are not really ready emotionally to do so. And I know that the article title was created as a joke but for some virgins it can be taken as yet another dig at them for being a virgin.

    I can’t say that I am 110% proud to be a virgin but it is my choice. For now. So don’t look at me funny through your computer/laptop/device-of-choice screen :P.

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