Myths of Purity Culture
We've explored the harmful teachings of purity culture in a previous blog post, which you can reference here, but for a quick refresher:
"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. "
There are a lot of myths perpetuated by purity culture that are detrimental to our mental health, relationships, sexual health, spiritual health, and emotional health. Today, we're going to break down a few of those myths, what makes it a myth, why it's harmful, and what's reality.
Myth #1: Abstinence Guarantees a Healthy Sexual Relationship
Within purity culture, there's the belief that abstinence (waiting to have sex until marriage) will guarantee you have a healthy sexual relationship with your future spouse. It's common to hear that having sex with someone (or multiple people) before marriage, especially for women, results in "giving oneself away", which is something that can't be taken back. The idea of "soul ties", which is the belief that once you have sex with someone, your soul is tied with theirs forever unless it's broken supernaturally, is used as a way to scare people from engaging in sexual relationships before marriage.
The emphasis of this myth is that sex outside of marriage = sinful.
Instead of looking at sex as the subject, purity culture looks at sex within a specific context. This is harmful, because it essentially convinces people to believe that sex is not safe outside of marriage but safe inside of marriage. This can't possibly be true, because marriage doesn't provide a safety net from abusive sex. Marriage is not a guarantee that sex will not be abusive or healthy.
Instead of focusing on sex outside of marriage = sinful, the conversation needs to shift to abusive sex = sinful.
Myth #2: Purity Culture Protects Against Heartbreak
If one of the beliefs within purity culture is to help people (mostly women) "guard their hearts and their bodies", the thought is that it limits the potentiality of emotional pain and heartbreak by preventing them from engaging in relationships.
In reality, unrealistic expectations like this end up contributing to emotional pain and heartbreak through disappointment and disillusionment. We can help young people navigate their dating lives in ways that are healthy by actually talking about the reality of emotional pain and heartbreak, normalizing it as a part of being a human, while also giving them tools to address their pain, hold space for it, and process through it.
Myth #3: Purity Culture Promotes Healthy Boundaries
Purity culture is built upon the foundation of "boundaries", but the line between healthy boundaries and harmful control is blurred. Healthy boundaries are when the individual gets to decide what's safe for them within the context of relationships. Purity culture comes with its own set of standards and rules you have to abide by. Instead of the person deciding what they're comfortable with, purity culture decides it for you. Autonomy is taken away from you. At this point, we're slipping over to the side of harmful control.
To have healthy relationships with other people, we have to make individual decisions that promote that safety and help us establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries are created by an individual and are unique to that individual. Teaching children how to set healthy boundaries instead of following a rigid set of rules (i.e. purity culture) helps foster healthy relationships and individual safety within those relationships.
Myth #4: Leaving Purity Culture = Moral Decline
Within Christian evangelicalism, purity culture is a standard people within the church are automatically held to, whether you'd like to be held to that standard or not. It's expected of you to believe and follow purity culture. It's almost as if the morals of a person are decided based on whether they adhere to purity culture or not.
People are more than their religious beliefs about sex. People can still maintain strong morals, values, and ethics while reevaluating or rejecting certain aspects of purity culture or purity culture altogether. A person's sexual decisions or opinions don't make them moral or immoral. Humans are complex, and we don't live in a "one size fits all" world of viewpoints.
When we make room for that complexity, we foster healthy conversations, discussions, decisions, and safety.
Myth #5: Purity = Worth
In purity culture, women are often viewed as having more inherent worth and value if they're a virgin before marriage, or "pure". "Saving" oneself for marriage is known as the most valuable thing you can give your husband, and as a woman, you're automatically viewed as more worthy than a woman who had sex before marriage.
In reality, a person's worth is not intrinsically tied to their sexual choices. Everyone has inherent value beyond their sexuality or sexual decisions. Purity culture views people from the lens of sex, when in reality, humans are far more complex than that.
Myth #6: Shame Can Be a Tool for Positive Behavior
We can't talk about purity culture without talking about shame. Shame is the house of purity culture.
Purity culture imposes strict standards of modesty, mostly on women, implying that one's character and moral value is based off of the clothes they wear. And, as mentioned previously, purity culture links a person's worth to their sexual purity. Living outside of these standards, or even the thought of living outside of these standards, causes an immense feeling of shame. Women are constantly monitoring their clothing choices to ensure they don't "cause men to stumble". Purity culture makes people believe that shame is a good thing because it can promote positive behavior within the confines of purity culture.
In reality, shame is counterproductive in fostering healthy relationships, and it has a detrimental affect on mental health. When we live in shame, we typically live in isolation and fear, unable to be fully authentic and vulnerable.
At Root Counseling, we work with clients who are reevaluating their religious beliefs and learning to find their autonomy. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.