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.

But as I’ve said else­where (and as Melis­sa McE­wan said before me), inten­tions aren’t mag­i­cal. They don’t change the impact of someone’s actions.

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.

This is a literal pile of the dating and marriage books I owned. When I say prepared, I MEAN PREPARED.

This is a lit­er­al pile of the dat­ing and mar­riage books I owned. When I say pre­pared, I MEAN PREPARED.

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 existAnd 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.

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