Choosing Body Autonomy over Purity

September 26, 2018

What could be wrong with sexual purity? A lot, according to Linda Kay Klein, the author of the new book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. The title summarizes the story of evangelical churches using a strong message of women’s sexual purity to limit women’s experience and keep them from real freedom and faith. 

Pure by Linda Kay Klein
Pure by Linda Kay Klein

Klein tells her own story, as well as those of numerous friends and church-mates she interviewed over many years. Some real names are present, but some are pseudonyms to protect women from the shame of their churches.

A basic lesson about the purity movement is that, in its thinking, women are the ones at fault for all sexual activity. Klein takes us through four parts of her journey: from The Stumbling Blocks, to Stumbling Through Church, to Stumbling Out of Church, and finally to How We Get Over. She recommends that people leave the purity movement and instead live with No Shame.

What is wrong with telling women they have to be sexually pure? It leads to the “fear, anxiety, [and] shame” that pervade their lives, even if they leave their churches. In practice, the purity message is not about sex; instead it is the “language of shame.”

Purity tells women that any pre-marital sexuality is a shameful sin, not a simple sin. Instead, it is a sin that changes who women are. It makes women impure and may condemn them to a horrible future. Klein summarizes the lessons of the book by saying that purity teaching does not delay sex, but it does increase shame. Moreover, “increased shame is leading to higher levels of sexual anxiety, lower levels of sexual pleasure, and the feeling among those experiencing shame that they are stuck feeling this way forever. Oh, and it doesn’t get better with time … it gets worse!”

Purity tells women they must watch the clothes they wear. They must realize they are frequently “stumbling blocks” who provoke men’s sinfulness. An “impure” girl is not only damaged herself but is dangerous to others. It turns out that masturbation is a worse sin for women than for men. As Klein words it, “we’re defined by what we don’t do—our ethics are the ethics of passivity.”

The stories are sad and frightening. There are a few stories of pastors who abused people in their churches. Some of the women were raped, one by her brother and another by two college “friends.” When that second woman told her parents about the rape, her mother left the room and her father asked her what clothes she was wearing. Demanding women dress in a certain way, of course, sets a precedent of blaming them for the rape. Her parents told her she had two choices: to stay at home to submit to them or to go on a missionary trip. In purity’s eyes, rape is frequently viewed as the woman’s fault, because she was impure, tempting men by the clothes she wore. Abused women are told to submit more, pray more, and they often end up apologizing to their attackers.

The church purity culture and movement silences and hides sexual violence, usually pointing out the evils of the sex and not the violence. The women explain that their churches are more worried about premarital sex than about rape. For example, one never hears sermons for church members who suffered sexual trauma. Klein explains that the community’s belief that women and girls are responsible for men’s and boys’ sexuality keeps women from being healed. The shame message gives them abuse and mistreatment by their families instead of any kind of support.

The impact of the purity movement stays with women even if they leave the church. They may avoid or damage relationships because of their history of shame. Several women report feeling panicked whenever they enter a church. One felt like she was raped in a church, even though she wasn’t.

Klein reports a weird tension of girls wanting to be boys or accepting they cannot have a relationship and have the life they want. They wind up disappointed to be girls. Here is “The Lie,” as she explains it in the book:

Mine was “no one will want you if you’re smart and opinionated,” and hers was “I have to put up with everything in my relationship because my opinions don’t matter and what I want doesn’t matter.”

According to Klein, like many victims of purity, they:

… were both reacting to the same gender-based lie: Be submissive and be loved, or be a leader and be alone forever. It’s the same story, the same lie. You just made different choices within it. Lucy chose submission for the sake of having a relationship; you chose being alone forever so you didn’t have to submit.

The Lie, and the purity shaming, remains with the women for a long time. Several of the women can’t have sex, even when they try to numerous times. One married woman reports that she and her husband “barely [had] sex for ten years.” Another woman was constantly taking pregnancy tests, even though she was still a virgin. The shame and fear messages remain with them. There are very sad stories of women failing at relationships because they have been so harmed by the lasting message of sexuality’s impurity and impurity’s shame.

Klein explains the psychological aspect of this trauma. If, when you’re young, your church puts sexuality and shame together, they will trigger like a “brain trap” when you later try to have sex. The purity culture, “which has dedifferentiated shame and sex over years of messaging, observation, and experience, ensures that our brains fire those shame neurons when the subject of our sexuality arises.” Many of the women’s later unsuccessful attempts to have sex are due to all the shame left in their systems. As Klein puts it, the “[i]nability to be sexual is a big program for both men and women coming out of the church. They’ve practiced turning themselves off so much that when they have a sexual occasion, they can’t turn themselves back on again. Human beings don’t have a switch.” It is stunning to read that the limits are not only emotional but physical—including the tightening of the vagina that makes sex impossible. Early shame messages are stored in the body as trauma that has to be repeatedly combatted.

Psychology offers some insight but not always healing help. Klein explains that evangelical Christianity’s sexual purity movement is as traumatizing as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is for soldiers. The women in the book were not soldiers at war, but they were at war with their bodies. She mentions the possibility of recognizing Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), which does harm equivalent to PTSD, including depression, sexual difficulty, and negative self-beliefs. Even here, however, many therapists have not been up to the job of recognizing RTS. Many therapists are afraid of being antireligious, and so they wind up thinking religion is always good and therefore cannot really help their patients who suffer from religion.

We also learn that the government funded these churches’ abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs. The government’s $2 billion helped the purity movement grow. Ninety million dollars was spent for 2017 alone. With such help, the movement eventually reached 4 million students in 47 states—which is 10 percent of students in that age group. This is another reminder that both the government and the therapists need to distinguish good from bad religion and not just to see everything religious as automatically good.

That is an important lesson from the book. Sometimes religion is good, and other times it is not. We must learn to choose the good and avoid the evil, as Klein does in the book and has tried to do throughout her life.

The people in this book have a difficult relationship with their purity churches. In the end, however, Klein explains how women and men harmed by the purity movement started a new life in a different church.  The whole book has explained why it is so difficult to give up the purity movement when one has been raised in it. Yet the new church leaders are trying to “disrupt the status quo.” They have to overcome all those limiting teachings about women as stumbling blocks. They have been striving to build a no-shame movement that lets people have confidence in themselves, enjoying their sexual autonomy without shame. This is a daring, difficult, and new approach, but one that the members have accepted in place of the old purity rules.

The new churches give their members information about sexuality and encouragement in how they will make good sexual choices. They teach “tools like self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity.” The inclusivity reaches out to LGBT members, who are frequently harmed by purity in their own churches.

Klein gives a message for everyone at the end of the book: “Know you are not alone; Know yourself; Trust yourself.” That is not at all the message of the purity movement, which told girls to trust the church more than themselves and their parents. Klein wants youth to learn to trust themselves.