A review of the TEST

Unisex Omnisexual
Purity Test

Version 4.0

Central Question: Can sex be understood?
Central question (literally): “Have you ever… yielded willingly to a proposition from someone for sexual activity,” someone “of your own gender, if you are mostly heterosexual” but “of the opposite gender, if you are mostly homosexual?”; Original publication date: December 1988; Large-text reminder: all technicalities count; Derivative works: The Adventure Gamer’s Purity Test; The Dr. Who Purity Test; The Purity Test by Joselin Linder (2009); Libertarian Purity Test by Bryan Kaplan; Purity Test for Copper in Copper Alloys by Classical Wet Method; Representative sentence: “[Have you ever] necked or petted in a contraption of the dead? (Coffin, hearse, etc.)”

You can find and print out a digital simulacrum, but to fully understand the historical meaning of a genuine Purity Test you need to have held a dog-eared, much-stapled, much-passed-around version—or else one copied illicitly, toner still warm, in the back room at a friend of a friend’s weekend job. Once kept energetically (if sheepishly) from grown-up eyes and now familiar enough in some quarters to be worthy of parody, the Purity Test is a monument to many things, but most of all to the durability of pre-internet, semi-samizdat nerd culture. Anyone between the ages of, oh, thirty and fifty who ever played Dungeons & Dragons seriously, or who knows what a BBS was, has probably been in the same dorm room, basement, or bedroom with a copy of the test. (Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, finds a “purity test” from the 1930s, but traces this version’s origins to the early 1980s, at MIT.)

“Purity” is the opposite of sex: the test is, mostly, an exploration of sex, its preliminaries, its substitutes, its components, and its sometimes-grody, sometimes-baroque variations, written by and for and about readers for whom it’s almost all new and mostly untried. The test comprises four hundred yes-or-no questions (“Have you ever…”), usually about things one might do in the course of a hookup, or during an all-out orgy, or on an unusual date—though some of them cover things you might do by yourself (for example) with someone else’s clothes. Early questions could generate plots for young-adult fiction: “Have you ever… used tickling as a pick-up, get-to-know-you-better routine? …secretly lusted after someone without that person knowing? …stuffed your bra if you are female, or stuffed your pants if you are male? …gone steady with multiple people at the same time without all of the people aware of what you were doing? …gone steady …with all of them aware?”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. Some of his books are The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (2010), Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry(2009), and Parallel Play, a book of poems (2006).

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