Part I: A purity culture prologue.
First of all, I want to thank you, dear reader, for coming on this journey with me. When I first announced on Twitter and Instagram that I was starting this series, so many of you responded with your stories and solidarity. If I’m being real with myself, I’ve been putting off this topic in therapy for a long time. I’ve touched on aspects of it here and there as it has related to my relationships and sexuality, but the really validating and affirming conversations I’d had about this have been with a lot of you. It’s through all of you I have begun to heal this part of my past and I’m forever grateful.
This series is going to span the better part of a month on my blog (and my new podcast, launching soon), and each post is going to focus on a different aspect of purity culture. The purpose? That anyone who’s reading will walk away with a better understanding of what we survived, and that other survivors of purity culture will see they are not alone. That they’ve never been alone. This first post will serve as an overview, with some hints of what future posts will be discussing. That said, let’s dive in.
Purity culture roughly defined, describes a set of teachings surrounding sex and sexuality, with a heavy emphasis on abstinence, modesty, and shame-based fear tactics. These teachings are not exclusive to white evangelical Christianity, in fact a lot of it is universal to all patriarchal societies around the world. Patriarchy itself has been used as a social hierarchy system by humans for thousands of years. Within those hierarchies’ men held all social, political and financial power. Women were sold into marriage from one family to another, their virginity intact being the sole determiner of their worth. This wasn’t true of all people groups for all time. But usually where you found religion as the pillar holding a community together, you also find patriarchy dictating authority.
To understand what ex-evangelicals are talking about when we use the term “purity culture,” you have to go back in time a little to something called the Culture Wars. By the early 90’s white evangelical pastors and thought leaders we already well versed in waging a war on all things secular. Christian parents were on high alert, after all, there was a Democrat in the White House for the first time in a really long time. From music, to movies, to books and magazines- if it wasn’t faith based, it was not to be consumed for fear of corrupting young minds. There was a popular phrase used by Christian parents- “garbage in, garbage out.” Implying that whatever you filled your head with, is what you would become/think/do/say. For example, if you watched movies with sex and curse words, you’d eventually want to go have sex and cuss a lot. But if you consumed Christian music, books, and media and only spent your time with other Christians, the big bad scary secular world couldn’t hurt you.
With the demand for keeping pure hearts and minds, this also included a push for sexual purity. Christian authors and speakers knew this and started marketing their content as needed. All this content focused primarily on two things: obedience and control. These were the keys to keeping your kids off drugs, not pregnant and on the straight and narrow. And what tools did they use to control? Shame and fear. By teaching teens and young college students that all sexual thoughts were shameful, because they were a sin that needed repenting of, this instilled a fear of not just performing sex acts themselves but a fear of even talking about sex. Just the mere discussion could lead down a slippery slope to pre-marital sex. Youth pastors all over the country were preaching to teenagers about the dangers of being alone in the same room with a member of the opposite sex. Teenage girls were being told their bodies should be covered up enough to prevent young men (and grown men) from being tempted. Parents were so proud when their teens signed “purity pledges” and gave their daughters rings to wear to symbolize their godly choice to remain virgins until their wedding nights. I never had a ring, but I did have something worse. At youth group one year we were given uncut keys to wear on a thin chain as a necklace. The uncut key symbolized our virginity of course, no chunks of ourselves given away to someone else never to be returned. Yeah, it was as repulsive as it sounds.
At the time we didn’t call it “purity culture.” I was a high schooler in the late 90’s. My parents were youth leaders and close personal friends with every youth pastor I ever had. I sang on the youth worship team, and in the adult choir. Later as a junior and senior I led small groups of younger girls at youth group. Our entire lives revolved around the church. Abstinence was just my life as a Christian teenager. I didn’t even know much about sex, other than any desire for it at that time in my life was sinful and would lead to all kinds of dangerous things. My desire to please my parents and my fear of being called lukewarm at the pearly gates kept me from venturing out of my bubble. It never even occurred to me that my body was my own. I had been told it was a temple to be kept pure and holy, that my virginity was a gift that should only be given to the man I marry, and not until our wedding night.
In a 2018 article for Mother Jones, one ex-evangelical shared her own experience, which perfectly summarizes what it was like for a girl at that time, “The stakes are high in purity culture. Every slipup is a strike against any hope of a successful marriage. My body was not my own, not really. It belonged to God and to some featureless specter of a future husband.”
Different parents handled their own role in purity culture in different ways. Mine seemed to go with the-less-you-know method. In other words, the less I knew about sex and sexuality, the more I’d be afraid to ask. And it worked. I never asked them a single thing. And because of a lifetime of indoctrination and an (un)healthy fear of Jesus coming back before I was a good enough Christian, I was way too scared of everyone else’s opinion of me to pursue boys much at all, let alone for the purpose of sex. Of course, it did have me thinking about who I would marry non-stop. So much so that I didn’t really think about what I may want or be capable of in my future, that future didn’t matter unless it revolved around becoming a wife and a mother.
I took to Twitter to find out how other ex-evangelicals learned about sex in their formative years- like actual helpful information, not just abstinence. Out of over 700 responses, 73% of respondents said they had to learn about sex and sexuality completely on their own. They took to the replies to tell me even their schools, public and private alike, only taught abstinence with very little helpful information. And this probably isn’t shocking, but the place where they were taught the most harmful lies about sex and their bodies? Church.
One of the reasons purity culture was so pervasive in our lives was that it wasn’t just a bible study in the rotation once a year at youth group. It was everywhere. Christian bookstores were filled with books, jewelry, t-shirts, and even specialty bibles- including the very popular NIV Teen Study Bible. There were magazines for Christian teens, with articles about purity and abstinence. Christian fiction novels about the perils of teen pregnancy. One of my twitter followers reached out to tell me about a national organization, called Silver Ring Thing, that she interned for back then whose only focus was abstinence, they even started producing their own purity themed bible. My own youth group participated in True Love Waits every year, a similar organization associated with LifeWay, the infamous Souther Baptist publisher. There were purity balls, where girls would pledge their purity to their fathers as a promise to abstain from sex until marriage. (I’m kind of grossed out just by typing that) It was even in the Christian music marketed to teens and young adults. Just for kicks, a few weeks ago I went back and listened to a couple of old DC Talk songs and, yikes. (There’s a lot to unpack there, so I’m saving it for the podcast.)
This is what I mean when I say, “It was just my life as a Christian teenager.” Because it was literally my whole existence. It was part of the fabric of our psyche. We didn’t have to make an effort to think about it, because it was our default thought. Our whole purpose in life was our virginity. It was absolute truth. Have you ever heard the phrase “you made your bed, now you have to lie in it”? That was our worst fear. Making a mistake so tragic, that it would change the trajectory of our life forever.
I know a lot of you reading may have already lived through this, and it may be hard to revisit. But my hope is that even if you lived it, you find comfort in validation. And if you didn’t live it, but you’re here to learn and understand what all the fuss is about- welcome. Because even if you grew up a mainline protestant or catholic or not religious at all, I guarantee you’ve encountered the more universal problem of patriarchy – which purity culture partially stems from. And hopefully you’ll come away with a greater understanding of this enigma that shaped an entire generation of youth group kids and Christian college students alike.
One final note to those who survived this era of evangelical subculture- if you have a story from this time in your life or how its affected you now, go the Contact page in the main menu and send me an email if you’d like me to share your stories on the podcast throughout this series. (you can of course remain anonymous)