The Problem with Purity Culture

I recently got to chat with my friend Marissa once again on her podcast, Codependummy, all about purity culture and its harmful psychological, emotional and spiritual effects as well as its connection with codependent behaviors.

What was purity culture?

Purity culture was a movement in the 90s and early 2000s among evangelicals (which still exists, although in a more covert way) that emphasized the importance of virginity until marriage. It was big business: a company called True Love Waits sold purity rings, books about purity and other items. Church youth groups hosted purity balls, purity book clubs and purity workshops. Millions of teenagers participated and pledged to remain virgins till marriage.


If this movement had provided healthy information to teens so that they could make their own choices, it wouldn’t have harmed them. But instead, purity culture emphasized shame and fear around sexuality, indoctrinating teens into negative relationships with themselves and their bodies.


In the podcast, I share the story of one of my own memories of purity culture in my church youth group. Long story short, two girls who refused to make a public virginity pledge during a workshop were publicly shamed and humiliated by the leader, a young white man who made it very clear that NOT remaining a virgin till marriage made a woman sinful and bad. (Listen to the episode to hear more).


Aftermath of Purity Culture

Linda Kay Klein has written a wonderful book about all this called Pure. Klein survived the movement herself (not unscathed) and shares scores of other stories of women and men who came out of purity culture struggling with shame, fear, negative mental health impacts and poor relationships to their own sexuality. One common impact: sexual dysfunction. People raised in purity culture can actually have panic reactions once they become sexually active, even if it happens in the context of marriage. They may struggle to orgasm, struggle with low libido or experience pain during intercourse.


Purity culture also led to codependency in the bedroom. People who feel their bodies are bad or shameful can have a harder time asking for what they want or getting their needs met in sexual situations. They can become overly focused on the needs or desires of the other person rather than checking in with themselves about what they want.


And purity culture leads to rape culture. When women are sexually abused in this milieu, they are often blamed for what happened, or disbelieved, which causes an additional layer of trauma. Evangelical organizations spent years hiding sex abuse scandals which eventually broke into the public consciousness – a series of articles appeared about the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, which had been covering up leaders’ abusive behaviors for decades.


How to Heal

Healing from purity culture is possible. I have worked with both couples and individuals with purity culture in their backgrounds who reclaimed their relationships to their bodies and enjoy healthy sexual relationships.  Educating yourself about healthy sexuality is a good start. I recommend Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski. The book provides both information and exercises that you can complete at the end of each chapter.


Getting comfortable simply talking about sexuality is another good step. People can do this in the context of an intimate relationship or in therapy. Research shows that couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. It seems intuitive. But many people feel so awkward talking about sex that they avoid it. The Gottman Card Decks app offers a free card deck full of sex and intimacy questions you and your partner could ask each other- I recommend checking it out.


Finally, therapy or even sex therapy can help individuals and couples overcome the lingering effects of purity culture. Everyone has  a right to a shame-free relationship to their body. Although you may have been harmed by purity culture, you can reclaim yourself. Feel free to reach out if you think therapy could help and you would like to chat about working together.