The so-called “purity” culture in the Christian evangelical community has made millions for churches and Christian swag manufacturers. However, it’s been harming millions of teens across the country who made a vow of chastity before marriage.
Statistics reveal that 85 percent of men and 81 percent of women have sex prior to marriage, so the numbers aren’t looking good for the church. For those who made the pledge but fell short of the goal, damaging implications have followed, The Christian Post reported.
“Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement paired with reports of sex abuse within the Church, individuals whose lives were shaped by purity culture began to push back,” the report said. “They shared stories of how some of the more problematic aspects of the movement, though well-intentioned, caused them to have an unhealthy relationship with religion, relationships, and sex.”
Cait West revealed her upbringing in Christian patriarchy where women were to be submissive to male house-heads. Female children were not allowed to date unless it was a courtship seeking marriage. She recalled being “shamed for normal adolescent curiosity.” Any sexual thoughts meant she was basically fornicating.
“Dating was never an option,” she told The Christian Post in an interview. “I was never taught about sex or sexuality at all. I remember asking my parents, testing the waters, ‘What’s this about?’ And they brushed it aside. I was never allowed to explore or ask questions, so I never thought of myself as a sexual being because of that.”
She learned that women being sexual beings were bad. They weren’t allowed to be sexual. Everything was tied to shame. Even clothing had to be approved by her father, who would gauge the “modesty” of the outfit.
“My father would come to the store with me and judge everything I had on,” she said. “That overt male gaze judging my clothing throughout my adolescence and into my 20’s really shaped how I thought of myself because I never thought who I was from my perspective.”
That shame then turned to anxiety. It wasn’t until she left the faith at 25 that she began to explore the emotional damage that had been done. She called it “emotional, physical and spiritual trauma.”
“I felt very disconnected from my own body because I was never taught about the sexual part of me,” she said. “I didn’t want to think about my own body or explore my own sexuality because it was a dirty part of me I wasn’t allowed to explore. It made me feel weird about living in my own body, and I didn’t realize just how much I hated my own body until I left the movement.”
As a spouse, she now struggles to think of sex as something intimate for partners and not purely for procreation.
“I’ve had a lot of trouble with disassociation in sexually intimate moments because it’s too much for me to be present in my own body because it feels bad,” she explained. “For years, you’re told something is bad — and then suddenly you get married and you’re supposed to be OK with it. It was like I was trained not to have that part of me turned on or be aware of things.”
“I’ve been working through that process of figuring out what those toxic messages were and re-train myself to have agency,” she added.
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein walks through the struggle with gender-based shame, fear and the emotional distress that can leave lasting damage to women. She began compiling stories from dozens of friends in the purity movement. All of the women experienced psychological problems related to sex and sexuality.
“My interviewees made different life choices, yet among their stories, I heard many of the same themes,” she shared. “I heard about sexual and gender-based shame, fear, anxiety, and experiences stemming from their shame that mimicked Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, such as nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia. Several of my interviewees told me their shame was also creating deep problems in their marriages, particularly in their marriage beds.”
She explained that as girls grow into women they’re still taught never to “inspire” sexual thoughts from men. It makes an easy transition to rape culture, which maintains that women are responsible for the actions of men raping or abusing them. In no other crime is the victim the responsible party. However, conservatives blame clothing or behavior of a victim for the actions of someone else.
“In other words, girls grew up with the message that not only did we need to be pure, but it was our responsibility to ensure that the whole community was pure. That’s a lot of pressure for a young girl!” exclaimed Klein.
But it’s the shame that leaves lasting damage to women who self-impose guilt. She noted the shame is a huge part of the purity movement.
“Shame isn’t bashfulness,” she said. “It is a feeling of our being unworthy, or being seen as unworthy in other people’s eyes, that causes us to disconnect from ourselves, from others, and—from what I’ve seen in my interviews—from God at times. It can lead to emotional isolation which can develop into dangerous levels of hopelessness, desperation, subsequent self-harm, and much more.”