The repercussions of growing up in “purity culture,” as it has come to be known, can be harmful mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Repercussions of purity culture include sexual shame and dysfunction that can last long into adulthood. Although the effects of purity culture are harmful, there are ways to heal and move forward.
What Is Purity Culture?
Purity culture has come to be known as a subculture of evangelical Christian culture that emphasizes strict gender roles and norms, abstinence, and modesty. The basic teachings differ for males and females in some ways, although the message of “abstinence only” was the same across the board.
Importantly, while purity culture is often associated with the evangelical Christian church, it was also incorporated into public schools in the form of “abstinence only” sex education. One study argues that teaching abstinence only sex education, instead of comprehensive sex education, reinforces gender stereotypes and makes women out to be responsible for gatekeeping while men are simply out of control of their sex drive.1
The beliefs associated with abstinence only sex education and the evangelical purity movement include:2
- “Modest is hottest”: Female clothing can cause a man to lust if it is considered too revealing. It is the woman’s responsibility to dress herself in a way that keeps men pure.
- Virginity is very important: In purity culture, virginity is taught using metaphors. Virginity is compared to being a beautiful rose and the petals are tossed on the ground and trampled on once virginity is lost. In other words, virginity is prioritized and if you lose your virginity, you’re disgusting and no one will ever want you.
- Abstinence: You should abstain from sex until your wedding night, at which time you will turn into a mind-blowing sex machine. If you do become sexually active before marriage, you are cheating on your future spouse. This includes masturbation, which was viewed as akin to premarital sex.
A Brief Overview of the Purity Movement
When federal and state courts were battling out who could write the sex-education curricula for local schools, advocacy groups were fighting to incorporate religious teachings as the foundation.3 Joshua Harris, who has now renounced his book and deconverted from Christianity, emphasized virginity in I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He goes so far as to recommend avoiding kissing until your wedding day, much less sex. Even if someone didn’t read his book, the premises crept into many aspects of teaching a Christian sexual ethic during the purity movement.4
How Does Purity Culture Damage Mental Health?
Purity culture can have many long-lasting impacts on mental health. It can cause religious trauma syndrome and make you feel ashamed of your body, sexuality, or gender identity. It also creates strict roles for men and women which enforce patriarchal ideas about how men and women should behave.
Purity culture damages mental health in the following five ways:
1. Disconnection From Your Body
The purity movement causes feelings of shame. Your thoughts could be sins as much as your actions, and if you had questions about sexuality or your own body image, you could be shamed into not ever bringing them up.
Throughout the period of adolescence, with a changing and growing body full of hormones, nothing sexual can be considered good. Sexual desire, natural sexual thoughts or dreams, were all considered to be distasteful and sinful. Feelings of confusion, shame, or moral failure thrive in this bodily disconnection.
2. Uneven Rules for Men & Women
The rules for males and females were not fair or equal, and the concept of intersex or non-binary individuals was never even discussed. Men were not supposed to engage in sexual behavior, but it was expected and considered normal for them to have sexual desires and feelings. They were not to act on these desires with women, nor alone through masturbation.
Women, on the other hand, were expected to not be interested in sex until their wedding night and chaste for the sake of men. It became a woman’s job to not cause a man to stumble by wearing anything that could be considered risqué or sexy, putting the man’s responsibility for sexual purity onto her, even though men were also supposed to control their thoughts and behavior regardless.
3. Sexual Shame
The Christian life meant that you had to deny yourself and use lots of self-control. If you felt “turned on” or attracted to another person, you had to turn it off and shut it all down.
Just as you cannot selectively numb emotions, you cannot selectively shut down bodily processes. Your brain and your physiological, anatomical body parts react to feeling turned on. Years of practice of shutting those down can lead to mental health and physical concerns.
4. Sexual Dysfunction
Sexual dysfunction can show up differently for different people. Since those in purity culture are not educated on what “normal” sexual processes ought to look like, they may not realize when the process has gone wrong, or may be confused about how to proceed if they do recognize a problem. This can result in developing sexual disorders and sexual performance anxiety.
At that point, you have one of two choices: look the other way and pretend it isn’t happening, or seek help. Ignoring the problem does not often work for long, particularly if you want to enjoy your sex life free from anxiety.
5. Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity
If you thought having pre-marital sex was bad in purity culture, you know that anything outside of a heteronormative sexual ethic was not even to be discussed. Not sure about your own sexual orientation or gender identity? Better keep it under wraps. Years of repressing, or even simply not identifying, feelings outside of the established norms lead to unprocessed feelings that can result in anxiety and depression.
How to Heal From Purity Culture
While purity culture can be damaging, there are ways to heal and move forward. Hope is out there, and there are trained professionals who have produced excellent educational content about sexuality.
If you’re not quite ready for a therapist, or maybe you want to go the self-help route, here are a few other helpful tips for healing from purity culture:
- Journal: Journaling is a great way to acknowledge what happened and how it shaped you, which can be very healing.
- Educate Yourself: Learning more about purity culture can help you realize the ways it manifested in your life
- Get to know your body: Get a mirror and really look at all the wonderful pieces of yourself that make you a human being with sexual body parts and urges. Be confident in your body and know it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
How a Therapist Can Help
Finding a qualified therapist who feels comfortable talking about sexuality is a great way to begin healing from purity culture. A sex therapist does not need to see anything sexual—sex acts, intimate body parts, or otherwise—to help you. If you aren’t ready for a sex therapist, a regular therapist can be extremely helpful as well by listening to your story, validating your experiences, and helping you identify ways you can learn healthier thought patterns and emotions regarding sexuality.
If you do choose to go to a sex therapist, you may encounter once-unthinkable suggestions. A good sex therapist will take a thorough sexual history to better understand your attitudes, beliefs, and experiences with sex. Then, they may recommend you also see a gynecologist and make sure everything is medically okay—particularly if you are experiencing pain with sex.
Therapists can also help you process any past sexual abuse or harmful teachings about your sexuality that prevent you from being able to enjoy it. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to make sure you feel comfortable with the therapist you choose. If you feel like your therapist isn’t safe and trustworthy, it is impossible to work through such personal, vulnerable issues that are inherent in sexuality. A directory of therapists is a great place to start looking.
You are not alone in wrestling with the repercussions of purity culture. Finding a therapist can be one of the biggest ways you can show up for yourself after years of tamping your thoughts and desires down. It won’t be weird for your therapist, and they will do their best to normalize it for you. They will validate your feelings. They will show up with you and walk with you through some of the most difficult, painful parts of your life. Find a trauma-informed therapist who will be familiar with religious and sexual trauma and how trauma affects the sexual-response cycle.