In 2016, I started my holistic sex education certification. I learned a lot as part of this two year certification, but the process, overall, was one of unlearning. Webinar after webinar, workshop after workshop, all illustrated to me just how deeply the hooks of purity culture had sunk into so many different aspects of my life: my experience of sex and sexuality, certainly, but also how I related to my body with regard to gender expression; body image, fitness, and diet culture; even deeply entrenched cognitive distortions around work, perfectionism, and worthiness were all influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, by vestiges of purity culture.
When I think of purity culture, I’m reminded of certain aspects of my own childhood upbringing. I was raised Catholic, and went to religious education classes on Sundays from 1st grade through 7th grade. I made all the sacraments: I was baptized. I went through Reconciliation (it’s a trip and a half as a second grader to ‘confess your sins’ – most of which are just things that normal nine-year-olds do, like tease their little brothers, and skip out on their chores). I made the sacrament of Communion and picked out my patron saint, and finally, as part of my graduation from the program, re-Confirmed the vows my parents had made on my behalf when I was baptized as a baby. Throughout all this, I was also singing in the church folk group, playing on the church softball team, and endangering my immortal soul by reading Harry Potter under my desk on Sunday mornings when I should have been paying attention to my religious education instructor.
Purity culture – specifically the version of it that is propagated by Catholicism – was an integral part of my childhood and adolescence.
My Catholic flavor of purity culture – which took on the additional seasoning of Italian American heritage (on my father’s side), and the intergenerational trauma of growing up as the daughter of an immigrant (my mother was born and lived in Peru until she was 9) – is far from the only way it’s possible to experience purity culture, however. The United States in general is rife with it, connecting all the way back to the Puritan colonial origins of the nation, and the intersection of white supremacy and evangelical Christianity (and the ways in which Christianity was used to justify genocide of indigenous people and enslavement of Black people). Depending on your cultural, religious, and ethnic background, and the ways in which multiple marginalized identities influence how you experience the world, purity culture may express itself in highly specific ways. And even if you’re not religious, and haven’t been raised in any religion in particular, the idea of “separation of church and state” in the U.S. is a farce at best; no matter who you are or how you were raised, it’s likely that purity culture has impacted your sexuality, your relationships, and your self-concept in some way, shape, or form.
In order to understand how we might unlearn and heal from purity culture we have to first define what it is. According to ReckonSouth.com, purity culture emerged in the 1990’s, partly in response to the AIDS epidemic: “The purity movement was born out of 1990s protestant Christianity, a response to the AIDS epidemic and a rejection of the ‘60s and ‘70s free love movement. Purity culture promoted abstaining from sex until marriage and, in some cases, discouraged dating. In 1993 the Southern Baptist Convention launched its ‘True Love Waits’ campaign, which used youth conferences, books and purity pledges to discourage teens from having sex.”
The article makes an incredibly important point when we talk about purity culture, which is that depending on where in the United State you grew up, you may have had some pretty distinct experiences with it. But whether you grew up in an evangelical Christian household or town, or whether, like me, you’ve lived for your whole life in one of the most liberal cities in the world, purity culture, to one extent or another, is the water we swim in within a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchy. The ideas of “purity” are so ubiquitous that at times they’re almost invisible, and reach out far beyond the realm of sex education. Purity culture is white supremacist and colonial, and even stretches its fingers into another huge source of shame and harm, diet culture.
While there was certainly a lot of Catholicism in my childhood, I was lucky enough never to have experienced any lessons where a gum wrapper was passed around the room, symbolizing what happens to a woman’s body if she has sex before marriage. I went to public school, and while my sex education wasn’t comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination, I at least learned about STIs and pregnancy prevention, and by the time I started college, I at least felt confident enough to advocate for starting birth control – even after my gynecologist (who had been my mom’s doctor for years) was awkward and unprofessional when she headed off that conversation by asking me if I was still being “a good girl.”
Purity culture, like much else, exists along a spectrum, and is influenced by many things: how religious or traditional your family is, as well as how conservative the area you live in might be. How insular your community is, and whether or not you are around people who feel comfortable dissenting. Even things like what you’re relationships with your parents are like will play into how you experience purity culture: My dad, for example, worked for years as a high school science teacher, and when my brother and I reached puberty, gave us a very by-the-books account of the sexual reproduction cycles, but he – and we – had no language to discuss the gender and social dynamics of purity culture.
When I think of the emotional tenor of these experiences, mostly what comes to mind are feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness. As a therapist, it seems to me that these are some of the hallmarks of purity culture. According to Evergreen Counseling, here are some other markers of purity culture (which are present in terms of both sexual purity/sexual shame, as well as diet culture):
- Your body is sinful, in fact, it is the “source of sin.” (For those of us who are no longer religious, or who have never been religious, this might look like a deep, sometime unconscious feeling that there is something “wrong,” “broken,” or “unloveable” about us – three extraordinarily, and sadly, common core beliefs that we may be carrying around with us, whether we’re aware of it or not.)
- Your body is shameful and makes you want things you shouldn’t want (sex outside of marriage; any kind of queer desire; even things as innocuous as sugar and sweets are included under the umbrella of shameful desires).
- You need to exert control over your body. (This one in particular is deeply tied to white supremacist and colonial rhetoric which prioritizes “rational”/intellectual ways of knowing over embodied ways of knowing, and positions embodiment as inferior and/or “savage.” This was used to justify paternalistic attitudes toward Black and Brown people by white colonizers.)
- Your body should look and behave a certain way, upholding white supremacist beauty standards and respectability politics (also very much connected to the above).
- Other people (the church, your pastor or priest, your family, the patriarchal figures in your family or the figures who uphold patriarchal standards of control) determine how you should be in the world. That is, you look to others (specifically those who are aligned with dominant social institutions and invested in consolidating patriarchal power), rather than developing and trusting your own authenticity and subjectivity.
Healing from Purity Culture
Healing from purity culture can be a complex process because of how deeply entrenched it is – it can take years for us to understand just how deeply we’ve internalized some, or all, of the above expectations and norms. If it’s available to you, I certainly recommend working with a professional, and probably someone within the field of sex education itself – a sex therapist, educator, or coach. Specifically, someone who has studied and centers healing from purity culture in their approach. I’d also recommend working with someone who understands the ways in which purity culture is connected to racism, white supremacy, and colonialism, and intersects with diet culture and other ways in which we become disconnected from embodiment. It’s not enough to unlearn the toxic messages we’ve been taught – our healing requires us to then use what we know to resist the ways these systems harm us all in different ways.
That’s a tall order, and it can take some time to find a sex educator or clinician you feel comfortable working with. So, In the meantime, I recommend taking a look at the five horsemen of purity culture above, and do some reflecting on how they’ve shown up in your own life. Doing some reading to understand the various aspects of purity culture and where they originate is helpful. Some books I recommend are:
- Boundaries of Touch by Dr. Jean O’Malley Halley
- Girls and Sex and Boys and Sex by Peggy Orenstein
- Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
- Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
- Pretty much everything by bell hooks, but especially Communion, All About Love, and The Will to Change
- Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown
As you read, reflect on the ways in which you’ve internalized normative messages about sex, love, and what is “good” and what is “bad” or shameful in your own life. This can look like writing in a journal, or getting together with likeminded friends and starting an unlearning group to support each other in the process. Make a list of your “shoulds” – the rules you follow automatically and without question – and ask yourself whose voice you hear them in. Is it your mother’s voice? Your father’s? A teacher’s? Is it your voice, from a certain age? What does your pubescent self, or adolescent self, tell you about how you should be in the world, for example? What are the feelings behind these rules? When we get very quiet with ourselves, and try to practice compassion and non-judgment, even with the parts of ourselves we most want to change, we often find that the motivating factor behind them is fear. What does following the rules of purity culture purport to protect you from?
Create a Pleasure Practice
Healing from purity culture is a journey from shame to pleasure. Shame keeps us stuck and fearful – we disconnect ourselves from our authentic desires because, on some level, we make the determination that this is the appropriate price for our safety. Safety can look like approval, validation, being “normal” and “fitting in.” Take an inventory of the ways in which making decisions from a place of shame makes you feel. Are you restless? Anxious? Angry? Numb?
Then ask yourself how you want to feel, and try to imagine some ways that you might be able to start moving in that direction. Healing from purity culture doesn’t happen overnight, and while we might want to jump into the deep end and revamp our entire sexual history to become the fully actualized, sexually liberated queer icons of our dreams, it’s important not to push yourself faster than you’re ready to go. The first thing that you have to do is establish – maybe for the first time – a sense of safety in your body. If your baseline is “my body is sinful,” “my body (and its desires) are out of control (and therefore dangerous),” or “I cannot be trusted to make good decisions about my body,” it’s going to take some time to re-route these core beliefs, and making direct changes to your sexual experience without a new baseline of safety and trust in your body can feel overwhelming.
Luckily, there are so many ways into pleasure. Think about your senses and take into account your surroundings. What changes can you make to your physical space that will give you a greater sense of pleasure? This can look like treating yourself to a bouquet of flowers from the grocery store, or making sure the lighting in your apartment is soothing and enjoyable. It can mean burning incense or a scented candle, and taking deep, grounding breaths. It can mean learning how to cook a meal that brings you comfort and warmth, and being present with all the steps of making it and enjoying it. It can be as simple as sitting outside with your toes in the grass and the sun on your face.
Reconnect with Your Autonomy, and Find Community
Charis at Evergreen Counseling writes that healing from purity culture means “befriending our bodies and coming back to ourselves.” In order to do this, we have to learn to trust the wisdom of our bodies – not a small feat, especially for those of us who have experienced trauma in the past. Our bodies want to keep us alive, safe, and well – and our bodies want this for us even more than the figures who might convince us otherwise (the parents, caregivers, pastors, teachers, etc., all listed in the last bullet point above).
Reconnecting with your autonomy and agency means understanding your desires, and celebrating them. This, too, can be broken down into smaller steps as we learn to differentiate the “shoulds” from our authentic desires. Even the way each word sounds as I say it feels different in my body – the heaviness of “should,” versus the long, almost succulent way desire feels in my mouth. The sense of duty, juxtaposed to the potential for sweetness and play. What do you notice in your body as you orient to each word?
Because we’re unlearning systems of oppression as we unlearn purity culture, we’re also learning to resist. It’s important to do this in community. Talk about purity culture with your friends. Write affirmations and devise systems of checking in with each other, making sure to prioritize active consent and respect for each other’s capacity for holding such a personal, emotional space with each other. Gently, and with compassion, call each other on it when you notice purity culture and policing coming out of your mouths – whether it’s judgment of others, or your own self-deprecating criticism.
Healing from purity culture is ultimately the way we unlearn systems of oppression on an embodied, rather than intellectual, level. It allows us to find a home in our bodies again. It is homecoming; or rather, a series of homecomings that we participate in over the course of our lives and our learning. It’s okay if you need to learn a lesson more than once, so long as you keep going.