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.
Purity culture: a definition.
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.
It assumes there are only two genders, created by God.
Therefore any deviation is seen as rebellion against God.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.