After a friend read the book Jesus and John Wayne, a historical look at Evangelical’s militant masculinity, she described purity culture as “intense pressure to follow the rules, which were set by men, along with the promise if women followed all those rules, men would protect us. But they never did.” Instead, purity culture was used to violate, exploit, and then silence women.
More and more women are speaking out now. In the last 25 years, they’ve been sharing their own stories of shame, secrecy, and sexual abuse purity culture served to covered up. Stories from Elizabeth Smart, Alice Greczyn, and Shannon Dingle are just a few. There are millions more women with horrifying experiences who are now working to dismantle purity culture and rebuild something better for future generations.
Women’s advocate, Jory Micah, posed the question how it affects boys. By doing so, she created a specific space for men to name and share their experiences— stories full of honesty, humility, grief and maybe now— hope. If you’ve read anything here before, you probably know how important I believe publicly known, but private experienced spaces are for men.
Micah’s leadership here and the responses to her tweet demonstrate when we bring our pain out into the light, even the most deeply rooted shadows can be transformed.
The floodgates opened up in response to Micah’s invitation. Men shared their stories of fear, isolation, confusion, guilt and shame surrounding sex, faith, and purity culture. As an adolescent boy during the commercial boom of Evangelicalism in the 90’s, I was a model example of religious zealotry in public and privately filled with self-loathing. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t as alone as I thought.
Here are a few themes from the ugly underbelly of purity culture. Many men have escaped from it, while many others went on to embody the expectations it set upon them.
The gap between spoken and unspoken EXPECTATIONS.
Virtually all Evangelical teenagers were given a very specific moral script (commit to abstinence only!) without any real information or support. Everyone filled this expectation from the outside. But for many others, it meant fail in private and pretend in public.
The sex life the average Evangelical boy followed this typical pattern: Intense desire > Bottomless shame > Pretend faith works > Now repeat. In churches and youth groups, everyone felt the pressure to draw strong boundaries. But out in the real world, we were mostly left to our own devices. The devout among us thought if we could muster up enough willpower on Sunday, something miraculous would happen, like something we could call “God’s power in your life.” But no amount of sincerity changed how faith functioned as a gimmick to keep teenagers from “sexual immorality.”
In my experience, teenagers didn’t trust adults, especially not religious adults with what actually happened in the private world of teenage relationships. I remember once trying to open that door to a psuedo father-figure at my church and he was so clearly uncomfortable, he may have even explicitly told me not talk to him about “feelings” again. So much was kept hidden, buried in shame, yet we still wanted to meet the expectations set for us by our perceived authorities. It didn’t matter if those expectations were put us in a positive or negative light, we became who other people thought we were. One of the most damaging aspects of purity culture was how it was placed on us just as our separate social identities were being formed. More than anything, we want to belong somewhere. This is why we could buy into purity culture. It sold us belonging.
But belonging came at a cost.
“But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
When it came to sexuality, some of us youth group kids were naive and some of us knew far more than we let on. Sex, masturbation, or kissing all brought the same excitement, confusion, and shame. It didn’t matter if we were just talking about it or actually experiencing it. We felt the guilt of Jesus’ words every time. Wherever you drew the line to keep from crossing—anywhere from pre-ejaculation pullout to side hugs only, nobody measured up to their own expectations or “God’s standard for purity.” The only thing that ever changed was the increase in self-loathing following a hit of hormone crack spiking your bloodstream.
Boys were taught only to Delay objectifying women, not to question it.
One major flaw of purity culture is it never taught young men to see women beyond or apart from sexuality. It stunted male emotional development and kept our impulses on autopilot. We were told to delay the gratification of sex. But in the patriarchal larger context, that just mean delay the gratification of sexually objectifying women, not to question it as a harmful practice or a distortion of reality and healthy relationship. This immaturity was idealized as a virtue with the Billy Graham Rule or today’s Pence Rule.
Shame and immaturity are cultivated as virtues within purity culture.
We called it self-control, but they told us to stay so far away we never actually developed any. Instead, most boys learned women need to be controlled so men won’t ever feel out of control. Female bodies were covered up, resented for the power they had over a man, and blamed if a male was attracted to her shape but became overwhelmed by his feelings. The concept of consent was completely foreign and disregarded. Looking back, it’s obvious no one knew what actually made a mutually loving, satisfying, and healthy relationship— especially those held up as the ideal complementarainism models. Everyone was just making it up along the way to maintain the theater of it all. We were all told to just follow the rules and naively believe, even the teachers. If we did, there’d never be a problem. At least, no such problems would be exposed and out in the open.
We weren’t taught the impulses of lust might be intensified or driven by cravings for relational intimacy we lacked as boys. We were never given tools to navigate the private and messy world of sex because everyone else was so embarrassed to approach it beyond platitudes. Instead, we learned from the world we were surrounded by. We learned from pious plastic couples at church, Christian/secular media consumption, church propaganda, and the visceral uncomfortableness adults had with any kind of honest conversation about sexuality.
To varying degrees, our teachers came from the privacy we saw advertisements, music videos, images in comic books, video games, movies, and in some cases, porn. Perhaps the embarrassment we perceived from adults was about hiding their own shame for violations of the sexual code.
Boys easily learned stopping sexual impulses was only the woman’s job. Men made sexual advances and women either accepted them, which could be as little as not protesting, or rejected them. No one questioned if the typical ideal male is emotionally juvenile, easily hurt, passive aggressive, and vindictive when he doesn’t get what he wants. Pressure was put on the women to navigate and fix male emotional distress, presumedly by acquiescing to his desires and persuasions that’s all “love” actually is. Purity culture leaves male self-centeredness and relational dysfunction completely intact.
Too many of our model RELATIONSHIPS were emotionally unhealthy.
For my generation, this was the model burned into our collective childhood psyche and validated by the virtue signaling of the church. I remember striving to live up the expectations set for me on the church stage, feeling as blind as everyone else in how to actually embody what we proclaimed to believe, and left completely alone in my self-loathing for the hypocrisy of my zealotry. Even then, I knew something was wrong (ex. Purity culture harmed thousands of evangelical teens; what did the Church get wrong about sex), but the advice from our elders was always the same.
Purity culture was faith, and faith was purity culture.
We were told over and over again to just say it louder. Anticipate people rejecting you for your faith. Virtue is only appearance. Use the name of Jesus. A lot. Play pretend. Place yourself under the authority of the Bible and your church leadership. If you can’t measure up to the expectations set for you, for whatever reason, just hide your failure and force others to do it instead.
For boys, purity culture left behind scars of masculine immaturity, male-centered relational dysfunction, white male entitlement, religious superiority, sexual compulsions, shame, self-loathing, and the moral justification for all kinds of abuse.
To illustrate the deep interconnectedness of all these issues, Chaos Walking offers us a sci-fi parable of sorts. In the story, something happens to all the men suddenly. Every thought in their heads is now audibly and visually heard by those around them. They call it it the noise. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the women, and the men couldn’t handle being so exposed. Add in some over-spiritualized power dynamics and we have an insightful parallel to everything we’ve been discussing here.
Porn today is exponentially more accessible, graphic, & violent, creating an environment for sexual predators, grooming behavior, and violence against women to thrive. Dr. Gail Dines shines a light on how it’s different from dirty magazines 20 years ago, and why porn is “the public health crisis of the digital age.”
If we want to stop perpetuating the damage of purity culture, we won’t hide the unhealthy enmeshment (and cover up of) sexualized human degradation, fear, hate, disgust, violence, and abuse. Like mold that grows in dark, damp, hidden places, purity culture dies out by exposing it to the light.
We aren’t those insecure boys anymore. Thankfully, many of us have already moved well beyond purity culture and its trappings. The men sharing on Jory Micah‘s thread have clearly done some amazing soul work in the past 30 years. Yet, we all know there’s always still more work to be done, more layers to peel back, more wrongs to make right.
I hope this conversation is just the beginning of many more to help heal from the harm of purity culture and offer something better for the generations behind us. Maybe we can make something new and beautiful from the ashes.