There are some topics that people tend to tread lightly around. One of those topics is religion. Although discussions about religion deserve sensitivity and open-mindedness, there are some problematic elements that are too harmful to ignore, such as purity culture trauma.
One of those often-damaging elements is purity culture and the role it plays on sexuality and sexual identity. While purity culture mostly pertains to rules and regulations placed on women’s sexuality, ultimately, everyone, including men, can suffer in different ways under restrictive, shaming, and judgmental views of sex and purity.
What is Purity Culture?
The origin of purity culture, or the faith based purity culture movement, traces back to the 1990s. Evangelical Christians of the 1960’s free love movement started having children of their own and believed that many of society’s problems such as the AIDS epidemic and rise of teen pregnancies was due to loose morals and sexual sins such as having sex outside of marriage.
Purity culture exists prominently today in white evangelical Christian, Mormon, and Southern Baptist communities. According to sex therapist Linda Kay Klein, who has first-hand experience growing up within purity culture, children and young adults who receive purity teachings are directed to form a commitment to God by abstaining from sex and remaining sexually pure until marriage. Purity pledges, “true love waits” engraved purity rings, purity balls, purity based youth groups, and reading purity centric books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris are common practices that enforce the promise to remain a virgin until marriage.
Purity Culture Trauma + Evangelical Women
In many Evangelical church communities, the policing of women’s sexuality starts as early as childhood. Evangelical families often communicate directly or indirectly that women’s sexuality is impure and dirty. Communities often teach young girls that they must dress modestly, be agreeable and docile, and abstain not only from sexual activity, but resist and repent for sexual thoughts and urges.
Within purity culture, an untouched body and intact hymen is a gift to a woman’s husband on their wedding night and her domestic duty to fulfill throughout their marriage, sometimes whether it’s consensual or not. Nonconsensual sexual experiences such as sexual assault can be extremely traumatizing, lead to post traumatic stress disorder, depression, panic attacks, and impact a person’s relationship to their body and sexuality for years. For some, this type of religious trauma can last a lifetime.
The effects of purity culture can have impacts to a person’s long term sexual health. Many young people who grow up in purity culture settings do not receive adequate, evidence-based sexual education. Instead, in communities that value sexual purity, schools typically teach abstinence only programs instead of comprehensive sex-ed. When children miss out on education around human sexuality and reproductive health, it can leave them more susceptible to attaining sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, sexual dysfunctions, and confusion around their bodies sexual functioning.
In addition to impacts to a person’s sexual health, mental and emotional health can suffer as well. Sexuality is a normal human experience and messaging that people, especially women, are inherently flawed, dirty, and impure for being sexual beings can be incredibly damaging to a person’s identity and self-esteem.
Evangelical Christian women are often shamed for dressing in ways that are deemed sexually suggestive. Even to the extent where a young girl or woman will be blamed for sexual violations against them. “You must have said something, worn something, or acted a certain way to make him do that” is a common purity and rape culture ideology said to women who bravely open up about experiences of assault and sexual abuse.
Another common purity culture belief is that men are visual creatures and inherently sexual and women are the ones responsible if men act on those urges. This type of messaging places all the blame on women for simply existing and dehumanizes men, portraying them as sex-crazed savages that can’t control themselves or their urges.
The Myths of Sexual Purity
Let’s unpack some of the common purity culture falsehoods around sex and sexuality. Please note that people who identify as men can also experience the below situations, however, women are statistically more aggressively targeted by these myths within purity culture.
Losing Your Virginity Before Marriage Means You’re “Damaged Goods”
No one is damaged goods, and certainly not for having sex before marriage. This messaging can be incredibly damaging as it can endorse so much shame around a natural, human experience. It’s also worth mentioning that virginity itself is a social construct, and not a tangible item that can be lost, stolen, or destroyed.
In many purity cultures, “virginity tests” are medically conducted regularly on young women to make sure their hymen is intact to ensure their “purity” while she is unwed. The test is not always an accurate assessment of determining virginity as hymens can be torn by activities unrelated to sex such as riding a horse or inserting a tampon. This experience can be incredibly violating, traumatizing, and can make women feel as if they do not have bodily autonomy.
Women Are Inherently not as Sexual as Men
All humans, no matter their gender, can be and feel sexual. It’s true that men typically have stronger sex drives than women, but people who identify as women are just as capable of having high sex drives, just as people who identify as men can have low sex drives.
Sexuality exists on a spectrum, so there is no one concrete way men and women relate to sexuality. There is also a lot that goes into sexual arousal, and one of those factors is the relationship you have with sex. If you grew up in an environment where sex was taboo and discussed with embarrassment or shame, then it’s very possible it will impact your level of arousal and interest in sex.
Women Can’t Say No to Sex with her Husband
Consent is the foundation of healthy and safe sexual experiences. You should never feel as if you are obligated to engage in any sexual activity you do not want to be a part of. Marriage is not a free pass to cross boundaries, control, coerce, and ultimately assault and violate another person. Healthy relationships and intimacy depend on trust, safety, respect, and reciprocity. None of which exist in a dynamic where sex is positioned as a non-negotiable duty a woman must fulfill under the rules of religion.
Healing From Purity Culture Trauma
It can be incredibly challenging to unlearn beliefs our families and members of our communities teach us in childhood. It’s a difficult internal struggle that can take time to completely heal. That being said, healing and developing a healthier, more liberated relationship with your sexual self is possible.
If the confines of purity culture are hindering your own relationship to sexuality and intimacy with romantic partners, it might be time to work with a therapist who can help you unpack any shame, confusion, and trauma purity culture has inflicted on your life. It’s never too late to heal the hidden wounds of purity culture and empower your sexual self.