There are a lot of things that genuinely bother me about the way our society treats women. I have talked about many of them and many more will come up sooner rather than later. However, there is one thing that patriarchy puts forth that actually disgusts me: our concept of virginity. Big name feminists like Jessica Valenti closely associate our concepts of virginity with what she brilliantly calls the purity myth.
What the purity myth means, in a nutshell, is that morality is inseparable from one’s sexual behavior. I personally remember this being beaten into my head from pretty much every adult (with the exception of my parents) from the time I knew I had a vagina. I can remember it like it was yesterday. Eighth grade health science with Ms. Greene, the long awaited sexual health class. Boys sat on one side and snickered, girls sat on the other and generally looked uncomfortable. I sat up front because I couldn’t wait to hear about safe sex and the realities of teen sexuality.
Imagine my surprise when Ms. Greene, a forty-ish woman with a bowl cut that everyone knew as the basketball coach rather than the sexual education teacher, walks in and says, “This semester you’re going to learn that it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and not to start the engine if you don’t intend to drive the car.” Drops mic. Leaves stage to roaring applause. In all seriousness, the entire class minus me and my gay best friend laughed for what seemed like an hour while Ms. Greene proceeded to tell us why she personally chose to remain chaste her entire four or five decades of existence and why she believed we should, too. I did not know that this was the first day of an abstinence only education but that would become incredibly clear as the semester dragged on. We watched countless videos about the horrors of single-motherhood and watched a thirty-year-old woman named Vickie die painfully of AIDs.
We even had to take home one of those mechanic babies that unrealistically cries every four minutes and special care was taken to make sure the girls knew “this is what you’re in for if you have sex.” I’m not going to lie, I signed one or two purity promise cards in my 8th grade heyday. And how could I not? My teacher, a person that I trusted and respected, was telling me that if I didn’t vow my sexuality to my father and Jesus until marriage, I was going to die alone in a hospital like Vickie and be doomed to tote around a plastic baby for the rest of my life. When I got to high school and realized that sexuality was much more than some tiny piece of signed cardstock that I kept faithfully in my wallet, I began to reconsider what I learned in 8th grade health science. With the help of my mother, who never once demonized female sexuality, I started to realize that having sex was not such a horrible thing. I realized that everything Ms. Greene had taught me made me feel like a bad person when I hadn’t even done anything wrong yet.
So, I eventually reasoned my way into believing that I could have sex, but only if it was with the perfect person and at the exact right time. Queue Disney princess music. For years, I truly believed that as long as I did not surpass a set number of sexual partners, then I was a good person and no harm had been done to my morality. When I passed that completely arbitrary number of acceptable sexual partners and realized that I was, miraculously, still as good of a person and I was before, I finally understood that the so-called self-imposed limit was not actually self-imposed, but dictated by society. How had I come up with my number in the first place? I think I added up what I heard guys say was acceptable for women and factored in how many people my friends had slept with and called it a solid estimate. But I was wrong. What society wants women to think is that their morality, more so than men’s, is centered between their legs. When women express sexual freedom that exceeds the bounds of what it means to be pleasing to men without showing too much, they become trashy.
This is tied to the completely ridiculous notion that how many sexual partners a woman has, has anything at all to do with her merit as a person. We teach young girls that their sexual impulses need to be controlled rather than expressed and that female dignity resides next door to chastity. The truth is that these are completely antiquated ideas, and it’s about time we abandoned them. Women are just as capable as being sexual as men and ought to have the freedom to be so without being branded as a slut or being forced to see themselves as somehow less than other women. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the fact that every year there is a formal event called the purity ball.
This formal dance is a sick twist on the elementary school fatherdaughter dance in which young girls pledge their virginity to their father for safe-keeping until her wedding night. If that doesn’t creep you out, I don’t know what will. The thought that fathers have control over their daughter’s sexual experience is completely disgusting. Having a father so invested in the safekeeping of his daughter’s vagina is appalling and far more common that we think it is. Take for example the tradition that a male suitor has to ask for a father’s permission to propose to his girlfriend.
In our time, this tradition is basically a mark of respect for the woman’s parents, but it is strange that it is only paternal consent that is required to enter into such an important bond. This is because we still have lingering concepts of male-guarded purity, which continues to be the epitome of female virtue. We continue to fail our daughters and sisters by denying them full personhood when we assume their sexuality, or lack thereof, is a factor more important than their intelligence or their compassion. Of course, there are tons of reasons why having multiple sex partners at a young age is a bad idea, and I am in no way advocating that everyone go out and sleep with as many people as you can get your hands on.
What I want is for both men and women to be able to make that choice without one group being put down for their behavior while another is glorified. I want to stop talking about girls who “give it up” and “lose their vcard” like having sex is a loss of something for women. Fully informed, consensual sex between two adults is not a loss of something, as patriarchy would have us believe. A woman is not miraculously changed by sexual intercourse. She is neither completed, nor ruined. She is human, and her purity, mythical as it is, is not ours to regulate.