I live in Nashville, Tennessee, which was Ground Zero for the True Love Waits phenomenon of the ’90s. Purity culture was about to reach a fever pitch, and I attended conservative churches and Christian schools. I spent my days fully immersed in religious culture, very rarely exposed to anything without a specific Christian worldview. I was the target audience, and man, did I buy into the whole sexist, patriarchal thing hook, line, and sinker.
We signed abstinence pledges. Purity rings graced millions of adolescent fingers. Some fathers and daughters even attended “purity balls,” where they got dressed in their Sunday best, and little girls promised their daddies that they would “remain pure” by abstaining from sex until marriage.
One disturbing cornerstone of the movement was complete and utter exclusion and condemnation of the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ exclusion eventually prompted me to evaluate how purity culture had shaped my mind and heart.
I can’t undo what purity culture did to me, but I can make sure it stops here.
My father told me he was gay when I was in my late 20s. To be honest, I had suspected it for a long time. I was already on my way out of conservative church culture by that point, and I thought I had undone all my previous ideas about sexuality and sin. So imagine my shock when my dad officially came out, and my immediate emotion was terror for his eternal fate.
What the hell was that about?
That was when I realized I still had a lot of work to do. I needed to confront the deep biases that purity culture had instilled in me. If I was going to fully love and embrace my dad during the second half of his life, I had to address and dispel these biases. The lingering ideals of purity culture were still very much alive in my psyche. Purity culture had shaped everything about the way I saw sex, sexuality, gender, and sexual freedom of expression. It was time to change that.
This is what I have since realized about my experience with purity culture.
1. It created an impossible standard that made true sexual purity impossible.
Part of purity culture was a doctrine about thoughts. It said if you’ve thought about doing something, it’s the same as doing it. Any sexual thought or feeling I had was sin, and no level of self-control could make me truly pure unless I could “take my thoughts captive” too. Sexuality, with or without a partner, was only for marriage.
My now-husband was my first boyfriend, and my first kiss. We were 18 when we started dating. In his arms, I felt things I had never felt before. I was attracted to him, and he was attracted to me. Our young, healthy bodies responded to the most innocent touch. The first few times he kissed me deeply before he left my house, I would float to my bed on a cloud. But it never lasted. Before my eyes would close, the guilt would rush in like a flood. Instead of enjoying young love, I cried, asking God’s forgiveness for my body’s response and my lustful thoughts. Sexual thoughts were sexual sin, and I was a sinner.
2. Purity culture elevated virginity until it felt like my identity.
I got a lot of praise and attention for my vocal stance on sexual purity until marriage. The response from adults in my life was overwhelmingly positive. I even traveled with an organization that promoted sexual abstinence. We put on programs in schools and churches. I thought I was doing God’s work. It became the piece of my identity that made me feel special and valuable.
Even though I was married when I had sex for the first time, it felt like losing part of my connection to my own worth. On my honeymoon, I stood in the shower and sobbed. I felt empty. I had been the proud, vocal virgin for so long. Who was I now? If married sex was supposed to be a reward, why did it still feel so much like a sin? Why was I grieving?
3. Purity culture contributed greatly to my negative body image.
As a fat girl, purity culture was baffling.
At church, I heard that my female body was inherently sexy and created by God for my future husband’s delight. Until I was married, I had to preserve my modesty, mainly for the sake of my male peers. Causing a boy to sin was sin for me, too. Trusted adults told me that just a glimpse of my bra strap or the curve of my breast could cause a boy to lust after me, and I believed them.
Meanwhile, every single voice I heard from the entire rest of the world told me that my fat body made me repulsive to men. Sexiness was impossible for me. My naked body was a punchline. I’d never be desirable to anyone; let alone every boy I meet. I believed them, too.
It was impossible to reconcile. Was I sinfully sexy because of my female body or decidedly unsexy because of my fat body? Somehow, I ended up feeling that both things were true. Neither idea contributed anything healthy to my self-image. I have done extensive study and emotional work to make peace with my fat body, but I still grapple with this conundrum to this day.
4. Purity culture created unrealistic expectations about sex and marriage.
Purity movement leaders promised us a reward for years of fighting against our natural desire to have sex. Abstinence was supposed to ensure a “blessed” marriage. God would make sure that our marriage was happy, and our sex life was incredible. Our choice to remain pure would elevate sex from a physical experience to the spiritual joining of two pure souls. They promised us something akin to magic.
Well, we didn’t get magic. We didn’t experience the cosmic infusion of sexiness and knowledge that we kind of expected as payment for our sexual purity. Our wedding night is a beautiful memory. Our first time having sex was emotional, gentle and lovely.
But it wasn’t really that sexy.
Attaching shame to sex ruined lives. Hundreds of thousands of men and women around my age feel the effects of purity culture teachings to this day.
The mechanics of sex worked themselves out eventually. It was never a bad time, but it took some practice. It’s been 13 years, and now it’s incredible.
Just because it all ended up fine, doesn’t mean the empty promises were okay.
5. The people who perpetuated purity culture damaged many people.
I believe that almost every adult who taught me the ways of the purity movement believed that what they were saying was true, right, and holy. I don’t think anyone meant us any harm. To this day, I am close to some of the people who instructed me in the ways of the purity movement. I feel their love for me, and I believe it is genuine.
But their earnest belief doesn’t undo the damage. Attaching shame to sex ruined lives. Hundreds of thousands of men and women around my age feel the effects of purity culture teachings to this day.
I can’t even imagine LGBTQ kids’ pain and grief as they heard that love and sex could never be anything but sin for them. The trauma of virginity teachings for kids who had suffered sexual abuse must have been unbearable. I just didn’t see so much of it until it was over.
6. My children will never be part of the purity movement as long as I have a say.
I can’t undo what purity culture did to me, but I can make sure it stops here.
I am already teaching my kids that their bodies are their own. We have age-appropriate sex and body conversations already. My oldest knows that kids don’t have the capacity to consent to anyone touching their bodies, but that adults are able to choose that if they want to.
Whenever my kids choose to have sex, I want them to know that their parents are there to provide education, support, medical care, and advice. I hope they’ll wait until they are reasonably close to adulthood because God knows high school is complicated enough without adding sex to the equation.
But I won’t give them hard and fast rules or make them feel that their natural, human desire to have sex is inherently wrong. That idea did absolutely nothing but damage to me.
Now that I see sex so differently, I feel cheated. I was lucky enough to feel that fairy-tale, beautiful, love-at-first-sight connection with the love of my life. We suppressed all of those feelings to follow a movement that ended up doing immense harm. We didn’t get to steal away and make love for the first time when our hearts told us we were ready. I will always wonder what our first time would have been like if I wasn’t determined to follow a set of rules designed to preserve my virginity at all costs.
The cost, as it turns out, was too great.