Today’s post is by Elle Thwaites, a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds researching purity culture.
Purity culture and its problems
I’m currently in the first year of my PhD researching purity culture. My working hypothesis is that purity culture has made its way to the UK, and I hope to explore this further through conducting qualitative research later this year. Over here, purity culture seems to appear in a much more muted and insidious form compared to its US counterpart. So for many years it has gone unnoticed. Recently, however, this has started to change.
See, for example, Hannah Baylor’s recent Shiloh Project blog post on purity culture, where she begins to introduce the ways in which purity culture in the UK differs to the US movement, which reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s. If we are to untangle the influence and impact of purity culture, we need a wider acknowledgement and understanding of its interaction with (especially evangelical) Christianity in the UK.
For example, some of my peers encountered the flower metaphor in their church youth groups – a flower being passed around the group, crumpled up, and used as a symbol for (female) virginity. I know of people who continue to recommend it, even after the author’s public apology and statement. Friends have recounted to me how they were told to cover up their shoulders in church, when it was simply a hot day – the implication being their bodies are primarily sexual and problematic for others around them. And more recently, I’ve noticed the new ‘modest is hottest’ trend taking hold in some UK circles, rehashing the classic purity culture tactic of body shaming women.
These practices indicate a Christian subculture which goes beyond abstinence. It places the responsibility on women for gatekeeping male sexual behaviour, views female bodies as inherently sexual (and as existing primarily for male pleasure), emphasises virginity as the foremost aspect of a woman’s worth, and gets so pre-occupied with delaying sex until marriage that sex is framed as an inherent danger and something negative, rather than something good – often with fateful consequences, even for those who did everything right according to the rules of purity culture.
The need for research and understanding
In the age of #MeToo, we have turned our attention afresh to the long-standing mistreatment of women in its unfortunate variety. Many individuals have begun the hard work of considering the ways in which they themselves, or the organisations, institutions or social structures they are a part of, are complicit in systems of coercion, inequality and subjugation.
In Christian circles, something of a reckoning has begun. Well-known US Christian figure Beth Moore recently made waves by leaving the Southern Baptist Church, having previously been vocal in her criticism of sexism and outspoken in her advocacy of sexual abuse survivors. The likes of Beth Moore, and recent sexual abuse scandals such as those of Ravi Zacharias, and Jonathan Fletcher here in the UK, force Christian communities to examine the cases of sexual abuse and harassment that lie behind #ChurchToo. Such communities need to evaluate what’s being taught about women, female bodies, gender, sexual relationships, and power dynamics (especially within marriage). Purity culture has something to say about all of these things, so it has come into focus as something that needs to be addressed.
This is reflected in a growing public interest in purity culture. I was recently interviewed for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 as part of a discussion on this topic. I was pleased that purity culture was being given a public platform for discussion, but it disappointed me to see that the media interest didn’t correlate to understanding.
The online summary of this ‘purity conversation’ says that ‘“purity culture” is used in conservative households attempting to promote a view of purity’. This understanding also comes across in the feature itself. Yet purity culture is part of Christian subculture. It relates closely to theologies of gender (such as those of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), evangelical use(s) of the Bible, and the social-political context of its origins in 1980s-90s USA. That it was framed as a household phenomenon based on parental teaching was therefore very interesting; especially as I hadn’t said or even implied this was the case. References I made to evangelical Christianity were also cut out in the editing process, which felt like an attempt to remove the religious elements of this discussion and downplay the broader socio-cultural aspects of purity culture.
Within the context of this increasing public interest, it’s important that purity culture is discussed with clarity and nuance – rather than employing ineffective caricatures or simply prioritising the ‘spicy’ topics.
Through my PhD, I hope to explore how ideas from purity culture have merged with, and are evident within, teachings on bodies, sexuality, gender, and human nature in UK Christianity. I see my research as part of a budding new area of discussion and research – I hope that you will join in the conversation.