Purity Culture: A Primer
by Lindsey Abston Painter | 21 December 2018 |
The other day I was talking to a friend who did not grow up in any church and is not a current church attender. He is also a man. I was trying to talk to him about what it is like to be a girl growing up within a fundamentalist church culture as regards dating, men, and sex. And I discovered, rather quickly, that the sheer breadth and depth of what I was describing was not going to be easy to explain.
And when I thought about it further, I realized that many religious people are also not aware of the extent of what girls are taught in Christian circles, and the ramifications of those teachings. That thing I’m describing has a name. It’s called purity culture.
Thus: “Purity Culture: A Primer.”
Purity culture is a pervasive set of beliefs that focuses heavily on the virginity and spiritual/physical/emotional purity of women and girls. It is influenced by, and connected to, beliefs about the superiority and headship of men. Including male headship, women being unable to serve in the same capacity as men in the church, and traditional gender roles such as women being made to serve in the home, and men provide by working.
Here are some of the things we learn/are taught, as young girls.
- Men have sex drives and a lust that is out of their control.
- Women want love and men want sex.
- Your virginity is a gift to your future husband. If you lose it, you cannot get it back. Losing it devalues you as a bride, and also as a person/woman.
- Modesty is imperative. Since men’s lust is uncontrollable, it is a woman’s job to keep men from stumbling.
- Women’s bodies are dangerous and capable of causing men to sin. Therefore, we women are sinning if we don’t cover up to protect the men.
- Even sexual thoughts are sinful. If we are not married, we must work overtime to prevent even the slightest sexual thought from entering our brain.
- If we teach children/teens about sex, they will want to have sex.
Let’s break these down one at a time here.
Men have sex drives and a lust that is out of their control
Men of the world, I understand how this idea benefits you, because you are then not held accountable for irresponsible actions you might take because of your “uncontrollable” lust. Exhibit A being Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and served only a few days in prison for his crime. Poor man. He just couldn’t help himself. He was overcome with lust. (That was sarcasm, in case you didn’t detect it.)
But, men of the world, I don’t know how you balance the pass you get for being sexually irresponsible with the shame you must feel for being told you are a mindless being, a total slave to your lusts. Are you an animal? Base and mindless? The idea that you are helpless in the face of your sexual drive isn’t so insulting that it’s impossible to bear? Well… apparently not.
Women want love, men want sex.
This is so harmful in so many ways. Let’s just get this one thing out of the way here. Women also want sex. Women’s sexuality is different from men’s sexuality, but the idea that women simply don’t want sex is not only confusing for both men and women trying to follow these ideals, but simply untrue.
Also, men want love. I could write a whole article about the ways in which patriarchy/purity culture hurts men. But one big way is the idea that men don’t care about emotional intimacy or connection with their partner. They just want sex. That nonsense destroys people, it destroys marriages, it destroys lives.
Your virginity is a gift to your future husband. If you lose it, you cannot get it back. Losing it devalues you as a bride, and also as a person/woman.
Some examples of things I’ve heard a woman called who lost her virginity before marriage: a chewed piece of gum. A used tissue. Tape that’s lost its stickiness. A picked and wilted flower.
There is so much wrong with this I don’t even know where to start. We are talking about a human woman here. A person, with value. It may surprise you to learn that tying a girl’s entire worth to her virginity is harmful in the extreme. I am planning to write a later article about ways that this extreme emphasis on purity harms men and women. But as a small teaser, let me give you a few reasons why this is hugely harmful.
Our brains do not flip a switch when we say the words “I do” in front of a minister. We don’t go from totally asexual creatures, guarding our bodies and minds from a single stray sexual thought, to being ready to enthusiastically welcome our new husband to bed. The number of women who feel guilt and shame from having sex with their own husband is astonishing.
Women who are raped did not have a choice about losing their virginity. Are they still worth the same as a used tissue? To be thrown away with the garbage?
Women who made a choice to lose their virginity before marriage. What about them? They are human beings, made in the image of God. They are not chewed pieces of gum. Whatever made anyone think it was okay to label them as garbage because of their choices?
Modesty is imperative. Since men’s lust is uncontrollable, it is a woman’s job to keep men from stumbling.
This is similar to the idea that men can’t control themselves, it just takes it a step further. Since men are animals without an ounce of self-control (fruits of the spirit? Forget about it.), it’s up to women to protect them from themselves. We must be, at all times, cautious, modest, virtuous, and full of restraint. This idea bleeds out into the general popular culture. When a woman is assaulted or raped often the first question people want to know is how she was dressed, or what she was doing. Because the idea is, if a man had sex with her (or raped her) it wasn’t his fault. He was out of control. It was her fault for not stopping him either by preventative measures (modesty and pure behavior) or by restraining him once he attacked.
Do I really need to point out how insane that is (not to mention unbiblical)? That it’s somehow the responsibility of women to prevent men from sinning? Remember when a man asked Jesus what should happen if he lusts and Jesus said the woman should be more modest to protect him? No? Oh, that’s right. Jesus said for the man to pluck out his own eye. Dude. Take responsibility for your own sins.
Women’s bodies are dangerous and capable of causing men to sin. Therefore, we women are sinning if we don’t cover up to protect the men.
Even sexual thoughts are sinful. If we are not married, we must work overtime to prevent even the slightest sexual thought from entering our brain.
I’m going to do these two together since they are so closely related. I cannot overestimate how much shame women and girls are taught to feel about our bodies. Combined with the lack of sexual education, we often reach adulthood without being able to properly name our basic body parts. Many women (and men!) raised under purity culture don’t understand basic reproductive functions. I was probably 30 before I could say the word “body” comfortably without cringing. In Adventist culture, we are also taught that dancing is bad. We are so wholly disconnected from our bodies that we don’t learn to be whole people. We don’t learn to listen to our body when it’s trying to communicate with us. We don’t know how to communicate using our bodies. And we definitely don’t know how to have healthy sexuality with our spouse.
If we teach children/teens about sex, they will want to have sex.
This one always makes me laugh. Teens will want to have sex whether you teach them or not. Most of them will, in fact, have sex whether you teach them or not. The only difference is, teens who are educated know how to make wiser choices regarding sex, including protecting themselves from pregnancy, and disease. And a good sex education will also help teens be able to recognize abusive sexual behaviors and protect themselves from those as well. There are a number of studies that show the amount of sexual behavior among Christian young people and non-Christian young people are about the same, but the Christian young people have much higher incidences of pregnancy, disease, and harmful sexual behaviors. Comprehensive sexual education is a no-brainer here.
All in all, purity culture is causing more harm than good to both women and men, but especially women inside the church. Funny how being told your whole life that your worth is directly tied to your virginity isn’t a great self-esteem boost. Not only that, but the general lack of education about sex leaves young women open to abuse and mistreatment, and young men who learn about sex from the worst possible place, pornography.
(Credit to Carissa Nicole Winn who’s viral twitter thread about purity culture influenced and inspired this piece.)
Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.