There wasn’t an empty seat available in the Donald P. Corbett auditorium last Thursday, as over 300 community members and students gathered for the Dr. Anne Margaret Johnstone Memorial Lecture and Keynote Address, “The Purity Myth.” The lecture was part of the University of Maine’s Women’s History Celebration. Sponsored by the Women in the Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program, the monthlong celebration included workshops, films and lectures marking the accomplishments that women have made and the hardships that we have overcome.
The featured speaker, Jessica Valenti, is the author of four books including her latest, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women,” and is the founder of the snarky and comedic blog, Feministing.org. Valenti has been called the “poster girl of third-wave feminism” by Salon magazine, and was the perfect choice to lead this Women’s History Celebration event.
Valenti was both hilarious and informative about describing the modern-day sexism that occurs in our society, including the praise of virginity and how it negatively impacts the self-worth of America’s young girls. Valenti opened her lecture by asking the audience for a show-of-hands, how many people in attendance identified as feminists? She was surprised when more than half of the audience members raised their hands. Valenti claimed that she has dealt for years with people turning their noses up at the word “feminist.” According to Valenti, so many people practice feminist behavior but are “too freaked out” to call themselves feminists because of the negative connotations that have plagued it for years.
“If young women knew what feminism was about, they would be more likely to be involved,” Valenti said, addressing the bra-burning man-hater myth that society has successfully attached to the word. Feminist, as defined by the American Heritage dictionary is “someone, male or female, who believes in social, political and economic equality between the sexes.” Feminism is also famously defined by Cheris Kramerae as someone who believes in the “radical notion that women are human beings.” Valenti said that one of the biggest problems with feminism is that there aren’t enough young people involved in the movement.
Valenti began her blog 7 years ago when she Googled “young feminist” and was only returned one applicable result, an article by the National Organization Women from 1991. She then began her blog and centered it on grasping a young audience, in a friendly, witty and communal way. The comment section on Feminsiting.org is one of the ways that the blog connects with its readers. Viewers can comment on a post and get this, Valenti actually writes back, and a conversation is begun. This back-and-forth communication is a very feminist way of creating a sense of community, Valenti claims. The more comedic style of the blog “makes feminism more approachable” to younger audiences.
The main topic of the lecture was about how Valenti believes that America has an obsession with virginity. She backed up this belief by referencing abstinence-only education and societal rewards for saving one’s virginity until marriage. One of these rewards is a “purity ball,” a dance that was at one point federally funded in certain areas, at which a daughter pledges her virginity to her father and symbolic gifts are exchanged. According the Valenti, these rewards create a sexual double standard: they cause young women to believe that their “only real worth is whether or not they abstain from sex.” But at the same time, our society thrives on sexualized images of women in the media. These cultural constructs, Valenti argues, make finding out who you are and realizing your self-worth difficult for impressionable young girls.
“Being a good person should actually be because you are a good person; it has nothing to do with sexuality,” said Valenti.
Valenti has since retired from editing Feministing.org, and is now focusing on being an author and lecturer around the country. Valenti ended her lecture with a question and answer session, and audience members were eager to ask her about the media coverage and education surrounding abstinence. When asked what feminists can do to address these issues Valenti answered, “We need to address the cultural constructions that make everyday sexism possible.” We can do this by spreading the word about feminism and its accomplishments and getting involved in our communities and local governments in order to make big changes in the lives of women.