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Purity Culture Part 1: Understanding the Context

Whether you attended Purity Pledge Balls, a church youth group, or public school, it is likely that you were exposed to messages of Purity Culture. From sex-ed that taught abstinence-only-until-marriage to ideas around what constitutes “appropriate” clothing, the ideas of the Evangelical Purity Movement gained serious momentum in the 1990’s and continue to influence policies and practices today. While some environments continue to preach these messages with full conviction, there is a growing group of individuals in and outside of the church who critique and challenge the intent and impact of such beliefs.

Many people who were taught sex was “worth the wait” have found themselves in painful, unfulfilling relationships with a lack of information about what might bring them pleasure. Individuals who sought not to “make others stumble” have found themselves insecure in their own skin, feeling responsible for others' bad behavior, and afraid of advocating for basic human needs they’d been taught were selfish. Both sexes were taught to mistrust the other with ideas that “they only want one thing” and fears of a “slippery slope” where individuals would lose all self-control and dive head first into sex, drugs, alcohol, and a wealth of other “sins”. Additionally, individuals with a range of identities outside of the cis-white, heterosexual narrative have found themselves ignorant of safe ways to express their sexuality, feelings of being “othered,” and unaware of how to practice purity even if they wanted to. Lastly, all of these ideas were often attached to a powerful God who would decide the fate of one’s eternal soul based on their ability to follow the rules. The result of these Purity Culture messages have left thousands of individuals ignorant of their bodies, its source of pleasure, and ashamed and afraid to engage in the process of discovery.

While Purity Culture sought to instill specific moral behaviors that would reduce the amount of premarital sex, unplanned pregnancies, and STIs that seemed to surge after the sexual revolution and AIDs epidemic, it has not been successful in those goals. Research shows that unplanned pregnancies and STIs continue to be higher in states where abstinence-only education is taught as compared to states providing comprehensive sex-ed (Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W., 2011). It appears then, that rather than creating a sense of fear great enough to change behaviors, Purity Culture instead simply created fear. Fear of one’s body, fear of others, fear of sex, fear of relationships. It instilled fear of people’s intentions, fear of curiosity, fear of pleasure, fear of God, and fear of being punished for any step outside of the abstract, yet incredibly narrow lines.

If you resonate with any of the ideas listed above, it’s our hope that you know you are not broken and you are not alone. Combined with ideas often taught throughout childhood and puberty, Purity Culture results in a complex overlap of individuals' sense of faith, identity, morality, and sexuality. This post is the beginning of a series exploring aspects of Purity Culture as well as a variety of resources available to help you in understanding and unpacking the impact of your experiences. Next up in the series, we’ll explore some of the reasons professional help may be needed as well as ways to access it.

If you feel you’re already in a place to pursue professional support in exploring the impact of Purity Culture on your identity, relationships, sexuality, spiritually, or general worldview, we’d love to speak with you. Robyn Buresh is a therapist who specializes in helping couples unpack the impact of Purity Culture on their sex lives and other topics related to sexual health while Lauryn Estrada works with individuals, couples, and runs a 9-week group for women to process and explore these messages in a safe communal space. We look forward to connecting with you on your journey to healing and discovery.

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