Being "Impure" in Purity Culture
I've been toying for a couple of weeks with how to write about what it was like to be sexually active in high school while growing up steeped in purity culture. I honestly didn't realize until beginning interactions with the exvangelical community just how many people really were staying faithful to those purity vows, and it was surprising to me. I started messing around with boys when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was not without a boyfriend for more than a week or two (frequently they overlapped) until I was probably 19 or 20. While my level of physical involvement with them varied somewhat, there was physical involvement with basically all of them. I hid this, or the extent of it, from most of my friends and from most people in my life. I think I just assumed many others were doing the same. A large part of the reason for this, I think, is that I rarely felt as if I were making choices. I had a persistent feeling that I was playing out a script I couldn't change for much of my high school experience and, while it wasn't exclusive to sex, it was strongest in that area.
I know a lot more now. I know that I spent my childhood and adolescence frequently in what were most likely various levels of dissociative states. I frequently lost memories, or never seemed to form them. I was clearly existing in state of high alert for a number of reasons. But when it came to sex, these things tended to kick into high gear. There were many elements of this - certainly including a history of sexual abuse - but I want to be very explicit that I put blame on purity culture as well.
I have a journal entry from the first time that I put a boy's hand under my shirt. It's a disjointed entry, but it includes this section -
"Cause DANG it feels good! And every nerve in you’re body is going, “Go for it!” I now understand how “nice girls” end up pregnant, with STD’s and emotionally scarred for life. Because it feels so good. And that was something I didn’t fully understand before I experienced it. And the tough thing is that, even though I’m still a virgin, I am no longer close to sexually pure. In fact I’m only a virgin by the looser term of the word. But what can I do?”
There's a lot there, of course. Keep in mind I was 14 years old at this point (that's my excuse for the incorrect "you're"), but most of these viewpoints remained consistent for the foreseeable future. Let me be clear now, because I wasn't then - all that we did that night was make out with some petting. His hand didn't even go under my bra. But I believed that I was now only a virgin in the "looser sense of the word," and for anyone who grew up in the church, you all know what that meant. I felt that things had already happened that couldn't be undone. My question of "what can I do?" is twofold there. I am mourning because I am realizing there is no turning back the clock here - I am irrevocably broken. But it is also a shrug. There's no doubt that that night I knew I would be sneaking out with Kaleb again, that what happened that night would happen again, and then more so, even if I said earlier in the entry that I didn't want to.
I didn't understand how you stopped things. I didn't feel like I could. I had an array of types of abusive boyfriends and not boyfriends (as well as one or two decent ones) in my life through my high school years and I certainly took lessons from the Purity Culture, but they were not what I was expected to learn. I heard that my "body was a temple," that it "didn't belong to me." As a kid struggling with dissociation, my body normally didn't feel like a part of me at all. That didn't seem like a stretch. As a kid experiencing abuse, it seemed clear that my body was easily co-opted by others. I was told I was bought at a price, that I was not my own, that God could not be united with a prostitute. There's a lot there in 1 Corinthians and it is all damaging if you are an abused kid who can't seem to stop anything that is happening.
The point is that I knew all the right words. I knew all the verses, I had read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I even had a True Love Waits ring for a while (it broke after like a year? which at the time I bitterly thought was appropriate and I now laugh about). I went to multiple youth group sessions on sex. What I learned was that I was damaged goods. What I learned was that virginity was really about purity, and I was clearly already destroyed in that department. So when one of my abusive exes kept pushing, I let him take what he wanted, because what difference did it make? The act wasn't important, and I had already thrown away the only thing that was. Of course, people talked about God granting a "second virginity" but 1) no one really took that as seriously, everyone knew you would still have to confess to your husband someday and if he had waited for you... well, you would just be lucky if he could love you. And 2) the whole second virginity thing only worked if you asked for it and then stopped doing sex things. Which I couldn't do.
Some of this fell into place for me when I was 18 years old. I went to visit a friend of mine in Idaho, a guy I'd known online for 4 or 5 years. When I got on the plane, I knew something was going to happen between us. Sure enough, a few nights into the stay we started play wrestling and he kissed me. As we were making out, I was struck by pure terror. He was older than me by a few years and I realized he would almost certainly expect sex. I wasn't sure if I could do it (my experience with my ex had been quite bad). He asked me to go wait in the bedroom and I laid there in the dark, having a very quiet panic attack basically. When he came downstairs and told me that he was somehow out of condoms, I almost cried with relief. We did a few other things, but even that I was so keyed up and panicked by that point that I imagine I wasn't super fun, and he was also young and didn't know me much in person, so I don't believe he knew what was going on.
It wasn't until the next day when I was posting on my group message board that someone asked me a really simple question - why hadn't I said no, was I worried he would be upset or respond badly? I was floored.
Y'all, it had never once crossed my mind that I could.
Parsing this can be confusing. After all, women are supposed to be the gatekeepers in this paradigm. We are protecting men from their baser urges and all of that. Surely that comes with saying no? The thing is that I don't remember anyone ever making that clear to me. And it starts with little things, right? We're supposed to be protecting men with everything from the clothing we wear to the things we say, and then later to how far things go. But I had a strong concept that once I had let things get to a certain point on the scale, there was no going back. I had already failed my duties. The gate was already open. Part of feeling damaged, broken is that it was a shorter distance to get there. I'd already been a temptation and a danger. I'd already gotten them to this place. I couldn't stop now - they couldn't stop now. And that was on me, for letting it go so far in the first place.
Saying no implied an agency I didn't feel. The only reason that I had really been told to say no were things like that my body belonged to the Holy Spirit, but I didn't really think that they wanted it. Or perhaps I should say no because Jesus or my future husband would be disappointed in me, but that ship had already sailed. I was already the gum/flower/whatever gross metaphor you choose. I was not aware of any reason why I might get to say no for me. Even the idea terrified me. But the question stuck with me.
It wouldn't be that trip that things would change. I think my friend figured out enough that he didn't make another move that trip, and I didn't have to say anything. But when my friend Allison started bringing up ideas of feminism and a woman's right to say no several years down the road (like 6 years, for real), that thought was still there. When I was handed a framework, an explanation, it was the first step on a very long yellow brick road away from evangelicalism. The idea of bodily autonomy, the idea that I had always had a right to say no, a right to feel safe in my own skin was a radical, life-changing notion - one that I still struggle with on my worse days but one that has allowed me to move towards peace, freedom, and wholeness in my life.
I believe with all my heart that purity culture strips children (and adults) of those critical concepts. I have talked to many people who avoided sex and had struggles as an adult trying to adapt to something they were ill-equipped to even talk about, much less engage in. But I wanted to tell this (fairly long) story because for me, purity culture was a tool in my abuse. It helped groom me, it kept me docile, it kept me quiet. It ensured that I wouldn't tell anyone anything and, more importantly, that I wouldn't have the words to explain even if I tried.
My story is not unique. To many of us suffered from this at one level or another. To all of y'all out there at any point in the recovery process from this very cruel ideology, I want to repeat what I hope you've already been told. You have value, you have worth. Inherent and apart from anything you have ever done or has been done to you. You have the right to say no. Always. Regardless of circumstance, regardless of how “far” things may have gone. Most importantly, your body belongs to you and no one else. Never trust anyone who tries to tell you differently.
You’re not alone. If you want to talk, I’m just a DM away. It’s a long road, the least we can do is walk it together.