Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only campaigns, Christian dating literature and Bible devotionals have implications not only on how a young girl is to interpret her role in her evangelical community but also significantly impacts her understanding of her own sexuality.

Power and control are the foundational elements of an abusive relationship. Purity culture uses these concepts, as well as fear, to (directly or indirectly) maintain male power over women. In terms of sexuality, the combination of these elements results in young girls and women being silenced and shamed for natural sexual desires.

photo: Tamara Bellis

Consent, or lack thereof.

Women have very little, if any, bodily autonomy within purity culture. As Dr. James Dobson was building his case against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, Roe v. Wade argued for a woman’s right to privacy. Against this background, the sexual purity movement argued a woman’s body was not for herself but something to be given to others.

Fathers are tasked with the protection (or control) of their daughter’s sexual purity assuming that a virgin is one of the greatest gifts a husband can receive. (In Christian literature, the word virgin is most often associated with females.) Some even believe the father takes the place of a romantic partner, in a way, while his daughter waits for a spouse. The father protects his daughter’s gift and guards her heart (or hymen) with rituals, vows, rings, and exclusive modesty. The language of “gift,” used in many books like Ludy and Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, denotes possession and ownership.

Especially in the context of courtship, the assumed heterosexual marriage relies on parental consent, although mothers are notably secondary or not present in similar literature. Marriage involves a transference of “protection” from father to husband. In this role, a wife is taught to be submissive to her husband’s authority and sexual urges, even by sacrificing her own sexual pleasure. Within marriage, consent is rarely defined or discussed, leaving lots of room for personal interpretation. Separation or independence from either her father or husband is viewed negatively and assumes her purity is at risk without male protection, meaning single or LGBTQ+ women do not fit in the prescribed box.

“A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road.”

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

The female body is treated like property of the system and property does not require consent. And while she may say “yes” or “no” to his marriage proposal and perhaps “I do” at the altar, the decision has already been made due to the power that rests in the hands of her father and potential husband, and perhaps even her pastor.

Fear of the female body and her libido.

Language of “purity” in this evangelical subculture attempts to expand upon the definition of virginity by including not only physical but also emotional purity. Myths encompass the female libido and body.

“Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me.”

Amanda Barbee (Read her article, Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture here.)

Purity culture teaches it is unnatural for women to be sexually assertive or competent. Men are assumed to have “animalistic” libidos, while women are “passive” and prefer emotional intimacy. For females, their thoughts must be carefully shielded against emotional closeness and sexual desires, though these sexual desires are assumed to be a lesser struggle for them than for men. Constantly, young girls are told to “guard” their bodies, minds, and hearts from the sexual desires of themselves and others.

  • In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” author Stepp believes only men should initiate sex. She suggests women find fulfillment in other areas, such as the kitchen or hospitality.
  • In Shalit’s book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” she argues women are naturally modest and pure, only to be corrupted by the world around them which tempts them to be sexual. Shalit does not believe female sexuality is healthy apart from marriage.
  • In Leslie Ludy’s blog and books, she suggests emotional intimacy is only for a husband. Impure thoughts must be confessed.

From very early ages their bodies are sexualized, objectified, and perceived as dangerous to the male gaze and assumed to threaten his ability to lead or fight. A woman’s reproductive functions have been interpreted as unclean and connected to the myth of “hysteria” or stereotypes of being “overly emotional.” Tertullian, an early Christian author, believed womanhood was essentially tied to destruction and sin, based on Eve’s actions. This idea has been carried into our world today, likely through benevolent sexism. If this is true, as the weaker spouse, women require male protection since they are more predisposed to sin. (This is theologically inaccurate.) If a woman steps outside of this protection, either by dressing “immodestly,” having sex outside the prescribed context, remaining single, or identifying as LGBTQ+, she is then assumed to be a threat to the group.

photo: Suad Kamardeen

Those who are single or LGBTQ+ are not the only ones cast aside in purity culture. Girls and women of color may have more challenges within purity culture than those who are considered white. Media surrounding sexual purity may appear as diverse but a second glance will prove “purity” is directly connected to youthful, slender, cisgender, white virgins. This narrow defintion is elevated above all others, which implies those outside this definition are predisposed to impurity. This contributes to the racist idea that whiteness is the default or “normal” standard in our society.

“To justify breeding, the institutionalized sanctioning of ongoing rape of enslaved black females to produce future laborers, white supremacist patriarchs had to position the black female in the cultural imagination as always “sexually suspect.” To make the black female body machine, vessel, was an act of dismemberment — a mutilation that ensured this group would always be seen as less than, as not really and truly worthy of desire…[White and black men] could dare to fantasize and/or enact sexual acts deemed degrading with black female bodies since it was impossible to ruin that which was perceived as inherently unworthy, tainted and soiled.”

bell hooks (Read her essay, Naked Without Shame: A Counter-Hegemonic Body Politic here.)

These assumptions were not extinguished with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement and have continued to be passed down in a variety of ways. I highly recommend bell hooks’ entire essay, as well as the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

Shame and silenced survivors.

Unless controlled by a father or husband, girls and women are taught to believe their sexualities are dangerous and their bodies cannot be trusted. Without bodily autonomy or an equal share of power — females are denied sexual pleasure.

“Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Purity literature in evangelical circles rarely contrasts premarital sex and sexual violence. When combined with the common elements of rape culture, purity culture views sexual assault and rape as simply sex, and specifically sin if outside marriage. Victims/survivors become perceived of as sinners who have not lost their voice but their purity. These messages can be implicit, but others are direct. Dimarco, in “Technical Virgin,” argues women are always responsible for men’s lust and the resulting thoughts and actions.

“By accepting “boys will be boys” and excusing the behavior of perpetrators we alter the accepted definition of sexual violence to the detriment of those suffering. When this definition changes, sexual violence in its objective form cannot be reported, because it has been normalized by the community.”

Heather Hlavka (Read her article Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse here.)

If sexual violence is recognized for what it is, there is no structure to report abuse or to recover from various types of trauma. The abusive cycle of power, control, and fear can begin again as rape myths and victim blaming may overwhelm any chance of being heard and helped appropriately. Purity culture is abusive to female participants but especially to victims/survivors of sexual violence and single, LGBTQ+, and “minority” girls and women. Men also suffer, although in different ways. Sadly, anyone outside the patriarchal, heteronormative definition of “purity” is likely to feel the weight of myths, victim blaming, and other forms of hostility.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together;” 1 Corinthians 12:26

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