Throughout its history, the church has had a complicated relationship with the body, fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.1 The body has been seen as both a vessel for salvation and a barrier to salvation, and sometimes those positions have been held simultaneously. In the book Introducing Body Theology, Elizabeth Stuart discusses the evolution of a wide range of body theologies throughout major periods of church history. One such belief was that because Jesus took on a body and because that body was raised from the dead, nothing—even death—can now make the body impure. This idea was quite different from the beliefs of the gnostics, however, who believed that sin completely separated our bodies from God and that Jesus came to free our spirits from the shackles of the body.2 And the ascetics believed that while the body belongs to God, it is prone to decay, and they therefore refrained from marriage and childbirth, symbolically separating themselves from the patterns of the sinful world. In short, the church has gone through many different theologies of the body, struggling to make sense of our flesh and the role it plays in our eternal salvation.3
Amidst all this ambivalence, women’s bodies have nearly always gotten the short end of the stick. The church’s history is full of influential men who have created theologies of gender around the idea of Eve as the cause of the fall and the root of evil.4 Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, said of women, “You are the devil’s gateway. . . . How easily you destroyed man, the image of God. Because of the death which you brought upon us, even the Son of God had to die.” Many of the monastic fathers saw women as evil, associating man with the spirit and woman with the flesh so that “every act of intercourse was seen as the spirit (man) becoming entrapped in sinful flesh (woman) and women were viewed as insatiable and innate temptresses,” and they therefore exercised degrading, abusive methods to control women’s bodies. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, considered women’s subjection to men their punishment for the fall. And more recently, theologian Karl Barth suggested that woman’s “proper place” is to be obedient to man as the head and that because woman “marks the completion of his creation, it is not problematic but self-evident for her to be ordained for man and to be for man in her whole existence.”5 Although there are some examples of positive theological interpretations of women’s bodies, in the examples above, ranging from the second century CE to the 1950s, the overwhelming theological picture is one of women as bodily and sexually problematic.
One of the more recent attempts to understand the Christian body that is particularly damaging for women is the purity movement, a Christian cultural trend that focuses on sexual abstinence and that has gained popularity within the last two decades. According to Stanley Grenz, the purity movement began within the “transitional period” following the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution was a time in which the culture began to question and expand the boundaries of sexual morality, and in Grenz’s words, “women were liberated to join men in practicing promiscuity.”6 The culture embraced sexual freedom during this period but not for long. In the 1980s and 1990s, a decline in the economy, as well as the onset of the AIDS epidemic, caused a cultural shift back toward sexual conservatism.7 And it was in the midst of this shift that the purity movement was born. In 1992, in response to the rising numbers of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies, a group of Southern Baptist ministers created a sexual education curriculum entitled “True Love Waits.” Just a year later, in July of 1994, five hundred thousand abstinence pledges were displayed on the National Mall, the program had been translated into four languages, and the curriculum had been adopted by the Wesleyan Church, Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Church of God, Youth for Christ, and the Roman Catholic Church.8 The movement soon moved beyond the True Love Waits campaign, becoming a national phenomenon made up of multiple curriculums, books, conferences, and even T-shirts, jewelry, and other merchandise.
While the church has often taught that sexuality can only be properly expressed within marriage, the purity movement takes that premarital prohibition to a deeper level, not only calling for physical abstinence but also for emotional and mental purity. Similar to Jesus’s teaching on adultery in the Beatitudes—that a man who even looks at a woman lustfully has already sinned—the movement teaches that any sexual feelings, desires, or thoughts that occur before marriage are sinful. The literature of the purity movement is filled with admonishments to set aside all sexual desire until marriage. In his best-selling Christian dating book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harries says it clearly: “This purity goes beyond sexual purity. While physical purity is very important, God also wants us to pursue purity and blamelessness in our motives, our minds, and our emotions.” In her book, Every Young Woman’s Battle, Shannon Ethridge joins the chorus, encouraging young women to dress modestly, avoid flirting, and refrain from romantic fantasizing, and she emphasizes these points using imagery torn from the struggles of many teens who battle daily with body image and eating disorders: “The only way to kill a bad habit,” she says, “is to starve it to death.”9 During a time when sexual curiosity and exploration is a normal and important part of sexual and psychological development,10 these teenagers and young adults are being indoctrinated by a shame-based culture that trains them in the ways of sexual dissociation.
Tina Schermer Sellers, director of the Medical Family Therapy Program and instructor of marriage and family therapy at Seattle Pacific University, is one of the few scholars who specifically research purity culture and its negative effects. As part of her work at the university, she has taught a graduate-level human sexuality course for over twenty years. The students in her course write a sexual biography, and it was these biographies that prompted her to begin this research:
One of the things I started noticing about ten years ago was that I was seeing more and more amounts of sexual shame, of religious sexual shame . . . horrendous amounts. The self-loathing that people were feeling and describing about themselves really paralleled the kind of self-loathing that you often see with somebody who’s experienced childhood sexual assault.11
Through her research, Sellers has found that students who experienced the purity movement culture firsthand were subject to a sexual shame that was psychologically devastating.12
Donna Freitas, another author exploring the sexual attitudes and behaviors of evangelical college students, focuses at least in part on the impact of the purity movement. In her book Sex and the Soul, Freitas writes about face-to-face interviews she had with evangelical college students. She found a wide range of sexual experiences among these students and an astonishing amount of ambivalence and confusion in how they felt about those experiences.13 As part of this work, Freitas combs through the popular literature of the purity movement, pulling out the themes and messages that create the romantic ideal for evangelical teenagers and young adults. She concluded that “Sex is not dirty in and of itself, but it is dirty to engage in sexual activity or perhaps even to indulge sexual thoughts in ways that . . . ‘contradict cherished classifications.’ Within contemporary evangelical Christianity, the operative classification is marriage.”14 In Freitas’s words, purity culture makes sex out to be “the enemy,” and engaging in sexual activity outside the context of marriage results in irreversible damage; it marks one as “ruined.” And within the movement’s standards of purity, there is little room for interpretation or nuance. Despite having diverse beliefs about politics and religion, and despite being able to gracefully hold ambiguity in any number of other areas of life, the students’ “pursuit of purity is the one area where almost all of them could see only black and white.”15 Regardless of how one feels about the morality of premarital sex, this result is devastating. Frietas argues that living up to this purity standard is very difficult and that these students are often “shattered” by their inability to measure up.
The impact of the purity culture for a woman, especially, is dehumanizing, as she must “remain utterly ‘asleep’ or ‘starved’ when it comes to desire, romance, and sexuality—until of course a prince comes along (at God’s command) to ‘wake her.’”16 In Lady in Waiting: Becoming God’s Best while Waiting for Mr. Right, a book that delineates the “ten qualities of a Godly woman,”17 authors Jackie Kendall and Debby Jones begin their chapter on purity with a poem written by a young woman to her future husband. Lifted up as a godly example to follow, this woman writes, “So, one evening I prayed ‘God, just as you put Adam to sleep until the perfect one for him, he was ready to meet; so put me and my desires to sleep until I too am ready to know the one you have chosen for me.’”18 Through this example, and the chapter that follows, the authors are, again, encouraging sexual dissociation, calling women to go so far as to pray to ask God to remove their sexual desire. This example is perfectly in line with Sellers’s understanding of the basic message of Christian abstinence education: silence and don’t.19
One prevailing idea in the purity literature is that men are expected to desire sex, while women are expected to desire emotional intimacy. And although men are still called to “battle” that desire, the costs of losing that battle do not seem to be quite as severe. As Freitas puts it,
Many young evangelical men spoke . . . about expecting this gift of virginity from their future wives and about how they would find it hard to marry a girl who hadn’t saved it for them. But concerns about being a ‘virgin gift’ fell disproportionately on the women. Only once did a young man describe his virginity or purity as a gift for his future wife. Perhaps this follows from the popular notion in evangelical youth culture that men are sexual beings without much feeling and women are emotional beings without much sexuality.20
There is a sense, then, that if men engage in sex before marriage, there is more grace for their actions because they are biologically wired to desire sex above all else. Women, however, have much more to lose: if they engage in sex before marriage, they are used up, damaged goods, “ruined.”21
In reading her students’ sexual biographies, Sellers also began to notice the significance that modesty played in her students’ understanding of purity. She says, “Girls from more conservative homes were told that they were to keep themselves ‘pure and protected.’ They were not to even kiss a boy because it might ‘get the boy going.’”22 This message was given almost singularly to girls and it shows the particular burden placed on young women and their bodies, saddling them with the responsibility of controlling male sexual response and behavior. In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris places modest dress under the unambiguous heading “The Girl’s Responsibility,” saying “I think many girls are innocently unaware of the difficulty a guy has in remaining pure when looking at a girl who is dressed immodestly. . . . Yes, guys are responsible for maintaining self-control, but you can help by refusing to wear clothing designed to attract attention to your body.”23 He then praises women who have the “right” body for shorter and tighter fitting clothing but who choose to dress modestly, taking on “the responsibility of guarding their brothers’ eyes.”24 The idea that Sellers saw among her students, and that Harris is demonstrating in his book, is that boys “pressure” girls to have sex because they cannot help themselves. Therefore, it is the girls’ responsibility to be modest, to “not give hugs and kisses freely,”25 and to be hypervigilant against all sexual thoughts and temptations.
A friend of mine recently described a middle school retreat in Georgia at which a youth leader was attempting to help a group of middle-school girls understand the minds of middle-school boys and the importance of dressing modestly. The youth leader held a box of donuts at his chest where the donuts were not visible. To illustrate what happens to a boy when he can see a girl’s cleavage, the man leaned over, exposing the clear top of the donut box so that everyone could see the donuts inside.26 In a room full of young girls, this man degradingly equated their breasts to a box of donuts. This metaphor could have provided the an opportunity to critique the objectification of women’s bodies that is rampant in modern American culture, but like most discussions of male sexuality within the purity movement, the objectification was seen as normative; rather than teaching middle-school boys to respect the bodies of their female peers, these girls are being taught that their bodies are dangerous and tempting.
What is fascinating about this burden of modesty is that it is the sexual thoughts and temptations of men that these girls are called to control, not their own. Although the purity movement has a lot to say about the female body and the value of female virginity, very little is said about female sexual desire. In Lady in Waiting, Kendall and Jones dedicate a specific chapter to sexual purity while not once referencing female sexual desire; in fact, there is not one reference to female sexual desire in the entire book. In most of the purity movement literature, there is a surprising silence about the desire that women and girls have for sex, and in some cases, writers directly claim that women do not desire sex. One of those direct claims comes from Harris, who states, “First we must realize that girls don’t struggle with the same temptations we struggle with. We wrestle more with our sex drives while girls struggle more with their emotions.”27 Harris echoes here an idea that is rampant throughout the purity movement. The conversation is built around male sexual desire and response, arguing that women are created to desire emotional intimacy and friendship, whereas men are created to desire physical pleasure. And they suggest, either directly or indirectly, that for women, sex is merely a tool to get the romantic love that they desire from men.
Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me. I submitted myself to ridiculous standards of modestly to the point that my mother was actually trying to convince me to wear more fashionable—that is, shorter, tighter, and more revealing—clothing. I spent most of my high school years in jeans and Christian T-shirts. When I was seventeen, I participated in a weekend girls’ retreat with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. We spent one afternoon discussing our struggle between wanting to look nice but to remain modest. The conversation was couched in the language of freedom, as we sought the freedom to dress the way we wanted without disappointing God, the church, our parents, or our future husbands. During this conversation, for example, I remember talking about the three-finger rule, which stipulated that the straps of our tank tops needed to be at least three fingers wide in order to be considered modest. Together, we dismissed this rule, and our student leaders gave us permission to wear shirts with thinner straps. I remember being scandalized but also excited about this new freedom.
However, this loosening of the rules did not come without its own set of restraints. I was told that because boys struggle with lust, they quite easily fall into the habit of undressing girls with their eyes. I was told that if I wanted to wear tank tops with smaller straps, I would have to wear a strapless bra, because if boys were to see my bra straps, it would be easier for them to undress me in their minds. Though I was grateful at the time for such an illuminating conversation, I now shudder at the damaging messages that were passed on to me. I can see now that the entire conversation was centered on male sexual response, which became explicitly my responsibility, as a woman, to control. In a conversation that was supposedly giving me the freedom to look pretty if I wanted to, I was saddled with the hopeless responsibility of controlling men’s sexual responses. And I was left with only silence, and therefore shame, about my own sexual feelings and desires.
In a TED talk about her research on vulnerability, Brené Brown gives a definition of shame that seems particularly relevant to the effect that the purity movement has on women. She says, “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”28 There is something about shame that separates us from other people through the fear of rejection. The shame perpetuated by the purity movement fits well into this definition because it is very clearly based in fear. The literature is full of threats of what might happen to a woman and her relationships if she chooses to have sex before marriage. Kendall and Jones warn, for example, “Allowing sex to enter into a relationship before marriage will almost always result in the loss of an intimate friendship with the one you desire to know you for you.”29 They warn of parental shame, haunting flashbacks, a ruined Christian testimony, spiritual pain, and separation from God.30 In short, the purity movement attempts to scare teenage women into sexual purity. The movement instills them with the fear that if they have sex before marriage, they will be rejected by their future husband, their family, their community, and even their God.
The irony of these fear tactics is that they enact the very thing they are claiming to prevent. The fear of disconnection creates shame, and shame creates disconnection. Sellers says it well:
When we continue to shroud sexuality in silence and an abstinence-only discourse, we continue to burden faith-filled children, adolescents, young adults, and adults with a deep shame that interrupts their ability to fully know God’s love and grace. Shame modulates distance in intimacy and sexual expression of God’s active love. When people are filled with shame and self-loathing, their affected self-esteem takes precedence in interactions with others. It dominates and eclipses a person’s ability to see and love another. In essence, sexuality encased in silence and shame keeps people from intimately knowing both God and each other, and cripples our ability as a community of believers to truly love and be a healing force in our hurting world.31
The shame that results from the messages of the purity movement creates in these women a sense of isolation and fear, which causes both sexual and emotional problems. In their research for a study on how survivors of abuse manage sexuality and desire, Bente Træen and Dagfinn Sorensen found that “Feelings of shame are likely to inhibit the desire for sexual pleasure. Additionally, shame is likely to inhibit another feeling, namely that of being loved. Thus, abuse is also likely to be deeply connected to intimacy dysfunction.”32 Considering Sellers’s findings that her students experienced shame at a similar level to those who experienced sexual abuse, I believe that Træen and Sorenson’s findings may also apply to women who were abused by the purity movement. Indeed, the issues I have raised about the purity movement are not simply a difference of theological opinion: the evidence shows that the purity movement is abusive and that its abuses have long-lasting effects. The purity movement has desecrated women’s bodies and shamed them into silence and isolation. Much has been lost and there is much to grieve.
1. This essay is adapted and condensed from the author’s integrative project, “Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture,” master’s thesis, The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, 2013.
2. See Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart, “A Difficult Relationship: Christianity and the Body,” in Introducing Body Theology (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000), 52–53.This series is a great place to start for anyone interested in feminist theology.
3. For a more comprehensive survey of body/sexual theology, Christian cultural perspectives, and philosophy, see Margaret Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum International, 2006). Farley proposes a nuanced, justice-focused framework for understanding sexuality within the Christian tradition.
4. Although many of these theologies focus on women’s role in society and less on the particularity of their bodies, there is almost always an undertone of sexuality in their thinking. The story of Adam and Eve that they use as the foundation for their theological understanding of gender is almost always sexualized, with Eve’s body and sexuality depicted as the evil that ensnares Adam and, therefore, all humankind.
5. Tertullian is quoted in Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1973), 44; the views of the monastic fathers are discussed in Isherwood and Stuart, Introducing Body Theology, 18; and information on Luther and Barth, including the quote, is from Michelle A. Gonzalez, Created in God’s Image: An introduction to Feminist Theological Anthropology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 53 and 66.
6. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 10.
8. John Zipperer, “‘True Love Waits’ Now Worldwide Effort,” Christianity Today 38, no. 8 (July 1994): 58.
9. Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1997), 25; and Ethridge, Every Young Woman’s Battle (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2004), 25.
10. Tina Schermer Sellers, “What Is Normal Sexual Curiosity as Kids Grow Up????,” Musings by Candlelight, http://blog.tinaschermersellers.com/2012/11/23/what-is-normal-sexual-curiosity-as-kids-grow-up/.
11. Sellers, “Sexuality and Spirituality,” The Sexuality and Spirituality Forum, The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, Seattle, WA, April 2012.
12. This characterization by Sellers has profound implications. The effects of sexual abuse are myriad and not easily overcome. For more about the specific impact of shame on survivors of sexual abuse, see Bente Træen and Dagfinn Sorensen, “A Qualitative Study of How Survivors of Sexual, Psychological and Physical Abuse Manage Sexuality and Desire,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy 23, no. 4 (Nov. 2008): 377–91.
13. That reality seems to coincide with what Sellers argues about abstinence-only education, saying that it “does not change people’s behaviors (i.e., does not change when they become sexually involved), it changes their attitudes. They become more judgmental and more shame-filled.”
14. Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 79.
17. Kendall and Jones, Lady in Waiting: Becoming God’s Best while Waiting for Mr. Right (Sippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2005), 11.
19. See Sellers, “Sexuality and Spirituality.”
21. For further reading, see Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2007).
22. Sellers, “Christians Caught Between the Sheets: How ‘Abstinence Only’ Ideology Hurts Us,” The Other Journal 7, https://theotherjournal.com/2006/04/02/christians-caught-between-the-sheets-how-‘abstinence-only’-ideology-hurts-us/.
23. Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, 99.
25. Kendall and Jones, Lady in Waiting, 87.
26. Ryan Likes, e-mail message to author, March 19, 2013.
27. Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, 97.
28. Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED video, 20:20, filmed June 2010, posted December 2010, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html.
29. Kendall and Jones, Lady in Waiting, 83.
31. Sellers, “Christians Caught Between the Sheets.”
32. Træen and Sorensen, “A Qualitative Study,” 377.