Purity Culture Part III: Shame and Sexuality in Relationships
We’ve made it to Part III in this five-part series on purity culture and how it impacted a generation. With every week that passes I think I’ve already read the most damaging tactic, the most tragic story, the most heartbreaking statistic, until I realize I have not. Around every corner of this toxic doctrine lies another monster we must face.
So many of us have been traumatized on such a wide spectrum as the result of this abstinence-only-until-marriage teaching. Teaching that’s immoral, and unethical. Not to mention psychologically damaging. When I set out to write about this topic in particular, about shame surrounding sex and sexuality, I realized that a lot of that shame was in the context of relationships. At the heart of purity culture doctrine, is the pressure to seek and find the “right” partner within the confines of forced heteronormativity. This pressure proposed an entirely different set of problems for anyone who already knew they were not straight or felt out of place within the gender they had been assigned at birth1. And for those who endured that unique form of torture, I’m saving an entire part of the series. So, for this week we’ll be discussing relationships in a heterosexual context.
Relationships are Hard
Even when trying to follow average sociocultural norms outside of religion, relationships are complicated. When you add in strict rules about abstinence, finding a partner with the exact same beliefs, and the pressure of strict gender norms- they at times felt nearly impossible. For a lot of teenagers and college students steeped in purity culture, the perfect partner felt mythological. Girls were encouraged to make lists of all the traits they wanted in the man they would marry, and then pray over the list and wait for God to bring him to her. Boys were taught that only a girl with a pure mind and body would make a suitable bride. This put on girls a level of shame if they had any previous relationships, which varied depending on how much of themselves they had “given away” to another boy.
Every touch, every kiss, every glance, every moment spent together was scrutinized. We were taught that even thinking sexual thoughts about your partner was sinful, because thoughts lead to actions and those actions would lead to the destruction of your entire future. Biblical teaching about sexual purity taught us to fear our own bodies, and our own thoughts. The fear was that we’d be dooming our future marriage for eternity. If we “gave away” too much of ourselves to the wrong partner, we’d be lucky to find the “right” partner who would be willing to carry the lifelong burden of our sexual scars, if we even found someone who wanted us at all. I quoted another survivor of purity culture in Part I that talked about the stakes being high- this is what she meant.
All of this meant that youth pastors, mentors, and Christian school teachers worked very hard to not give us any real information about sex or sexual intimacy. I had a youth pastor who started his True Loves Waits sermon every year by saying “Sex is great! When you’re married.” And then of course continued on about all the horrible things that would happen to us if we dared have sex before marriage.
Having the Sex Scared Out of You
Purity culture, in addition to all its other ills, squashes any hope of healthy sexuality, including inside of relationships. As evangelical Christians we were taught that all sexual expression outside the confines of marriage is sinful and displeasing to god. That any sexual relationship outside of marriage will harm you emotionally and psychologically (which is unfounded and inaccurate). Some were even taught different analogies for how every time you have sex with a different partner, you lose a small part of yourself. The more partners you have, the more of you is lost forever. This was used to shame young people into abstinence, by reminding them that no one would want them once they’re “all used up.” As a result, there’s a whole generation of youth group kids who are now adults and struggling to enjoy what should be a natural, healthy human behavior.
Abstinence only sex education has been proven time and again to be ineffective and harmful. In 2017 the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine published a paper taking a stance against “abstinence-only-until-marriage” programs. “The position paper states that “While proponents for AOUM programs suggest that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects, we find no evidence that consensual sex between adolescents is psychologically harmful.” But what they did find evidence of, was the unethical nature of AOUM programs: “The position paper points out that these programs violate educational and medical ethics, which call for the provision of accurate and compete information. Instead, these programs exclude accurate information about contraception and “misinform by overemphasizing or misstating the risks of contraception.” Indeed, according to the National Conference on State Legislators, only 20 states require that Sex Ed be medically or factually accurate. In the other States, sex educators can base their lessons on values rather than facts, and tell outright lies to students.”2 And that’s just in public schools. Imagine the lack of accountability for what is being taught in Christian schools and within Christian homeschooling. Here’s just a very small sample:
With misinformation rampant, mortal fear being instilled and the shame placed on sexually active teenagers and teen pregnancy- it’s no wonder so many former evangelicals suffer from an unhealthy relationship to sex. My Twitter timeline is filled day-to-day with former evangelicals and leavers of other Christian faiths expressing their lament as they process the years spent hating themselves and their bodies until they just magically weren’t supposed to one day.
The Real Evil Lurking Beneath Sexual Purity
There’s this juxtaposition of sex being deemed evil in nature when you’re single but sanctified once you’re married. We were told we’d be causing ourselves a lifetime of pain and heartache, if we had any sexual relationship before marriage, or outside of a marital relationship. This is the message that white evangelical pastors and authors, like psychologist Dr. James Dobson, were teaching and preaching all over America. A couple of weeks ago, I naturally assumed that was coming from a misinterpretation of biblical principles. That’s still partly true, but as I’ve recently learned, it has much darker roots.
“There is another, lesser known source of inspiration for modern white evangelicals and Dobson, in particular: eugenics. And this specific history helps to explain how procreative, heterosexual marriage became enshrined as the single-most important moral duty for some evangelicals—one that believers are enticed to pursue from a young age and then to perform at all costs, including physical and psychological harm,”3 writes Dr. Audrey Clare Farley for Religion & Politics on May 12th. Dr. Farley is the author of The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt. The writing of her book is what led her to her research on eugenics in America which she discusses in the article.
What she found; has left an impression on me I cannot shake. Before Dr. James Dobson founded Focus on the Family, he trained under positive eugenicist Paul Popenoe in Southern California. Popenoe was actually an atheist. But in 1930 he “…opened the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) in Los Angeles to improve marital harmony and remove what he thought to be obstacles to white reproduction, such as rape, masturbation, pornography, female frigidity, and feminist yearnings. Over the next several decades, Popenoe counseled white couples on the importance of strict gender-norms and same-race marriage, training psychologists, clergymen (many Baptist and Mormon), and youth group leaders—his new allies in the racial betterment project—to do the same. According to Hilde Løvdal Stephens, author of Family Matters: James Dobson and Focus on the Family’s Crusade for the Christian Home, he instructed counselors to use “heredity” and “interpersonal compatibility” as codes for race, especially when his views on race began to go out of vogue.”
Does any of that sound familiar? If you know anything about evangelical “family values” then it probably does. Dobson took the junk science he learned from atheist and (clearly white supremacist) eugenicist Paul Popenoe and then carefully crafted them into “biblical principles” for evangelicals to apply in their everyday lives. Not only is purity culture abusive and traumatizing, its origins are rooted in eugenics- “…a program to improve the “quality” of the human population, gained popularity in the early twentieth century, when more than 30 states enacted laws authorizing the forced sterilization of the “unfit”—poor, disabled, immigrant, and otherwise socially undesirable persons.” Let the gravity of that settle in for a moment. The Venn diagram of white evangelicalism, white supremacy and purity culture is a circle.
This obsession with sexual purity did not begin in the early 90’s, it was just the latest iteration in what Dobson and others like him had been pushing inside evangelicalism for nearly two decades already. By the time it got to us, phrases like “interpersonal compatibility” had turned into biblical edicts like the harm of being “unequally yoked.” I shared this story on Twitter in someone else’s thread a while back, but now this illustration our youth pastor gave every year during True Love Waits hits a little different. Our youth pastor would put a single chair up on the stage. He’d ask for one girl volunteer and one boy volunteer. He had the girl stand on the chair, and the boy on the floor in front of her. Then he’d ask the girl to try and pull the boy up onto the chair just holding his hand (without the boy helping at all). Of course, she couldn’t do it. Then he had the boy try and pull the girl off the chair by pulling only her hand. And of course, they’d have to stop her from falling off.
This demonstration was done to show us why missionary dating- that is, dating someone who doesn’t share your faith- is a bad idea. In other words, he was teaching us it’s much easier for an unbeliever to tempt a Christian with their secular sexual ethic, then it is for a Christian to remain pure and convince the unbeliever to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord & savior. In terms of relationships, the un-saved and the saved were not “compatible.” By the 90’s in small cities like ours at the time, where the suburbs were filled with mostly white or white-passing families, youth pastors like mine were spared from having to bring up inter-racial dating. Because all the kids in youth group were white, with the exception of a few Latinx families. Biblical compatibility like being “equally yoked” just sounded par for the course with other evangelical topes like how we were to be “set apart” because we were “not of this world,” and other popular phraseology of the moment. The insular environments of white evangelicals played a role.
My Hope is that You Can Heal
What I’m about to say next might be an unpopular opinion, but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t think most white evangelical parents in the 80’s and 90’s had any idea of Dobson’s eugenicist roots. Even if they heard a name like “American Institute for Family Relations,” such a place would sound innocuous to them. In the 80’s the internet didn’t even exist yet, stay at home evangelical moms in small towns were not going to go down to their local library to look up a name like Popenoe’s. Not because they weren’t smart but because they would not have deemed it necessary. Dobson had already asserted himself as a Christian parenting and marriage expert. His books were sold in Christian bookstores all over the country. When white Christian parents say, “We were just doing what we thought was best,” I actually believe them. They were taught and believed that the bible was the word of God, and that using any parenting principles or techniques based on biblical truth was the only way to ensure they raised Christian children who could withstand the evils a secular world would throw at them once they were on their own as Christian adults.
Just as we can’t ignore the element of manipulation as a contributing factor in religious trauma, neither can we ignore it when discussing those who parroted the toxic theology that caused it. This isn’t about absolution for perpetrators of abuse, it’s about recognizing facts. White evangelicalism is a high-control religion. And in high-control religions, those with the most power make it very clear how dangerous it is to ask questions. They easily accuse question-askers of allowing Satan to plant seeds of doubt. There’s never an excuse for abusive behavior. But sometimes there is a chain of events, a paper trail. And it’s worth understanding in your own healing process.
You were done a disservice. The kids today that are still being subjected to abstinence-only sex-ed programs are still being done a disservice. My hope is that you continue to heal from this part of your past, or start to. And if you are reading this and you were a parent who taught your kids abstinence, I hope you can learn from this in a way that doesn’t feel accusatory. That just like a lot of what we were thought was right and true in this country, there is often information that has been buried, or intentionally withheld from people in order uphold white supremacy. Sometimes those methods are overt, like we see in policing or forced-birth legislation. Other times it is more covert, like white supremacists hiding behind Christianity- a religion that’s often seen as benign and inherently good.
For decades evangelical pastors and authors have been manipulating the masses with their “biblical sexual ethic.” But their biblical sexual ethic is nothing more than white supremacy cloaked in fake science and out-of-context bible verses. Sex can and should be healthy part of your relationship if you want it to be. Marrying someone before you know if you’re sexually compatible can be devastating it its own rite. All that shame they dumped on us about our bodies not belonging to us, and sex only being enjoyable inside of marriage- it was all a lie. Lie after lie after lie. Sex and the desire for it is a wide spectrum (as we’ll continue to explore in a couple weeks), and shame should never be part of the equation. No matter if you want it or don’t want it, or who you do or don’t want it with. Your body, your rules.
Your body, your boundaries.
- Kay, J.F., Jackson, A (2008) Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: How Abstinence-Only Programs Harm Women and Girls, page 12. Legal Momentum, New York, NY. In partnership with the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program. Retrieved from http://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/sexlies_stereotypes2008.pdf
- Mintz, L (2017) Abstinence-Only Sex Ed: Harmful? Unethical?, Psychology Today Online. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stress-and-sex/201709/abstinence-only-sex-ed-harmful-unethical
- Farley, A.C. (2021) The Eugenics Root of Evangelical Family Values. Religion & Politics online. Retrieved from: https://religionandpolitics.org/2021/05/12/the-eugenics-roots-of-evangelical-family-values/