"I've always felt that sexuality is a really slippery thing. In this day and age, it tends to get categorized and labeled, and I think labels are for food. Canned food."
A Breif History of Purity
Women’s purity has been an issue throughout history; in studying literature, I have found that culture has always been preoccupied with the idea of sex being a loss of innocence and value. In the days when women were seen as a father’s property, to be literally given away to another worthy man, virginity seemed to literally have a monetary value. If a women wasn’t a virgin she didn’t have worth, but this idea isn’t as old as it sounds.
Even from 1820 to the 1860’s, a widespread American ideology, commonly known as “the Cult of True Womanhood” or “the Cult of Domesticity," asserted that a woman should not leave the home and risk being tainted. As you may have guessed, a major ideal in achieving true womanhood was to remain sexually pure. According to one reliable source, this sexist ideology maintained that “without sexual purity, a woman was no woman, but rather a lower form of being, a ‘fallen woman’ unworthy of (a man’s) love." While we may think that the world has completely changed and that these sexist ideas are long gone, this idea of purity is still a huge issue in American society, and the way we approach purity has more of a focus on girls than it does on boys. This is something I have a problem with as an unmarried American girl.
The Female Gendered Shame: How Are We Labeled?
I know that when Michael Stipe said that sexuality “tends to get categorized and labeled," he was thinking in a much broader sense. All kinds of things could come to mind when talking about sexuality labels: gay, straight, lesbian, boy, girl. The world likes everything to be cut and dry, and if you are familiar with the diversity within the LGBT community, you may already know that isn’t the case. Trying to categorize and label people doesn’t work, but we do it with virginity all the time! I’ve been hearing it since the moment I started puberty. “Are you a virgin? How many people have you had sex with? How far have you gone with a guy?” It’s pretty disturbing to think that at 13 years old people were already asking. No matter how I answered or if I refused to answer, I was a loser, and it wasn’t just me! It’s every teenage boy and girl! But wait, wasn’t I talking about girls and purity? I’m getting right back on track, I promise!
Secretly, when guys run around at 13 asking girls if they have...you know...done it, they don’t really expect a yes. If a girl, at any point in their teens says “Yes, I’ve had sex,” the craze begins. She’s a slut, a whore, any word you can think of, but the guy she had sex with isn’t a whore. Words like “whore” or “slut” are literally reserved for girls, to remind them they aren’t pure anymore, that they aren’t good enough. If you think about it, we don’t have a word for men that points out their sexual promiscuity in a derogatory manner! The best my friends and I could come up with was man-whore or player. But player isn’t exactly an insult. It suggests sex is a game and they are part of that game. And man-whore? Well that’s just further proof that whore is a word for women since you have to slap the word “man” in front of the word to direct it at a man. You might think, what if I call a guy a slut or a whore? Well, the problem is that when calling a guy a derogatory name reserved for women, you not only deliver the original insult of not being pure, but you also emasculate the man by calling him a female rooted name.
The language around sexuality and the loss of virginity is so gendered because these words come from a day when white men where the only authority, and women still haven’t been able to overcome it. Don’t get me wrong, I hardly ever believe women are treated unfairly in today’s society. Women have a great number of opportunities and laws to protect them from gender discrimination, but the language we use to chastise the loss of innocence is reminiscent of a very gender biased world, and in terms of sexuality we are practically still in the Stone Age.
A Vow of Purity: Can it be Broken?
Within our nation, in modern society, there are still parents and authority figures that preach abstinence and purity to their children. In particular, Purity Balls are a prom-like ceremony, a very recent trend, during which a daughter makes a vow of purity to her father, that she will remain a virgin until marriage to keep her sexual integrity. I truly believe the intentions here are right. Fathers want what’s best for their daughters, and we want our children to know sex is something you should have integrity about. My problem with the Purity Balls is that nobody can make sexual decisions for you, not your father, not your mother, not your teacher. Girls need to be prepared to make their own decision, but it isn’t even rational to think that your father can decide when you feel ready to have sex.
What’s worse is that these girls who make vows of purity to their fathers range from the ages of 4 to over 18. I know, I was SHOCKED that a man would take his 4-year-old daughter to a Purity Ball, expecting her to understand the expectation of staying pure. At the age of four, you should be teaching your daughter what her body parts are in a biological sense, and that it isn’t appropriate to show off those private parts to everyone that walks by. For me, this is the point where I also asked my mother where babies came from, and she simply told me that she and my father made me in her belly. I had no idea how that worked, but it satisfied my curiosity. But at four years old making a life-time vow to stay pure is too much of a burden to take on. I feel that while a lot of girls appreciate these Purity Balls as an experience to bond with their fathers, they can turn sour for a girl of any age.
Imagine your father has been taking you to a Purity Ball, or one of the similar purity ceremonies, since you were four years old. If you had been raised with this experience, it’s probably something you love and look forward to every year. You get to wear a beautiful dress, and your father has spent $50 on a ticket for each of you, to ensure that this night, the dinner, and the music will make this a magical night. You are both looking forward to it, but now you have decided you don’t want to wait until marriage to have sex. That conversation would definitely put a damper on the night, and as a girl raised with the idea that purity is the only way to maintain sexual dignity, can you imagine how shameful that might feel?
Nobody wants to disappoint their loved ones, so admitting to your father you have broken your purity vow would be excruciating for many girls. Among all the other emotional and hormonal issues that surround a girl's first time, she has to worry about letting her family down, instead of knowing they will be there to support her and love her no matter what decision she makes. Girls are prompted to lie for the sake of maintaining that close bond with their parents. Whether a girl has gone to a Purity Ball or not, some girls know that if they tell their parents they want to have sex, it will not end well. It’s a war, and no matter how you try to sway your daughter towards abstinence, she will make her own choice.
What About the Boys?
Even among those who preach purity, it is commonly known that boys have the same sort of ceremonies of purity, but that it has not been as prominent or recognized for boys as it is for girls. In fact, if you think about it, boys aren’t tainted after having sex; according to this purity ideology, it is a girl who gets tainted, and if a boy wants to live a pure life, his vow includes the fact that he will not dishonor a girl by having sex with her before marriage. While a boy’s purity vow is still somewhat about self respect, it seems to me that the purity is still harbored around the female gender. While boys vow they will not dishonor a girls purity, it is a little less personal, and this tends to be a problem for many skeptics.
In many youth groups that preach purity and abstinence, girls are told to stay pure and boys are told to have respect for a girl's purity. There is still the fearful idea that if a boy decides to have sex, it will cause emotional pain and ultimately ruin a relationship, but as far as I've witnessed, boys aren't as concerned with keeping their purity as they are with violating the purity of girls. Still, I’m not saying that boys should have purity too, but I'm more concerned about why purity is an issue at all.
What is Purity?
So, what is purity anyway? One source suggests what has been on my mind for years, since I was first asked about my virginity at the age of 13. Is “Purity” black-and-white? Are girls who are virgins somehow more worthy than those who are not? Should I be ashamed to be “tainted?" Am I tainted?
Luckily for me, I wasn’t raised in a family that expected me to be virginal until marriage, and I got a pretty decent sex education at my public school, but what about these poor girls that don’t get that support? What about those that have been raped, or molested as a child? I was shocked to read in my research of purity, in Dr. Caroline J. Simon’s article "Three Problems with Sexual Purity," that a boy had approached her feeling ashamed about being sexually abused, and wanted to know where he fit in terms of sexual purity. This is something particularly difficult to talk about.
We are making girls, and even boys, make too harsh a commitment about their virginity. I don’t believe we are born with a purity that we lose. It is a strong word that places guilt on people, but I don’t fully believe a person can lose purity through a sexual act. We have the freedom to make our choice, and if your choice is to save sex for marriage, I fully respect you. Unfortunately, sex is such a hard thing to make a promise about, and if you want to make a purity vow, that is something I think is personal and not something you can share with your father, or your mother, or any other individual because we all have a free will. Nobody should feel dirty and ashamed of their choices, or especially for a sexual offense they have had to endure, and this is something that needs to be considered before we continue preaching purity and abstinence.