How the Purity Myth Perpetuates Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual assault, racism]

I was thinking about the source of all the problematic ways in which our society views and responds to sexual assault–the victim-blaming, the simplistic construction of “real” victims and “legitimate” rape, the erasure of certain social groups of victims–and I realized that much of it comes down to antiquated views of female sexual purity.

I don’t doubt that there’s much more to it, obviously, but this is a piece of the puzzle that isn’t discussed as often as it should be. The purity myth, as Jessica Valenti calls it in her book of the same name, includes several interlocking beliefs about women and sexuality that are enforced by many religions and ideologies and continue to inform many Americans’ views of sex–even those who consider themselves liberal or even progressive.

Some components of the purity myth include:

  • There is such a thing as “virginity,” especially for women, and once you “lose” it, your value as a partner decreases
  • Having sex makes women, but not men, “dirty”
  • “Good” women don’t “really” want sex, so men try to persuade and coerce them into it
  • Even if you’re not actually sexually active, there are things you can do that suggest that you are, and therefore make you seem “dirty”
  • The only type of sex that is not “dirty” is that between a husband and a wife

In case it’s not immediately obvious how any of this relates to rape, here’s how: traditionally, in many cultures, rape was construed not as a crime against the women who was raped (only women could be raped in those legal definitions), but against her father (if she was unmarried) or her husband if she had one. The rape of a virgin was often seen as worse than the rape of a non-virgin (whether because of marriage or less socially acceptable choices), because it meant that something–namely, purity–had been “spoiled.” Some women, such as sex workers, were not “rapeable” at all. Some sources, such as the Old Testament, suggest that the proper thing to do if a virgin has been raped is to force her to marry the rapist; then it’s sort of retroactively not a big deal anymore, because all that happened was that she had sex with her husband shortly before marrying him. And, of course, there’s no way a husband can rape his wife, because marriage involves the privilege of sex-on-demand, and the wife’s “purity” is long gone anyway.

Although the laws regarding sexual assault have been steadily reformed over the centuries, many of these attitudes about rape and sexual purity remain. Here’s how they play out in some common myths about sexual assault:

1. Rape is “the worst thing that can happen to a woman.”

This probably seems like the least harmful of all the myths, so I’m starting with it. This idea originates from the fact that a woman who has been raped (and was presumably a virgin before) loses her “chastity,” and thus the bulk of her value as a potential partner. This essentialization of sex and sexual purity frames sexual violence as necessarily the worst type of violence a person can experience, to which all others pale in comparison.

It’s certainly true that for many survivors of all genders, sexual assault is a traumatic experience that may cause or exacerbate mental illness and change the individual’s life forever. (Although it’s hard to tell what’s caused by the assault itself and what’s caused by society’s fucked-up response to it.) For others, however, sexual assault is not significantly worse than other crimes they may have experienced, and being expected to be traumatized can be harmful, even a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When rape is viewed as “bad” only to the extent that it traumatizes its victims, it can prevent people from taking sexual assaults seriously when they do not cause trauma. For example, an actual university professor argued last year that raping an unconscious person might not be such a bad thing because they won’t feel a thing.

2. Rape can only be committed by a (cis) man against a (cis) woman.

If the problem with rape is that it “spoils” a woman’s “purity,” then it doesn’t make sense to conceive of nonconsensual sex involving any other combination of genders as sexual assault. A man has no “purity” to lose, and a woman can’t take away another woman’s “purity” because only a man can do that.

The repercussions of this view should be obvious: rape between same-sex partners is routinely ignored, rape of men is routinely ignored, and laws are only now starting to recognize the fact that men can be raped at all.

3. A woman who has had sex before, especially with the alleged rapist, can’t really be raped.

Most people can probably grok the idea that having wanted to have sex in the past does not necessarily mean you want to have sex in the future, even with someone you’ve already had sex with. Yet female rape survivors’ sexual histories are still being trotted out in court proceedings to attempt to discredit their claims. Why?

One convoluted argument that people make to defend this practice is that “Well if she’s had sex before how could he possibly have known that she didn’t want to have sex this time?” It’s actually pretty easy: you ask. This idea that once a woman has been spoiled by a penis, she’s fair game for all links up easily to the idea that such a thing as sexual purity exists.

4. A woman who belongs to a group considered “impure” by definition can’t really be raped either.

At least in the United States, sexual “purity” is a concept that largely applies only to middle-/upper-class white women. Many women of color, for instance, aren’t thought to be “pure” regardless of whether or not they’ve even had sex before. They are immediately suspect as rape victims because they don’t fit the profile that we imagine rape victims to fit: innocent, chaste, white.

Throughout American history, white people have focused on the specter of Black men raping innocent white women, while ignoring entirely the actual reality of Black women being raped by white men. As Black women aren’t assumed to have any “purity” to lose, their rapes are not nearly as tragic as those of white women. This is what happens when two terrible ideas–racism and sexual purity–combine.

5. If a sexual act doesn’t make a woman “impure,” it can’t really be sexual assault.

While women can and do get shamed for engaging in behavior other than sexual intercourse, it’s only intercourse that can supposedly “take” your virginity (and therefore your purity). Definitions of rape have historically specified vaginal penetration, although they’re now starting to expand a bit. But if sexual assault were framed in terms of consent rather than in terms of sexual purity, it would make no sense to minimize forms of sexual assault that don’t involve vaginal penetration. Violating someone sexually is violating someone sexually regardless how you do it.

To make things worse, this framing of sexual assault is part of the reason male victims and women who are assaulted by other women frequently get erased from the conversation, since their experiences are presumed, at best, unfortunate events that have little to do with capital-R Rape.

6. A survivor who was behaving “provocatively” when the assault happened wasn’t really assaulted.

Insert standard victim-blaming tropes here. Of course, just about anything gets classified as “provocative” when it’s expedient to do so: drinking, flirting, making eye contact, dressing a certain way, dancing, wearing makeup, discussing sex. The implication is that once a woman has behaved in a way some would consider “unchaste,” she may as well have already had sex, and any subsequent assault doesn’t really “count.”

7. Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted.

Since they have already been “spoiled” even more than typical sexually active women. Some people will refer to the assault of a sex worker as “theft,” which I consider degrading and dehumanizing in the extreme. A sex worker doesn’t sell or give away their right to bodily autonomy; they sell a specific and agreed-upon service. If I walk into a store, take a package of cheez-its off the shelf, open and eat it because I’m starving, and then pay for it as I walk out, I haven’t stolen anything. But even if you sexually assault a sex worker and then pay them, you’ve still assaulted them, because you still violated their consent. It’s pretty simple.

A lot of people think they have abandoned the idea of female sexual purity simply because they are liberal and/or nonreligious. As a person who runs in liberal and nonreligious circles, I can tell you that this is not necessarily the case. People just find other ways to justify the purity myth, or they don’t bother trying to justify it at all. Atheisty types love to use evolutionary psychology (or unscientific permutations thereof) to draw conclusions about what men and women respectively value in their (obviously opposite-sex) mates, claim that women just aren’t “as sexual” as men (a convenient way to vilify women who have lots of sex while high-fiving men who do), and, in the most extreme cases, justify rape as an adaptive evolutionary mechanism.

Once you hold a belief strongly, perhaps because your parents or your erstwhile religion taught it to you, it’s difficult to let go of the belief even if you’ve let go of the overall ideology that originally spawned it. So it’s easy to twist science or “folk wisdom” to maintain the idea that women are, or should be, or can be more “pure” than men, however you happen to define “pure.”

The idea of female sexual purity is as nonsensical and irrational as the ideas atheists and skeptics criticize every day, and it’s about time it got more attention as such. Not only does it mess with people’s sex lives and give them all sorts of unnecessary anxieties and guilts, but it also feeds into the myths surrounding sexual assault and ensures that they continue to harm survivors. It’s long past time to let it go.

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