Purity culture is a subculture of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes abstinence before marriage, strict gender roles, and modesty. In the Christian church, boys and girls are exposed to purity culture at a relatively young age, usually while in grade school, and although the teachings of purity culture to boys and girls do differ, the "abstinence only" message applied to all.
As children steeped in purity culture grew up to become adults, many of these adults report suffering from religious trauma, with purity culture being one of the main components for religious trauma, according to women. How exactly could promoting abstinence harm people? Isn't the idea of purity culture to protect all involved in a relationship before marriage? Let's take a look at the tenants of purity culture and why it's so harmful.
Where Purity Culture Began
In the early 1990s to 2000s, purity culture reached its height in Christian evangelicalism. Although it was most significant in the United States, its impact was global. Its main goal was established on a religious ethic: sexual abstinence until marriage. But it soon became a subculture in evangelical Christianity known as "sexual purity". During this period of time, the idea of sexual purity skyrocketed. Rallies and conferences about sexual purity were being held, and books were being written about "maintaining sexual purity" until marriage. Sales of purity rings (rings girls and sometimes boys) wore on their wedding band finger to symbolize their promise to refrain from sex until marriage, drastically increased during this time, and teenagers were signing purity pledges at their churches and youth groups/youth conferences to demonstrate their commitment to abstinence.
The principle of modesty was placed on girls and young women, telling them that their clothing choices are responsible for the sexual purity of boys and young men.
Beyond abstinence, teenagers were encouraged not to date, with the idea that "true love waits". Because there was a chance that teenage relationships could lead to emotional and sexual impurity, teenagers were encouraged to forgo dating altogether. The idea of courting in evangelical/fundamental Christianity was encouraged. Courting, from this perspective, means that a young man and young woman get to know each other as friends first and then start courting with the end being marriage. Courtships typically last for a few months to a year before getting married. On courting dates, it's common for the parents to be present as a means of sexual accountability to the couple.
Research has proven that purity culture is harmful. But how?
The Harm of Purity Culture
Purity culture has taught women to be ashamed and suspicious of their bodies and their sexuality, and it has also caused anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD in some women.
Although purity rings and sexual purity conferences aren't as popular today as they once were, purity culture in 2023 has rebranded itself. We might not see teenagers wearing purity rings like we did in the 2000s, but organizations promoting sexual abstinence until marriage, modesty for women, sexual purity, and biblical womanhood still exist and are still making their mark on impressionable people today. Girl Defined, a social media organization run by two sisters who saved their first kiss until marriage, is a prime example of what purity culture looks like today.
Purity cultures teaches women:
they are responsible for the lust of men
their sexuality is wrong/sinful
their body is bad outside of marriage (but inside of marriage, it's supposed to be "good")
they are dirty and worthless if they were sexual in the past or for being sexual now
they are unable to connect to their body now
they are not allowed to be a pastor, but teaching children at church is acceptable
to be ashamed
their body is for God or their husband, but not for themselves
their natural desires cannot be trusted
there is more value in being a virgin
to seek permission
to be submissive
to be a procreator, mother, homemaker, and wife; working outside the home isn't encouraged
to be humble
to be a follower, not a leader
to be modest and dress modestly
to support her husband in all things at all times, even when abuse occurs
to feel guilt over what is normal
nothing about their anatomy
they are not meant to sexually enjoy their own body (i.e. masturbating or physical exploration is a sin)
a narrow definition of femininity
In purity culture, women are not allowed to be the decision maker, bread winner, authoritarian, dominant, strong leader, rebellious, sexual, assertive, powerful stubborn, showy, vocal, angry, or bold.
The teachings of purity culture promote abuse and acceptance of abuse. It prevents women from learning, knowing, and understanding their autonomy as a human being. And it keeps women at the bottom, elevating the headship and authority of men.
Why This Matters & Where We Go From Here
The teachings of purity culture matter because of their subversive, subtle acceptance of abuse, devaluation, and control of women in society. In Christianity, there's a major focus on saving sex before marriage because premarital sex is a sin. But we're having the wrong conversation. It's common for Christians who promote purity culture to cling to any Bible verse that hints at premarital sex being a sin without looking at the context and circumstance.
People can have sex in ways that are fulfilling, good, healthy, beautiful, and holy. People can have sex in ways that are dangerous, abusive, harmful, and bad. Marriage will never be a way to protect against the dangerous, abusive, and harmful potential of sex. The conversation among evangelical Christians needs to shift from:
sex outside of marriage = sinful
abusive, harmful sex = sinful
Marriage cannot define if sex is sinful or not sinful, because it logically can't protect against the harmful potential of sex. Marriage doesn't give the safety net to sex like evangelical Christians who promote purity culture think it does.
It's time to start shifting the conversation. It's time to accept the autonomy, power, and sexuality of all women. It's time to heal from corrupt beliefs that negatively affect our mental health. It's time to leave purity culture behind.
At Root Counseling, we help clients on their own deconstruction journeys and hold space for them to process beliefs they've held on to for a long time. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.