How we got here
Explaining purity culture to a stranger
I never know where to begin telling this story.
How do you neatly present three decades of life on paper, as if every day hasn’t been an eternal existence, or each year a lifetime of its own?
Imagine trying to tell a stranger that you married a boy before you could legally drink, and that while you loved him desperately, you also married him for sex—or rather married him sooner for sex—because you were so tired of waiting, of repenting for sins you didn’t commit but thought about committing, and that was enough.
While your friends took their boyfriends to Chili’s or went to second base in a parked car, you soaked the carpet in your parents’ basement with tears, ashamed for feeling ashamed, hands gripped in prayer so tight your purity ring tattooed itself to your skin.
How do you tell someone that, while you’re still married today—while you chose to stay married—you and that boyfriend turned husband are not the same people anymore? But that doesn’t mean the road has been even slightly easy. Every day you’ve both had to keep choosing, to still keep choosing, to look each other in the eyes and drink in all your former hurts mixed with current joy mixed with lingering rage.
How do you explain this to a stranger?
Do you tell them about all of the late-night conversations on the couch—first the free red one, then the grey Craiglist one, then the expensive velvet one? Up past one, sometimes two, you and your husband excavating, oh how you’ve excavated, searching for answers from the past, wine bottles empty, tear ducts emptier. How do you talk about the hurt and how it’s marked and molded you both throughout the years—sometimes silently, sometimes with screams?
Do you share these difficult details and then tell the stranger about the light that has somehow always found its way through the cracks, keeping you both afloat, allowing room for lighter breath and deeper laughter? Do you recall the stupid memes shared late at night beneath the covers, or the kitchen dance parties on Tuesdays after work? How about the way his fingers still find yours in the car, just like when you were kids, just like when things were different?
How about the summer hiking to emerald lakes and glacier outlooks? Do you explain how reading novels aloud in the tent while it rained was a new sort of baptism, the beginning of your healing?
Maybe you don’t start by telling about your decade-long marriage at all; maybe you don’t share how, if it had a face, it would be scarred with lines deep as canyons, made by unyielding brokenness but also by laughter and joy rooted in the deepest kind of love.
Perhaps instead, you begin with the tender years of adolescence, since that’s where this all started anyway. A girlhood filled with mountain magic, treehouse slumber parties, and afternoons fishing on the lake shores; a family who loved so big and bold that no child would ever question their innate goodness and worth.
Yet shame found you anyway, though you don’t remember when it happened. You wish you did; it would be a simpler story then, if you had had a moment to show when it all changed.
There was no moment. You just felt it in your bones; the messages of purity were always there. Somehow, somewhere, you learned to separate from your body, to fear it, to hate it, to control it—all in the name of Jesus. Your husband learned this too, a small boy living just a few cities over.
Words that were preached over your little bodies penetrated more than skin. Like needle and thread, they sewed you up with shame and silence, wrapping themselves around every vessel, tying up knots so strong and tight they eventually dissolved, becoming part of you, embedded like new genes, as if they were always there.
Do you go back in time when you tell the story? And do you keep talking when the stranger looks confused, unsure about what you mean when you speak of nuance and layers and the complications of spirituality and religion? When you say words like disembodied and purity culture and sexual repression, do you explain what you mean? Do you use the word trauma—a word that even as you write it today, right now, at 31 years old, your body tenses up and begs you to erase it?
It’s okay to use this word, your therapist reminds you. Because while no one ever physically harmed your body or touched you without consent, you and your husband both exhibit symptoms of sexual trauma. It still feels wrong, you think, to label your experience this way. But then you remember the shadows of shame that were always lurking in the corners, ready to consume you whole and never spit you back out.
Purity culture; a definition
“Generally associated with the white, American, Evangelical Christian Purity Movement and the corollary Purity Industry launched in the early 1990s […] Everyone is expected to maintain absolute sexlessness before marriage (that means no sexual thoughts, feelings, or actions). And upon marriage, they are expected to flip their sexuality on like a light switch. However, men are taught their minds are evil, whereas women are taught their bodies are evil. That is to say, men’s thoughts and actions are said to be either pure or impure, while women themselves are said to be either pure or impure.”
For years I’ve been trying to tell this story, to explain how we got here. My husband and I both grew up with the messages of purity culture. We also had wonderful childhoods filled with love—two complicated and contradictory truths.
This is not a simple story, as much as I would like it to be, as much as I’ve tried to condense it over the years, to condense myself. There is no elevator pitch or party conversation that I can practice and perfect in the mirror, and perhaps that is what has led me here, to these words, to the creation of this newsletter. For so long, I’ve been trying to simplify feelings and experiences that need extensive space and room to breathe. They deserve that; we (people who went through purity culture) deserve that.
So let’s start here. In the middle, which sometimes feels like the ending, or a new beginning depending on how you choose to look at it. There is a cabin in the woods, and inside, two people who are not quite adults yet no longer teenagers stand naked in front of one another. The girl in the room is me.
I married my husband (hereafter “D”) when I was 20 years old. Before our wedding night, I had never touched or seen another person’s nakedness. I was only intimate with my words, but never my body.
D was also a virgin. At the encouragement of our families and our church, we’d made commitments to remain “pure” during our adolescence. On my 13th birthday, I signed a pledge, placed a silver band on my wedding finger, and promised God and my parents that I would wait until my wedding night to have sex.
All of this, of course, is an oversimplification. What I really promised that September day in 2003 was to shut off all my sexual desires and to view any feelings of longing and passion as sinful. Whispers of sexuality would only lead me away from God and bring shame upon my future husband and my family—or so I believed.
I was the perfect suspect for purity culture. As the firstborn daughter of two recently converted parents determined to raise their children with Christian values, I had a duty and responsibility to be the example, to prove that I could “do it right.” I wanted nothing more than to do it right.
On the wedding night, D and I knelt before the bed and prayed. I don’t remember what we said exactly, but it probably sounded something like this:
Dear Father God, thank you for bringing us to this moment, for giving us the strength to keep our bodies and our minds pure for you and pure for each other. By your hand, we have finished the race.
Sex was nothing like we expected. Our bodies went numb, the feelings of sin and shame settling in. It did not simply feel allowed because it was suddenly allowed, and so within seconds, we learned to play pretend, to act out roles, to mentally escape.
For years after that night, D and I struggled—with the physical act of sex but also with the internal voices of shame. They seemed to follow us everywhere, and we couldn’t free our bodies from the cages we’d placed them in as teenagers. The idea of pleasure was elusive, and, for years, we were unable to connect on a physically intimate level. We lived in our heads instead, creating a life and relationship based solely on thoughts and feelings. We still had sex, but there was no real intimacy. If there was ever once passion or fire, it was now a pile of ashes.
Two years into our marriage, I began to question the Evangelical church and the purity culture teachings of our youth. I blamed them—I needed to; we often need a place to point our arrows when we don’t know how to process the pain. For most of my 20s, I was angry, and righteously so.
But like all things, it’s much more complicated than that. The path towards healing for D and me has required more than a decade of peeling back layers and realizing there is no playbook for recovering from purity culture, which is a type of sexual trauma. You don’t just “get over” being taught your body is “sinful” and “dirty.” You don’t simply move on.
But you do move forward. And I guess that’s what I’m doing here, with this writing space. I’m trying my best to do one brave thing by sharing about this suffering and creating breathing room for others to share too.
That said, this substack is not for everyone, and that’s okay. Everyone is welcome here, but not everyone will find this content is for them. I will do my best to explain and offer context for readers who did not grow up in purity culture, but I’ve also realized that’s not who this writing is for.
This substack is for the readers who have also felt alone and confused in their bodies, and it’s for every person who has experienced sexual shame from religious institutions.
This substack is also for me. It’s for me at 13: a girl signing her name in big cursive loops, sunshine dancing across her yellow bedroom walls as her parents prayed over her. It’s for me at 18: a zealot college student praying the same prayers over her peers’, asking God to protect their hearts and bodies from sin and sex.
It’s for me at 20: a newly married woman in denial of her trauma, sitting on the couch with her journal, trying to fix her body with checklists and Cosmo articles. It’s for me at 27: a fresh graduate student writing essays about purity culture, bravely opening herself up and sharing the stories with strangers, unknowing of the slow healing that is about to happen with every word she admits to the page, and to herself.
Welcome to her, and welcome to you. May this be the beginning of a healing journey for whoever needs it. Our bodies are beautiful, and they were created for intimacy and pleasure. May that truth sink deep. May it be a new needle that penetrates beyond your skin and slices through the first of many old and toxic threads. This is an unraveling.