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.”