Shame and Purity Culture: My Take

Last year, I discovered that bloggers are now discussing the harm of the “Purity Culture” in Evangelicalism. (I have decided to no longer use the term “join the conversation” because it’s turned into an annoying cliché.)

I was part of an earlier wave, not the one the Millennials have experienced of kids being told to kiss no one before marriage/court instead of date/Purity Balls/get Dad’s permission/don’t give your heart to anyone before the “One”/etc. etc.

We Gen-Xers dated and kissed plenty before marriage, or even before getting engaged, and “fell in love” multiple times before marriage, and felt no shame about that.  If we spent all our time with a new love, that was considered normal rather than harmful.

We Gen-Xers had varying views of women working, but it was usually allowed.  And girls going to college.

And so were opposite-sex friends, before and after marriage.  I don’t recall my parents having restrictions on this with each other, that I ever noticed.

(Apparently Relevant Magazine recently had an article against opposite-sex best friends, which bothered blogger Samantha Field, who is bisexual.  Is she not supposed to have any friends, now, she wonders?  Also here.  If this is coming from the modern version of Purity Culture as well, then it’s no wonder I’ve been encountering so much of this attitude against married Christians having opposite-sex friendships, when I never heard it as a teenager/young adult.)

We didn’t have girls staying at home under their fathers’ “covering” until they got married.

But we did have some of the same elements the Millennials are now writing about.  Purity was a popular teaching then, too, going back thousands of years, after all.

We heard about it in youth groups, on Christian TV programs, in Christian teen magazines, in Christian rock songs, on Christian teen radio programs.  Even if your own church didn’t talk about it much, you’d pick it up through these other means.  I even saw a 700 Club piece which interviewed teenage boys on the street, asking what they’d think if their girlfriend had sex before.  “It wouldn’t bother me if she loved him,” one said.  And oh, how the narrator of the piece lamented the decline in morals that it wouldn’t bother him!

Some things become clear after reviewing all the things that happened between Shawn and me, as described at length in my College Memoirs:

He treated me like a prude for not wanting to watch sexy movies (which got my mind going on things I wasn’t supposed to do yet) or do the things he wanted to do.  This, even though we both grew up in a subculture which taught us to avoid anything that causes lust.  So first, I was shamed for that.

Then when, over time, I gave in and did the things he wanted, I turned into a “slut.”  Because I was now a “slut,” I was not worth even his friendship, because I put a wedge between him and God.  So I was shamed for that.

I was not supposed to have desires at all.  I was supposed to deflect his every move, be stronger than he was.  It was my fault.  I was shamed for having my own desires after all.

No wonder I was so frickin’ screwed up by the end of sophomore year.  I understand why people have trouble with Purity Culture.

I don’t think it’s the desire to save oneself for marriage that bothers critics.  It’s your right to do what you want with your own body, they say.  I think it’s the shame we girls end up with, the feeling of being “ruined” if you “slip up,” the expectation that only sluts would want sex, that bothers critics.

Back in October, I saw a video by John Oliver which depicted a Christian speaker telling Christian boys that if a girl tries to get him into bed, he’s to get away from her.  She made the girl sound like Vampira, like the evil, seductive temptress–when it could just be his good, Christian girlfriend who realized she has desires for her boyfriend.

What the Christian speaker said, how she made such a girl sound, that’s EXACTLY how Shawn treated me after I told him that I was having trouble fighting my longing for sex with him.  I guess I wasn’t supposed to feel that way, despite the many months he had spent trying to break down my boundaries and get me to go farther and farther.

And let me tell you, if you’re just a girl who loves a guy and has those desires, being treated like a filthy whore for wanting to sleep with him, does tremendous harm to your psyche.  In other words, it’s very hurtful, especially if the one you love, dumps you.

Now, of course, girls have always been warned about guys who want them only for their bodies, and will dump them the next day.  But I’m not talking about sexual users here, rather people who are in love/infatuation and start naturally feeling desires.

Now, of course, it goes both ways: If you are taught that purity applies to boys and not just girls, no double standard, then discovering your future husband is not a virgin, can be devastating.  We can forgive someone after they repent for stealing, but even if they look on past sexual experiences with the proper remorse and disgust, they’re still “sullied.”  We have been deprived the gift we were supposed to unwrap on our wedding night: each other’s virginity.  It can never be restored.  Spiritually, maybe, but not physically.  If you’re the one who “deprived” your spouse, you feel dirty, ashamed.

You see, in the Christian Evangelical/Fundamentalist world, we are taught as teenagers that our bodies belong to our future spouses, not to ourselves.  Even if we have not met them yet, if we allow ourselves to be touched sexually before marriage, we are betraying our future spouse.

For us, it is irrelevant that we had not even met yet if we were sexually active with someone else beforehand: It is still a betrayal that we must repent of, the same as if we were married at the time.

So when an Evangelical feels guilt when confessing his sexual history to his fiancée, this is why.  And when a friend advises the fiancée, who is now upset that they won’t be giving their purity to each other on their wedding night as she has dreamed since childhood, “But he slept with those girls before he even met you,” the friend’s words have no meaning or consolation to her.

It is the reason why I was so psychologically affected by things I did in college, why it was so hard to forgive myself, why I looked on past deeds with Shawn and my ex Phil with horror for so long, why certain first names from my future husband’s past made me recoil for years just seeing them printed on a page.

I felt guilty just remembering these deeds with pleasure years later.  I felt guilty, like I was lying to myself, for deciding one day that what I did with Shawn, wasn’t so bad.  I was warned that past sexual experiences would haunt me when I married, but the memories weren’t so horrible after all.

Then there was Phil: feeling that the only way we could justify or properly satisfy those dirty, lustful urges, was to marry.  Even though we’d only been together for a couple of months.  But because we didn’t make it a legal marriage–a spiritual one before God, instead–we still had to hide our marital relations from our parents.  We were full, legal adults, but still felt like our parents were in authority over us, even over such personal, private details, that they could disapprove and we’d be in big trouble.

But because it wasn’t a legal marriage, after the inevitable collapse and burn when Phil turned out to be both abusive and a sexual abuser, I felt shame among my friends, who were also part of this subculture.  I felt shame when Shawn called again, and I reassured him that what I did with Phil was much, much worse than what I did with Shawn.

Now, I totally agree with the concept of saving yourself for marriage if that’s how you believe, and with treating each other with respect rather than looking for notches on your bedpost.  I even have a page to help young Christians sort out what qualifies as “sex” so they can avoid the ambiguity I lived through, and do what they believe honors God.  Sexual permissiveness also leads to problems, such as girls feeling like their job is to be as pretty as possible and do whatever the guys want sexually, if they want a boyfriend.  Or serial hookups instead of an actual relationship.  That’s no good, either.

But there is a middle ground, where we strive for the best, but recognize that failure happens–and it doesn’t mean we’re dirty, damaged goods, or any of that.  That if a girl has desires outside of marriage, that doesn’t make her a “slut.”  Even in the days when it was just a “given” that girls were supposed to wait for marriage, stuff happened–and girls were shamed for giving birth outside of marriage.  Were they supposed to put their own lives at risk and abort the child instead?

But when I think back over my own past, I don’t want to change it.  Not with my husband, not with the previous guys.  No desire to go back in time and tell myself not to sleep with or have other relations with those guys.

This sarcastic quote by Samantha Field, from Future Husbands: Your Future Wife Does Not Belong to You, sums up the same teaching I got growing up, except that I was taught it went both ways, with the man expected to save himself for his wife as well.  It’s in response to this letter:

Because, ladies, having sex before you’ve even met your future husband is cheating. And, in this frame of reference, it’s cheating because, guess what– you belong to him already. You’ve belonged to him from the moment you were born (because, of course, any suitable husband will be older than you). Because God made you for each other. God knew who you were going to marry when he formed you in your mother’s womb. Behaving like you’re not already married? Not possible. Because you are, before you’ve even sworn that vow. Your body, your vagina, isn’t yours. It’s his, your future husband’s. Always.

And because your vagina belongs to him, if you let anyone else in there, he deserves to feel betrayed, and shamed, and dishonored by what you’ve done with your body.

I’d like to highlight the words he chose to use– betrayal, shame, and dishonor. That’s the language of patriarchy. He can be betrayed if you’ve broken a vow to him– a vow you’ve never even made. He can feel shamed by you, because he has the right to control what you do before you’ve met him. He can be dishonored by you, because you belong to him. Your honor, your choices, are his. You don’t get to make decisions based on what betrays and dishonors yourself.

And to top it all off, you just don’t love him enough. A man you’ve never met. And he’s going to continuously feel threatened by your previous sexual partners, because he has always owned your body. It’s his possession, and someone else dared to touch it. No, you dared to let someone else touch it.

THIS is why I felt so dirty from what I did with Shawn.  THIS is why Shawn made me feel like we were both dirty for doing what we did, so he had to cut off my friendship (it didn’t turn out to be forever, but this conversation did happen).  THIS is why he treated me like crap for longing to have full intercourse with him.

THIS is why I felt betrayed when I learned my now-husband had other lovers before I met him, even though I had as well.  This is why I did not want to see them or even their names.  And I felt I had betrayed him, too.

THIS is why I felt betrayed when Phil–during our engagement–told me the things he did before he met me.  THIS is why I felt morally obligated to tell Phil about Shawn, that we had the right to know about each other’s exes and what we had done with them.

Because I came out of a culture which specifically said that I was supposed to save myself for the person God had chosen for me when I was born, and vice versa.

THIS is why I was so desperate to meet a guy and get married far too young, because the hormones were racing and, especially now at college, it seemed impossible to keep to the strict standard of purity I was supposed to keep before marriage.  Especially since you weren’t supposed to pleasure yourself, either.

Because we were specifically taught that if we had sex before marriage, and especially with someone other than our future spouse, we had “lost” something which could never be taken back, even though we were forgiven by God.  We would not have that “first” with our spouse, but with somebody else, and we’d never be able to erase the horrible memories of that ex, running through our head while in bed with our spouse.

Not only that, but we were taught that it would separate us from God.  There was the ever-present threat that if we died while in the midst of this sin, we would go to Hell.  Shawn complained of feeling his relationship with God suffered because of what we did together.

This is especially horrible pressure on young people in a society which no longer marries off teenagers, but now encourages them to wait until they’re established in careers and more mature.

For an example, here’s a line from a song I listened to a lot as a teenager:

“Better keep your hands to yourself.  What would you do if you knew that somebody had their hands on the temple God made for you?” –Eric Champion, Don’t Touch That Temple  (“Temple” is a biblical term for a Christian’s body, “temple of the Holy Spirit.”  “That temple” refers to the body of the guy’s date.  “The temple God made for you” is the body of his fated future bride.)

Samantha Field, as quoted and linked above, also makes a good point elsewhere that this does not mean we should just embrace the opposite of Purity Culture, “Raunch Culture.”  She writes that both extremes objectify women, Purity Culture through treating women as “damaged goods” for sex outside of marriage, and Raunch Culture through treating women as if they must be available sex kittens if they expect any man to want them.  That our “only value” is in our sexuality.  She writes,

In purity culture, the comparisons of non-virginal women to garbage and other disposable, disgust-inducing objects such as cups of spit and half-eaten chocolate bars are endless.

Raunch culture is the flip side of the same coin: women are taught to value themselves based on perceptions of their sexuality. The twist here is that rather than telling women they are worthless if they have sex, they’re told they’re a prude and no one will want them if they don’t.

…This is one area where I think Christians and feminists have a common goal. Feminists want a world where everyone is valued for their character, for their contributions, for their humanity. And Christians are called to live in a Kingdom that values the imago dei in all of us.

Both of these are calls to see people for more than their sexuality.