Purity culture* is a repetitive and calculated dance etched into the memory of my muscles that feels impossible to unlearn
During high school I was scrupulous in my pursuit of God. Enchanted by the idea of saving myself for someone special and keeping myself pure, I devoured books like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and wore shirts with catchy slogans like “Modest is Hottest.” My friends and I created accountability groups where we confessed unholy thoughts we had about romantic interests (which we knew would never come into fruition because our crushes were people we merely admired from afar).
Praise God the Father
Praise the Creator of binaries—of moral bifurcations between good and bad
Praise the Lord, lover of purity
Fast forward to college. I attended a private evangelical university—an enclave of conservatism amidst the City of Angels—where the tenants of purity culture were institutionalized. We signed contracts promising to remain abstinent as student leaders—contracts which created a culture of fear and silence. I sat in prayer groups as women cried uncontrollably while compulsively confessing their sin of masturbation. I remember homophobic slurs taped onto the dorm room doors of LGBTQI students. I carry stories that are not mine to tell of sexual assault and the depression, anxiety, and shame catalyzed by the moral code of the university.
I found a group of friends in college who devoured Valenti, bell hooks, and Bitch Magazine. We made each other “womyns’ power” playlists, and wore shirts with feminist slogans to our Bible classes for shock value. The pendulum swung hard the other direction as we navigated this new feminist space we were attempting to create amidst an institution that was still debating what women’s roles within the church should be. We painted our lips red, declaring ourselves political sluts for the purpose of protest against the oppressive ideologies perpetuated by the institution. We used the term “hook up” to exaggerate our sexual experiences which mostly consisted of drunk make out sessions with strangers at bars. We did what we could to survive as brown bodies in an institution with a pervasive culture of purity that explicitly sought to exclude us. And as we stood for worship in the mandatory chapel services three times a week we sung our own versions of the worship songs:
Praise to God our Mother
Praise to the destructive Force that eradicates binaries
Praise to the One who created us as sexual beings
Praise to the One who is in solidarity with the survivors of this oppressive institution
As is the story with most millennials, I met him on Tinder. I had just graduated college and moved to a new city across the country from everything that felt familiar and all the people who I loved. He had a soothing voice, exuberant laugh, inquisitive eyes, and sometimes wore the feminist label a little too proudly. Two months later we laid in his bed, slightly tipsy off of wine, and he looked at me and asked if I wanted to have sex; I awkwardly mustered up a response saying that I have never done that but I would like to. So we did. Or rather we tried. We chalked it up to nerves that night. But then we tried again. And again. We tried almost every night for a month and it would not work. Frustration grew as anxiety no longer seemed to be the root of my body’s inability to engage in the sexual activities I desired.
The moment I sat down in the chair at the gynecologist’s office I immediately began to cry. She explained to me that bodies carry stories, memories, ideologies, and respond accordingly. At that moment the walls of the health clinic felt more sacred than the walls of the church as I became cognizant for the first time of the effect of purity culture not just on my mind but on my body.
When it happened it was not the fireworks moment that had always been described by leaders in the church. It felt like something to check off my to-do list—I played a passive role and spent most of the time waiting for it to be over. On my way home, I stopped by Burger King, bought a milkshake, and sat in the middle of my room drinking it as I talked on the phone with a college friend. It felt casual and every day and I fell asleep full and content.
Praise God our Mother who does not shame and who is not the source of guilt
Praise the Creator who watches lovingly as my body learns, unlearns, and relearns
Sex has gotten better since that first time experience. I am learning that sex is vulnerable and messy and awkward and comforting and casual and individualized and fun and playful and pleasurable and sacred. And being a sexual being is not just about having sex; it is dancing and stretching and sleeping naked and taking long showers and doing yoga and drinking tea and eating good food. The God of purity culture strips sex of its complexities by declaring that it is either within the covenant of marriage and procreative or it is bad. Recognizing myself as a sexual being means breaking free from the calculated and repetitive dance that is familiar and moving in ways that feel good for my body.
Praise to God our mother who teaches us to boldly declare our desires
Praise to God the creator of pleasure
Praise be to the One who liberates us from oppressive theologies and social systems
*Heteronormative understandings of what constitutes sex are used because that is the framework constructed by perpetuators of purity culture.
Brea is in her last few months as a Masters of Theological Studies candidate at Vanderbilt University where she is focusing her studies on the role of religion in conversations related to gender, race, and health. She is passionate about the role of intersectionality in justice work and the importance of people with different backgrounds and identities coming together to organize for change. She plans to take a deep breath for a year before going to nursing school to become a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner. In rare moments of free time she enjoys swimming, drinking tea, writing, reading, playing music, listening to podcasts, and spending too much time watching Law and Order SVU.