Pure Perfection

What is purity? Well, according to Wikipedia, which passes for a dictionary to most people these days, purity is “the absence of impurity or contaminants in a substance”; you'll often hear this in relation to food or drink adverts telling you their thoroughly processed crap is “pure”. But Wikipedia also offers another definition for purity, that being “the absence of vice in human character”, and the most common thing this definition is attached to is sex.

The concept of sexual purity, the shaming of (almost always) women who have and enjoy sex, has existed for millennia; certainly longer than I've been alive, but it appears to be coming back with a vengeance.

Not just in the obvious, and desperately creepy, form of purity balls, where young girls are asked to "pledge" their virginity to their fathers, but in subtler forms too. A couple of months ago, the new NICE guidelines, among other things, suggested that doctors should be able to advance prescribe the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) to women; a thoroughly reasonable recommendation, I think, but not according to much of the British press. According to them, women will 'stockpile' pills (wrong, and doesn't matter anyway), it will lead to more unsafe sex (absolutely zero evidence), and, always my favourite, it will lead to more 'promiscuity' (that is not even a thing). For those who don't know, promiscuity is basically a shorthand for women enjoying sex in a way that makes men uncomfortable.

We've seen a similar thing in the US, where the government umm-ed and ahh-ed for ages about releasing the ECP for over-the-counter status. Apparently, there were worries from the Food and Drug Administration, the people over there who regulate...well, food and drugs, that releasing Plan B (the ECP in question) for over-the-counter status would cause "extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B".

Oh yeah; teen sex cults. That's right.

Of course, the US is a breeding ground for abstinence-only sex education, the antiquated, utterly redundant, and horrifically dangerous programme by which kids are told not to do it till they've put a ring on it. In 2012, the state of Mississippi passed a law that requires all schools to offer abstinence-only programmes (ingeniously called "comprehensive sex education" by some of its proponents); abstinence-only programmes which tell you that the only correct form of sex is penovaginal, between a man and a woman, and only when they are married.

That's not the worst of them though; last month, it was reported that one school in Mississippi had a sex-ed lesson, whereby a piece of chocolate was passed around the class, and the pupils were asked to observe how the chocolate got dirtier as it got further around the room. I don't need to tell you how horrible it is to compare a woman who has sex to a dirty piece of chocolate, do I?

We like to think that we have progressed as a culture, that we are totally OK with women having and enjoying sex; we have sex shops on high streets, after all; what more do you want? But we still constantly judge women for what we judge to be 'promiscuity'; we still regularly shame (and criminalise) sex workers; we still think there is a certain amount of sex that women 'should' be having, and, invariably, that is less than what a man would have. At heart, do we still find the idea of sexually liberated women icky?

Of course, these ideas have a much darker side, whereby they permit the blaming and shaming of rape survivors. If a woman flirts with a guy, she's asking for it. If she's wearing revealing clothing, she's asking for it. If she goes back to a guy's flat, but doesn't want to have sex with him, surely she deserves it. These are all cases put against rape survivors regularly, by the media, by the public, and, shockingly, by law enforcement. To go back to purity balls, a recent purity ball in Nevada, sponsored by the local police, pushed the idea that if you have pre-marital sex, it leads to, among other things, sexual assault, and since we warned you, it's probably your fault. It's easy to dismiss purity balls as fringe, but a milder form of this thinking on female sexuality still lurks throughout society.

To go back to the beginning, where I (or rather, Wikipedia) described purity as "the absence of vice in human character"; I would posit that sex need not be, nor is, a vice. A vice is, at its more minor definition, a negative character trait, and at its more extreme, something considered immoral, sinful, depraved, or degrading, and sex should not be any of those things. What exactly is wrong with anyone enjoying sex?

The concept of virginity, which is so highly valued in girls, is deeply disturbing too. First of all, what is it? No, seriously, you tell me. It is a social construct, and it goes back forever, to the times when daughters were exchanged for money, and were more valuable if they were 'virginal', and I would like to think we've moved on from this.

Second of all, it seems to only apply to heterosexual, penis-in-vagina, sex. What does this mean for non-heterosexual couples? If two guys have anal sex, are they losing their virginities? What about two women? Must sex be penetrative? What about heterosexual oral sex, or anal sex? You've all heard of Christian girls insisting that they only have anal sex until they are married. Does that not count as sex?

Third of all, the word 'virgin' is still used today to shame girls. Boys too, actually. Girls have to make sure a penis never touches them, or they are sullied, and a total slut, whereas boys have to have sex with everyone, for it is their manly duty, and if they don't have sex, they are a failure.

Fourth, building up virginity makes the loss thereof, in my eyes, way too big a deal. Of course, if you want your sexual debut to be with someone you love very much, and trust deeply, that's awesome, but do not feel pressured into the idea that it must be like that. Do not feel that if you "get it wrong", you've ruined sex forever, or that there is some sort of cosmic sex card that is permanently marked. Will your first time be perfect and wonderful? Maybe, maybe not. Does it really matter? Of course not, because you are not 'marked' or anything of the sort by the people you have sex with, or your sexual experiences. Not every sexual experience is going to be fantastic, and there's no reason your first one will necessarily be either.

Lastly, fifthly, and just a quickie; you can't tell if a girl is a virgin just by looking at her hymen (if she even has one). I mean, seriously, is that still a thing? Why do we tell girls that it'll hurt and that they're going to bleed? Cut that out.

So, I think that, overall, the concepts of virginity and sexual purity are extremely damaging. They only serve to maintain stereotypes, misogynist tropes, and they prevent people from being able to express themselves sexually, which sucks, because everyone deserves to be able to express their sexuality without shame, fear, or judgement, and I don't think having these outdated concepts serves to make it any easier.

Recommended reading: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti, whose article last week inspired this post