Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Sex, Lies & Purity Books

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So there is a sexual morality debate raging over at LadyBlog, and as sexual morality just happens to be one of my favorite topics, I will replicate it in part here. It all started with Feministing’s Jessica Valenti last week posting the cover of her upcoming book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Undeterred by the fact that the book doesn’t come out until April 2009, and that Valenti had provided no details about the book save for the cover, social conservatives the blogosphere over had managed to work up a tizzy about it before day’s end.

The hoopla hit LadyBlog when Ericka Anderson basically appropriated the rest of the right-wing talking points about the book but with a little extra oomph: she pretended like she read the book. Or she didn’t. No one’s quite sure. This is what she wrote:

For some thought-provoking reading, check out Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women.” Cassy Fiano’s post on the book today lead me to check it out for myself.

Now, knowing that the book didn’t come out ’til April myself, and having no reason to believe Anderson to be dishonest (or dumb), I assumed she had simply meant she would “check out” the idea of the book, the posts about it, etc., and it was just a case of bad syntax. Others weren’t so charitable, and the comments section was soon flooded with people calling Ericka dishonest and dumb.

Hoping to do some damage control for our influx of Feministing readers, I responded. Marianne Brennnen responded. And then Ericka responded again. And again. This is not really the interesting part of the debate; this is just some background. My point in all this—aside from being a blog-fight historian, apparently (or curator. I like curator better)—relates to one tiny, niggling point that might otherwise get lost in the many, many things people have found to argue/discuss. Jessica wrote:

I believe that a young woman’s sexual choices – no matter what they be – shouldn’t have a bearing on how they’re seen as moral actors.

And Ericka responded:

But having a moral compass in regards to one’s sexuality isn’t a bad thing.

Aha—and who is saying it is?

Anderson also wrote:

“I think this is what initially bothered me about the ideas presented on Feministing.com … morality becomes obsolete when it comes to sex.”

No! No no no no argh*thg!g#$dafsdfsdasfasdfKIHLWJOIJPOJOJPP”OJPO{J!!!!!!!!!*)&$%gh!

Or (breathe), to put it more reasonably (but less succinctly): I think the reason this stuck with me so much is that it’s a classic case of people just talking right past one another. Ericka is clearly reading the words Jessica writes, but something is going horribly wrong between the reading and the interpretation step.

For one, the idea that one’s sexual choices shouldn’t determine how one is seen as a moral actor is in no way the same thing as saying there should be no morality involved in sexual relations. The first has to do with how one is perceived by others; the second has to do with the way one negotiates things internally. The first says that how much sex one’s had—or when, or why, or how, or with whom—shouldn’t be a determining factor in whether others deem them a “good” or “bad” person. The second—having a moral compass in regard to one’s sexuality—applies to how individuals negotiate their own sexual boundaries, values and beliefs.

I don’t think anyone is saying individuals shouldn’t have “a moral compass” in regard to sex; I actually don’t even think that is possible (people’s sexual morality may differ vastly, of course, but everyone has some guiding principles for sexual choices; as one commenter pointed out, almost every society has some taboos about incest). But—like in those experiments where researchers remove all the vowels in a sentence and find people still read the words as if they’re intact—I feel social conservatives are so convinced liberals=no values and feminsts=whores that the minute they see “sex” and “morals” in a sentence written by either, they immediately interpret it as OMG Roman bathhouses Girls Gone Wild abortion on demand if it feels good do it Christians suck free love lava lamps FUCK YEAH!!!!!!! Or some loose interpretation thereof.

Of course, sometimes I’m too naive about these things, believing the misinterpretations are genuine. Then I get all disappointed when it belatedly becomes clear that the misinterpretations were willful. I’m not saying Ericka’s was, but it does become clear that when she originally said “I don’t think people should be judged based on their sex lives, I just think they should have some sort of moral compass,” what she really meant was people should have my moral compass when it comes to sex, and if not, I will judge them based on their sex lives. Writes Ericka in the comments to this moral compass post:

I’m not attempting to be a smart aleck here but it’s tough for me to believe someone doesn’t consider sleeping around immoral. It certainly wouldn’t be classified as “good morals.”

Annnnndddd … oh, never mind. I give up. Trying to be a self-appointed ombudsman between social conservatives and feminists is intensely frustrating. There is more to say about this, in response to some other comments Ericka made and Helen Rittelmeyer’s subsequent post, but this has gotten unbearably long already, so I’ll save that for later.


Written by Elizabeth

October 14, 2008 at 9:34 am

Posted in Culture, Feminism, Media

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