Church often felt like eyes staring at me. The eyes of other churchgoers: women who gave me the up-and-down modesty assessment, men I was afraid of “causing to stumble” by any accidental skirt blowing, the little girls for whom I was taught I should be a model of virtuous womanhood. And then, of course, the eyes of God, which felt much further away, but still always watching me as if to catch all my mistakes. It felt like the eyes were always staring in judgment, looking to see if I fit the description of a “godly young woman.” I didn’t feel grace in those glances. I didn’t feel acceptance. I had a difficult time imagining God looking down on me in love.
So much of my life I have seen myself through the perspective of others until it has become difficult to see myself without it. I can’t think about my body without thinking about how others see it.
This all makes sense because this is what purity culture teaches:
That how other people see you is more important than how you see yourself.
That to be pure you not only need to be untouched, but also unseen. You need to be invisible.
Linda Kay Klein in her book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free has brought all this home for me. A friend on Twitter gave me fair warning: “Enjoy feeling 100% validated!” And that is exactly what this book has done for me. All those implicit and explicit messages of physical and emotional purity are exposed, analyzed, and explained for what they truly are: hindrances to women’s sense of self and purpose.
Klein has masterfully told the story of the movement that has affected so many of us by sharing her own experience and interviewing many others to provide a complex understanding of purity culture’s impact and damage.
In the beginning of the book, Klein reveals how the words stumbling block have been so often misapplied: “I heard it used time and time again to describe girls and women who somehow ‘elicit’ men’s lust.” This kind of language is objectifying and dangerous. From my own experience, I have spent far too much of my life worried about being a temptation for men.
So Klein takes back the term stumbling block and uses it to talk about the different ways that purity teachings harm women.
“The first stumbling block . . . is the message that if you are suffering, it’s your fault: It may be your sin; it may be your psychosis; but it is certainly not the shaming system you find yourself in.” Klein explains how suffering is part of the Christian story: through suffering there is eventual reward, there is salvation. Too often, I have seen this concept taken too far, especially when it comes to how the church addresses mental illness and abuse. I remember suffering the effects of depression when I was a teenager and feeling like that somehow made me “good.” I would never talk about my feelings because that would mean I wanted attention or that I wasn’t finding joy in my life. Years later, when I started speaking up about the abuse in my home, well-meaning people told me to just “submit” as if being quieter or more obedient was a solution to someone else’s manipulation. Even a cursory look into the #ChurchToo movement shows how much abuse is covered up, minimized, undealt with. This is the kind of environment where purity teaching thrives because shame is a silencer. The shame of feeling “impure” and the shame of suffering go hand in hand. As Klein says, “If purity culture doesn’t work for you it’s because there is something wrong with you.”
“The second stumbling block is its strict gender role expectations.” I grew up on the fringe of the evangelical world in the Patriarchy Movement. This meant that my goals in life (dictated to me) included staying emotionally and physically “pure” until marriage, not getting a college education, not working outside the home, and finding ultimate purpose in becoming a wife and mother. I was supposed to learn to cook, clean, and sew, and I was pretty good at these things, but I never found fulfillment in them. I was made to feel like any outside aspirations were the result of my being tempted by the world. I know not everyone in the evangelical world lived with these extremes, but purity culture has still undercut much of how the church views women’s roles, limiting women in how they see themselves and how they find life meaning.
The third stumbling block is the purity myth: “Jessica Valenti defines this term as the myth that girls’ ‘only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain “pure.”’” But how people understand purity varies greatly, and as Klein explains, the rules are difficult to understand. In my experience in the Patriarchy Movement (which I think is the logical extreme extension of purity teaching), these rules were written down and taught like Scripture: no holding hands or kissing until the wedding day, no feelings of love or affection until engagement. Girls like me raised under this teaching feel like they are somehow tarnished or dirty if the purity rules are broken. But purity is so arbitrary, and the rules vary widely, depending on who you ask. In purity culture, women are expected to be not just abstinent, but non-sexual. Then, at marriage, suddenly the sexual being is supposed to emerge. But sexuality is not that simple. I was so worried as a teenager about staying pure that I in effect turned off my sexuality. It was too terrifying to even think about, and it has taken me years to reclaim that part of myself.
“The fourth stumbling block girls raised in the purity movement must overcome is the wrongful classification of rape and other forms of sexual violence . . . the purity movement classifies sexual violence by systematically silencing and hiding it, and that if and when it is exposed, the purity movement then misclassifies sexual violence as ‘sex’ rather than ‘violence.’” The implicit logic in purity culture is that because women are responsible for protecting the men around them from lustful thoughts, they are often at fault when men sexually assault them, because they were dressed immodestly or weren’t behaving “purely.” This has only led to promoting the stigma around being a rape survivor, shaming and silencing stories of sexual assault, and blaming the victim rather than prioritizing justice and prevention.
Klein’s working through these stumbling blocks is only the first section of this long-needed book about purity culture. I highly recommend Pure, even if you believe the purity movement has good core ideals, even if you weren’t personally hurt by its teaching. The book highlights the stories of a diverse group of people who were impacted in different ways, and it’s important that we listen to these stories, understand the complexity of experience within the evangelical world, and grow our compassion for the people who have suffered.
I have begun a new journey of learning to understand God as unconditional love, as grace. It hasn’t been easy to resist the instinct to hate my own body and to think of myself as independent from the eyes of others. But I do believe becoming aware of how purity culture has made a lasting negative impact on young women and men can help us move toward a more complex understanding of sexuality and away from an environment of shame.