Last week, I asked a question on social media.
For anyone not familiar with purity culture, it’s common within Christian circles. While Christianity has traditionally promoted chastity (as it should), purity culture placed the emphasis on virginity and purity rather than ongoing chastity. Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and popular evangelical movements like True Love Waits are part of Christian purity culture.
Many Christian girls were told they were “damaged goods” if they weren’t virgins on their wedding night. They were told the most important thing about them was their virginity, and no man would ever want them if they weren’t virgins. This meant their worth as a human being was wrapped up in their status as virgins. They were also told they were “asking for it” if they dressed immodestly. They were blamed for “causing men to stumble” instead of the men being told they needed to control themselves.
Some Christian teenagers were encouraged to court their future spouse instead of dating. They were told it wasn’t enough to be physically pure. They also had to remain emotionally pure for their future spouse. Instead of seeing dating as a way of getting to know someone to determine if they could be a potential spouse, these teenagers were told they would “give away a piece of their heart they could never get back” by dating multiple people. This placed an enormous amount of pressure on young people to identify The One on the first try.
Christian purity culture plays out in many different forms, but there are some common trends we can identify. And that starts with listening to people who lived through it.
You may have lived through it too. You may have found that perfect spouse and you’re perfectly happy. That’s great. But that isn’t the experience most of us have had. If something actually works, it should work for the majority. Some people find happiness by withdrawing from society and living as a hermit. That doesn’t mean we should all become hermits.
Here are some of the replies to my question (edited only for readability):
Almost every single person who taught it had some version of “I didn’t wait/I didn’t do it perfectly, but here’s why you should.” They were teaching out of their own shame & not out of experience, which brought greater condemnation, self-doubt, & fear.
Teaching from a place of shame depicts the gospel as weak & inadequate; the very message they touted was compromised by the admittance of their own “failures”. How could we grasp the baton if they had found it impossible in the first place? And how does that benefit any of us?
I got the opposite. “I waited and it was beautiful. If I hadn’t waited it would have been ruined.”
To which I ask: how can you know?
I would tell them that purity culture didn’t prepare me for the real world and real relationships. It didn’t give me any knowledge about self ownership or consent. It taught me that I was supposed to submit and that I was damaged goods when I got sexually assaulted.
We were just talking about how the whole modest is hottest thing is a load of crap because modesty is more a mindset, not a style and to push that to be “hot” is to cover up is still subjecting a woman define identity by looks. Guys can control themselves.
You taught me that boys only wanted one thing from me and that I was to defend myself against that at all costs. You never told me I would have my own desires I would have to confront. It was always about male agency, and never about understanding my own body and my own consent.
Being able to have sex on my wedding night would have been nice. :/ Shame-induced vaginismus is a thing.
That my body is not responsible for male lust. A 13 year old girl is not a sex object and shaming her to dress “modestly” is placing the onus of control on children instead of adults to not have sexual thoughts about children.
Don’t teach me my virginity is worth more than my life. For years I was so afraid of being attacked and raped because I had been taught it would be better for me to be killed than raped and be unpure.
It’s hard to say. I know they still 1000000% believe that shit still. I could tell them that I was nearly killed via DV by a man they all swore up and down was a god’s hand-picked husband for me. I don’t know if that’d matter.
Because I was told that I wasn’t worth loving if I wasn’t a virgin on my wedding night, I figured, after my rape, that I wasn’t worth anything at all. It took years of abuse at the hands of men who claimed to love me in spite of it before I developed any self-worth at all.
I didn’t know about my body, had no way to understand my own desires. When you can’t own yourself, when you’re divorced from your own sexuality, you’re open to exploitation. I couldn’t vocalize ‘no’ until I was married and almost 30, and it is directly the fault of purity culture.
I wish I had been taught to think about what I wanted and liked, not what the “right thing” was. A vision of healthy sexuality and self-esteem would have been great. They could have given me actual, real info and skills. Taught me about abuse and manipulation.
Instead, I was given rules. Rules can only protect for so long. They do nothing to create health and they don’t give you a way to navigate life outside of those strict lines. I wish I’d been given more nuance and grace, and allowed to be sexual.
I blame my sexual assaults on purity culture. They silenced my voice and told me boys only wanted 1 thing, and then said girls who did __ weren’t worth anything. I wasn’t equipped to understand anything about navigating sexual experiences, and couldn’t speak up for myself.
That I am worth so much more than my inexperience. That my innocence was NOT actually the best gift I gave my spouse. That marriage does not automatically = magical sex. That girls have sexual desire, too, and need to learn what to do with it!
Whether this was intentional or not, I was left with the impression that it would be better to be murdered than to be raped. To which I now say WTF?
I would tell them that even if they are teaching abstinence until marriage, they should still make sure that young girls get the HPV vaccine. Anything can happen, and once it’s contracted it’s too late. The vaccine can literally prevent cancer and refusing to provide it is abuse.
For me and a guys perspective, it never addressed some of the basics of sex. When my wife and I got married, she ended up hospitalized for 3 days with a kidney infection because no one took the time to freaking talk to us about sex other than the purity side of things.
I don’t know that I’d call myself a “survivor”, but I’d point out how somewhere close to 50% of the girls they spoke to then, are in their mid-30s now, and single. Marriage was dangled as the reward for obedience.
You made me feel ashamed of my god-given curves, trying to hide them for so long instead of embracing them and loving them. Even now, at 26, I tend to shy away from form-flattering clothes and can’t take compliments about my looks.
When you tell a 13-year-old child to “be careful” because she “has a figure now” that really messes with her head, how she views herself, and how she handles relationships later in life.
My biggest frustration is that purity culture cannot understand consent. Purity culture essentially states: sex within marriage=good. All other sex=bad. It thus cannot recognize the difference between rape and extramarital consensual sex. It also ignores the possibility of rape within marriage.
Why did I have to wear tops 3x too big? Why was it my job to keep guys from looking at my chest? Why was I responsible for everything a man ever did, said, or thought? And why did I have to [wear] jackets, or other cover ups over sundresses during a Deep South summer?
But of all of that, I want to know why you betrayed all of us? Because after years of preaching that all American citizens & national leaders be pure, you support & PRAISE a man who’s bragged about sexual pursuits/assault & had an affair with a porn star shortly after his son’s birth.
Because without a hint of remorse, you “white washed sepulchers”, who demanded perfect purity from teens/young adults (mostly females) and condemned any who fell even an inch short of it, now you give “mulligans” & passes to men who offer you great political power.
I didn’t know anything about dating or being in a healthy adult relationship and set a cycle of abuse in motion that I couldn’t get out of for a decade.
My parents actually did a pretty good job, but everything else in my culture drowned them out. I know Purity Culture was pushed in an effort to protect me, to prepare me. But it only gave me shame and made me vulnerable.
My body is mine. My body will always be mine.
“God’s favor” is imaginary. And even if it wasn’t, having or thinking about premarital sex won’t make me cursed and make God unable to love and protect me.
That modesty is about living humbly and not about how much skin a woman shows. Also that it’s total hypocrisy to tell child-me to cover up while insisting that Muslim women be uncovered.
How annoying it was that the woman who gave the purity talk went on and on about how tough, but in the end rewarding it was, to be “single for Jesus” for almost an entire year in college, before she met and married her husband at age 21.
Full Disclosure: I do believe the True Love Waits Movement and purity culture got some things right. But I also think they left out important parts of the conversation…I would’ve included that marriage isn’t the goal. Scripture speaks highly of the single life, so it isn’t second to married life.
I wish they hadn’t fetishized virginity and purity, I wish they’d been honest, and I wish they hadn’t made everything so damn fraught. They put so much pressure on performance and never addressed what we might want. They put their fears and regrets on us, instead of guiding us.
Image credit: barnyz (Creative Commons)