This morning at my new job, I found out that one of my co-workers is a fellow Christian (although technically I don’t call myself a ‘Christian’, rather a ‘personal follower of Christ’, but my reasons why are for another blog post). We chatted lightly about local churches and the like for a few minutes – just a small, delightful conversation. And then I resumed my task. Not too long after that, I heard her talking to someone else about her deep affection for her boyfriend.
And in spite of myself, in spite of everything I believe in, of everything I support in the realm of love and romance – there was a distinct voice in my head that said loud and clear, “Wow, you’re a Christian and yet you have a boyfriend? Some kind of Christian you are.”
Immediately after thinking this, I thought to myself, “What the FUCK?! Why are you judging her for being in a relationship? Why should having a boyfriend make her less of a Christian?!”
And of course that is true. If I had stuck to judging her for that, it would have been very wrong and foolish of me. But that initial thought I had, I came to realize, was the thought I had been trained to have since early childhood. It was the thought I had been told I was supposed to have.
I was raised in Christian purity culture.
A brief history. ‘Purity culture’ saw a resurgence in the 1990s with the publication of Josh Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” It’s a way of thinking that proposes people should only have sex after marriage, and even enforces the idea that dating is ‘divorce training.’
To quote the website No Shame Movement:
Within the conservative Christian context, purity culture is simply the view of any discussion of things of a sexual nature outside of the context of heterosexual marriage as taboo.Those with in purity culture must adhere to a strict heteronormative lifestyle that forbids most physical contact with significant others, as well as engaging in self pleasure, or holding lustful thoughts about another person that is not a spouse. This view is generally enforced and policed by the family and church community. Purity culture includes an insistence on female modesty and responsibility to shield boys and men from sexual temptation.Many hold a strong fear of the spiritual consequences if they fail to meet these standards.
By the time I reached puberty, I had already read ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ with my family. I was also brought up on ‘Before You Meet Prince Charming’ by Sarah Mally (a heroine of mine back in the olden days), a book that compares girls who ‘give away their hearts’ before marriage as flowers that try to force themselves to bloom before they’re fully grown.
This was all normal for us. It was normal to see dating as divorce training. We weren’t even allowed to date until we were eighteen, and we were okay with that. My dad and I tried (and failed, thank God) to host a father-daughter ‘purity ball’ – an event where girls essentially promise their hearts to their fathers until they are married off.
I was raised to believe that Christians should only have one of two marital statuses: single or married. There was no in-between. Which is why the idea of a Christian girl who has a boyfriend made me to jump to being judgmental.
At one point in high school, I honestly believed that it was a terrible idea to go on a date with someone unless I would seriously consider marrying them. That is how messed up my head was.
But that’s not the worst part.
The worst part is that the adults around me, including my parents, praised me for believing this. I was commended as being more mature than the other kids my age. And because neglect and bullying had fucked up my self-esteem from the age of ten, I soaked up all the praise like a dry sponge. It was the only way I could think positively of myself. It was the only way I felt validated.
When I was twelve, my biggest fear was if a boy expressed romantic interest in me or worse, tried to hold my hand, thus violating my purity. When I was thirteen, I had to ask my parents “If I don’t have sex until marriage, does that mean I’m still a virgin?”
As if the most important thing for a Christian is to be ‘pure.’ Not, you know, actually loving other people…
Now here is where I need to get a little graphic. I understood, from a physical and emotional stance, what sexual arousal was from the age of eight. And I was aroused by very violent images that I felt prone to look at over and over. I had sexual fantasies before age twelve. By fifteen, I began an addiction to pornography and masturbation.
And no one knew. How could I tell anyone? How could I let them down so severely? How could I even begin to explain what I was feeling?
But no one had told me virginity is much more than giving yourself away to another person. It’s a social construct. No one told me that you can be sexually impure and still a ‘virgin’ by society’s standards. No one told me how to deal with sexual fantasies. So I had to deal with it on my own.
Today, I despite purity culture for many reasons. To name a few, how it demonizes rape and abuse victims. How it idolizes young, innocent, Christian women to the point of fetishization. How it makes women responsible for men’s sinful actions and assumes men are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. How it makes women property of their fathers until they’re married; then they’re property of their husbands. And no one neck-deep in purity culture will admit these things, but they’re true. I could not admit them until I saved myself from this way of thinking.
But I also despise purity culture for making me afraid of love. For instilling a terror in me at the prospect that I had romantic feelings for someone, or someone had romantic feelings for me. I can’t even go into how homophobic purity culture is, but as a bisexual teenager I was even more confused. I fell in love with a girl – a gorgeous soft-spoken redhead – and did not even realize it until years later. And I won’t even touch on how this all affected me being a transgender male.
Today, love and romance feels like a giant, complex machine and I have no idea how it works. I don’t know which switches to use or what the sounds mean. It is something I emotionally desire but mentally recoil at. The concept of ‘falling in love’ sounds like something I’ll end up reading and watching but never experiencing personally.
Ironically, my heart has been violated by the very tactics that tried to protect it. My emotional health is stunted and I feel like I am still a child in grade school, trying to figure out what everyone else is talking about.
I lost years of my life to beating my own heart into submission, and now I bear the scars of it. I feel so young, and not in a good way. I’m a long way from any sort of committed relationship, much less marriage, because I have no idea how to handle them. I feel like half of a person.
Fuck you, purity culture. Fuck you.
Remember that book written by Josh Harris? Interesting enough, the author has recently (sort of?) gone back on his earlier views on dating and marriage. His website is currently allowing people to submit their stories of how “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” affected them, whether positively or negatively.
You can submit your own, or read the other stories HERE.
If you have been raised in purity culture, or are currently being brought up in it, I encourage you to spread your wings and break free. Let yourself fall in love. Let yourself say ‘No’ to a man who desires you. Let yourself be the one who decides who you are committed to, not your father or church or anyone.
Let yourself feel, for fuck’s sake.
I pray you don’t end up suicidally depressed like me.
It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to love. It’s okay to fall out of love and experience heartbreak and move on.
I am a survivor of purity culture. I will heal. I will survive. I will let myself feel again.