Media Review – “The Purity Myth”

“Starting from the premise that there is in fact no medical or scientific definition of virginity, The Purity Myth offers a crisp and compelling refutation of the obsessive claim that ‘saving it’ means saving the world.” – Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Editor of


Featuring: Jessica Valenti
Executive Producer: Sut Jhally


Long story short, “The Purity Myth,” as an idea, is about America’s obsession with “virginity,” “purity” and the worth of young girls based on sexualization, whether it’s abstinence of experience that gives them “value.” The book, published in 2009 got picked up for a documentary spin by the Media Education Foundation in 2011.

While I watched the film (and LOVED it), Nicole read the book. Below are our reactions and ideas:


Film poster

It kicks misconceptions, contradictions and inequality out of the water. With the intensity of a graduate course in Human Sexuality, the slap-in-your-face delivery of a passionate protestor and the opinions of a clearly educated and clearly frustrated feminist, “The Purity Myth” debunks false ideas about values in our culture and how pushing them on young women is detrimental.

Valenti really burns the bridges of traditionalism when she breaks apart the essence of the “power of virginity,” such a cliched idea in our culture. No, I have no problem with people having sex, a little or a lot or none at all, but I do have a problem with is when so much emphasis is placed on a girl’s sexuality and understanding of her sexuality as “worth,” that she can only view herself and her own power as sexual.

And oh the horror of the Purity Balls that Valenti scorned and steamed over! They are horrifying, they are repulsive and they are all-around a complete unbalanced portrayal of familial control and self-esteem. The patriarchy, as usual, is too much to bear! Who could ever think that hosting a big formal party where little girls promise their “purity” and “virginity” to their fathers was a good idea?!?! Whether metaphorical (or physical *shiver*), it’s creepy and teaches girls that they don’t have control over their bodies and decisions.

The movie was great and I am so glad I watched it with an audience of close to 100 feminists at a closed screening at Suffolk University in Boston. The experience was special and enlightening and helped me to better grasp why feminism is so important to who I am and the world around me.


Book cover

Jessica Valenti is incendiary. Underlined and everything. She wields a double-barreled shotgun of sarcasm and insight, and woe betide you if your ass is anywhere near her target. I ate her words up, ready to have some clarity of thought at last. Her prose voice is compelling, not overly academic or highbrow. Reading Purity feels like a conversation with a very confident, articulate dinner date.  While reading, I often had the urge to leap up and dance for joy, as if Valenti had just scored a point at a debate. Why aren’t non-heterosexual couples part of the purity discussions? Why would a government that supposedly supports separation of politics and religion fund abstinence-only education? Why is a woman’s sexual history used to assign her value, instead of, oh say, her INTEGRITY?

Yes, she is persuasive, citing her facts and numbers extensively, and for most of the book I absorbed her agenda like a sponge. And that’s the danger. While I read, I agreed with her so often that I began to accept her word as infallible. Thank God there are a few moments in the footnotes where she becomes reflexive, acknowledging that she is by no means an objective onlooker. It reminded me to insert my own thoughts into the dialogue, to question and probe before accepting every point she made.

In pushing her argument, I find that the author goes too far the other way to the point where sincere religious beliefs aren’t given the respect they deserve. For example….Abstinence-only is a ridiculous sex-ed curriculum choice, and safe sex needs to be taught, period. But I believe that schools should provide an option for a religious exemption from a safe sex class. Basically, give people a choice. If someone believes she will be sinning, let her choose not to attend that class session. Bottom line: religious chastity deserves exactly the same amount of respect as responsible, safe intercourse.

Because, let’s say it again, sex does not define your value as a person. Judge people by their honesty, their compassion, and their self-disipline. While you may disagree with the person’s choice of when and how to become sexually active, that doesn’t mean you get to treat them with less respect.

With her words, Valenti destroys preconceived notions about “virginity” and suggests a new frame of reference where sexual status is not the beginning and the end of a person. While I give that a round of applause, I also note that freedom to disagree and be heard is essential when struggling with issues on this gigantic of a scale. Hopefully, for Jessica and the rest of us, The Purity Myth will not be the final word on the matter.