The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture and Shame.
The Stories We Tell: Purity Culture and Shame.
I had a very eye-opening conversation with my mom recently.
We were talking about my marriage to my ex, and she asked me if her hunch was correct that I’d have married him anyway if my parents hadn’t given us the go-ahead. (You see, in our iteration of purity culture, even as a 22-year-old adult, I needed my parents’ permission to marry.)
I thought a moment and answered honestly: yes, I would have still married him. Then I clarified, “I honestly thought I had* to.”
“You didn’t get that from us!” Mom responded in astonished confusion. “You don’t have to marry someone just because you slept with them.”
Let me say up front: that’s an entirely true statement. I agree with it 100%.
And yet it was my turn to be shocked.
Because that statement flew in the face of the entire narrative of my first 20+ years of life.
Now, I share the above not to lambaste my mom. Her support of me throughout my life has been utterly invaluable. She and I have a great relationship to this day, and we’re fortunate to be able to share our experiences and views even while disagreeing. I’m sharing this conversation because it’s merely the most recent in a long line of interactions and observations that really underline a surprising shift I’ve only noticed since exiting Christianity.
You see, for me and for so many of my friends and readers, it wasn’t just Western societal pressure about gender roles that shaped the unhealthy things we internalized in our lives and approaches to relationships. As I hinted last time when I covered what purity culture actually is, Christian teachings specifically contribute to problems in self-awareness about sexuality and gender roles.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have no doubts whatsoever about the intentions of our parents and childhood authority figures and mentors. I know they wanted to protect us. They wanted to equip us to handle The World as best as they could. Oftentimes, they wanted to give us an environment they never had, an environment that seemed heavenly to them: being totally enveloped in a conservative Christian atmosphere.
Which is exactly how Christian parents, pastors, elders, authors, speakers, evangelists, mentors, and authority figures nationwide can think ensconcing us in purity culture somehow taught us the value of our bodies and sex, yet be utterly gobsmacked at what it actually instilled in our hearts and minds instead.
There is a serious disconnect in what the generation who raised us thinks they taught us versus what we actually learned.
(Now, when I say “us,” I’m talking very specifically about fundamentalist or evangelical Christians — rather, those of us raised by fundamentalist or evangelical Christians with the expectation that we would be, as well.)
This disconnect often presents itself in trivial, rules-based ways. Like when my parents, now that I’m well into adulthood, talk about classic rock songs or musicians from their youth and are astonished when I don’t know them — until I remind them that I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music growing up. This disconnect pops up in less direct ways, as well, like when Libbey Anne learned that her mother didn’t agree with core instructional literature she’d brought into the house. Her response to her mother is a response I often have regarding my understanding of the world: “Why didn’t you tell us that?”
But it goes more than rules-deep. It’s more than trivial. My friend, Samantha Field, wrote a really fantastic post a couple years ago outlining how discussing the “odd” experiences we had growing up is so difficult. Because people focus on the rules themselves and not the beliefs behind them. That’s really a huge part of this disconnect between our parents (many of whom were not raised in the same evangelical or fundamentalist tradition in which they raised us, or at least not to the same degree) and our generation, who typically knew no other way of life until adulthood.
When it comes down to it, our parents’ generation brought us up to believe the world functioned a specific way, and that our roles in the world were black and white, cut and dry. Yet, as we age, so many of us are discovering that we were prepared for a world that doesn’t exist. And we’re left floundering to figure out how the world really does work, and who we are within it.
There’s so many examples I could give (and perhaps I’ll expand upon them later), but today, I just want to focus on one overarching theme:
They thought they taught us self-respect, but we actually learned shame.
Let’s go back to that conversation I had with my mom and look at why I felt like I had* to marry my ex.
You see, he was expelled right along with me. And then he moved cross-country to be with me. So there was already The Social Contract of Reciprocated Commitment working against me. What kind of person — what kind of woman — would I be if I didn’t marry him after all we’d been through together and all he’d done for me?
Additionally, as I told my mom, “I knew being a fat non-virgin meant no Assembly Boy would ever touch me.”
Ever since I was in the second grade or so, I have been fat. I know it’s certainly been since third grade when my teacher announced to the delight of my classmates that I was too fat. I’ve wrestled with shame over my weight for my entire life (which is no surprise, as I’ve written about my physical struggle with this before, so I won’t waste words about it here.
Because more than being fat was shameful, I learned with no doubt whatsoever that being a woman was shameful.
I wanted so desperately to not be a stumbling block, but it was starting to sound like having long hair, breasts, and hips was stumbling block enough. I thought of my outrageously curly hair that I kept long out of personal religious duty. I thought of my large and endowed body. And my heart sank.
*I* was a stumbling block. *I* was impure — by simple inescapable virtue of being unable to hide the body I had.
When you’re taught both that the flesh itself is evil and that a woman is responsible for the sexual purity of “her brothers in Christ,” you learn very quickly that your body is a bomb ready to go off. And apparently the removal of clothing — or a “sultry” tone of voice or a “provocative” way of moving and existing in your body — is enough to ignite the fuse.
I can’t even narrow down the examples in my mind of how to explain to you this shame. The times people would tell me that they could see a hint of my cleavage (you try being as endowed as I am and avoiding this!). Or the time the church camp manager talked to the teen and young adult women at a youth camp about how our dress was causing the men — both our peers and our authorities — to sexually stumble. (How skeevy is it that an adult man felt the need to tell minors to cover up because they were causing adult men to lust?) Or the number of people who asked me what I was wearing the night I was sexually assaulted. Or the stringent dress code of both the Christian school I grew up in and Bob Jones University.
Then, of course, purity culture is awash with analogies about sex. Brita Long sums them up quite nicely:
Stop me if any of these metaphors seem familiar. Having premarital sex is like being a:
- chewed-up piece of gum
- used, dirty toothbrush
- glass of water with lots of spit in it
- smelly, dirty shoe
- rose with broken petals
- piece of tape with dust and hair stuck to it
Brita goes on to quote Sarah Moon about who plays the part of the objects in those metaphors:
Sex, growing up, was often described in these violent, one-sided metaphors that objectified at least one sex partner (usually these analogies were subtly or not-so-subtly aimed at women – have you ever heard a man talked about as a precious flower/rose?) and left that objectified partner a hopelessly destroyed mess that no one would ever want to be with.
These objectifying analogies and metaphors naturally attach shame and dirtiness to the concept of sex, while also making it seem like sex is something that just happens to the objects — I mean, women — and that the only real actors in sex are men.
Which is why it was so shameful for me to have the audacity of having an unmistakably feminine-coded form while also having a high sex drive.
I discovered this fact about myself quite late in high school. Believing that my highest calling was to be a wife and mother, it occurred to me that I was ill-prepared for the physical intimacy that marriage entails. Since I was told that frequent good sex was something I owed my husband, and since sex is generally a taboo subject in conservative Christianity, I did what I thought was the most reasonable thing for me to do. I decided to learn about sex from the privacy of the internet so I would be prepared when I got married.
Yeah. I know.
You know what’s striking, though? The message Christianity sends about sex is very similar to the message misogynistic porn** sends: women’s bodies are objects, made for male eyes and consumption. If she enjoys sex, then she deserves to be used and discarded. She deserves to be punished. After all, I was told time and time and time again that men need sex. Women just provide it. And it’s not unusual for women to not like it or to even experience pain when having sex. (In case it’s unclear, the previous two sentences are oh so desperately wrong.)
In addition to the cultural conversation surrounding women who want sex, the Bible contains multitudinous stories of Evil Sexual Women, from Bathsheba (who was actually raped) to the Strange Woman of Proverbs 7 to Jezebel and beyond. The morals to these stories are so very clear: women who want sex are deranged or dangerous.
Along these lines, a popular story in purity culture is one Dianna Anderson recounts in her piece, “Giving In and Giving Up.”
Whenever I thought about what it would take to keep myself pure, I never imagined fighting for my own self-control – after all, I was a girl, and all I had to do was wait. I would not be the one who wanted to have sex. No, instead, I imagined that the “fight” for my purity would be a literal one – a boy would be pressuring me, would be trying to convince me to help him satisfy his urges, and I would have to be the one to say no. I would have to push him off me because chances are, he wouldn’t want to take no for an answer. My purity ring would be my weapon, a tangible thing I could point to, in order to remind him of my commitment and what being with me meant.
The equation was simple. Guys wants sex, needs girl to have sex. Guy pressures girl to have sex. Girl has one of two choices: “give in,” or “stand up for Jesus.” Girls who “gave in” were bad people. Girls who kept pure were good people.
The moral of this story is simple, right? Just say no. Protect your hymen, protect your brothers, protect yourself.
Here’s a hint: your hymen doesn’t actually rip, and if it does bleed, that means it wasn’t ready for penetration. A fact that I did not learn until I was in my mid-20’s. Now ask me when I learned what a clitoris was. If your guess is, “also as an adult,” you’d be correct!
This cultural narrative of sexual purity and morality aligned perfectly with every book on the subject I read (just look at that pile of books earlier), every conversation with peers and mentors alike I had growing up.
It even aligns perfectly with the time a married friend told me that I was literally the gatekeeper for not only my sexual purity but also my boyfriend’s.
Because it was his male nature to push for sex, and my female responsibility to say no.
Friends, any scenario in which someone pushes for and has sex without explicit consent from their partner? That scenario is rape. A lack of a “no” does not equal the presence of a “yes.” And coercion is absolutely rape.
Horrifyingly, someone once solemnly asked if my ex had raped me during the event that got us expelled. I told them honestly: no, he hadn’t at all. In fact, I’d wanted it as much or more than he did. And that was the incorrect answer. It seemed that the fact that I wanted to have sex was incredibly shameful and un-Christian of me — and somehow even worse than being raped.
If that’s not fucked up, I don’t know what is.
Is it any wonder, given the explicit education I was given along with the driving sexual narrative of the purity culture in which I grew up, that I felt compelled* to marry my ex? That despite all the messages about “having self-respect,” it was the shame of being a fat non-virgin that helped drive me to marry the person with whom I had my first consensual sexual experience, regardless of our fitness for one another?
Despite knowing the good intentions and genuine love and care my childhood authorities have for me, despite knowing why they go about teaching people about their bodies and sexuality the way they do, this shame is something I still carry with me to this day. I thought I’d worked through it as I became a feminist in my early 20’s and then an atheist in my mid-20’s, but it turns out I can’t just undo decades of cultural conditioning. Even when I know in my head and in my heart that they were wrong.
*Please don’t mistake this as me saying these are the only reasons I married him. They’re not. I loved him very much, and wanted to spend my life with him. But the shame that had been so ingrained in me under the guise of teaching me self-respect was absolutely a contributing factor to both why I married him and why I stayed with him so long.
**I very firmly support sex workers and the agency they have over their autonomous bodies. However, typically doing a Google search for porn doesn’t yield results that are particularly concerned with consent or equality. And what I learned about sex watching porn as a young adult is virtually indistinguishable from what I learned about sex from the church.