Virginia Woolf, in a letter to a friend, explained her reasons for writing A Room of One’s Own: “I wanted to do something for the young women—they seem to get fearfully depressed.”
Jessica Valenti, the founder of Feministing.com, also wants to do something for the young women. In her latest book, The Purity Myth, Valenti takes on what she calls the virginity movement (i.e., the religious right) and its refusal, through “purity balls” and abstinence education, to allow young women to be sexual creatures. Valenti begins by insisting that virginity is a social construct, and that one becomes a good person by being a good person, not by having or not having sex at 16 or 19 or 25. And so Valenti would like to “outline a new way for us to think about young women as moral actors, one that doesn’t include their bodies.” Unfortunately, the tortured logic in that sentence is not anomalous, and points to a deeper problem with what is, in other ways, a necessary project.
Because she wants to argue that having sex doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, Valenti insists on divorcing sex from emotional and ethical consequences altogether. Here’s her take on her first time: “Societal standards would have me believe it was the day that I became morally sullied, but I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact.” This is a confusion of the attitudinal for the radical. She can’t really mean the joke—if she’s measuring ethical impact with a stopwatch, then what would she say about the time it might take to pull the trigger of a gun? Valenti’s posturing here is symptomatic of a political culture in which the right claims a monopoly on morality and the left is unable (or unwilling) to articulate its own moral convictions. The left doesn’t talk about the emotional consequences of sex. To mention guilt, shame, or regret as a result of sex suggests that sex is not the great self-actualizer we all expected it to be. So Valenti has to say that sex is no big deal; that it has no meaning, period. But when many women I know are still wrestling with sex and its importance in their 30s, it’s unhelpful, to put it mildly, to tell girls that sex leaves no mark. Instead of offering a substantive alternative to traditional morality, Valenti joins liberals in talking about choices, that therapeutic euphemism that puts moral decision-making on roughly the same level as ordering the heart-friendly items off an Applebee’s menu. As in: “There’s no in-between identity for young women who are making smart, healthy choices in their sexual lives.”
Valenti never acknowledges that a young woman’s smart, healthy choice may be abstinence—that a girl might suspect that sex could have an impact she’s not ready for, and as such might want to hold off. Of a 19-year-old interviewed for an MTV documentary series about celibacy, who said she was abstaining from sex until she felt she could be faithful to her boyfriend because she’d cheated before, Valenti writes: “Clearly, Kristin’s problem isn’t sex—it’s trust. But instead of dealing with the actual issues behind her relationship woes, this young woman was able to circumvent any real self-analysis by simply claiming to be abstinent.” But if sex is the thing that leads to mistrust, aren’t these issues inextricable? Valenti, who says many times throughout the book that she is looking to inject empathy into our discussion of sex, here becomes patronizing. She doesn’t articulate her support for her less precocious sisters until the last pages, in a footnote: “For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t care what women do sexually, and neither should you.” It’s always nice to be bullied into an open mind.
Liberals need to make the case that being sexually active doesn’t make you a moral relativist. We need to redefine what is moral if we are going to make young women—all women—feel that sexual freedom is not sin or selfishness. To that end, sexual freedom might be defined as having sex with whomever you want, contentedly, with no fear of punishment for an adverse outcome by a paternalistic government; sex that is safe because it is protected, but also safe because you feel secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is what you want to be doing, not something you are surrendering to because of outside pressure. It should be considered a virtue to take responsibility for your future—whether by using birth control, remaining abstinent, or having an abortion. Feminists should be able to talk about the possible value of sexual restraint, or say that at certain times sex may have emotional consequences, without fear of sounding like Caitlin Flanagan or Wendy Shalit. You may believe in sex and its power and beauty while still acknowledging that you can suffer from it.