To Whoredom and Beyond! (We’re really talking about Purity Culture, folks.)
CONTENT WARNING FOLKS.
Whew. We have a ton to discuss. Before we do that, purity culture can bring up raw emotional energy for those with souls and I hope you are attuned to your own spirit here and your needs. We here at Accidental Tomatoes are in the practice and habit of believing peoples’ experiences of grief, trauma, racism, etc., even if/when it doesn’t show up in words. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health matters. This brings up some personal stuff for me as I think just how cringey and creepy it is (that’s usually a pretty good indicator for me that I need to say/write something about it — *vomit*).
With that warning in place, let’s get into the mire of purity culture.
What is purity culture?
While this movement has gotten some steam in the lifetime of the elusive millennial, I believe the roots go much farther back than simply the 1980s-90s. In trying to track down the beginnings of even the term “purity culture” usage, it seems relatively recent. The general gist of the modern usage, in Heather’s take, is of purity (read sexual) before God and fellow creation that gets skewed into all kinds of weird and kinky ways — Yup, said the word kinky. (Sidebar: Did that elicit a reaction from you? If you had some shock at the word ‘kinky’ used in common conversation, it might could be purity culture.)
However, the idea is a longstanding part of many cultures, especially in religion conversations. If you think about the connections, there is a lot of energy in the written holy texts surrounding sexual culture and what is or is not permissible. With a cursory interwebs search, we can also look back as far as the Code of Hammurabi for the origins of dowries, betrothal/marriage gifts of property or cash money.
“Let’s Talk About Sex, ” – Yes, Salt-N-Pepa
Many times, purity culture is portrayed as a focus on sexual purity before heterosexual marriage, or the idea that two heteronormative persons (man and woman) ought to be pure in their thoughts, feelings, actions, and inactions prior to marriage and the consummation of said marriage.
Purity culture is interconnected with so many parts of life and faith. There are certainly some important conversations to be had around sex ethics and what we as individuals, communities, and cultures hold to be norms. Purity culture isn’t one of open conversation around what the possibilities are, whether there’s a grey area, or even if there’s nuance in the dialogue. Purity culture simply puts demands in place by those who hold the authority, whether it be parents or religious leaders or community members. So, it’s hard to begin to digest it. I started with a list of the places I could start and very quickly said to myself, “This is a whole shitstorm.”
It’s Connected, Yo.
I decided to list all of the connections of the modern expressions that I could muster after sitting and thinking on this a while. The list is neither complete, nor exhaustive, but consider this my 95 Theses (church joke; my bad) of purity culture. Here are some of the ways it shows up, or places where it intersects. I’m gonna list them because I’m a list person and that’s what we do. Purity culture connections, characteristics, actions, and implications:
• Often, though not every time, overlaps with conservative evangelical church culture.
• Presents an insufficient model of grace of individuals with urges and actions that seem simply “beyond” redemption.
• Sexual purity, i.e. virginity prior to marriage, determines a person’s ultimate worth.
• Sexism against women and those who don’t fit rigid conceptions of gender roles. This often turns into misogyny claiming said individuals are, “defilers, impure, temptresses, outsiders, devil worshippers, etc.”
• Holds Jesus Christ up as an odd anti-sex symbol. Jesus is clearly not a human being with sexual urges, needs, or desires. And as such, the purity and sexlessness of Christ is a model of how a proper “lady” should be.
• Racism. Insert old tropes about the raping of white women by the *allegedly* dangerous Black men. The racism of purity culture centers purity and whiteness and denigrates People of Color who do not conform to the mold.
• Strong abuse themes here, including emotional and spiritual abuse that a person is not worth anything if “impure.” It can be abuse from authority figures with shaming techniques, verbal abuse, and often is couched in religious language that harms people.
• Trauma. I don’t know how much more I can say here.
• Unique and unequal gender and sexuality roles. Men are to be the head of the household, chivalrous/white knight/men of duty, arbiters of womens’ bodies, while simultaneously receiving more excuses for promiscuity and also no accountability for their own sex drives. Women are never granted that same permissiveness.
• There’s policing of individuals which comes from law enforcement (also overlapping with the racism aspect) as well as community and authority figures. I’m thinking of the young fourteen year old, Emmett Till who was brutally tortured, defiled, and murdered because Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, said he whistled at her.
• Female obligation for the desires/temptation/sexual drive of others — victim blaming for the fact that a woman exists with a body that is somehow her responsibility and not the product of her genetic lineage.
• A culture of “modesty,” that incorporates body shaming for women with curves, fat women (especially Women of Color), and others who don’t try to fit a modest composure. Public schools or church camps with dress codes that are only strictly enforced when it comes to womens’ bodies and what they do or don’t wear.
• Food shaming that to be a woman is to be a demure lady who only eats a bit to keep her satiated, not a hungry person with physical needs that can be partially genetically predisposed or that some bodies simply need more food than others.
• Cancel culture. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re cancelled. If you speak out against purity culture, you obviously don’t fit in — cancelled. You don’t uphold it in your family’s life — cancelled. You don’t have a model, western mode of nuclear family — cancelled.
• The lack of proper sex education for minors and young adults or teaching an abstinence only method which upholds the system because there is an unwillingness to talk about sex, other than “don’t do it until you’re married.”
• Culture of fear. There is a fear-based approach to authority figures (both veneration and actual fear) to uphold the system. There is a fear of promiscuity, loss of virginity, loss of sexual control.
I’m not sure what your conclusions are here. I can only speak from the places in my life where it has physically, mentally, and spiritually hurt me. That’s for another conversation because I don’t think we’re done here. I can only hope that by pointing it out and examining it that we can notice how harmful and damaging it is and begin the process of dismantling it. People are literally dying because of the abuses of purity culture. It’s sneaky and it’s in our families, communities, churches, and society. Please stop purity culture.
*Heather shakes fists into the sky*
Heather Moore is our weird church/gaming/nerdery writer.
Feature image by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com