I recently got to talk with Joe Sanok on his podcast, The Practice of the Practice, all about religious trauma. Joe’s podcast helps therapists who are running private practices learn about both business and clinical topics, but anyone interested in religious trauma might enjoy listening to this episode. Before we started recording, Joe shared that he has a background in evangelicalism as well, so he’s sympathetic to the topic.
Joe and I chatted about some of the basics – what religious trauma is, what conditions can lead to religious trauma, and some basic steps for healing (all covered in earlier posts on this blog).
We also talked about purity culture and what therapists need to know about it.
One example we discussed is that of a woman I knew who was raised in purity culture/megachurch world and then in her young adulthood struggled with vaginismus, which is the old term for painful intercourse not caused by a physical disorder. In other words, it’s a problem with enjoying sex for psychological reasons. Purity culture had indoctrinated this woman in her youth that sexuality is bad and scary, and so her body remembered that message even though her mind no longer believed it.
She wanted to have sex with her boyfriend, but her body basically shut down whenever they tried. Her gynecologist recommended she try therapy.
Old fashioned talk therapy really helped her – but one thing the therapist never figured out is why this woman had vaginismus in the first place. The therapist believed, and told her client, that she must have had repressed memories of sexual abuse in childhood. In the therapist’s experience, most women developed vaginismus in adulthood due to previous abuse.
If the therapist had been aware of purity culture and its severe impact on women (and men’s) sexuality, she might have been able to help the client unpack what she experienced and de-stigmatize her struggle with enjoying sex. This was a missed opportunity for deeper understanding. It was also potentially risky for the client to hear that she could have repressed memories of abuse. Research has debunked the “repressed memories” phenomenon – seeking lost memories would have been a waste of time, at best, and at worst harmful.
Purity culture itself was a form of institutionalized sexual abuse, a system of indoctrination in which young people were taught to feel fear and shame about their sexuality rather than to love and accept themselves. Purity culture was a missed opportunity for an actually healthy educational message about sexuality, consent, boundaries and safety in sexual relationships.
One reason I wanted to speak on Joe’s podcast is to reach other therapists to spread the word about religious trauma and its harmful impacts so that when clients with this background see a therapist, they are more likely to feel understood and validated. If much of the benefit of therapy comes from understanding and accepting yourself and others in a deeper way, unpacking all the layers of your experience – including the impact of harmful religious doctrines like purity culture – is an integral part of the process.
If you are seeking therapy, feel free to reach out for a free consultation.