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A few weeks ago my sister texted me and told me to turn on NPR immediately.
Terry Gross was interviewing Linda Kay Klein about her new book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. The book details Klein’s own upbringing as well as the experiences of other women who grew up in evangelicalism and survived purity culture, though often with lasting negative consequences.
After listening to Klein’s interview, my sister immediately sent me a copy of the book, and since then I’ve been digging in to it. The book is intense, a raw and compelling account of the varieties of harm caused by purity culture.
What is purity culture? I figure many of you are familiar with it—how lucky if you aren’t. The message of purity culture, as Klein defines it and as I experienced it, is that sexual purity and abstinence before marriage are imperative in any Christian’s life. In the 1990s and early 2000s, purity culture grew into a powerful part of the evangelical subculture. You may have heard of True Love Waits, purity pledges, or purity rings. As Klein points out, it is an all-encompassing lifestyle: “The purity industry gave many adolescents the impression that sexual abstinence before marriage was the way for them to live out their faith.”
But that’s not all—not only is purity culture obsessed with sexual purity and abstinence before marriage, it also demands adherence to rigid gender norms. Women, in particular, are expected to behave in a specific set of ways and to defer absolutely to the men in their lives. Moreover, in purity culture, women bear the brunt of the burden to remain pure and to also keep the men around them pure as well, whether it be by dressing modestly or abiding by rigid gender norms or avoiding becoming a “stumbling block” to men.
In the book, Klein tells the stories of women who grew up in evangelicalism during the heyday of purity culture. Her research for the project began with her own realization that numerous women she grew up with were all experiencing ongoing issues with shame, fear, and anxiety rooted in their experience coming of age in evangelical purity culture. Through interviews with these women, Klein explores the ways this fear, shame, and anxiety manifest themselves in women’s lives often long after the women have left purity culture, and sometime evangelicalism itself, behind.
I’m a little over halfway through the book and so far have been struck with the myriad ways purity culture has impacted women–its effects have been devastating. Women tell stories of being blamed for their sexual assaults, pushed into dysfunctional marriages, shamed for normal adolescent curiosity, and stigmatized for failing to conform to rigid gender norms.
The impact is clear: the constant message of shame used by purity culture, and targeted mainly at women, has long-term impacts on women’s physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. In fact, the seemingly minor or harmless messages of purity culture can compound over time, even mimicking the effects of major trauma for some women. Klein lays out the firsthand accounts of women dealing with broken relationships—with their partners, their parents, the church, God, and their own bodies.
The book is a powerful project on its own, and as a woman who grew up in evangelical purity culture, I related to many of the stories Klein includes and to carrying the negative effects of purity culture with me even after leaving evangelicalism. Read alongside current events such as the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements and the recent Kavanaugh hearings, Klein’s book is even more devastating.
Filled with example after example of how American society and the church have failed and silenced women—and not just failed women but actively demeaned them and told them that their bodies are not their own and that their voices and stories do not matter. Purity culture, in particular, demands women excise any parts of their personality that don’t match up perfectly with traditional gender norms, erase their own sexuality, and defer to the men around them even in the face of abuse and violence and even if it costs them their humanity and dignity.
And purity culture does all this under the guise of biblical and ecclesiastical authority. At the core of purity culture is patriarchy and the message that, when compared to men, women don’t matter all that much and that their voices, bodies, and behaviors cannot be trusted. Is it any surprise that we’re now seeing evangelicals so easily dismiss allegations of sexual assault against Trump, Kavanaugh, and others and demean those women brave enough to come forward?
To say I’m mad as hell about all this is an understatement. I have a constant simmering rage at the rotten promise of purity culture, the effects of its shaming message on me and countless other women, and the ways it’s made us diminish or second guess ourselves.
So how do we get out of this mess and make a start at repairing the damage caused by purity culture and patriarchy? A good start would be to truly listen to women and to trust women’s stories about the damage purity culture and the patriarchy cause. Additionally, acknowledge the “stumbling blocks” purity culture places before women and the ongoing human cost of such damaging teachings in our churches. Without engaging in these conversations and listening to women, the church perpetuates systems of oppression that have silenced and stigmatized women for centuries. It is high time for those systems to come to an end.