Debunking “The Purity Myth”
“There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality and it’s been breathing new life into a very old idea,” claims Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Dubbed the “poster-girl for third-wave feminism,” Valenti claims that today’s abstinence-only movement tells a woman that her value is based solely on what she does (or doesn’t do) with her sexuality – to the point of ignoring her character, intelligence, and integrity. As a result, the so-called “purity-pushers” are actually harming a generation of young women, making them even more sexualized due to the emphasis on virginity/abstinence as “the measure of a woman’s character.”
While Valenti’s views may seem like the kind of rhetoric you’d hear in hyper-political arenas, the message may be coming to a high school or college campus near you. The Purity Myth was recently adapted to a 45-minute documentary by the Media Education Foundation, a company that “produces and distributes documentary films and other educational resources to inspire critical thinking about the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media,” and specifically targeted to students in the classroom. The Purity Myth is being marketed to educational institutions, both secular and religious, with screenings and discussions about “the virginity movement’s war against women” taking place nationwide.
The Purity Myth claims that the abstinence-only movement, within both government-funded education and Christian-based organizations, is actually a grand conspiracy – a programmatic means to a social end. According to Valenti, upholding virginity isn’t about women’s health or well-being. Instead, it’s about a regressive, socio-political agenda from conservatives and evangelicals to restore “traditional” gender stereotypes (with all of the pejorative implications associated with terms like “submission in marriage” outside a biblical context). “What the virginity movement really wants from women is submissiveness. There’s a reason why their goal for women is only marriage and motherhood. The movement believes that that’s the only thing women are meant for.”
So, according to the Myth, the message of “saving yourself for marriage” that a young woman heard in her student ministry, youth camp and Christian church was more about her subjection than her sacredness.
The philosophy has a direct effect on the current birth control debate. Valenti claims that conservatives and evangelicals have impeded the use emergency contraception like Plan B or the HPV vaccine for fear that birth control will “promote promiscuity,” causing women to throw off the conventions of “the purity police,” and society losing control of women’s roles.
But underneath all of Valenti’s observations and opinions is the belief that one’s sexuality is separate from one’s morality. Featured on the fourth-hour, “estrogen-fest” of The Today Show with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, Valenti defined The Purity Myth as, “the lie that women’s sexuality has some bearing on who we are and how good we are, because…we all know that young women are so much more than whether or not they have sex.” In a recent episode of Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show, Valenti stated, “My worry is that by having virginity pledges and Purity Balls, you’re focusing so much on a girls’ virginity that you’re still sexualizing them. I think if we want to teach our daughters to be good people, let’s teach them to be good people. Their sexuality has nothing to do with that.”
But is purity about being “a good person?” Is personal purity even rightly equated with virginity? Surprisingly, both Valenti and the secular abstinence movement share a common, foundational paradigm: Sexuality exists for sake of the individual. If a woman’s sexuality is primarily about her happiness and well-being, then the decision of whether to wait will be a constant tug-of-war between her cultural influences and the potential consequences. But God’s Word paints a very different picture of His purpose for creating sexuality and marriage, and thus, the purpose for personal purity: Sexuality exists for the sake of knowing the Creator.
In the book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, John Piper sums up this perspective. “Sexuality is designed by God as a way to know God in Christ more fully. Knowing God in Christ more fully is designed as a way of guarding and guiding our sexuality. God created us with sexual passion so that there would be language to describe what it means to cleave to him in love and what it means to turn away from him to others.” (26) Ultimately, His purpose for sexual purity is as foundational as His purpose for creating us – to know, love, glorify and worship God.
Purity isn’t about conforming to social standards, pleasing parents, avoiding adverse physical consequences or the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Purity isn’t even primarily about our own emotional wholeness and psychological well-being.
Purity is about worship.
Conversely, any time we express our sexuality , whether in heart, mind, or body, apart from its prescribed, created design (Gen. 2:18-25, Eph. 5:22-33), we hijack its purpose and present it to another. We worship a different god. “All misuses of our sexuality distort the true knowledge of Christ.” The reason God takes impurity so seriously is that it so deeply and destructively distorts what He, the Creator, gave to communicate Himself to us, His creation.
So how might we within the Church be influenced by the concerns raised in projects such as The Purity Myth?
- Have we presented a woman’s virginity as an indispensable aspect of her worth? Sadly, Valenti’s observations on this point are often quite accurate. While many have rightly taught that one’s virginity is a gift to their spouse, the reverse message of a girl being “damaged goods” who no one worthy would want to be with often accompanies it, a message that denies the power of God’s grace to heal, forgive and transform. To the young woman reading this with a past she wishes she could forget, please know that every person on the planet is “damaged goods” needing God’s forgiveness. You were worth so much to the God who created you that He came to buy you back by paying the price for your sin on the cross. (2 Cor 5: 21, Col 1:14) Your purity, your wholeness, and your identity can be restored in the redemption of Jesus Christ.
- Have we bought into the lie that “Purity is the new sexy?” In an effort to make God’s way popular, attractive or cool, have we sacrificed the sacredness, as though attempting to somehow out-allure the secular? (Hence, broadcasting a discussion of sex in marriage from a bed on top of your church or touting the sensuality-charged phrase, “Modest is Hottest.”)
- Have we equated virginity with purity? Do we mistakenly emphasize refraining from sexual activity at the expense of communicating a lifestyle of purity that is created, guarded and decided in the heart? Do our high school and college students know that, while they may be abstinent virgins, they may not be pure? (Matt. 5:27-28)
- Have we established our perspective of sexuality in the gospel? Is the gospel our foundation for understanding the purpose of sexuality, for having the power to live out its purpose as God designed it, and for walking in the peace of a redeemed past?
Debunking The Purity Myth and countering the countless other messages of our hyper-sexualized, “hook-up” culture likely won’t happen with trendier marketing of abstinence, greater government funding for abstinence education, or more alarming accounts of the dangers of pre-marital sex. Only when we see and deeply know the Christ for whom every aspect of our lives – especially our sexuality – was designed to worship will the myth of moralistic virginity be replaced by the truth of Christ-exalting purity.
Katie McCoy is pursuing a Doctorate in Systematic Theology at Southwestern Seminary. When she’s not studying for her classes (a rare occasion!), she loves hanging out with friends, eating sushi, learning new words and is currently a political news junkie. Connect with Katie on Facebook or Follow her Twitter!