“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart recently explained why she did not try to escape her captors despite having some opportunities to do so, and her testimony is shocking. She claims that after being raped, she remembered her teacher comparing a woman who has sex before marriage to a “chewed-up piece of gum,” and this caused her terrible guilt. Smart felt that a 14-year-old Christian girl who was no longer a virgin was not worth rescuing. Though Smart’s teachers and religious parents probably had the best of intentions, it’s worth noting that they were not preaching abstinence as a practice – they were preaching the archaic, pernicious, metaphysical concept of “purity” as a measure of worth. This is the same concept that Islamic extremists exploit when they recruit female suicide bombers using rape. Purity is a barbaric idea from a time when a family had to guard a girl’s virginity for financial reasons. And like Elizabeth Smart, I learned it in school.
Sex-wise, I have one thing to say to the young: there is no purity. There is only “I choose to have sex ’round now” and “I choose not to have sex ’round now.” I consider myself an impure woman. I hated my abstinence-only sex education class so much I jumped up and yelled at the teacher. But there were more than 30 girls in that class with me, and statistically speaking, I may be the last “virgin” standing. Women are people, not paints, extracts, or pharmaceuticals.
But the idea that a person can be pure goes beyond sex. One may consider oneself racially pure, although the geneticists will laugh at that. One may obsess over the purity of one’s diet, or the cleanliness of one’s home. And what is extremism but the desire for purity of thought? You can see why I am alarmed and repelled by anyone who tries to tell me I should be pure. Tell me I should be good, conscientious, brave, scrupulous, and reasonable, but never tell me I should be pure.
I am NOT pure. I tell morbid jokes, I’ve written erotica (that you will never, ever see), I have violent thoughts about people I dislike, I think True Blood is awesome, I love meat and chocolate, and, to the horror of my friends who have good taste in music, I have danced to Kreashawn’s “Gucci Gucci.” Vices all, but my friends have pointed out that some of my virtues are highly eccentric, and thus also impure.
As Primo Levi points out in The Periodic Table, life, and possibly the universe itself, cannot function without impurities: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” This is a scientific fact. Without entropy physics collapses; without genetic mutations biology collapses. Everyone knows about how an oyster needs grit to make a pearl. And those creepy, revolting vultures in the Audubon print? Ecosystems falter without them, as the Indians learned when they accidentally decimated their vulture population with pesticides.