Why the Purity Message is Insidious and Dangerous

Think about the word purity and what inevitably springs to mind is white: an unadulterated and vibrant hue. Pure white lilies, and maybe even girls in white dresses (with blue satin sashes). But what is purity and why do white-smocked women immediately come to mind?

White is inextricably melded with virginity in Western minds, and the correlation between virginity and women has been linked from time immemorial. A woman's virginity has been her prized possession, to be protected by her, and her father. The loss of virginity outside of holy matrimony has meant for women everything from public shaming to death. Society insists on a false definition of virtue for women. Sexual promiscuity and the moral implications aside, the obsession with purity enforces in young women the idea that their worth as humans lies between their legs. Society insists on a false definition of virtue and young women suffer the consequences of that hypocrisy.

So long as society teaches women our worth lives in our vagina, we are going to hold women to the old Madonna-Whore complex. Women are valued for their virginity, a concept that is more complex than the dictionary definition would have you believe. In Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, she argues that “a combination of forces — our media — and society-driven virginity fetish, an increase in abstinence only education, and the strategic political rollback of women's rights among the primary culprits — has created a juggernaut of unrealistic sexual expectations for young women.” Holding women to a binary standard of pure versus impure reinforces rape culture.

It was only in 2008 that a Tennessee senator mourned the good old days when rape was rape and women were dragon bait (virgins), “Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse.” Oh my pearl-clutching horror! In this definition only virgins, or good women, can be raped. This idea seems so antiquated that it is laughable, and yet the purity myth continues, buttressed by the nostalgic ramblings of Senators.

Elizabeth Smart demonstrated further evidence of the harm that purity culture causes, as a pupil of abstinence-only education she shared her experience being abducted and raped, “after that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone.” Her viewpoint is devastating and indicative of the problem with teaching young women that abstaining from sexual activity is a mark of her worthiness as a human being.

There are headlines in the news every week that ooze with either evidence or prurience or moral panic. Kindergartners are getting in trouble for wearing clothing that is too distracting; Pam Stenzel is zipping around the country telling young women that “If you take birth control your mom probably hates you.” We have a litany of messages forming a crucible of ‘purity’ in which to toss young women, and see who survives. Stenzel goes on at length about how sex is ruining young people’s lives, “If you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous relationship … you will pay” and pushing false information “10x more likely to contract a disease” due to taking birth control (citation needed Stenzel). All too often the abstinence-only educators peddle misinformation about sex.

People are drawn to the idea of abstinence only education due to religious or moral reasoning. The fact remains, whatever the reason; abstinence only education is not effective. In a landmark study, “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs,” conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, focused on four federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in different communities. The study found no evidence that abstinence-only programs increased rates of sexual abstinence. Young women in the abstinence-only model are taught to guard their virtue against young men who, we are all told, "only want one thing." The Abstinence Clearing house makes this message loud and clear with their lipstick shaped pepper-spray especially designed for the ladies!

This purity message is insidious. A woman should not be considered a lady by the presence of her hymen. Women’s virtue should be decided on the strength of her character; her kindness, her courage, her honesty, and integrity should be more important than whether or not she has had sex. We’re complex individuals, not pendants to be passed from father to husband within the institution of marriage.