Today’s post is by Libby Jackson. Libby recently graduated from the University of Manchester and is about to continue her studies there towards an MA.
I walked into my undergraduate degree as an 18-year-old, naïve Christian, who thought they would be interested in the philosophical part of theology. I thought I would deeply ponder why there is evil in the world, what free-will really is, and how the Church was formed. I found it quite a shock when I realised there were many theological issues that hit much closer to home.
Much to my surprise, I left my undergraduate degree, still as a Christian, but with a burning interest in the great lack of women in leadership roles in the Church, when there are plenty of women in the Bible. I left wondering why I never hear a sermon about the Daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab, Phoebe, or the Shunammite Woman; I only hear that God is great through the stories of Noah, David, and Elijah. I left wondering why it should be that my body is inherently sexual, why would I form a soul-tie with a sexual partner, but my male counterparts do not? And why is it that my virginity seems more precious than who I am as a person?
From learning about the complete misunderstanding of Eve that we have developed over time, to knowing that Jezebel’s is a classic case of double-standards and sexualisation, I now know my life’s mission is to change the way we view biblical women. My hope is that this will ensure a place in the Church for today’s women. For me, this mission began with researching the ways in which purity culture impacts masculinity and femininity and by starting a blog.
Please feel free to contact me about this post either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through twitter (@libbyjackson29)!
Purity culture’s teachings have been ingrained in my life for as long as I can remember – I just didn’t know it. I thought what I was encountering was ‘just Christianity’, not a damaging evangelical sub-culture.
I’m Libby. I am 21 years old and have just finished my undergraduate degree in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. I commenced my dissertation on the topic of purity culture to explore its impact on my personal life (as I discuss below). Next, I am embarking on my Masters in Religion and Theology at Manchester in September 2021. My aim is to help dismantle the patriarchal culture that gate-keeps attitudes to women and the Bible. It was through researching purity culture that I realised just how important that is!
I grew up going to church every single Sunday (much to my 7-year-old self’s dismay). I still go to the same church today! In fact, my family have attended this church for generations: an evangelical, Pentecostal church in the North-West of England. My church does not use the designation ‘purity culture’ to describe itself; but some of purity culture’s teachings have found themselves into the mouths of our leaders and congregants.
Over the past year and a half (whilst doing my dissertation) I was troubled by the realisation that some purity culture narratives were being taught. So, I am currently working with our pastor to change significantly the way we speak to and about women. From challenging peripheral comments made by teenagers, to developing a statement on womanhood for the church to use as a code of conduct, my aim is to address the pitfalls of purity culture and to create an environment where we exercise Jesus’ love without shame and with copious amounts of forgiveness and love.
Purity culture is a sub-culture within contemporary evangelical Christianity. It is a feature of some Protestant Christian movements that promote sexual abstinence before marriage through the application of scriptural passages, interpretations, and teachings. Tamara Anderson asserts that purity culture first arose in the 1970s in opposition to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Purity culture enjoyed a peak in the 1990s, with its ideas spreading rapidly throughout the United States and beyond, including online and in popular culture.
Purity culture’s advocates argue that that sex is powerful, special, and intimate and that the Bible specifies and regiments when, how, where and by whom it is to be expressed. Once notable among these advocates is Joshua Harris, who has since distanced himself from his influential book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (available here), which has been something of ‘a bible’ for Christian purity culture.
The implementation of such teaching has, however, become somewhat adrift, as I will show.
My Dissertation findings:
My dissertation discusses how purity culture encourages modesty regarding female attire in particular – because immodest dress may cause males to fall into lust, and therefore to sin. This teaching stems from the idea that female bodies are inherently a locus of sexual desire and sin, an idea spread through misinterpretations of texts about such characters as Eve, Mary Magdalene, and Jezebel. This has led to a sense of shame around female bodies and to the responsibility for male sexual sin landing on women and their dress choice. Furthermore, it suggests that men have no self-control and constantly desire sex. Sex, moreover, is framed in heteronormative terms. Homosexual sex, meanwhile, is framed as horrifyingly deviant.
I also discovered that purity culture teaches that men are slaves to sex. It gives simultaneous rise to men repressing their emotions (which might compromise ‘masculinity’, and ‘masculine strength’) and to a constant preoccupation with sex. This sex drive is, on the one hand, expected of masculine men but it also must be channelled into directions deemed ‘acceptable’. Alongside this, purity culture teaches men they are to have headship and be leaders – in the family, in church, and in wider society. Central to this is purity culture’s gender essentialism. This can have negative potential for those men who find leadership a burden. Moreover, repression of emotions and of sexual feelings deemed inappropriate can transpire in mental health issues, as well as in victim-blaming.
Another key teaching of purity culture calls on women to remain virgins until marriage. This is pivotal to signifying female morality, purity, even salvation. It stems from the idealisation of virginity in the Bible, particularly of the Virgin Mary, and verses such as, ‘And he shall take a wife in her virginity’ (Lev. 21:13-15), pertaining to the holiest of men, the priests. The Bible presents a worldview where premarital female virginity is desirable, expected and legislated. This is evident, for instance, in the legal text of Deuteronomy 22:13-21: ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity… then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity…’. Premarital virginity is the mark of a pure and good woman, as exemplified most prominently through Mary. Whilst this may create an affirming environment for those who desire to remain virgins until marriage, or who are uncomfortable with the pressures and troubling consequences of ‘hook-up’ culture, it also creates a double standard that tends to play down emphasis on male premarital virginity (possibly, to excuse the aforementioned inevitability of males’ constant sexual desire), whilst shaming females who are not virgins at the point of marriage (for which there may be many reasons), or who feel sexual desire.
Along with modest dress and the expectation of women remaining virginal prior to marriage, another key teaching of purity culture is the idea that when you have penetrative sex with a man, this breaks your hymen, which, in turn, leads to the formation of a ‘soul-tie’. This soul-tie is understood as an eternal spiritual, emotional, and physical connection between a man and a woman. Purity culture teaches that this soul-tie finds fulfilment in marriage.
Purity culture teaches that virginity until marriage is indicative of moral decency, respectability, purity, and worth. This is conveyed through purity balls, and the ways virginity is constructed and symbolised. The converse notion is that women are no longer (or less) moral, pure, and worthy if they do have sex before marriage, which feeds into some dangerous ideas – especially when considering sexual assault victims.
My Personal Experience:
I was taught that each time I had sex outside of marriage I would be giving a part of myself away. Eventually, I would have so little left of me that I would not be able to give to or to love my future husband as my virginal self would have done.
Meanwhile, my male best friend was also taught he should aim to steer away from sex before marriage. But, if he failed, it was fine. Indeed, it was somewhat inevitable that he failed because he is male, and ‘therefore’, sex driven. This provided a very confusing line for both of us, as well as for other young girls and boys.
I was taught when you have sex with somebody (that is, heterosexual, penetrative sex, of course), you form a soul-tie, meaning you become one flesh with that person. So, if you break up, you rip half of yourself away. This idea concerned me from a very young age, including because the threat of rape was a presence in my life (as it is for most women). Would I form a soul-tie with a rapist? Would it tie me to my rapist ever after? Would all sexual acts I had (willingly or not) hinder my love for a future spouse? I felt trapped in my own body because of the awful repercussions of unwanted sexual attention and, especially, of sexual assault. Would I end up an emptied soul?
I grew up thinking that once I got married, I would be far less prey to sin, because I could exercise my sexuality in a Godly way. The enormous emphasis placed on the sin of premarital sex made me believe it was the foremost, or only sin. If I could turn off my sexuality until I was married, then I would go to heaven. Essentially, I was repressing my sexuality. And the fact I was taught these things in a church in Northern England makes me realise the impact that purity culture has on the church and its people, and that this impact is widespread, worldwide.
Discussing the impacts of purity culture in the UK is crucial to the wellbeing and safety of all – including where rape culture is concerned. As the #metoo movement has highlighted, the frequency of sexual harassment, assault and abuse is immense. From this movement, there emerged also #churchtoo, highlighting that abuses happen in churches too. Both within wider society and the church, victims (disproportionately women though men, too) are silenced. Within the church, purity culture contributes to this silencing, stigma, and damage. The way that purity culture makes God complicit in this process is often especially distressing for victims.
I believe the more people research, write about, and speak back to purity culture, the better survivors can understand the effects and harms it causes and access support and help. In the course of this, the more positive experiences can be highlighted also – because purity culture is complex, and it would be disingenuous to deny this. There is a reason, after all, why I am still in my church today.
Purity culture is not only a US phenomenon but exists (with differences) around the globe. The silence, distortion, and repression it fosters around the topic of human sexuality cause harm and need attention – not least, because silence is fertile ground for abuse.
My own experience is evidence of the negative impact on mental and spiritual health that regulations by the church around sexuality and purity can have. It highlights the necessity for gaining a better understanding of what repercussions particular teachings can and do have on those who receive them: whether that be purity culture teachings, teachings about the superiority of men, or even the prosperity gospel. Going forward, I hope, and I believe, things can get better.