Purity culture: A narrative of shame and salvation

Lexi Schnaser—Staff Writer 

Contributed Photo

At thirteen years old, I signed a contract, swearing to my parents I wouldn’t date until they decided I was ready. This agreement concluded a weekend trip with my mom, my friends, and my friends’ moms where we (supposedly) learned everything God had to say about sex, relationships, and purity. 

Christian sexual education programs like Passport to Purity center around the same idea: sexual purity. Children are taught that their body is not their own, that God wants them to be virgins when they get married to their future partner, and that sex is a beautiful thing within the confines of heterosexual marriage and a sin in every other context. 

That weekend, I learned to be ashamed of my desires for a relationship, as well as emotional and physical intimacy. I learned my body was a stumbling block for all the boys and men in my life and it was my responsibility to protect them. I learned I needed to be saved from my desires and help save others from theirs, and the way to that salvation was to dress modestly, not engage with secular media, and save myself for some prince charming far in my future. 

For me and many others, purity culture deeply influenced the way I view myself, my sexuality, and my relationships with others, creating a harmful cycle of shame and need for salvation. 

Purity culture defined

At the core of the purity movement is a specific definition of sex: Sex is a gift from God reserved for men and women who are created as sexual beings in the context of heterosexual marriage. Purity culture’s central argument claims “any sexual interaction before heterosexual marriage is not only sinful but also physically and psychologically dangerous, primarily to adolescent girls,” according to researcher Elizabeth Gish. 

While sex itself is not sinful, physical intimacy and sex outside of marriage threatens one’s life and salvation. Still, sex within the confines of a heterosexual marriage is good, perfect, and life-giving (e.g., remember your youth pastor mentioning his great marital sex with his smoking hot wife?). 

Sexual purity requires more than just abstinence from the act of sex, asking its followers to refrain from other acts of physical intimacy such as hugs, holding hands, kissing, and more. Though conversations about purity are had with both boys and girls in the church, these ideas of shame and salvation overwhelmingly affect girls and women. Girls are responsible not only for their own purity, but for the purity of the boys and men in their life. Girls are expected to pledge their purity not only to God, but to their fathers and future husbands. Purity culture ultimately results in a cycle of shame and salvation. 

Shame 

Shame may be the tool which makes purity culture so powerful. Researcher Brené Brown defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Purity culture develops in girls and young women senses of external and internal shame. 

Girls’ sexuality remains the central point of purity culture. Displayed somehow as both nonsexual and hypersexual, girls and women are expected to abstain from physical intimacy until marriage, turn into their husbands’ “sexual satisfiers” when they marry, and are held responsible for extramarital sexual activity. According to purity culture, it’s natural for boys to possess intense sexual urges, and what girls wear or how we act contains the power to increase, invite, or decrease those urges and sexual advances. 

The responsibility of modesty quickly turns to an internalized sense of shame because it teaches girls and women a specific view of themselves. Their purity, determined by their sexuality, becomes something separated from their personhood. They are precious daughters of a possessive God. Their sexuality is shameful and their purity is presented as an object that isn’t really theirs; they are called to protect it as to retain its value when they give it away. 

A girl’s lost purity is illustrated as a piece of chocolate cake with a bite taken out of it, a trampled flower, and a chewed piece of gum. Once their purity has been violated, it no longer has value. The objectification of purity becomes so intertwined with the image of a person that once one’s purity no longer holds value, their self no longer holds value either. 

Researcher Katie Cross introduces the concept of body theodicy, the idea that a piece of theology can become “trapped within the body…; an internal process of blame and condemnation of the self.” Countless women and men who grew up in the purity movement relate their difficulty with sexual experiences after they get married. Even for girls and women who have not been sexually active, body theodicy is an important avenue to understanding the impacts of purity culture. The statement girls and women have the power in their bodies to call others to sin is not an overstatement — it is exactly what purity culture teaches girls. 

Salvation

The shame narrative is a powerful one because it reinforces the ultimate value of evangelicals: the importance of salvation. 

The evangelical movement centers salvation around the idea of conversion, that Christians are saved from their sinful past and “born again.” Purity culture presents a specific salvation narrative: We need to be saved from the dangers of premarital sex by the rigid rules of abstinence given to us through Scripture, or so purity culture makes us believe. Writer Joe Forrest introduces the idea of “divine sexual authoritarianism;” who are we to question the picture of sexuality God has painted? 

Purity culture offers a works-based salvation. We become inherently sinful people through obeying a manipulative structure, rather than a forgiving God. Our salvation is not dependent on a savior who loves unconditionally, but a God who requires us to live by unattainable and harmful standards. 

While boys and men are not called to seek salvation from their alleged constant sexual urges, girls and women are called to seek salvation through modesty, purity, and obedience to patriarchal structures. So, men’s salvation is found in a woman’s ability to stay modest. Women’s salvation is found in a man’s ability to lead them out of temptation, whether that man is a father, a pastor, a boyfriend, or husband. 

Esther Taylor, in her post titled “Breaking Up With Purity Culture” writes, 

“For many of us, growing up within this movement meant that we believed that consequences of disobedience and committing sexual sin meant that we would be unable to form strong and stable bonds within heterosexual marriage. It reinforced that we would ultimately end up unhappily married and divorced. It also puts us at a more dire risk of further sinning, and separation from family, church, and God.” 

Purity culture’s rhetoric, while maybe not its intended goal, pushes its followers to feel guilty about their thoughts, desires, and actions. Purity culture calls us to be saved not only from our sexual desires, but also our desire to ask questions and advocate for our ability to ask important questions about sexuality. Innocent acts of affection or natural sexual desires become things we must run from. As Forrest says, the design of purity culture is “to infect someone with the sickness of shame while simultaneously offering the antidote of Jesus.” Salvation is not found in purity culture’s rules and regulations because salvation cannot be found in the very structure that makes us in need of it. 

What next?

Our response to purity culture cannot be reactionary. We can write and read and create new sets of standards for how we talk about sexuality in evangelical Christian circles but trading old rules for new ones won’t promote healing for those who have suffered at the hands of purity culture and those who are soon to suffer. 

If anything, my Passport to Purity experience and signing that contract made me more afraid to ask my parents all the important questions I should have been asking. 

Brené Brown says shame breeds in secrecy, silence, and judgment — all important aspects of the purity movement. Instead, Brown says empathy can be the antidote to shame. Empathy requires us to step into sensitive conversations with humility and the ability to listen to others’ experiences. Listening to the stories of those who experience purity culture is central to promoting a better conversation about sexuality in Christian circles. 

Once young people come out from under the umbrella of purity culture, they often find themselves lost trying to navigate their sexuality. Young people are capable of making their own decisions regarding their sexuality. This doesn’t mean they don’t need guidance and wise confidants in their life. Christian circles will benefit from honest conversations about sexuality. Letting young people talk openly and safely about their questions and desires leads to healthy relational and sexual decisions. 

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