Her parents were progressives, but her small Tennessee community was filled with conservative Christians. It wasn’t a shock that she got pulled into Christian purity culture that manipulates women’s attitudes about sexuality and relationships.
In a heartbreaking story at Elite Daily, Sarah Ellis explained how the pressure to be “pure” has impacted her relationships well into adulthood.
Ellis said that she didn’t get much sex education in school and that sex being associated with marriage was like “the sky being blue.”
“A popular tradition in the Tennessee town where I grew up was for young girls to attend the Father/Daughter Purity Ball, an event sponsored by a local crisis pregnancy center,” she recalled. Ellis said she actually wanted to go after seeing photos of her friends dressed up in princess gowns that resemble wedding dresses having a party. Photographer David Magnusson created an exhibit around some girls with their fathers dressed up for a purity ball that creeped out many.
As a teen, she was convinced that her virginity was actually a part of her soul and that she would never be able to get it back.
“I didn’t realize how unhealthy this mentality was until it started affecting my attitude toward relationships,” Ellis wrote. “All throughout middle and high school, I was terrified of getting involved with a romantic partner. First of all, I’d had very little quality sex education, so I had no clue how physical relationships were supposed to work. But second, I was petrified! Any situation that opened the doors for intimacy was one that I hoped to avoid. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might make the wrong decision and get physically involved with someone who wasn’t right for me.”
She noticed that boys she went to school with didn’t have to deal with the same kind of pressure about sex and sexuality. She was taught that women were the ones responsible for not “tempting” boys into lustful thoughts and behavior.
The misnomer was cleverly captured in the political television show “The West Wing,” where a right-wing pastor proclaimed if a teenage boy is shown a condom “his thoughts will turn to lust.” The retort from the liberal character: “Show the average American teenage male a lug wrench and his mind will turn to thoughts of lust.”
As far as Ellis knew, “men were apparently the ones who wrestled more with sexual urges.” It made her think that sex was a powerful thing that “distracts couples from pursuing” meaningful relationships with each other. She was taught that sex was something she would do for her husband, not something that ever had anything to do with herself or her own body.
It was girlfriends in college that helped her learn the facts.
“The problem with purity culture is that it teaches young women that sex is all about the man,” Ellis wrote. “A woman who has slept around is ‘used goods,’ and her spirit is probably shattered into a million pieces because she’s given herself away to so many people. If you don’t save yourself for your husband, you are denying him a precious and irreplaceable gift… My fear is that the purity narrative causes women to feel disempowered to speak up for themselves in sexual situations, which is part of what lies at the root of many of these #MeToo stories we’ve heard in recent years.”
Indeed, the Christian Advocacy and Support Coalition explained that the idea that sex is for men can feed into rape culture. This kind of thinking can make women feel like they exist for men. So, if she is raped, it’s simply her role to please the man who raped her. This behavior can continue into marriages.
“The ‘prize’ [of virginity] he keeps in marriage is not safe from abuse any more than the woman who rejected the rapist’s advances,” the CASC explained. “So what gives the rapist or the rape apologist his criteria for which is the ‘good’ woman and which is the ‘bad?’ And how can something that is actually a personal whim or subjective malice be projected and garner sympathy for the rapist within his community? That is where the toxicity of purity culture on the college campus comes in again.”
Studies about purity pledges have shown that the pledge delays vaginal sexual intercourse. It doesn’t delay other forms of intercourse such as oral or anal, which is generally perceived as not being “real sex.”
“Formal pledges may be successful to the extent that adolescents believe that they may be held responsible by their peers to follow through on their commitment or are internalized,” wrote University of California researchers. “However, formal pledges may also fail if adolescents are simply responding to external pressures (e.g., from parents, teachers) in making such commitments.”
Students who take purity pledges are also more likely to get sexually transmitted infections including HPV, the STI that can cause cancer, said researchers at the University of Massachusetts. When it came to unplanned pregnancies, the numbers were even starker.
“About 18 percent of the girls who had never taken virginity pledges became pregnant within six years after they began having sex. Meanwhile, 30 percent of those who had taken a pledge—and broken it—got pregnant while not married,” the UMass report noted.
Currently, only three percent of Americans wait to have sex until marriage.