The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture Edition

The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture Edition

I’ve made oblique (and not-so-oblique) ref­er­ences to puri­ty cul­ture in my writ­ing in bygone years. From my break-through light-bulb moment of accept­ing the body I have to the con­dem­na­tion of the “turn­ing on a dime” illus­tra­tion giv­en to a group of high school­ers dur­ing a chapel mes­sage when I was a young teen, and even through the Redeem­ing Love review series I’ve start­ed (that I promise I will fin­ish — turns out liv­ing alone gives me tons more time to ded­i­cate to my hob­bies!).

Basi­cal­ly, I think it’s safe to say my opin­ion on things like gen­der roles and an absti­nence-until-monog­a­mous-het­ero­sex­u­al-mar­riage approach to sex edu­ca­tion are pret­ty clear. (If not, they’re about to be!)

Despite all that, and despite being rather vocal­ly lib­er­al in most oth­er aspects of my life, I’ve nev­er direct­ly approached the top­ic of puri­ty cul­ture here before. There’s a lot of rea­sons for that, hon­est­ly. Believe it or not, I’m real­ly quite a pri­vate per­son. I’m very delib­er­ate about what I choose to dis­close pub­licly. So while I feel com­fort­able talk­ing about my expe­ri­ences in many realms (always with­out nam­ing names), there’s still a huge part of me that is intense­ly uncom­fort­able talk­ing so frankly about sex or rela­tion­ships. I believe very strong­ly that when my sto­ry dra­mat­i­cal­ly over­laps with that of anoth­er, espe­cial­ly in such an inti­mate way, the sto­ries of those peo­ple are prob­a­bly not my sto­ries to tell.

Plus, you know, I hon­est­ly thought I’d worked through all my hangups and bias­es. I’d accept­ed they exist­ed, as they were a pret­ty nat­ur­al con­se­quence of grow­ing up inun­dat­ed with puri­ty cul­ture and com­ple­men­tar­i­an­ism. Or at least, if I hadn’t quite worked through them, I felt con­fi­dent that I either had the tools to dis­man­tle and exam­ine any resid­ual effect these teach­ings had on my life, or that being monog­a­mous­ly mar­ried to my only con­sen­su­al sex­u­al part­ner would allow me to not have to per­son­al­ly con­sid­er what a holis­tic sex­u­al eth­ic would look like for me specif­i­cal­ly. My entire life pre­pared me for such a monog­a­mous and life-long part­ner­ship, so any work­ing out beliefs on the mat­ter were pure­ly the­o­ret­i­cal.


Here I am, sep­a­rat­ed after over six years of mar­riage, hav­ing start­ed my mar­riage as a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian and end­ed it as a lib­er­al athe­ist. And I’m sud­den­ly real­iz­ing with not a lit­tle pan­ic that there’s so much I’ve allowed myself to gloss over in hopes I’d nev­er have to con­sid­er it. But now that I’m alone, it’s clear those things sud­den­ly and painful­ly per­tain to my life. They’re not just the­o­ret­i­cal to me any­more, and so I can no longer afford to ignore them.

This (most like­ly ongo­ing) series, there­fore, is my attempt to work through my jour­ney into and out of puri­ty cul­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly exam­in­ing the sto­ries I was told regard­ing gen­der roles and sex­u­al­i­ty and how those sto­ries had a mas­sive impact on my life.

Please note: I’m going to be talk­ing about very per­son­al expe­ri­ences. It’s my goal to be as forth­right as I can be about how cer­tain teach­ings and expe­ri­ences shaped my life and per­cep­tions, while also work­ing to be empa­thet­ic and fair to the peo­ple who were involved at var­i­ous stages. I have no wish to paint any­one as a one-dimen­sion­al vil­lain, nor do I wish to go into explic­it detail about my sex life or mar­riage to my ex (though this top­ic neces­si­tates gen­er­al dis­cus­sion of both). And so I’m approach­ing this very del­i­cate top­ic as com­pas­sion­ate­ly but frankly as I can, in the man­ner in which I best work through expe­ri­ences in my life.

Sto­ries are impor­tant. The sto­ries we tell each oth­er and our­selves form the nar­ra­tives of our lives and enable us to empathize with one anoth­er, form com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ments and friend­ships and loves. They affect how we view the world, our­selves, and each oth­er on an indi­vid­ual and orga­ni­za­tion­al lev­el, and thus they also affect how we under­stand­ing and inter­act with all of those things…

The sto­ries we tell each oth­er, the sto­ries we tell our­selves, the sto­ries we accept as truth define us.

from my August 19, 2014 piece enti­tled “The sto­ries we tell.”

Purity culture: a definition.

As defined by the excel­lent No Shame Move­ment,

With­in the con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian con­text, puri­ty cul­ture is sim­ply the view of any dis­cus­sion of things of a sex­u­al nature out­side of the con­text of het­ero­sex­u­al mar­riage as taboo.

Those with in puri­ty cul­ture must adhere to a strict het­ero­nor­ma­tive lifestyle that for­bids most phys­i­cal con­tact with sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers, as well as engag­ing in self plea­sure, or hold­ing lust­ful thoughts about anoth­er per­son that is not a spouse. This view is gen­er­al­ly enforced and policed by the fam­i­ly and church com­mu­ni­ty. Puri­ty cul­ture includes an insis­tence on female mod­esty and respon­si­bil­i­ty to shield boys and men from sex­u­al temp­ta­tion.

To be blunt, puri­ty cul­ture is dis­tinct­ly reli­gious and sex­ist at heart. As Dian­na Ander­son states, “Puri­ty cul­ture is, in brief, the link­ing of reli­gious piety with vir­ginal sta­tus, par­tic­u­lar­ly in young peo­ple, and the asso­ci­a­tion of sin and shame with sex.”

As such, it oper­ates with an awful lot of assump­tions about the world and how peo­ple do and/or should believe and/or behave.

  1. It assumes there are only two genders, created by God.

    There­fore any devi­a­tion is seen as rebel­lion against God.

  2. It assumes those two genders are absolutely separate, with different physical, psychological, and social needs.

    When pre­sent­ed with evi­dence to the con­trary, one of three posi­tions typ­i­cal­ly serves as a response: “The per­son in ques­tion is in sin,” “Well, every­one is cre­at­ed in the image of God, so of course there’s some over­lap,” or “This spe­cif­ic instance isn’t a hard-and-fast rule because we are all indi­vid­u­als, after all.” This belief extends to the sex­u­al realm, where men and women are assumed to always have dif­fer­ent sex­u­al needs and lev­els of arousal and stim­uli for arousal.

  3. It assumes sex is one specific act, while also claiming that any kind of physical affection may be sexual in nature.

    So sex may only count as sex when a penis pen­e­trates a vagi­na (in their think­ing), but hold­ing hands can be des­per­ate­ly sen­su­al. Which leads us to…

  4. The assumption that sex must be reserved for heterosexual monogamous marriage between two people who have known no other sexual partner before their spouse.

    The con­se­quences are, of course, grave sin, and from there they dif­fer depend­ing on the gen­der of the non-vir­gin. Because men and women always expe­ri­ence things dif­fer­ent­ly! In Dianna’s piece that I ref­er­enced above, she makes the dis­tinc­tion of how men are often giv­en some­what of a pass because it is assumed that they are sex­u­al by nature, but women are shamed for fail­ing to be gate­keep­ers of the sex­u­al­i­ty of all around them. More on that in a minute.

  5. It assumes men are to be leaders while women are to serve those leaders.

    After all, men were a direct cre­ation of God, and women were fash­ioned after men to be a “help meet” for him. And women are nat­u­ral­ly less stal­wart than men, because they were the ones deceived in the gar­den. Women are “the weak­er ves­sel,” after all.

  6. In contrast with the previous point, purity culture assumes men are helpless to overcome sexual urges without direct divine intervention or women taking responsibility for the urges of men.

    This means that non-Chris­t­ian men (or even Chris­t­ian men who are not “sur­ren­dered to the Spir­it”) are seen as lit­er­al­ly inca­pable of con­trol­ling them­selves around “immod­est” women. Even men who are “filled with the Spir­it” are called upon to take dras­tic mea­sures to ensure they don’t defile them­selves or anoth­er (goug­ing out their eyes, cut­ting off their hands, leav­ing their clothes in the clutch­es of a las­civ­i­ous woman because they’re run­ning away so quick­ly*). Women, then, are giv­en the direct respon­si­bil­i­ty of resist­ing the sex­u­al advances of men as well as tak­ing any action nec­es­sary to pro­tect them­selves and all men who may ever see or con­tact them. Because…

  7. Purity culture assumes the feminine form is inherently sexual in nature.

    Many will argue this point, yet insist women must dress, move, and sound a spe­cif­ic way in order to be chaste and pure and above reproach. The rea­son­ing seems to boil down to the point above. Because how can we expect men to view women as human beings deserv­ing of the same kind of respect and treat­ment they afford men? I mean, aren’t women always a poten­tial sex­u­al con­quest?

I’m sure there are more assump­tions, but it’s depress­ing me to put words to them like this (and I do appre­ci­ate the par­tic­u­lar irony of stop­ping at the num­ber of per­fec­tion).

My point in explain­ing these assump­tions, though, is to demon­strate just how much puri­ty cul­ture relies on beliefs and behav­iors…with­out stop­ping to look for real-world evi­dence.

For instance, puri­ty cul­ture pre­pared me in a way for my assault in col­lege. My attack­er wasn’t a Chris­t­ian, so of course he was debased and evil. But it didn’t pre­pare me for the preda­to­ry behav­ior of my Chris­t­ian peers and author­i­ties, such as han­dling the harass­ment and assault by a preacher’s son as a teenag­er, or help­ing my friend fend off the advances of one of our supe­ri­ors, or grap­pling with the fact that my old camp man­ag­er is a pedophile. And as I’m sit­ting here in the begin­ning stages of my divorce, I can assure you that it sure as hell didn’t spare me heart­break as it promised it would.

Puri­ty cul­ture pre­pared me for a world that doesn’t exist. The world that does exist is both so much bet­ter and so much worse than I was led to believe. And I hope to go into more detail in future posts as I exam­ine the assump­tions list­ed here along with the sto­ries I was told to back up those assump­tions and how those sto­ries and my beliefs failed me time and time again as I sought to nav­i­gate my life in a lov­ing, respect­ful, respon­si­ble way.

*Let’s be clear here that Potiphar’s wife wasn’t tempt­ing Joseph; she was attempt­ing to rape him. Yet this sto­ry is often told to demon­strate how hero­ic Joseph was for resist­ing a woman who so clear­ly want­ed him. The fact that I nev­er heard this sto­ry ref­er­enced as clear­ly about sex­u­al vio­lence is…really dis­turb­ing to me, hon­est­ly.

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