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Monday, February 16, 2009

Yes Means Yes: Organizing an anthology

posted by Jessica Valenti
First of all, I just want to say thanks to Bitch PhD for hosting ... this site has been a favorite for a long time, so I'm thrilled to be able to write here!

I'm going to share a little bit of my essay below - as you will probably be able to tell, it was inspired largely by the work I was doing at the time on The Purity Myth. But before we get to that, I wanted to explain the structure of the anthology a bit because it's something that I'm really excited about.

When Jaclyn and I were putting together the book, we found that it was near impossible to organize the anthology in a traditional linear fashion. It fact, it was totally impossible. We tried to do it, but the essays were too complex - and their issues too intersecting - for us to structure them in a front-to-back reading format. (That's when we started to panic a bit.)

Eventually we realized that that a blogging format could be our answer - if only you could hyperlink on paper! So what we came up with was multiple themes for each essay; kind of like a tagging process. (The themes themselves have fabulous names, too, thanks entirely to Jaclyn. Just a few: Much Taboo About Nothing, Electric Youth, Media Matters, Surviving to Yes.)

After reading Latoya Peterson’s essay on “The Not Rape Epidemic,” for example, if you want to read something else about youth sexuality, you’ll be directed to contributions from Heather Corinna ("An Immodest Proposal") and Hanne Blank ("The Process-Oriented Virgin"). But if you want to follow up about another theme Peterson addresses – say, the role of government in policing female sexuality and perpetuating rape culture, you can skip to another essay which discusses that instead.

We like to call it a "choose your own adventure" anthology! But seriously, we thought it was important that the reader be able to create the narrative in the book - this way, every time you pick up the book you can read it in a new way.

It's a format I think really works to highlight how nuanced of all the essays are, and I'm really proud (if I do say so myself!) of it. That said, I hope you like the excerpt of my essay and that you consider checking out the book for yourself!

Purely Rape: The myth of sexual purity and how it reinforces rape culture

Until 2008, the law in Maryland stated that if a woman wanted stop in the middle of intercourse and her partner refused, it wasn’t rape because once a woman is penetrated, “the damage is done.” A peeping tom case in Florida, in which a man took pictures up a teen’s skirt, was dismissed because the court ruled that the young woman had no “expectation of privacy” while wearing a skirt. And in California, a rape trial resulted in a hung jury – even after seeing a videotape of the passed out victim being raped by multiple men, penetrated vaginally and anally with pool sticks, a Snapple bottle and a lit cigarette. The defense had argued the teen was eager to make a “porn video.”

The common theme in these stories, and so many others, is the myth of sexual purity and how it reinforces rape culture. The purity myth – the lie that sexuality defines how “good” women are, and that women’s moral compasses are inextricable from their bodies – is an integral part rape culture. Under the purity myth, any sexuality that deviates from a strict (generally straight, male-defined) norm is punishable by violence.

It’s not exactly news that women who transgress are punished (and there are certainly more consequences to the purity myth than sexual violence.) But we’re in a peculiar cultural place in the U.S. right now – where sexualized pop culture and a conservative movement to reinforce traditional gender roles are colliding to form a modernized virgin/whore complex. We’re getting abstinence-only education during the day and Girls Gone Wild commercials at night, and women are suffering as a result. Because whether it’s sexualized pop culture or abstinence class, the message is one and the same – that’s women’s sexuality is to be defined (and policed) by educators, legislators and media makers, not by women.

And overwhelmingly, what institutions want women to be is virginal. Pure. Innocent. Sure, they may demand that we perform sexuality – be visually appealing and always available for consumption - but a la Britney Spears, what is expected from women is sexy virginity. Be pure…for as long as I want you to.

Of course, at the heart of the purity myth is who gets positioned as “pure.” The perfect virgin as imagined in U.S. culture is sexy but not sexual. She’s young, white, and skinny. She’s a cheerleader, a babysitter; she’s accessible and eager to please. She’s never a woman of color - who are so hypersexualized in American culture that they’re rarely positioned as “the virgin.” She’s never a low-income girl, or a fat girl. She is never differently-abled. “Virgin” is a designate for those who fit into what a certain standard of women, especially younger women, are supposed to look like. The positioning one kind of girl as good and “clean,” of course, implies that the rest of us are dirty.

And if we’re not “pure,” or don’t want to be, our bodies are considered open for business.

For the rest of the essay, please check out the book!

Note: I'll be traveling today, so if I don't respond to comments right away, that's why! Looking forward to bitching will all of you...

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