Purity culture harmed thousands of evangelical teens; what did the Church get wrong about sex?

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For evangelical Christian teens growing up in the 1990s-2000s, purity culture was ubiquitous. From purity rings to True Love Waits pledges, millions of adolescents across the country formally vowed to abstain from sex and save themselves for marriage.

But for some, the movement carried with it long-term, damaging implications.

Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement paired with reports of sex abuse within the Church, individuals whose lives were shaped by purity culture began to push back. They shared stories of how some of the more problematic aspects of the movement, though well-intentioned, caused them to have an unhealthy relationship with religion, relationships, and sex.

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Cait West, an English tutor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, grew up in a home that practiced Christian patriarchy, a movement in which women live within strictly enforced ideas of wifely submission and male headship. The movement places an emphasis on sexual abstinence before marriage and promotes a strict approach to romance: no casual dating, only serious courtship aimed at marriage, with parental involvement throughout the process.

West recalled how, growing up, she was shamed for normal adolescent curiosity, ordered to avoid one-on-one interactions with someone of the opposite sex, and was taught that any kind of sexual thought bore the same weight as fornication.

“Dating was never an option,” she told The Christian Post. “I was never taught about sex or sexuality at all. I remember asking my parents, testing the waters, ‘What’s this about?’ And they brushed it aside. I was never allowed to explore or ask questions, so I never thought of myself as a sexual being because of that.”

“The underlying teaching is that women as sexual beings are bad,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be sexual at all. So for women, any kind of sexual thoughts are tied to shame.”

The biggest visible example of purity teaching was the emphasis on modesty. She recalled how, before purchasing an item of clothing, her father would first appraise her body, gauging the modesty of her outfit.

“My father would come to the store with me and judge everything I had on,” she said. “That overt male gaze judging my clothing throughout my adolescence and into my 20’s really shaped how I thought of myself because I never thought who I was from my perspective.”

As she got older, West said the feelings of shame, anxiety, and fear stemming from her experience in evangelical purity culture only grew. It wasn’t until she left the movement at 25 that she realized the magnitude of the emotional, physical, and spiritual trauma she’d endured.

“I felt very disconnected from my own body because I was never taught about the sexual part of me,” she said. “I didn’t want to think about my own body or explore my own sexuality because it was a dirty part of me I wasn’t allowed to explore. It made me feel weird about living in my own body, and I didn’t realize just how much I hated my own body until I left the movement.”

Now married, West said she still struggles to connect with her own body and sexuality.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble with disassociation in sexually intimate moments because it’s too much for me to be present in my own body because it feels bad," she admitted. "For years, you’re told something is bad — and then suddenly you get married and you’re supposed to be OK with it. It was like I was trained not to have that part of me turned on or be aware of things.”

“I’ve been working through that process of figuring out what those toxic messages were and re-train myself to have agency,” she added.

Jeremy and Audrey Roloff, former stars of the hit TLC show “Little People, Big World," famously practiced abstinence until their wedding day in 2014. The couple told CP that their decision to abstain from sex until marriage happened in spite of their immersion in purity culture — not because of it.

“Christian culture kind of missed the boat a little bit; they were trying to pull up the weeds instead of grabbing them by the root,” Jeremy said. “So all of these boundaries were set up and teens were told not to do XY, but there was no clear reason as to why.”

Audrey pointed out that oftentimes, girls who were given purity rings were told that was the “end of the conversation.” Often, it was suggested that those who lost their virginity were beyond redemption.

“In the church I grew up in, nothing was talked about. It was just, ‘don’t have sex,’ there was no discussion outside what was assumed to be the norm,” she said. “You’re told sex is bad until married, but you’re not told how good sex can be within marriage.”

"I wish that had been communicated to me as a teen," she added wistfully, "so I actually understood why I was supposed to refrain.”

"This is no small thing"

According to Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free, such testimonies are not uncommon.

After struggling with years of sexual and gender-based shame, fear, and anxiety stemming from her own experience with purity culture, Klein decided it was time to change the conversation.

Over a decade ago, she began compiling dozens of testimonies from childhood friends involved in the purity movement. What she found was astonishing: All the women she talked to experienced similar feelings of fear, shame and anxiety in relation to sex.

“My interviewees made different life choices, yet among their stories, I heard many of the same themes,” she shared. “I heard about sexual and gender-based shame, fear, anxiety, and experiences stemming from their shame that mimicked Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, such as nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia. Several of my interviewees told me their shame was also creating deep problems in their marriages, particularly in their marriage beds.”

She pointed out that purity teachings often place the onus disproportionately on adolescent girls and women: “As women, it was said it was also our job to ensure that we didn’t ‘inspire’ sexual thoughts or feelings in men by the way that they walked, talked or dressed,” she said. “In other words, girls grew up with the message that not only did we need to be pure, but it was our responsibility to ensure that the whole community was pure. That’s a lot of pressure for a young girl!”

But the most damaging aspect of the purity movement, she said, is its reliance on shaming. Shame, she explained, is the feeling “I am something bad,” as opposed to guilt, which is the feeling “I did something bad."

Klein argued that shame is so deeply interwoven throughout purity teachings they become a significant part of a person’s identity. That, she said, “is no small thing.”

“Shame isn’t bashfulness,” she said. “It is a feeling of our being unworthy, or being seen as unworthy in other people’s eyes, that causes us to disconnect from ourselves, from others, and—from what I’ve seen in my interviews—from God at times. It can lead to emotional isolation which can develop into dangerous levels of hopelessness, desperation, subsequent self-harm, and much more.”

Proponents of the purity movement

Although not a new phenomenon, the purity culture movement took off in the late 1980s and 1990s as a reaction to the AIDS crisis and the sexual revolution of the 1960s-'80s. On a deeper level, however, it stemmed from a widespread concern within the evangelical community that the traditional family was in crisis.

The movement was popularized in part through the work of James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family who was once described as the “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader” by The New York Times.

“When my dad did the first Focus on the Family series in 1979, he was 43 years old. That's young,” Dobson’s son, Ryan, told The Christian Post. “He had to be the expert, and the truth is, he was.”

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