The term purity culture is often attributed to sexual shaming and restrictions covertly and overtly communicated to those within certain religious communities, particularly American Christians. However, religious communities are not the only environments where purity culture messaging is prevalent. Those who grow up in purity culture often become adults who struggle with their relationship to sex, feel the need to follow restrictive rules about sex and sexuality, and remain sexually pure and modest.
What is Purity Culture?
Purity culture is a system of beliefs that enforces rigid spoken and unspoken rules about sexual purity, abstaining premarital sex, presenting yourself with modesty, all in an effort to control sexuality. In addition to sexuality, strict gender roles are often enforced such as men being breadwinners, women being homemakers, and shaming those who do not adhere to those roles.
The purity movement in Evangelical Christianity communities and beyond oftentimes strives to create a culture in which people abstain from sex until marriage and promote messaging that sex is something you owe your husband as a wifely duty.
Many children and young adults are learning this messaging during their developmental years, which often leads to going through early life with little sex education that results in confusion, shame, and anxiety around sex outside of marriage. Many high school students in purity culture are asked or mandated to wear purity rings, which is their purity pledge and commitment that they will save themselves for marriage.
Purity Culture, Gender, and Sexuality
Within purity culture, there are often very strict gender roles and an emphasis on relationships between straight, cisgender men and women. This means that relationships in which one or multiple people identify as a sexuality other than straight, a relationship style other than monogamy, or a gender other than the man, woman binary are not considered. Many who do not fit into the limited boxes available to them struggle with feeling safe and accepted within their communities.
It’s not uncommon for gender diverse or LGBTQ+ folks who grow up in purity culture to struggle to both understand and accept their own intersecting identities and experiences. There can be a lot of fear around being “sinful” or “damaged” because they don’t adhere to the strict rules that have been enforced over time. It can lead to isolation and people feeling like they have to live lives that are not actually authentic to who they genuinely are and identify as.
Effects of Purity Culture on Sexuality
Pleasure and reasons for sex
Within the rigidity of sex under purity culture, there is often no room for the importance of pleasure and connection. Many are taught that sex is appropriate for reproduction and a duty one has within their marriage. Those who eventually reject and leave purity culture, often struggle with knowing what they like sexually with future partners. Many have never or have sparingly experienced orgasms and feel shame about engaging in solo sex.
Lack of education about consent
Within many experiences around Christian sexuality and many other religions or family cultures, people report having little to no education or understanding about consent. Some believe that sex is something they have to do as an obligation to the relationship despite not wanting to. Within these cultures, there is often messaging to submit to your partner, especially if you are a woman, which means that you might be attending to your partner’s needs and ignoring your own.
Sexual pain and discomfort
It’s not uncommon for people who experience sexual shame to struggle with painful or uncomfortable sensations during sex. When sex is presented as something that comes with harsh rules and expectations, that anxiety of adhering to or rejecting those rules can create anxiety in the body. When this happens it can be hard to relax, feel in the present moment, reach orgasm, and sometimes people will even feel pain during sex. Your body has not had permission to embrace pleasure so for many, it’s shutting down in a way to protect you from something you “shouldn’t” be doing.
Mental health concerns
When people are not able to accept and have to hide parts of themselves, it can lead to mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, trauma, and low self esteem. If you feel you are unable to freely explore and enjoy sex, it can lead to feeling disconnected from oneself and from their romantic or sexual partners.
Having Great Sex After Purity Culture
If you’re struggling with sex after living under purity culture, sex and sexuality might feel complicated or even scary for you. This is normal given what you’ve experienced, however, you don’t have to keep living under reductive and restrictive guidelines attached to your sexuality. It’s possible to learn how to have great sex after overcoming purity culture and discover your authentic sexual self.
Rachel Overvoll is a Somatic Sex and Intimacy Coach and published author of Finding Feminism. Using her credentials from the Somatica Institute and Kinsey Institute, she works through the mediums of embodiment and self-attunement to help clients step into the power of an authentic and pleasure-centered life.
The term “purity culture” is generally associated with the white, American, Evangelical Christian Purity Movement. However, evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on the ethics of purity culture. The specifics vary by religion and culture, but gender and sexual control upon which purity culture stands is global, cross-religious, and cross-cultural.
Rachel and Dr. Kate talk about the Purity Culture that conflates women’s worth with their virginity.
Couples don’t even hold hands til engaged. Any distractions to man’s path to God are a sin.
But actually, men keep control over women’s bodies in the form of sexual oppression.
Some see it as positive…but in the Purity Culture, it is embedded so deeply and really is oppression.
Rachel talks about how Purity culture instills in women a deep hatred of their bodies and mistrust of their bodies because they are taught it causes evil.
Women in this culture cannot enjoy their bodies as it causes themselves and men to sin.
The process of women trying to leave the Purity culture is also part of the conversation: Regaining love of your body, and knowing you deserve pleasure.
Dr. Kate and Rachel talk about:
1. what purity culture is and some of the lessons it teaches children growing up in it
2. How did Rachel begin to unpack purity culture messaging?
3. How does purity culture impact how someone shows up for themselves? For a partner?
4. How can someone recovering from purity culture begin to explore what is pleasurable for them?
5. How can someone deal with the shame that’s rooted in purity culture as they begin their exploration of pleasure?
And so much more. Join us.
Rachel Overvoll @rachelovervoll