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?

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