Impure: A Reading List on Purity Culture

For my final masters project, I wrote on the implications of evangelical purity culture. And let me tell you, what a wild ride. Normalized sexual violence, gender roles, politics, #ChurchToo, liturgy — there is a little bit of everything packed into this paper.

This paper has gained quite a bit of interest since mentioning it on my Instagram last month. My hope is to break down my research into digestible, accessible pieces for others to benefit from. (What use is all this if I hoard it all in my brain?)

Purity culture, or the evangelical sexual purity movement of the 1980s-2010s, establishes sexual “purity” as the ultimate standard for those waiting to be married. (Marriage is assumed.) In this subculture, to be sexually “impure” would be disastrous in all other areas of life and would doom any relationship with a future spouse. In both political and pastoral spaces, methods of control and fear seek to maintain patriarchal power over the hearts and bodies of young people, though primarily girls and women.

Stories and testimonies reveal the abusive nature of “purity” teachings and practices. Girls and women are often dehumanized and denied vibrant sexualities of their own. If feelings of discomfort or reports of sexual violence are made known, they can be frequently silenced and ignored. Sadly, there are real convictions buried in these teachings – blinded by ignorance and the fight for power. There seems to be no intention to inflict harm on to others. Rather many of those who participate are held to a conviction which values hierarchy between men and women, emphasizing a woman’s submission to men’s needs. “Purity” is interpreted as protection. More on this later.

Before I jump into the research itself, I wanted to share some materials on the impact of the evangelical sexual purity movement or abstinence-only education.

This reading list is fairly brief and does not include academic articles. Even so, these examples are moving and incredibly revealing. Please note, many portions of these texts discuss sexual trauma, which can be triggering or overwhelming for some.

Books or Essays

Blogs

I would also encourage you to read through the #ChurchToo on Twitter or sign the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Statement.

If there are other articles, books, podcasts, etc. that have been helpful to you, I would love to read them and include them here. If your experience in purity culture has been positive, I would also love to understand more about your story.

The Importance of the Body

Good Friday, the day we remember the unjust, horrific crucifixion of Jesus Christ, takes place this year in the midst of sexual assault awareness month.

During Lent, I’ve studied the stories of survivors of sexual violence and lamented on the evangelical church’s indifference. Like many of you, I’ve watched sacred buildings burn, from the steeple of Notre Dame, to the local churches in Louisiana. Lent this year holds a fair amount of grief, at least for me.

The incarnation is important. It’s not only the basis of the Christian faith, but it also confirms the significance of our material bodies, made in the image of God. These bodies, with all the aches and pains they often collect, are essential to our personhood. They are fallen, yes, disordered and sometimes misshapen but we still bear God’ image. This is why sexual violence may be one of the most horrific and invasive acts someone can experience, physically and spiritually.

And yet, survivors of sexual violence cannot always find refuge in the church. Many times, as #ChurchToo has shown, the church is the source of violence. We have hired and elected leaders who brag about sexual conquests or blamed victims for their own misfortune, despite the endless teaching on God’s grace or sexual purity. We’ve preached a gospel that disregards consent and women’s bodies. Our indifference has allowed abusive individuals and institutions to thrive, leaving victims without justice or healing.

Whatever your convictions are about the body, gender, or sexuality in the church, I believe the execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to how we ought to think of our human bodies — all complexities included.

“God’s momentous “yes” to the body, in the incarnation, both judges and destroys the corrupt ways we have thought, produced, constructed, and even broken bodies in our culture. As inheritors of a long tradition on the resurrection of the body, we have promising resources to point us to theological faithfulness in the face of cultural and ecclesial ambivalence about the body,” — Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds

The incarnation gives us hope. It reminds us we are understood and known, even in our deepest pain and grief. Healing, restoration, justice, true shalom are made possible through this event.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” — Isaiah 53:3-5

The resurrection replaces shame with dignity, hierarchy with equality, and power with humility. But it seems many churches haven’t truly captured this aspect of the empty tomb. When will the church be a refuge for bodies who are abused, shamed, and oppressed? What would a redeemed theology of the body look like in your context? How would that influence the way you cared for your soul and those around you?

Admittedly brief but I just wanted to share these thoughts in hope they spark something in you, too. What does the Incarnation mean to you?