Cannonball Read! The Purity Myth, by Jessica Valenti

This year I’ve signed up enthusiastically for Pajiba’s Cannonball Read 6, so approximately once a week (hopefully…) I’ll post a review of another, non-Elisabeth Elliot book.  I’m looking forward to powering through 52 books this year, and hearing about the other Pajiban’s reads!

On to the first review, which is a bit of a cheat since it covers the same subjects I’ve been talking about here on my blog for the past month…

#CBR6 Cannonball Read #1: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Rating: 4/5 stars

Feminism and modern evangelicalism, and the tension between religion’s “ought” and human reality, are some of my favorite topics (hence my blog) so I was excited to finally pick up The Purity Myth. I expected to find a book that succinctly examined our cultural and subcultural obsession with the virgin-whore dichotomy, the use and misuse of the concept of feminine “purity” in modern evangelical and American culture, and the political and personal consequences of our preoccupation with virginity.  I was not disappointed.  It’s an easy read, chock full of citations and punchy, convincing sentences.  

Valenti starts out with a look at modern evangelicalism’s obsession with sexual purity–purity balls, purity rings, abstinence pledges, abstinence-only education, etc.  As a former purity-ring-wearing evangelical, I found myself nodding along to her every point.  She then discusses the secular side of the virginity obsession, touching on everything from slut-shaming to the difficulty of convicting rapists, and showing how religious and secular political agendas overlap.  In one of the most convincing sections, Valenti draws ideological connections between hard-core virginity and the hard-core porn that virginity advocates are so vehemently against: she argues (and I agree) that each extreme defines a woman’s worth by her sexual activity alone and are therefore, ironically, two sides of the same coin.  Valenti also does an excellent job of connecting the ideal “pure woman” to class and race, noting with extensive citations that women of color and poor women (or, basically, any woman not blonde, virginal, and middle-class) are almost never considered “pure” by any standard of the myth.

I am often disappointed at the end of infuriating books about current events because the advice at the end, the “so, what should we do now?” is often so weak.  This book ends strongly, with both realistic and idealistic big-picture goals.  She pleads eloquently for valuing women for their characters rather than their sexual history.  I’d happily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in feminism, women’s health, or abstinence-only politics, and wants a little help connecting the dots.  None of the information is new or impossible to find elsewhere, but it’s packaged well and is a good resource.

Rating: 4/5.  The writing is strong, the argument is convincing, and there are good doses of humor throughout, which help bring a little levity to the sometimes-infuriating topics.  I think it’s great that this subject is being discussed in the mainstream by such a capable writer.

I did feel, however, that Valenti was sometimes preaching to the choir–I doubt that I would have picked up this book in the midst of my evangelical fervor.  But I don’t think there’s much she could have done to make the book more appealing to “the other side”, simply because of the nature of the subject.

My other, stronger criticism is that sometimes Valenti gets a little too narrow in her examples in a effort to show how the purity myth permeates so many aspects of our culture.  For instance, she devotes quite a few pages to analyzing men who prefer RealDolls to real women, and then a few more paragraphs discussing those men who mutilate those RealDolls, using these men as an example of the result of de-humanizing and over-sexualizing women.  While I can see why she would find this disturbing, I think that the sample size of RealDoll-mutilators is so small as to be negligible in this context–so much so that it ends up hurting her argument.  I wish she’d spent more time on her other examples — teen pregnancy rates, women’s health access, rape convictions, and slut-shaming, which, unlike RealDolls, are topics that directly affect most of the population and virtually all women.

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