I’ve recently developed an academic interest in the American purity movement after reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, watching the documentary The Virgin Daughters, and becoming outraged at both.
For those unfamiliar, the American purity movement is based on Evangelical Christian beliefs about abstinence and the sanctity of marriage. If you’ve ever watched TLC’s giant Duggar family on However-Many-Kids-They-Have-Now and Counting, this may sound familiar. Those brought up in the purity movement are not permitted to date– at a young age, they may attend purity balls with their fathers and sign a purity pledge to remain virgins until marriage. Essentially, women in this community believe they are property of their fathers until they are transferred into the care of their husband at the altar. And these husbands are not freely chosen either. When a girl catches the eyes of a certain fellah, that man will then go to her father for permission to get to know his daughter. If the father (after his dates with this man) find him to be suitable for his daughter, then the couple are permitted to get the know each other on group dates and chaperoned outings. No physical contact is allowed, and rarely if ever are the couple left alone for more than a few minutes to speak. After a suitable amount of courting has occurred, the man may again go to the girls father for permission to marry her. Then a proposal and engagement occur. In most cases, young men and women brought up in the purity movement are expected to save not only their virginity, but also their first kiss for the wedding day.
What catches me most about this phenomenon is the emphasis on wholeness of person and how that constructs rules of femininity and womanhood within this community. One young woman who is part of the purity movement says in the documentary The Virgin Daughters, “Purity for me is purity of the mind, purity of speech, it’s what I watch, it’s what I spend my time doing, it’s emotional purity… it’s my heart, it’s the complete wholeness of a woman.“
This is the part of the movement that is actually quite seductive to a young woman in today’s world of contradictory media messages. I found that even as an eighteen year old feminist, I began to wonder about the positive aspects of living a so-called “pure” life. And honestly, I do try to do that, under my own definitions of course– by purely embodying traits which I revere. The inherent problem with the purity movement, therefore, is not its values, but it’s patriarchal insistence that all women must follow these rules of purity or else be ruined.
Of course, the few nice warm fuzzy Sunday morning pancake brunch morals that are espoused by the purity movement are overshadowed by a view of women as property. Women in this movement are never free– they go from the ownership of their fathers to the ownership of their husbands. They have no autonomy over their lives either– marriage is their main goal, and once they are married, they have only the freedom to rear as many children as they want and perhaps do some charity or missionary work within their church or community.
Obviously, this movement raises many feminist issues, from reproductive rights to sexual, psychological, and domestic abuse. But I have one big question and it might shock your Grandmother…
How terrible is the sex these married people are having?
They have been raised with no sexual education. No knowledge of condoms, birth control, or STIs, no trashy Cosmo Kama-Sutra position horoscopes, no steamy scenes from The Notebook. The only formula for kissing they have is their parents, if anyone. While it isn’t necessarily good that we live in a hyper-sexualized culture, it does have its benefits. For every kid that gets abstinence-only sex ed, there are books, television, movies, and the internet. Not everything out there is good information, but I can say from personal experience that while OWL gave me some important information, I honestly got most of it from everything else around me. There is Scarleteen, Full-Frontal Feminism, and Baby taking control (and feeling up Patrick Swayze’s butt) in Dirty Dancing. I think part of being a teenager is navigating the sexualized world around you, because unless you are going to be a Nun straight out of high school, sex is going to be a part of your life. I might just be a needle in a haystack, but I navigated the sexual world of adolescence quite well and I am proud of my choices.
I try to think about how terrified a young woman (and most of them are very young) must be on her wedding night, after just having her first kiss with the man she just married. First times of anything are inherently awkward, but these newlyweds know nothing about sex, about pleasure, or about contraception. I can only imagine how terrible it is. As soon as these questions began to come to my mind, I did some googling, and found that this is not spoken about, ever. So basically, people are devoting large portions of their lives to preserving purity and virginity until marriage and then they finally get married and they don’t even have good sex. Unless they are having great sex and not telling anyone about it…
I’d love to hear some thoughts on this one.