Purity culture promotes sexual abstinence before marriage. charlene trapp/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

How the ‘extreme abstinence’ of the purity movement created a sense of shame in evangelical women

Millennial evangelicals are speaking out about the heightened emphasis on sexual purity that characterized their upbringing in that subculture.

Joshua Harris, a former pastor who became one of the most public faces of the purity culture movement in the United States with his 1997 book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” recently renounced his views and very publicly left evangelicalism. When his book came out, it was widely read and led many evangelicals to believe that the best path through adolescence and to a fulfilling happy marriage was the embrace of purity culture.

So, what exactly is the purity movement all about?

Culture of abstinence

The label purity culture has a range of meanings. Many use it in its most literal form to refer to efforts, especially in conservative Protestant Christianity, to promote sexual abstinence prior to marriage.

But beginning in the 1990s some groups within conservative U.S. Protestantism began promoting an organized strategy to convince young people that the Bible requires a much more restrictive code, what one author has called “extreme abstinence.”

In 1993, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention launched its “True Love Waits” campaign, seeking to promote sexual abstinence among Christian youth with conferences, concerts and purity pledges. These are reminiscent of 19th-century evangelical temperance pledges, in which people signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol.

Advocates of extreme abstinence advise women to be appropriately submissive, not pursue leadership roles and not speak out too much in mixed company. That may mean avoiding mixed company except in tightly regulated circumstances, such as with parents present. All of these concerns become part of how “purity” is understood.

In this view, purity is much more than just refraining from premarital sex and dressing modestly. As I write in my book, “Building God’s Kingdom,” they replace dating with “courtship” that is pursued under the direction of the young woman’s father. Courtship in this case means that all interaction between young men and women must be explicitly for the purpose of pursuing marriage and under the permission and oversight of the young woman’s father.

The expectation is that “pure” young women will remain under the authority of their fathers until they trade it for the authority of their husbands – in marriages arranged by their fathers.

Both men and women are expected to remain sexually pure. This includes abstaining from sex, but it also extends to avoiding lustful thoughts. For the young women, being “pure” also means being responsible for the boys and men around them and comporting themselves in ways that do not “tempt” others to sin.

Purity balls and pledges

In purity culture, as I found in my research, a woman’s entire purpose is to appeal to a godly young man whom she can serve as a wife in whatever work God has called him to do. The woman’s sexual purity is what is of most value to the man.

These views are taught in many ways, but a common example comes from youth groups and summer camps where a pastor or camp director passes around a chewed piece of gum, telling the young women if they fail to protect their purity that is how they would appear to a Christian man looking for a godly wife.

This exercise prompted condom manufacturer Trojan to launch a 2019 campaign called “You Are Not Chewed Gum.”

Posters for the Purity Ball on display at the Seventh-day Adventist Madison church in Nashville, on Jan. 16, 2010. The dance features a vow to abstain from sex until marriage and offers tips on ‘appropriate’ touching. AP Photo/Josh Anderson)

Other groups joined in marketing chastity throughout the 1990s with purity rings, books, concerts and father-daughter “purity balls.” A purity ball is a father-daughter formal dance in which the daughters make a commitment to purity culture and fathers vow to protect their daughters’ purity.

These activities in general, but purity balls in particular, were especially pervasive in Christian schools and the Christian home school movement and in the churches affiliated with them.

Shame and trauma

As the children raised in these evangelical communities have grown to adulthood, a dark picture has emerged of a movement that has promoted shame and sexual ignorance.

Evangelical women have shared their stories of being shamed. There has been a a television documentary, and a new book explores the impact of those teachings on the everyday lives of young women raised in the culture. Social media has been an important way of connecting with each other for support.

Author Linda Kay Klein, who grew up in this culture herself, interviewed women to document how these teachings led to guilt and shame as well as profound ignorance about sex and sexuality.

Many young adults raised in this subculture have said that they still battle shame and trauma as a result of these teachings, making it difficult to develop healthy adult sexual relations.

The trauma of rape and sexual assault are made worse when women are taught to blame themselves as a result of the crimes against them.

The power of the purity movement

But these teachings serve important social functions in the context in which they persist. As I’ve written in my book “Evangelical Christian Women,” rigid gender norms characterized by women’s submission and male authority are at the very heart of the evangelical subculture. Purity culture reinforces that structure.

Moreover, in evangelicalism, what makes a person a Christian is having had a conversion experience, sometimes called being “born again” or saved. The conversion experience involves experiencing an overwhelming sense of guilt and a strong desire to seek forgiveness for sins.

Many evangelicals then want to protect their own children from the temptations that lead to that very experience of guilt necessary for conversion. Purity culture encourages fundamentally unattainable gender norms and purity requirements: that is, not only must unmarried people abstain from sex, but that merely thinking about sex risks eternal damnation. These rules create a powerful sense of shame and failure by design, even when there is no other “sin” that would seem worthy of hell.

That sense of shame and failure creates the need for exactly what the evangelical tradition provides: salvation.

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