Sex, Shame, and Purity Culture

English: see Purity ring

Purity Ring

For most of my life, I’ve felt like I had two choices when it came to expressing my sexuality: I could be a dirty (as in sinful, impure, unwanted) girl or I could be a dirty (as in sexy, desirable, objectified) girl. Some choice, huh? It seemed no matter what way I turned, sex and shame were linked together.

There was a pervasive assumption in the Evangelical culture in which I grew up—one that still, unfortunately, persists in some areas—that women didn’t really have sexual desires, only men did. I even remember reading in some book from my parents’ bookshelf (the title is long forgotten) that “Women give sex for love. Men give love for sex.” But something must  have been wrong with me because once I turned 15, I discovered that pesky “desire” that I wasn’t supposed to have—and it wasn’t just for “love,” it was most definitely for sex. Of course, this wasn’t what women were supposed to want, this was what men were supposed to want and were constantly on the prowl to coerce, cheat, or force out of women. But I wanted it—and the girl who “wants it” is dirty. Furthermore, because of my upbringing, sexual desire just wasn’t thinkable for me outside of the male gaze (which might explain why the only model of desire that I could really find to explain how I felt was that of gay men).

The outworking of these two ideas—the “dirty” girl and the lascivious man—in my adolescent and adult life wasn’t very pretty. Some of my earliest fantasies were rape fantasies because in them my sexual desire could be mediated through the figure of the violent, desiring man and I could feel a little less guilty about my desires (since I “had no control”) though the feeling of dirtiness remained. By the time I’d hit adulthood, the association between sex and shame was so strong that—unable to escape the pleasure I felt in sex—I simply began to masochistically associate shame with pleasure. Eventually, I could only be with men who fully objectified and humiliated me: they had to be in control because sexual desire ultimately “belonged” to them—I couldn’t think my sexuality outside of my role as sexual object for male consumption—and I’d grown perversely attached to the idea of being “dirty,” a coping mechanism that developed when I realized that I’d never be one of the “pure.”

Getting out of that increasingly dangerous and self-destructive pattern of sexual behavior was no easy work and it began with my having to fundamentally revise the assumptions about sexuality that I’d been taught as a child: assumptions that still sit at the heart of a lot of purity culture rhetoric.

(1) Respect for my sexuality is something that I owe to myself, not something I owe to my father or to my future spouse. From super-creepy purity balls  (which I’m happy to say I was spared as a child) to lots of questionable rhetoric about how awesome your wedding night is going to be if you wait (which, let’s be honest, is going to be at least as awkward and potentially painful as it is awesome…), purity culture sets up a long list of people (usually male) that a woman is going to disappoint forever if she loses her virginity or fails to be “pure.” In my life, when “purity” didn’t seem feasible (because, as noted, I didn’t seem to fit the “purity” expectations to begin with), all of these assumptions about owing things to men stayed with me, all that changed was what I owed them. Instead of purity, now it was sex, sexiness, and being “dirty.” I’ve had to work to get out of that mindset and (perhaps surprisingly, given its reputation) Catholicism has been a great aid to me in that regard.

The Catechism says that “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” In other words, chastity is first and foremost about one’s self. It doesn’t start from what you owe to somebody else, it starts from your relationship to the self that God created. The relationship to the other comes only after one has achieved that “inner unity”: “Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift” (CCC 2337). The purity culture in which I’d grown up had completely overlooked this aspect of the “integrity of the person.”

(2) Chastity—including celibate chastity—is an expression of sexuality, not a lack of it. Part of the reason that I felt “dirty” before I’d ever done anything sexual was that in purity culture celibacy, tellingly termed “abstinence,” was thought of solely as a lack of sex and sexuality and as a means to an end (marriage). Of course, in reality celibacy can be an embodied expression of one’s sexuality and it absolutely partakes in desire. Again, Catholicism—which has longed valued celibate chastity as a permanent choice—helped me develop a new relationship to chastity that wasn’t simply about denial but which was also about an embrace. 

St. Theresa of Avila: proof that celibacy need not involve the death of eros

St. Theresa of Avila: proof that celibacy need not involve the death of eros

(3) Virginity and chastity are not the same thing. Elizabeth Smart recently made headlines talking about how one particularly distasteful metaphor from the purity culture—comparing women who lost their virginity before marriage to “chewed gum”—made her already unfathomably painful captivity and rape even more soul-crushing. The problem with our culture’s fetishization of virginity—which, once again, unites purity culture and the hyper-sexed mainstream—is that we set up a static “state of being” as the determiner of a woman’s sexual worth. Chastity, in distinction to virginity, is a lived, daily lifestyle. One can have some missteps on the road to chastity but that’s what they are, missteps, not some permanent, irrevocable “loss.” In being chaste, I engage in a lived day-to-day expression of my sexuality, it’s not just me wandering around trying to keep myself as an untainted object (presumably for the pleasure of a future husband).

I’ll be honest: I don’t think that I’ve fully battled off these destructive assumptions about female sexuality that I absorbed during my youth. Even though I can see, intellectually, what’s wrong with the lies I was told, the emotional effects are much harder to undo. I’m grateful that Christians are increasingly recognizing the damage done by purity culture rhetoric—as well as its unholy alliance with the sexually objectifying culture it claims to combat—and are making changes in the way that we talk about sex and sexuality. Three particularly fine discussions from the blogosphere come from Calah AlexanderRachel Held Evans and Marc Barnes. The more we can recognize that both purity culture and the sexually objectifying mainstream culture fail to honor the true complexity and beauty of our sexuality, the more we can show how Christianity offers not a repressive but instead a beautiful and liberating vision of human sexuality.

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7 thoughts on “Sex, Shame, and Purity Culture

  1. Pingback: “That’s the point of the gospel…” | Catholicism for Cutters

  2. I so appreciate your participation in my combox. You have been terrific. I’ll be honest, I just could not engage with that one commenter because I was afraid I would light the whole comment box on fire. You did a wonderful job. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Calah! To be honest, I was worried that I was just filling up your combox! I’ll admit that the one commenter had me quite near my limit too, but I just felt like it was important to categorically refute that type of twisted logic.

  3. Pingback: On Taking Sex Seriously | Catholicism for Cutters

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