May 21, 2014

10 Lessons I Learned from Purity Teachings

Growing up in an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, few lessons stick with you as closely as “purity culture”. This may be because it’s a land of absolute madness.
Whether it is the incredible guilt, the inability to truly understand these lessons when they are first presented at young ages, or the predetermination of your personal identity, they somehow dig in and take a hold on the psyche in a sometimes unimaginable way. 

There are a lot of lessons to be learned under purity teachings. These were a few of my favorites.

1.    Women and men are created differently.

The emphasis in purity culture is almost always on the woman remaining pure. In fact, many fundamentalists believe, like the author of “Evangelical Women, Also Known as Covert Christo-Feminists, Rail against Slut-shaming”, that “maintain female virginity until marriage is biblical”. Sunshine Mary justifies this by saying that:

“God doesn’t tell women to avoid sexual sin because he wants to oppress us; He tells us to avoid it because He didn’t create women’s bodies and minds to function properly when coupled with more than one man.”

You may think Sunshine Mary’s views are radical—and they are to an extent (not many evangelicals actually admit to being against female suffrage)—but the underlying principles are fundamental to purity teachings: Men and women are created differently and should be treated differently.

2.    I don’t know anything, because Eve.

In the most basic scenarios, we should be able to rely on men to make our decisions. If we can’t find a good husband to make those decisions, we should be willing to submit to the headship of our fathers, as Suzannah Rowntree from Ladies Against Feminism says in “Unmarried Women and the Things of the Lord”:

“The Lord’s heart for unmarried women, communicated again and again in Scripture, is to see them in their homes when possible, under the headship and provision of their fathers, serving and working. These are ‘the things of the Lord’ for us.”

We don’t even know how to dress ourselves. While it’s satirical, Micah J. Murray makes the point beautifully in “What I Wish Women Knew About Men”:
"Fortunately, you can solve our pesky attractions and unruly urges by simply covering yourself up. This is why your daily clothing choices need to be based on how they will affect us guys. Unlike men, you obviously can't be trusted to know how to dress yourselves appropriately. But if you respect yourself enough to allow your choices to be dictated by the arbitrary whims of men, men will respect you too. This should make you feel valued, ladies."

3.    Women can’t (or don’t) enjoy sex.

If they can enjoy it, it is only safely within the bounds of marriage.

Consider this quote that appeared in an article on Christianity Today (emphasis mine):

“Women are sometimes actually drawn to masturbation and pornography because they desire sexual pleasure. Rather than escaping emotional issues, they simply struggle with lust. In sermons and blog posts, pastors give examples of men committing idolatry by looking at pornography, and women committing idolatry by desiring romance, flagrantly ignoring the number of women who suffer from porn addiction.”

This is earth-breaking news. This simple idea that appeared online in a relatively progressive Christian magazine has made waves around the internet. It’s a fundamental change in how evangelicals view women and sex.

4.    You may not want it before marriage, but you will give it up afterwards.

This is a quote from Debi Pearl’s Created to be His Helpmeet:

“God grants the marriage partner full access to his spouse’s body for sexual gratification. And remember, indifference is unwillingness.” 

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. For the record, I personally don’t even think that’s the worst one.

I was not raised in some fringe sect of Christianity. We weren’t Quiverfulls. We did not homeschool. We were simply independent fundamentalist Baptists. But this idea was spouted in a thousand different ways. It was a simple truth: God gave you to be a helpmeet. That mean the expectation—often implied, but sometimes expressed—that you would meet your mate’s needs, in whatever way he needed. Sex was often listed as a marital duty during “real talk” messages about sex even in youth groups.

5.    It was my responsibility to keep the men around me from lusting after me.

I don’t doubt that you’ve heard the words “stumbling block” applied to women dressing immodestly or inappropriately (as defined by the church).

Consider this article from Charisma—a fundamentalist magazine—“How Women Can Make Church a Safe Place for Men” .  Mrs. Gresh has three points for women on how to make church a safe place for men:

First, they should understand the “power of certain visuals”.
Second, they should understand the “special weakness of men for a woman’s beauty”.
And last, they should “call immodesty what it really is”.

Despite the fact that it is his weakness, I’m still the one expected to compensate for it. It’s not his job to look away—it’s my job to make sure that he does not look in the first place.

6.    Being a mother is God’s ultimate gift.

(Sidenote: HA!) We were taught that having children and being a mother was God’s greatest gift. While it was never explicit that we should be content to stay home, it was assumed that most of us would.  And those were considered the progressive teachings.

If you want the radical teachings, check out Steve Anderson, a pastor in Arizona, in this YouTube video. As reported by the Raw Story:

 “[Anderson] argued that feminism had “given the women the power” to decide when to have children for themselves, allowing them to have careers and follow other interests.” 

For good measure, Pastor Anderson also says, “Not only does birth control do damage to women, it hurts their body if they’re using the pill. And it affects their character, causing them to be an idle, tattler, gossip turning aside after Satan.”

To paraphrase, he also implies that if we aren’t all busy raising children, we will “get into sin”.

7.    Love is a finite resource.

When I was about eleven, our Sunday School teacher had us each walk to the front of the class and tear off a piece of a paper heart. At the end, she had only a small piece left in her hand. “This is what happens if you give parts of your heart to different people. In the end, you have nothing left to give the one that God has intended for you.”

For some, it only meant dating around. For some, sleeping around. For others, it extended all the way to schoolyard crushes. Any part of your heart you gave away was a part you would not have to give to someone else. Love wasn’t infinite, or unconditional—you only had a limited supply.

8.    I was worth nothing more than my body.

Or more specifically, I was nothing more than my virginity. They cloaked in terms of self-respect, and wanting your significant other to see you for more than sex. At the end of the day, though, it boiled down to the same thing, a shared experience for many women raised under purity culture who moved on from it. Ann Almsay says it well in her Huffington Post piece “The Vulgar Face of Purity Culture” (emphasis mine):

“What purity teaching did for me, and for many of the woman I know who were raised in similar environments, was distill me down to my body. Sure, leaders paid lip service to concepts like, you know, women having brains and personalities. But the core of purity culture was that my mind didn’t matter, my personality didn’t matter, my dreams and desires and goals didn’t matter—if my shorts were too short. Or if I wore a bikini, if I kissed a boy, if I kissed a GIRL, if I shook my bootie when I danced, if I ever-ever-ever had sex for any reason whatsoever before I was married. Because my REAL value, my ultimate worth, came from my body. I learned that the assumed innate “impurity” of my body would overshadow any other valuable trait I may possess; but my intelligence, wit, creativity, kindness…those could never supersede my too-short shorts or bare shoulders.” 

9.    Consent does not exist.

This was a more recent realization for me. For years, I’d had trouble determining where to draw the line during sex. When is it okay to say “no”? It took me quite a while to put my finger on why this was such a struggle for me, and the answer came to me in a post on Defeating the Dragons titled, “Why Purity Culture Doesn’t Teach Consent” (Part Two is also worth a read):
“To them, consent is always guaranteed. There’s no such thing as a person who would say no to an opportunity to have sex. Ever. The only thing you have to do to consent is be alive.”
There’s no reason to teach consent in purity culture—because it does not exist, for all practical purposes. If your duty is to provide your mate with sex whenever they want it, there is no reason to say no. And prior to marriage, there’s no reason to say yes. Between the two points, there’s no reason to teach someone that they can say no when things make them uncomfortable, or when they don’t want to go past a certain line. If you are married, you comply to your spouse, and if you are not married, you abstain entirely. So if you are a young woman who does have sex before marriage—it can be understandably confusing. Are you allowed to say no to this if you already said yes to that?

I know, some of you are thinking, maybe even screaming at the screen like I have in some forums where I’ve seen young women pose similar questions, “OF COURSE YOU CAN! Because it’s your body,” but unfortunately, that was never a point that purity teachings felt a need to cover.

10.  Personal accountability doesn’t really exist.

In purity culture, personal accountability is a major buzzword. In fact, you’ve probably heard it tossed around in regards to the right to have an abortion or to receive birth control or to have children if you happen to receive some kind of assistance, because it’s a major tenet of conservative doctrines of all types, not just purity. But I’d really like to let you in on a secret.

It doesn’t exist in the world of purity culture.

When I was in management, I read a quote from a consultant named Todd Herman. Mr. Herman defined personal accountability as “being willing to answer…for the outcomes resulting from your choices, behaviors and actions.”

In purity teachings, there’s no personal accountability for a very simple reason: You are not well-informed enough of your alternatives to make an informed decision. You are not able to truly be willing to answer for your choices, because you simply don’t have enough information.

I was told that having sex outside of marriage would mean that I was giving away parts of myself. My future husband might find me undesirable. I would regret it. I would live with the remorse for the rest of my days. My reputation would be stained. My walk with God would be damaged, perhaps irreparably. I would get pregnant or get sick.

I was not, however, given the flipside of the coin—that there are many women that have and enjoy sexual relationships in a variety of dynamics with no emotional consequences. That there are ways to have sex safely, to prevent pregnancies and STIs.  I was never taught what a healthy sexual relationship would look like.

Don’t get me wrong—there was plenty of accountability to go around. I was accountable to God. I was accountable to my family, my parents and my sisters. I was accountable to my church leaders. I was accountable to the males around me (because heaven forbid I should make them lust after me by having a poor reputation). But personal accountability requires that you are in control of your own choices, and that you have enough information to make them without living in fear of the consequences.

When it comes to parenting, I truly believe in “live and let live” to the extent that you are doing no harm (or as little harm as possible) to your children. I don’t believe that every parent that raises their children in a purity culture is a bad person, or an overt misogynist—mine weren’t and aren’t. I do believe that it is important to tell the stories of the damage purity teachings can do to young women. It’s important because all parents want their children to grow up safe, healthy, and happy—and this makes purity culture all the more appealing. It’s an idea that creeps through society, in a million little forms, and damages women that it comes into contact with.

If you grew up under the same teachings, there is something I would truly like to leave you with today: You are worth so much more than you were taught you were.

And if you did not, there’s a thought I’d like to leave you with: You may find this laughable. But please, take a moment to consider that at this very moment there are thousands of young women and girls being indoctrinated with these very thoughts. That freedom of thought and body that we often take for granted—they have no idea it even exists.

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