Connecting the Dots: What the “Cult of Virginity,” Rape Culture (aka, “Public Punishments”), and Bushmaster Rifles Have in Common

In case you were wondering: yes, the government is still federally funding abstinence-only education to the tune of, most recently in 2012, $5 million. This funding was pushed through as a concession the Obama administration made to conservatives during the president’s health care reform legislation of 2010 (often pejoratively called “Obamacare”), set to take effect in 2014.


In her documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, the narrator (Shelby, a 15-year-old high school student campaigning for better sex ed in the small, conservative town of Lubbock, TX) describes “Fuck Fest 2002,” which she learned about her sophomore year at her high school in Lubbock, TX. The “Fuck Fest” list ranks the girls at the school according to sexual experience and sexual features (butt, boobs, etc.); virgin girls were ranked higher on the list, and girls with reputations for being promiscuous had lower point values (though that sexual activity may only be gossip). The goal of the boys participating in this “contest” was to have sex with the virgin girls (the “tens” on the list), or as Valenti calls it, those young women who “epitomize the feminine ideal” (30), pretty and pure. Of course, by doing so, the standing of those girls will then fall on the list; so the goal of the contest, really, is to take girls down a peg.


  • What do you notice about the way the girls are ranked on the “fuck Fest” list?
  • Regarding the purity balls Amanda Robb writes about, why do you think fathers are given so much authority when it comes to “protecting” their daughters’ virginity and not mothers or grandmothers?
  • How is a woman’s sexuality (i.e., her sense of herself as a sexual being) affected when it is the sole indicator of her worth? When it becomes a kind of commodity to be competed for and traded between men?

We can start to see why Adrienne Rich believed that lesbian relationships, or even “woman-identified relationships,” could be more empowering for women than heterosexual couplings!

As Jessica Valenti (author of The Purity Myth) tells us, “equating [virginity] with  morality not only is problematic because it continues to tie women’s ethics with our bodies, but also is downright insulting because it suggests that women can’t be moral actors. Instead, we’re defined by what we don’t do–our ethics are the ethics of passivity” (25).

So women’s value is largely based on their “purity” (i.e., their sexual inexperience), which we equate solely with their virginity (a construct, as Valenti points out, for which there is no medical or legal definition; a construct that becomes especially controversial when we consider what a “loss of virginity” might mean for someone who is gay or lesbian) – that is, with her physical being rather than her emotional or intellectual being.


  • How does our obsession with virginity and “purity” ultimately justify the “public punishments” that Valenti discusses in Chapter 7 of The Purity Myth?


So then, is there some equivalent for what we value in our young men? Consider a recent internet ad campaign from Bushmaster Rifles, the rifle used in so many of the recent shootings in the U.S.

man cards

According to an article on

“’To become a card-carrying man, visitors of will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions. Upon successful completion, they will be issued a temporary Man Card to proudly display to friends and family,’ a press release for the campaign reads.

Most of the quiz questions are pretty predictable and harmless, if dumb — Do you eat tofu? Can you change a tire? Have you ever watched figured skating “on purpose”? — but others are more challenging. One question gives you four possible options of how to respond if a car full of the rival team’s fans cuts you off on the way to the championship game. The correct answer, it turns out, is to commit arson: ‘Skip the game, find the other car in the parking lot, and render it unrecognizable with a conflagration of shoe polish and empty food containers.’

If property destruction isn’t your thing, you can always reclaim your manhood by purchasing a Bushmaster assault rifle…

But watch out, manly friends. Don’t let those emotions show or that glass be full of anything but non-light beer, because your buddies can ‘revoke’ your Man Card at any point. Revokable offenses include being a ‘crybaby,’ a ‘coward,’ a “cupcake” (we have no idea what that means either), having a “short leash” (presumably thanks to a wife or girlfriend), or being just generally ‘unmanly’ (this one has a woman icon).”

What kind of dynamic do we establish when we value virginity (i.e., passivity) in our girls and young women and sexual experience/prowess and violence (or at least aggression) in our boys and young men? How might this affect our sexual negotiations and who winds up at greatest risk in such a culture? You start to get the picture.

“I find the easy sexism and dumb machismo of [Bushmaster’s campaign] extremely troubling. Equating aggression, violence and lack of empathy with masculinity, and positioning a military-grade assault weapon as an essential part of that role, is both a reflection — and a reinforcement — of the American gun culture. And while this culture may not specifically cause killers to kill, it gives them the means to do so very efficiently while also providing a fantasy of violent power to the otherwise powerless.” – Tom Megginson for The Ethical Adman

Of course, abstinence pledges can include young men as well as girls. But how to convince young men to embrace abstinence – that is, give up sexual prowess, a key component of the ideology of masculinity – while still feeling “like a man”? Again, there’s a tie-in with male violence here, an echo of it in the age-old narrative of the Protector and the Protected. Think back to Valenti’s reference to “virginity warriors” (25), whose job it is to protect the virginity of the women in their community. But whose interests are being served?

Question for Next Time:

  • So why are we still talking about protecting young women from men rather than working to change young men’s behaviors toward women?


Please find the questions for your midterm exam below. When typing your responses, be sure to include the question.

Directions: Type and double-space all answers to the following questions. Proofread all your work before handing it in. Your completed exam is due in class on Monday, Sept. 30th.  ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

PART I. Definition of Terms and Concepts. Address all of the following short answer questions (keep answers to about 3 to 5 sentences each). Worth 2 points each (total: 20 points in this section).

  1.  What is patriarchy? Why are feminists committed to challenging patriarchy as our “default system” of social organization?
  2. What is an “essentialist argument”? (Hint: first wave feminists often grounded their arguments in essentialist ideas.)
  3. What does Tax mean by “false consciousness”? What do we need to move from false consciousness to a more “revolutionary consciousness”?
  4. What is “internalized oppression”? Give one example we might observe of how women have internalized their own oppression.
  5. What is “gaslighting” and how is it connected to the idea that women are “overly emotional”?
  6. Freeman states that there is a long legal history of “infantalizing” women. What does this mean? Give one example of a law – either historical or contemporary – that infantalizes women as citizens.
  7. What does Adrienne Rich mean by “compulsory heterosexuality”?
  8. What is rape culture?
  9. What do we mean by “intimate partner abuse”? Other than physical abuse (e.g., beating, strangling, sexual abuse, etc.), name one other tactic that an abusive partner might use to control his or her significant other.
  10. What do we mean by “respectability politics”?

 PART II.Analysis and Reflection (Short Answer Essay). Choose 8 of the following short answer essay questions to address (aim for one good paragraph each). Write in complete sentences and provide detailed answers. Worth 10 points each (total: 80 points in this section).

  1.  Briefly compare and contrast first wave and second wave feminist movement in the United States, including: a) some of the major injustices that each wave sought to address; and b) one major challenge or disagreement that feminists faced within each wave.
  2. Lorber, Fausto-Sterling, and Chase all argue in their writing that both gender and sex are socially constructed, rather than natural, categories. Briefly define both terms (i.e., gender and sex). How are these categories socially constructed? Give relevant examples from your own experience.
  3. In the U.S., what are essential characteristics of femininity? What are essential characteristics of masculinity? How do these two lists of gender-related characteristics relate to one another (i.e., how does the construction of masculinity depend on the construction of femininity)?
  4. What purpose(s) do the words fag and faggot serve when used among young men in Pascoe’s sociological study? How does race affect which behaviors will get a boy called a fag by his friends?
  5. How does pornography contribute to and/or reinforce both rape culture and compulsory heterosexuality? What other abuses (physical and/or psychological) does such a culture condition women to accept as normal?
  6. Why is it, or why has it been, difficult for women to claim an express anger? How can claiming and expressing anger be an important of practicing an “ethic of love,” as described by bell hooks?
  7. Why are “barsexual” behavior among young women and the porn industry’s frequent portrayal of women engaging in lesbian sex acts so problematic when we examine them through a lesbian feminist lens?
  8. In attempting to prevent sexual assault, educators, organizations, and others have often targeted women, focusing on teaching women how to police their own behavior (e.g., don’t go out alone, don’t dress too provocatively). Why have many feminists criticized this approach? What might be a more effective approach and why?
  9. According to historian Nancy Cott, how did Protestant, middle-class white women first gain greater moral equality with men in their New England communities? In contrast, how do race and class affect how we judge the sexual desires and behaviors of women of color, and working class and immigrant women?
  10. In “When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men…,” what does Goldstein mean when she writes that “[e]ven when gender roles change, sexism has a remarkable ability to adapt”? How does “historical amnesia” enable this adaptive process?

Homework: Post-Survey on Intimate Partner Abuse

Now that Marie Kellemen has visited our class, please take a few minutes to fill out the short, post-presentation survey on intimate partner abuse. As Marie mentioned in class, the results of the pre- and post-surveys are used to evaluate how much audiences learn from these outreach presentations and to help the YWCA continue to receive funding for their important outreach.

Print the last sheet of the survey and turn it on on Friday, Sept. 27th to receive participation points. Make sure your name is on it.


Want to find out more about the YWCA and its shelter? Click here.

In addition, here is the link to What Now? Tippecanoe, with advice for what to do if you or someone you know experiences (or has experienced) sexual assault. This resource is also permanently linked on our blog under both “Campus Resources” and “Community Resources.”

Why Steubenville, OH Was a Big Deal

Back in March, two young men from the small town of Steubenville, OH were officially convicted of raping a 16-year-old classmate and were sentenced to one year in a juvenile detention center. An article from Yahoo news featured a photograph of one of the players hugging his mother after the verdict (cue the pathos, but not for the victim):

“The judge sentenced them both to at least one year in juvenile jail and said both can be held until they’re 21. Mays, who’s 17, was sentenced to an additional year in jail on a charge of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, to be served after his rape sentence is completed.”

Read more about what happened in The New York Times.

According to a post on the Feminist Majority Foundation website, the presiding Judge Lipps described the evidence as “profane and ugly” and a cautionary tale of teenagers with alcohol and “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today,” effectively reducing the violation and dehumanization of a young woman’s body (the video shows the young men urinating on her as well as dragging her around and penetrating her unconscious body) becomes little more than a cautionary tale for teens not to drink while underage and be smarter about how they use social media.

In the meantime, the young woman who charged her two attackers has received enough anonymous death threats to warrant posting two police officers at her house for her protection. Both the incident and the verdict resulted in nationwide activism on behalf of the victim, though the media tended to side with the rapists in the case. Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry was a prominent exceptionin her television address to the young woman from Steubenville, “Dear Steubenville Survivor, I Believe You” (the survivor’s name has been kept private).


What’s notable about this case is that Steubenville is a town that prides itself on its high school football team, and both of the men convicted in this case were “star” football players on the team. Perhaps the most damaging message we get from this is that sports and male bonding among athletes are more important than the bodily integrity of a young woman, their peer. The victim was publicly accused of trying to ruin the reputation of the team  and thereby destroy the morale of the town – out of jealousy, perhaps? It’s not made clear what her motivations might be for doing so. But the implication is – and this is another “rape myth” that supports victim-blaming – that this was revenge for a “regretted sexual experience.”

rape culture media

The Power of Language: "Legitimate Rape" and Efforts to Change the Definition of Rape

Last year, former senator Todd Aikin (R-MO) made the following comments about “legitimate rape” that outraged women and feminists nationwide. (Not insignificantly, Senator Aikin sat on the Science Committee in the House of Representatives at the time he made these comments…the science committee.)

Shortly following the senator’s debacle, then-Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan insinuated that rape was simply another form of conception in an interview in which he was asked to comment on Aikin’s comments. So here’s the important context to their public comments: both Ryan and Aikin have been proponents of trying to change the language that legally defines rape in an effort to make it illegal for women to have access to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Read more about their efforts to narrow the definition of rape to proven ‘forcible rape.’

What’s the current legal definition of rape? As of 2012, according to the Department of Justice, the definition is: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”  The definition is used by the FBI.

Extra Credit: “Two Spirits: Exploring the Crossroads of Gender”

Here’s a wonderful extra credit opportunity for those of you interested in learning even more about sexuality and sexual identity in other cultures (the following is taken from the event’s Facebook page). Again, anyone who would like to receive extra credit for attending events like this one should write a one-page, double-spaced response to the event detailing what was discussed and what you learned (two or three sentences of summary will suffice, as I’m more interested to read about your own engagement with the ideas presented).


“Two Spirits: Exploring the Crossroads of Gender ”
6:00 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26th
Krannert Auditorium

“Join Dr. Wesley Thomas, Chair/Professor in the School of Diné Studies, Education & Leadership at Navajo Technical College for an enlightening and engaging conversation exploring Two Spirit identity, history, and contemporary issues.

“Within the more than 200 languages spoken in Native American communities throughout North America, concepts and definitions related to gender and sexuality vary and can be difficult to distill into English language. ‘Two Spirit’ has come to represent anyone who identifies as being connected to Native American traditions that do not simply divide people into male and female but that instead recognize people of integrated genders and diverse sexualities.”

Sponsored by the Native American Education and Cultural Center, the LGBTQ Center’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and The Eiteljorg Museum.

Homework: Two Short Surveys for Our Guest Speakers

The guest speakers who come to out class take time out of their busy schedules to visit us and bring their unique experiences and knowledge to our discussions. Please take a few minutes to help them out. After you’ve taken each short survey, print the last page – write your name is on it – and turn it in by the due dates below. You will receive 5 participation points for proof of each survey that you hand in.

Survey No. 1:

Provide feedback to Lowell Kane and the other speakers of our sexualities panel (due Monday, 9/23).

Survey No. 2:

Marie Kelleman, the Outreach Coordinator from our local YWCA, will be visiting our class soon as well. Take the pre-survey on Intimate Partner Abuse (due date Friday, 9/20).

Purdue Becomes More Inclusive of LGBTQ Community

Left to right: Aiden Powell, a graduate student and part of Purdue's trans* community, Lowell Kane, and Gail Walenga, Director of Purdue's student Health Center.

Left to right: Aiden Powell, a graduate student and part of Purdue’s trans* community, Lowell Kane, and Gail Walenga, Director of Purdue’s student Health Center.

The Exponent ran a front page article in its Friday edition on Purdue’s new inclusion of hormone therapy in its health care benefits. PGSG pased the bill that approved the change that will certainly affect Purdue’s trans* community. This change puts Purdue in a rather elite position among other U.S. universities.

Lowell Kane, the Director of Purdue’s LGBTQ Center, stated “I’m very excited that Purdue is being elevated amongst our peer institutions as not only having an inclusive nondiscrimination policy – a claim that only 6 percent of universities in the nation can make – but also taking the next step of putting policy into practice with the coverage of hormone therapy – which only approximately two dozen campuses nationwide can say.”

Read the whole article from The Exponent here.


A More Recent “Child X” Experiment: Toronto Parents Won’t Reveal the Sex of Their Baby, Despite Criticism

Baby Storm and another sibling. Storm's parents faced criticism of their parenting of all their children when they decided to raise Storm genderless.

Baby Storm and another sibling. Storm’s parents faced criticism of their parenting of all their children when they decided to raise Storm genderless.

If you were interested in or surprised by Lorber’s reference to a 1972 article in Ms. Magazine that discussed the possibility of raising a genderless child, a child who might grow up free from the limiting gendered behaviors that we’re taught from the moment we’re born, you might be interested to know that contemporary parents are still searching for ways to move beyond such rigid gender stereotyping. While that article was a fantasy in 1972, it might be a reality for a pair of parents in Toronto.

In 2012, Storm’s parents decided not to reveal Storm’s sex. The only people who know are Storm’s siblings and the two midwives who oversaw Storm’s birth. While some have been supportive, the couple has faced criticism, not just from neighbors, but from the right-wing news media.

Take a look at the full article about Storm and Storm’s parents here.

This year, Germany became the first country in Europe to list a third choice on its birth certificates in addition to its two traditional gender options, allowing parents to opt out of listing their child’s gender as simply male or female:

“The legislative change allows parents to opt out of determining their baby’s gender, thereby allowing those born with characteristics of both sexes to choose whether to become male or female in later life. Under the new law, individuals can also opt to remain outside the gender binary altogether” (Heine).

However, it’s unclear whether this will spark a revision of other legal documents that require someone to identify their gender. But consider what a difference such an option might have made for someone like Cheryl Chase and her parents.


  • How does criticism of Storm’s parents’ decision reveal what Lorber says about the importance we ascribe to a two-gender system in Western culture?
  • What obstacles do parents face in trying to create less rigid gender identity in raising their child? What obstacles do you think the child will face as he/she gets older?
  • Last week, we talked about education/schools being a form of social control. What obligation do you think schools and educators have in enabling less rigid gender stereotypes? Why do you think this hasn’t yet been part of the discussions about education reform in this country?