Purity and Patriarchy

In many books discussing media, culture, and sex, the same contradiction is highlighted: our media is becoming increasingly “pornified,” even as we judge and punish any woman who has sex for pleasure.  These books then point out the tie that binds the contradictions—patriarchy. Patriarchy is all about a woman’s skirt: one hand is up the skirt while the other points a finger at how short it is.  The hand up the skirt is about forbidden fruit, the sin of the body and the woman as vessel of sin, sex as dirty, guilty, violent male pleasure—and establishing male ownership of women. The hand pointing at the skirt is about the sin of the body and woman as flawed temptress, man as weak in the face of his own base lust—and establishing male ownership of women.  What gets lost, on this side and on that, is the humanity of sex: connection.

The purity-speak of abstinence-only education may seem, at first glance, to be about connection. This philosophy emphasizes the importance of sex within marriage, and encourages young people to abstain from sex until then. It is a philosophy that has been bankrolled by the federal government, and it has been proven to fail: there is no connection between abstinence-only education and lowered teen pregnancy rates. The program also causes emotional harm: a woman who loses her virginity before marriage is graphically depicted as chewed-up gum, used candy, or a piece of dirty tape. This is Patriarchy 101, closely tied to Biblical stories of rape victims who were beaten and killed for not being virgins on their wedding nights. The programs are often presented via stories of knights saving princesses, and are surrounded by a culture of purity: fathers giving daughters purity rings, purity dances, and the like.

Like all elements of patriarchy, the privilege underlying purity-think can seem invisible until you start to tug at the threads of human experience. How does a rape victim who has been taught she is scum because she is no longer a virgin conceive of herself?  What if she is a victim of child sexual abuse—how is she supposed to get from there to purity in marriage?  Many victims of abuse, including kidnapping and rape victim Elizabeth Smart, have spoken up about the connections between purity culture, rape culture, and their view of themselves as deserving of abuse.  And on another note entirely, purity-think is what feminist writers call heteronormative: it leaves homosexual sex and love out of the conversation.  How are we to help young people navigate sexuality when we aren’t allowed to discuss the full spectrum of sexuality, but only a rigidly defined part of it?

And then there is pleasure: what of the woman who takes pleasure in her own body, in concert with a partner she does not intend to marry? In 2014, this is, you know—a thing. It happens rather often. Sometimes these couplings are soulful, sometimes they’re just hookups. And here, at the crux of sex and pleasure, lies contraception: the debate that is raging from the Supreme Court to the classroom. Proponents of abstinence-only education fear that educating young people waves a permissive hand in their direction for premarital, recreational sex. But teens are having sex, sans education—which leads to a higher teen birthrate in the US (though the rate has been declining) than in other industrialized countries, and to a recent CDC recommendation for comprehensive sex education in schools.  And teens account for nearly half of the new cases of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) each year.

So there are medical reasons to present the real deal about sex to teenagers in school, and there are feminist reasons to push that patriarchal hand away.  But what of connection? What of the emotional element of sex—must that be ceded to the pornified media and a cultural celebration of “no strings attached” sex that ignores the attachment many young people say they seek, either now or in the future?  In their book So Sexy So Soon, child development experts Diane Levin and Jean Kilborne discuss the need for comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education in schools. The authors also emphasize the need to discuss the feelings around sex and sexuality—after all, feelings are, you know, a thing.  And they are intertwined with sex, despite what that patriarchal hand up our skirt would have us believe.

It is important not to shame young people about their sexual choices, or pressure them into making particular choices. The sexual, emotional, and mental health of growing youth should be front and center.  To that end, we must put child development experts—or those who have had some training in child sexual development—in charge of sex education in schools. We would then have reasonable, real-world discussions that trust teens with the information they need to make decisions about their own minds, bodies, and hearts—and to protect themselves if those choices are ripped away from them through violence and abuse.

Young people educated in this way would have a much higher chance of discovering and enjoying the non-patriarchal purity that can exist in sex:  the soul to soul, body to body transcendence that arises from loving sexual union.

6 thoughts on “Purity and Patriarchy

  1. Laurie Works says:

    This clearly verbalized my own opinion of purity culture and patriarchy, a stance I have wanted to expose on my blog but have been unable to phrase. You did it masterfully here. I love the points not only about purity and its connections to patriarchy, but also the connection aspect of sexuality, which is so often left out of these discussions but is such an important part of healthy sexuality. Bravo, and thank you so much for writing this post. It’s VERY needed in our society today.


  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Laurie! I had wanted to write this post for quite some time, but it took a while for me to understand the patriarchal underpinnings of purity culture, as well as to sort through what I wanted to say about emotional connection.

    I think some feminists (myself included) worry that, in discussing emotion at all, we risk our words and ideas being co-opted, used to punish women who are establishing their human right to their own bodies. And yet, if we don’t discuss emotion, we are risking another type of co-option: the media’s objectification of women, and glorification of sexual violence. If we put the health of young people at the center of the discussion, we see how important it all is, as owning our bodies and choices is deeply connected to understanding our feelings and motivations.

    These issues can be highly charged, sensitive, and difficult to discuss—but I agree, so very necessary!


  3. Marianne says:

    I meant to read this when you first posted it – but somehow it slipped off the mental list. It just got retweeted and I sat right down to read it. Brilliantly done. Really. REALLY. Thank you.


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