My previous post was intended to be the final installment of this series on the “Christian Purity Movement.” While it addressed some current, interesting interpretations of this ideology practiced by fringe groups, it really did not do what I had hoped- to address the issues raised by purity culture in rather normal, “mainstream” Christian settings.
As I mentioned in my first post of the series, I grew up in a very well-intentioned climate of purity culture. In fact, I would argue that most suburban, Evangelical and mainline churches likely do mean well when they teach youth about sex and sexuality, but the devil is in the details, or in this case, the diction.
What prompted me to want to revisit this topic was an article regarding Elizabeth Smart, the young Mormon woman who was kidnapped at fourteen and rescued almost a year later. Within that year, Smart was raped multiple times and suffered incredible emotional, mental, and verbal abuse at the hands of her captor, Brian David Mitchell.
While it was believed that Smart had several opportunities to escape, what shockingly came to light years later was why she chose to stay, because, in her own words, “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
That value she refers to is the one placed on her virginity and sexual purity. Her understanding of sexuality gained from what she experienced in the LDS church told her that because she was no longer a virgin, her value as a human being had depreciated.
Smart is not alone and neither are the Mormons. Analogies of “chewed gum” and “licked cupcakes,” while horrific, have been around for decades, reaching their peak in the 1990s and remaining in many churches today. DC Talk had a well-known song called “I Don’t Want It,” the lyrics partly read:
S-E-X is test when I’m pressed,
So back up off with less of that zest.
Impress this brother with a life of virtue;
The innocence that’s spent is gonna hurt you.
Safe is the way they say to play,
Then again safe ain’t safe at all today.
So just wait for the mate that’s straight from God.
Don’t have sex ’til you tie the knot.
Again, it is well-intentioned. The most effective method of birth control and STI prevention is to not do “it” in the first place, but the message of the song and others like it go beyond clinical, scientific suggestions. The Christian Purity Movement has an air of condescension woven in between the threads of concern and care, and usually the burden of that condescension rests on women. I find it especially interesting that the boys of DC Talk chose to almost deny any culpability in this sordid tale. The whole song reads like Genesis 1. “She made me do it, that vile, zesty temptress.”
In church cultures that push modest dress (however any specific group defines it), it is usually preached to the women. It is up to the woman to control the man’s urges, to cover and to protect not themselves, but their brothers. Failure to do so often brings with it incredible shame and guilt, and by failure, we could be talking about everything from a heated romp in the backseat of a car to an innocent kiss goodnight to wearing a tankini that shows your navel. Forgiveness can be extended, but it can never fully remove the scarlet letter, however major or minor the infraction.
For many women, this kind of thinking can lead to fear: fear of men, fear of sex, and fear of intimacy in general, fear of their own bodies, fear of clothing, fear of “the world” at large. As DC Talk so beautifully illustrated, in these church cultures, there is often an “us” against “them” mentality.
“Safe is the way they say to play, then again safe ain’t safe at all today.”
When I went to college, it became very apparent to me that the church did not own the concept of “respect.” In fact, the young men I became friends with seemed far more respectful and interested in me for who I was than the fear-mongering, condescending boys of my youth. I could wear shorts around them and they didn’t seem to need to instantly defile me. It was a novel concept. The “us-them” divide became much smaller, and as it shrank, I began to see men as human beings and not sex-crazed overlords with fragile egos.
Purity culture is both fascinating and terrifying all in one sweep. While most cases of run-of-the-mill suburban purity culture might result in timidity around men or perhaps intentional rebellion, in Smart’s case, it almost cost her life, and that is simply not acceptable.