Caperton covered the Elizabeth Smart speech about abstinence already, and my Guardian column this week is on a similar topic: How an emphasis on purity is bad for women, bad for men and bad for rape survivors:
Where does a woman’s value lie? In her brain? Her heart? Her spirit?
According to right-wing culture warriors, “between her legs”. That’s what underlies the emphasis on virginity as “purity”, and the push for abstinence-only education. And it has very real consequences, most recently articulated by Elizabeth Smart.
Smart, who was kidnapped and held for months while her captor repeatedly raped her, recently discussed how her religious background made her feel worthless after the first rape – how she understands why others wouldn’t even try to escape, if, like her, they were taught that a sexually “impure” woman had nothing to offer.
Smart’s speech is largely being interpreted as a critique of abstinence-only education, but she’s pointing to an entire culture that fetishizes purity. The more extreme versions of our collective obsession are seen in conservative Christian churches, which offer purity rings, purity balls and sermons that insist wives give their virginity as a “gift” to husbands. But purity culture is mainstream, even in a country where sexualized images of women are on every magazine rack and “Girls Gone Wild” series thrive.
Abstinence-only education is just one example of our bizarre relationship with sex, which can be seen most clearly in the way we treat women. Women and girls being sexy for someone else is more or less OK, as long as no actual sex occurs, and as long as the version of “sexy” has appropriate markers of being middle- or upper-class. Women who exhibit a degree of sexual agency by acting – rather than only appearing attractive – or women perceived as inappropriately powerful or aggressive inevitably face being branded sluts and whores.
The full piece is here.
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