How Evangelical Purity Culture Sacrifices Female Pleasure

I was, perhaps, lucky. I could’ve grown up in Texas or someplace that had abstinence-only sex education. Instead I grew up in a rural university town and received what could be called “abstinence heavy” sex ed. Abstinence was stressed in my public high school’s health class (we even had a pastor come in for a guest lecture on the topic), in Sunday School, in Wednesday night youth group. I received a lot of pro-abstinence talk from Focus on the Family’s radio and magazines, and from the many books our family purchased from the local Christian bookstore. While each of these sources had varying nuances on how and why premarital sex could and should be avoided, one of the central tenets was that men could not be counted on to control themselves. The responsibility to avoid sex would fall squarely on female shoulders. This only worked because, in this belief system, women do not experience sexual desire. Or that if we did, it was to such a low degree that it could be easily conquered by applying a little forethought and will power.

I’m sure that the pastors, teachers, writers, and speakers (nearly 100% male, incidentally) would not phrase it that way, but what they taught is that the sin of lust was a male burden. Teenage boys were unbridled lust machines whose only hope for abstinence were chaste girlfriends. (Nevermind that some of those very boys would turn out to be gay, no hope for them, I suppose.) As a teen I was told that girls were “the brakes” while boys got to be “the gas.” That we should be sympathetic towards our poor male counterparts and make things easier for them by dressing modestly (as if this were a finite threshold and not a constantly moving bar) and by avoiding situations that could lead to male desire running amok, such as slow dancing or being alone together. As a teen girl, grown men would tell me with a chuckle that I simply could not understand “what teenage boys are like.”

Never did these men pause to wonder what it is like to be a teenage girl.

The subtle message is that men cannot be held responsible for their actions, the onus was on women to prevent forbidden sexual contact. From there it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump toward blaming rape victims for their violation at the hands of men.

During my time at a conservative Christian college, my male classmates were extensively lectured about masturbation (the most ludicrous advice a friend received on this topic was that “if you have to do it, try to think of something neutral, like a beautiful sunset.”) Masturbation was never a topic broached with the young women. It was just not something that Christian girls did, nor did we look at pornography or read explicit novels. The assumption was that the female virgin simply did not desire sex. If someone did express sexual desire (a very bold thing to admit to) she was told that it was not sex that she desired, but the “emotional closeness.” Men enjoyed sex. Women enjoyed cuddling afterward.

Because we didn’t have sex, it was assumed that we didn’t really want to. Our teachers never seemed to consider the fact that female sexual desire was simply unexplored, buried under a mountain of shame.

As an Evangelical teenager I thought being labeled a “slut” was a fate worse than death. In abstinence education, people who engage in premarital sex are routinely compared to chewed pieces of gum or a brownie that the entire class has spit upon. The implication was clear: if you lose your virginity before marriage, no one will want you. Marriage and motherhood were presented as the highest calling for any woman. If you were some kind of non-virgin slut, that door would remain forever closed.

Of course, all of that shame and ignorance about sex is supposed to simply melt away as an Evangelical woman says her wedding vows. Instantly sex goes from forbidden to mandatory. (Is there anything more antithetical to desire than obligation?) Popular Evangelical books like “Every Man’s Battle” prescribe that married couples should not go more than 72 hours without copulating, while several male megachurch pastors have “challenged” their married couples to have sex every day for a month, even if neither of them wants to. Shockingly enough, most Evangelical marriage advice seems to center male desires.

Evangelical Purity Culture is an exercise in controlling female sexual desire. Women are discouraged from exploring what they enjoy, instead viewing sex as another chore to be performed for the benefit of their husbands and their God. I sometimes wonder if the Evangelical Church is afraid of female desire. What would it look like for Christian women to put their pleasure first? What would it look like for Christian women to own our bodies, not as objects of male lust, but as sexual actors and creators of our own pleasure?