Growing up in the church has many pros and cons. Some of the benefits include growing up around people of faith, people of good character and people who love Jesus. But there are also some downfalls, including unrealistic expectations, shame and the way purity culture is taught.
Purity culture can be summarized as the way the Evangelical Church teaches young people, specifically young women, about sex and purity.
Many young women who grew up in the church reach adulthood and experience severe feelings of shame and guilt after their first moment of physical intimacy, regardless of whether or not that encounter involved formal intercourse.
In Linda Kay Klein’s book “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” she shares her personal story and the stories of others who have experienced shame and other psychological damage based on the purity culture narrative taught in churches.
“In the Evangelical community, an ‘impure’ girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous,” Klein writes. “Not only to the men we were told we must protect by covering up our bodies but to our entire community.”
In being taught about purity, girls are often taught that their virginity is something to lock up in a box and not give away to anyone except their future husband. They are often taught that sexual desire is dirty and sinful and that it’s abnormal. They are taught to be modest not for their own sake, but for the sake of not allowing their “brothers” to sin by viewing the girls’ bodies as sexual objects. They are taught that their inner worth is reflected solely by their outward appearance.
Some analogies that have been used to discuss sex in evangelical youth groups are that girls are like a piece of gum; once it’s chewed up nobody wants it. This analogy tells girls that once they’ve lost their virginity, they are no longer worth loving. It tells them that once they have sex, they will be used goods and thus seen as undesirable to men. Another popular analogy is of a wedding dress. The dress is placed on stage to symbolize virginity and how before you lose it, the dress is white. But once you have sex, the dress gets stained red. You’re no longer pure.
These are the narratives many girls are being told about sex and their sexuality. They are being told that they are responsible for their purity and the purity of the boys around them.
Cindy Burlingame, M.S., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) speaks about the damaging effect this method of teaching about sex and purity can have on young women.
“I constantly speak with young women who walk around feeling as though they will never be good enough for any man because they have had sex before marriage,” Burlingame says. “The church teaching of ‘no sex before marriage’ leaves no option for those young women to feel as though they can still be loved by God.”
Another facet of purity culture in the church is the “modest is hottest” movement. This is ultimately the idea that girls should dress modestly to attract the “right” attention from men, and not give off the wrong vibe or seem desperate with the way they dress.
This movement gives girls the idea that wearing a spaghetti strap or a skirt above the knee will give men the permission to sexualize their bodies, no matter what their age is. However, the message changes between elementary school and high school. In an article about this movement, blogger April Kelsey shares, based on her personal experience, that in high school, young girls are told that men are “seeking a pure woman all wrapped up like a present under the Christmas tree. [Girls] had to stay wrapped or the surprise would be spoiled, [their] inner worth compromised.” Unfortunately, however, this narrative is not only reflective of Kelsey’s experience but this is a common narrative experienced by girls who may have grown up in church.
This is an unacceptable standard placed on young women and girls regarding their bodies and their sexuality. By these standards, the church is ultimately sexualizing the female body just as the secular world does when that is the opposite of what it should be doing.
Instead, the church should be speaking about sex and purity through a viewpoint of God’s grace and mercy.
“Premarital sex is not the ultimate sin, yet that’s how the church portrays it,” Burlingame said. “Even worse, young women are often taught this by men so of course, they are going to listen to those men that they trust. They need to understand why God says to wait but they also need to understand how to protect themselves if they choose not to wait and what it means to accept the grace of God.”
If young men and women continue being taught this idea of sexual purity under a lens of shame, they will never have a healthy relationship with sex or physical intimacy in general. It is imperative that the church change the narrative and teach the next generation about sex and purity in light of the psychological and spiritual benefits of waiting, not condemnation for being physically intimate. Grace is one of the most important parts of our redemption stories and the church is not doing grace justice by teaching young people a shameful view of sex.