Purity Culture Screwed Me

First, I want to acknowledge a few things. 1. I am going to tackle Purity Culture (I’m fooling no one with the title) and the ways I feel it damaged me, but I recognize that I’ve been lucky: My boundaries and physical self have always been respected. As a heterosexual cisgender woman, purity culture didn’t cause the depth of harm in my life that I know it did in the lives of many friends who identify differently. 2. I use gendered language and a heteronormative understanding of romantic relationship in this post, because this is my story. If there is a way for me to tell this story in a more inclusive, helpful way, please reach out. I am still learning. 3. This blog post addresses Purity Culture, not the leader of the girl’s Bible study that I attended. She is one of the kindest, most genuine people that I have ever met, and I still strive to love others and love God in the ways that she does. I also am not attacking my home church; they continue to support me in all that I do, they are some of my biggest fans, and I wouldn’t be here without them. But as with any family, there’s no such thing as perfection.

Welcome to a strange (but true) part of my story.

I’ve been having several conversations lately about Purity Culture. It feels like it’s something many girls my age, from similar backgrounds — Conservative, Southern, Traditionalist — are struggling with. It makes us feel vulnerable. It scares us. We still don’t know how to navigate these waters, but knowing you’re not alone helps.

Bear with me — this isn’t easy. I want to try to articulate how I feel like purity culture “screwed me”. I want to try to work through how it cheapened my relationship with God. I want to express that it doesn’t have to be a defining chapter of my (or your) story.

When I was in 8th grade, I went through a “True Love Waits” program at my home church. We celebrated coming to the end of the program on Valentines Day weekend. During Sunday morning service about 20 of us stood at the front of the church, all in pink shirts, next to our parents. As our youth director and pastor stood in between us and the congregation, they asked us, one by one, something along the lines of, “Do you commit to serve and stay in love with God for the rest of your days, including saving sex for the sanctity of marriage?

All of us, with thick inked lines on our “How far is too far” sexual-activity charts, said a strong “YES!” Then we took rings from our fathers and placed them on our ring fingers. We were ready to begin waiting for our Prosperity-Gospel Prince Charming Soulmates.(In case you’re wondering: there was no course for the 8th grade boys, no chance for them to stand in front of the church to declare themselves celibate until their wedding night.)

Throughout high school there was pressure to always have your ring on. If you didn’t, people talked. “She must have lost her…” “Hope she doesn’t wear white on her wedding day — that wouldn’t be fair to those of us preparing to live out our Proverbs 31 lives.”

In 11th grade, I got my first “real” boyfriend. I had never kissed a boy before, and one day we were talking about it. I had concerns about being embarrassed — what if I wasn’t good at it? He had concerns too; he said he “didn’t want to take away one of your rose petals.”

What.

He explained that in his church, they taught that girls were roses, and each girl has a limited number of rose petals. With each “first” physical encounter — your first hand-holding, your first kiss, your first… whatever — they lose a rose petal. If they have sex before they get married, that automatically gives away all the petals. The girl is no longer a rose.

Part of me thought this was just silly. But part of me thought it made a lot of sense. Part of me learned that day that my value and worth were directly tied to expressing (or not) my sexuality — one of many lessons I would eventually learn from purity culture.

Purity culture taught me that my sexuality is not my own. It taught me that it is more important to keep my sexuality disengaged than it is to learn how to be a disciple. Engaging my sexuality would permanently disqualify me from being a disciple worthy of following Christ.

Purity culture taught me that, as a woman, it was my job and responsibility to slow the man down. Anything beyond my “too far” line was my fault, because I should have had better boundaries and clearer communication. We were taught as eighth graders that men are sexual “microwaves.” As a female “crockpot,” it’s my duty to help change their sense of time — We were in charge of taking it slow.

Purity culture made my virginity a prize higher than any other — maybe even higher than my heart or soul, when it came to ranking what in my life really matters to Christ. I was taught that my virginity is the most important part of who I am. It’s something I have total control over, and that it’s not mine to give away. It’s a “gift” that can only be shared once, and it was created only to be shared with my future husband. Anything outside of marriage was irredeemable — like a coupon, you spend it once and you can never get it back. Since my sexuality does not belong to me, I cannot really engage with it — only suppress it.

Purity culture taught me that if I stay “clean” and “pure” enough, God will bless me with a perfect, flawless husband.

Purity culture taught me nothing about why I am a beloved child of God. It taught me nothing about grace, about loving spiritual siblings who experience God in their lives outside of the framework that was given to me.

Purity culture taught me I had no right to love myself and call myself “Beloved.” It taught me my worth was bound up with the “rose petals” that are still attached or were given (or taken) away.

Purity culture taught me that marriage is not holistic. It taught me to feel like a piece of property awaiting a new owner to care for me.

Purity culture taught me that staying out of “trouble” sexually as a teenager was the key to a successful adulthood.

Three years ago I read a book by Dianna Anderson titled Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity. I can’t express how helpful this book was for me as I tried to navigate dating as an adult. It talked about those pesky Bible verses about women’s virginity and how it wasn’t about the women at all, but how they were not at full-trade value if they were no longer virgins. They were “damaged goods.” Their fathers would not be able to “sell” them to a good family. Having sex with a virgin who wasn’t your wife — that was theft of property. Anderson also discussed the rise of purity culture and how it was really about lowering the pregnancy rate and not about strengthening the relationship between women and God. Her writing started the shift in my thought process.

There’s still a lot of baggage that I’m having to sift through, if we’re being honest. I’ve come to find comfort in having a more “progressive” theological understanding. God has become a being who is so much bigger and more present than I remember knowing as a kid. God no longer is limited by the pronoun “Him.” God is redemptive, not punitive. Creative, not judgy. Loving, not distant. Patient, not quick to be disappointed.

As I have grown in my faith, I have come to learn that God wants their children to know that they are Beloved, and truly nothing — no, nothing — can come in between them and that love (Romans 8:38–39).

To say that God was absent throughout my teen years would be completely absurd. God was there. I believe God met me where I was and continues to meet me where I am. I have learned the importance of community, accountability and boundaries. Could I have learned these things in a way that was bit more helpful long-term? Maybe, but here we are.

I have come to learn that “self-worth” is not tied to who I am or who I am not within a romantic relationship. I have found that one of the most uncomfortable, most difficult parts of dating is having the conversation in which I come clean (pun intended) about the baggage that purity culture gave me and that I still carry. No, guys in their late 20s are not pumped when they learn this about me. Yes, relationships have ended after these conversations.

It’s hard to balance the old but foundational residue that says my self-worth is tied into who I am within a relationship with another person, and the more I practice patience, the more I should feel secure in my self-worth. Yet in adulthood, I have found that it’s hard to think that the waiting for “all of me” is actually “not enough” or the parts of me that are engaged in relationship (my stunning wit, my impressive intelligence, my love for superhero movies, or my hilarious jokes) aren’t actually worth sticking around for.

Fluidity is something that we demand in so many places, but it shouldn’t be applied to worth. Even with all of life’s contexts, nicks, and scratches, who we are at a substantial level doesn’t change — nothing can take away from that. We were created by the Creator out of a love so deep and intense it is incomprehensible. Because I was taught that my worth and value could get a “clearance” sticker or be defined by the loss of a purity ring, I still struggle with this. I still have to remind myself that I am always worthy, loved and covered in grace.

I still carry my purity ring with me every day. I keep it on my keyring — an ordinary place, among ordinary things.

A friend once asked why I carry it with me. In some ways, I think it’s funny that it’s with my keys — things that unlock locked doors, with my loyalty cards that give me access to coupons and show where I frequently shop. But that’s all afterthought.

Honestly it’s there because one time in college a guy I thought was quite attractive started to walk over to talk to me (or so I choose to believe), but I saw him glace at my left ring finger, which was adorned with a silver band, before furrowing his brow and changing direction. I realized that maybe respectable guys wouldn’t hit on a girl wearing what could be mistaken for a wedding band, so I decided that I wanted to have it somewhere as a reminder of my commitment but I didn’t want to wear it.

I’ve never taken it off of my keyring, and it’s still what I play with when I’m waiting or when I need to fidget with something. It reminds me of the person I once was. I remember how much it meant to me to have something that I could control within my faithfulness to God — a privilege that most people do not have. I was sold on the idea of it actually being an empowering way for girls to own their faith and relationships. There are moments when I wish I could have that certainty back.

I didn’t decide to write this blog because I have the answers, but quite the opposite. I don’t have the answers, but I have come to believe that that is ok.

Maybe your journey has been paved with similar stones and you wonder what that means for who you’re coming to understand yourself to be. I hope that in some way this blog gives you hope that you’re not alone on the journey.

You’re not the only one that purity culture “screwed up” — you are not “screwed up”.
Yes, relationships may be more difficult and move more slowly, but not because you’re a “crockpot.”

I hope that one day, the person who decides that this messy and strange baggage that I carry along with me will see it as a journey worth walking together. Maybe I’ll walk the baggage to an edge of a cliff, and then we’ll throw it off the edge… Who knows.

Until then, well, I’ll keep sorting through the mess as it shows up.
And buying all of the chocolate on February 15th.
But that’s a different blog post.

Journey well, y’all.

Originally posted on: 2.10.2018 at AdventuringAshleyBlog.Wordpress.com
Resource Updated: 10.14.2018

I’ve had many forms of the question, “So how do I talk to my kids about this?” or, “I want to get to where you are. How?”- I want to try to keep a list of resources to keep this conversation going.

Keeping in mind that I am all full-time graduate student, I haven’t had a chance to do a full resource scan. I personally have not read the books or curriculum below, but they come highly recommended by people who I trust and adore. This isn’t ideal, but I also know that it’ll be months (years??) before I get a chance to read for fun again.

Please feel free to share resources you have found helpful in the comments.

Reading Resources:

https://smile.amazon.com/Sex-Faith-Talking-Child-Adolescence-ebook/dp/B00ET7PPO6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1518619697&sr=8-1&keywords=kate+ott

“Talking with your child about sex can be scary! Sex + Faith helps parents incorporate their faith values with sexual information so they can answer questions, discuss sexuality at each stage of childhood, and show support of sexual differences. Section one explains how faith relates to sexuality and the essential role parents play in forming healthy, faithful children . The second section designates a chapter for four age groupings of children from infancy through high school. Each chapter explains the biological and developmental issues of the age, answers questions children tend to have, provides relevant Biblical and faith stories helpful to discuss with children of that age. Expertly written by Kate Ott, Sex + Faith is an easy to use reference guide for parents of kids of all ages.”

https://smile.amazon.com/Brief-Guide-Ministry-LGBTQIA-Youth/dp/0664262503/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1539546097&sr=8-1&keywords=a+brief+guide+to+ministry+with+lgbtqia+youth

“Despite our best efforts to create welcoming and affirming congregations, the reality is that church can still be a harmful place to LGBTQIA youth.

Inside A Brief Guide to Ministry with LGBTQIA Youth, author Cody J. Sanders challenges pastors and church leaders to reflect on the various trials that adolescence brings for LGBTQIA youth. Designed for congregations that currently have a theologically and biblically affirming stance toward the LGBTQIA community, this unique resource provides insight and practical advice for tough questions like:

  • How does an affirming stance toward LGBTQIA people affect the day-to-day experience of teenagers in a church setting?
  • In what ways can a churchs youth ministry have a positive impact on the lives of LGBTQIA youth who want to fully live out their Christian faith and their gender identity?
  • How can a pastor, youth minister, or youth ministry volunteer embrace, nurture, and provide skillful care for LGBTQIA youth in a congregation or community?

A glossary of terms to use when talking about LGBTQIA issues and a list of national and location resources that can be used to support LGBTQIA youth are included.”

Curriculum:

http://www.ucc.org/justice_sexuality-education_our-whole-lives

“Our Whole Lives, together with Sexuality and Our Faith, helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their relationships, health and behavior in the context of their faith. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. It provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills and understand the social, emotional and spiritual aspects of sexuality.”
(Description is taken from OWL website linked above.)

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Ashley Sutherland

Ashley Sutherland

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Princeton Theological Seminary, MDiv/MACEF 2020 Aspiring advocate, learner, and United Methodist. she/her/hers