Note: This post contains specific language about sex, physical bodies, and a brief mention of sexual assault.
In purity culture, expectations for behavior are based on strict, highly stereotyped gender binaries. There are acceptable behaviors for boys and men, and different acceptable behaviors for girls and women. Purity culture is not a strictly “Christian thing,” though it did reach popularity in Evangelical Christianity in the 1990s.
Here are some of the dangerous myths of purity culture:
1. Virginity is a measure of your worth.
So many women, both friends, and clients have told me some variation of the story of their sex education. In a large assembly, a woman or girl’s virginity is compared to a flower. The flower gets passed around from person to person, getting bumped and bruised along the way. By the time the flower makes it up to the speaker, it doesn’t look nearly as pretty and fresh as when it passed through the first set of hands. The speaker then asks, “Who wants this flower?”
The implication is that if you’ve had a sexual relationship with anyone prior to marriage, you are bruised, broken, and less than. This narrative is particularly damaging to survivors of sexual abuse because their abuse is being re-perpetrated while it is emphasized that they are worthless (and worthless) because of a crime that was committed against them.
Moreover, people aren’t flowers. Or chewing gum. Or used tape. (All analogies that have been used!) Sexuality is not a finite resource. In fact (hold on to your hats!), virginity is a social construct. It’s not something that can be held in your hands, measured, or objectively seen in any way. Even the hymen isn’t a good “measure” of virginity, since nearly everyone with a vagina does not have an intact hymen (or vaginal corona) by the time they start menstruating. Otherwise, the menstrual blood wouldn’t have any place to go!
2. Sexuality is a switch that can be flipped.
In purity culture, sexual feelings and responses are rejected as unsafe, unclean, and impure—until marriage. At that point, it’s as if a switch can be flipped, and suddenly the newlywed couple can give and experience pleasure in their marital bed. In fact, often, it’s the exact opposite. If you’ve been told that your body is sinful and bad your whole life, engaging in a healthy, loving physical relationship can feel wrong. This goes for both men and women. Though women, being the recipients of more degrading messages of purity culture, often feel it more intensely. Men and women alike have reported panic attacks after engaging in sex with their spouses for the first time. Some have physical reactions, including hives, vomiting, and even migraines. It’s almost impossible to set aside the myths of purity culture just because of two magic words (“I do.”).
3. Girls and women are responsible for boys’ and men’s sexual behavior.
Much of purity culture puts the responsibility of “purity” on girls and women. They’re told to cover up (from the least extreme examples of covered shoulders, collar bones, and skirts or shorts that are, at minimum, fingertip length; to the most extreme examples of long sleeves and long skirts, even in sweltering weather in which boys and men are allowed to be shirtless and wearing shorts of any length) and remonstrated to “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13-23). (NOTE: I’m no Biblical scholar, but the rest of that passage talks about how everything is clean in the eyes of God and includes the line, “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” Seems to me that there’s a bit of selective listening going on when people quote the first line only.)
The extreme example of girls and women being responsible for boys’ and men’s sexual behavior can be found in the victim-blaming that surrounds women who report sexual assaults by prominent evangelicals, from Jessica Hahn to Ashley Johnson. In purity culture, girls and women are not taught about agency or consent—their bodies are for others’ consumption, not worthy in their own right.
What things were you told about purity culture? How have you seen purity culture play out in your life, or in the lives of others?