The abuses of evangelical ‘purity culture’ have gone under the radar for too long

By Darrell Lucus | 17 March 2022
Daily Kos

Barefoot and in white gowns, teen girls lift a cross at a 2014 purity ball in Colorado. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

In recent years, this country has begun to face a long-overdue reckoning when it comes to how we respond to sexual assault and domestic violence. We’ve seen time and again that victims of sexual assault don’t come forward for years, if they do so at all.

In 2018, Emily Joy Allison and Hannah Paasch launched the #ChurchToo movement as a companion to the wider #MeToo movement. Its goal was to turn the spotlight on sexual abuse in the evangelical world. According to a Mother Jones report published soon after #ChurchToo’s launch, a number of evangelical churches taught women and girls that if they were sexually assaulted, they’d brought it on themselves. This backward and degrading thinking, it turned out, was the byproduct of a movement to push teenagers to not have sex until they are married. While abstinence-only education has been proven to be both ineffective and harmful, the evangelical world has twisted it in a way that has done even more harm.

Starting in the early 1990s, amidst the AIDS epidemic and concerns about other sexually transmitted diseases, a number of evangelical churches began promoting the concept of “purity.” Anyone who grew up in or around an evangelical church in the 1990s probably remembers “True Love Waits,” the Southern Baptist Convention’s initiative that promotes abstaining from sex before marriage. Boys and girls wear “purity rings” and sign “purity pledge cards,” promising not to have sex before or outside of marriage. Another visible feature of the movement, rebranded in 2014 as “The True Love Project,” was formal events called “purity balls,” with girls clad in white gowns and escorted by their fathers.

As one father in this 2014 Nightline segment describes the situation, his 13-year-old daughter is “married to the Lord,” and her father is her “boyfriend.” The “covenant” signed by each pair at the event describes fathers as “the authority and protector” of their daughters’ purity.

The New York Times noted that the purity movement also preached that virginity was “the greatest gift” that a couple could give each other—above all other things central to a healthy relationship, even “the simple virtues of kindness and understanding.” Julie Ingersoll, a religious studies professor at the University of North Florida, recalled that for a number of evangelical heavyweights, purity culture also requires women to adopt very submissive roles in public, and to avoid seeking leadership roles in any venue, whether secular or religious. Mixed company is usually avoided except under the close supervision of parents.

The purity movement—which was kept alive in more recent years by then-child stars like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers, who all rocked the ring at some point in their Disney-soaked teens—also calls for women to avoid lustful thoughts, even going as far as to hold them responsible for ensuring that they don’t act in a way that could potentially “tempt” boys and men to sin. For this reason, in a number of these circles, Christians aren’t supposed to date. Rather, they are supposed to “court” under the supervision of the girl’s father, and with only one goal: marriage.

This idea is all too familiar to anyone who gawked at America’s most infamous babymakers, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. The reality television stars are strong proponents of supervised courtship with the children of families who hold their hyper-fundamentalist views. If you want to hold the hand of one of Jim Bob and Michelle’s 19 kids, you’d better put a ring on it first. And nobody’s so much as smooching a Duggar kid until they’re legally wed.

Duggar circus aside, the courtship concept also had a very mainstream proponent in Joshua Harris, whose 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, sold over 1 million copies. In the book, Harris, then 21, argued that even casual dating carried too great a risk of temptation, as it was no different from an alcoholic going to a bar.

Harris has since denounced his own teachings, much like a number of people who grew up at the height of the purity culture craze but now realize that what they were taught caused lasting damage. Nonprofit news organization Retro Report spoke with several such purity alumni in 2021.

Among them was Linda Kay Klein, who jumped headlong into the purity movement not long after becoming an evangelical Christian as a teenager. She recalled being taught that her sexuality was “something to be feared,” and that staying covered up would prevent any improper sexual thoughts. She told Ms. Magazine that the constant sense of shame finally led her to walk out on evangelicalism altogether. She also realized that it took longer for her to heal because she’d actually internalized the toxic teachings.

Klein recalled feeling trauma from any sexual activity years after leaving the church, since she had been taught that she was doing something that made her feel “worthless.” In 2018, she wrote Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free—the product of a decade of gathering letters from women who shared her experiences.

Harris also spoke with Retro Report. He recalled that by 2000—just three years after publishing his book—he had begun questioning his own words and teachings. In 2015, he resigned as pastor of Covenant Life Church, a megachurch on the Maryland side of the Washington, D.C., area, in order to get more formal training and to broaden his perspective.

While at seminary, he began questioning much of what was in his own books and past sermons—or as he put it, “unraveling myself.” The scales started falling off his eyes after seeing author Elizabeth Esther claim that his book had been used as a billy club against her in her teenage years.

In the 2018 documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, directed by his fellow seminary classmate Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, Harris came face-to-face with people who said his teachings created “fear” and “intense shame and guilt” that stayed with them for years. After hearing how many people had been harmed by his book, he disavowed it in 2018 and pulled it from publication. He admitted that it didn’t “make up for or fix the past hurt,” but felt it was one way to own up for it. As noted by Retro Report, in 2019, Harris announced he no longer identifies as a Christian.

Even though it’s been pulled from shelves for years, stories continue to trickle in about how Harris’ book harmed people. Twitter user Chad Hayes claimed that he felt pushed to marry young because of that book.

Pastor and author Elizabeth Hagan claims it ruined her emotional development.

But there are other equally harmful books out there. Rachel Joy Welcher, author of the upcoming book Talking Back to Purity Culture, reviewed some such books for Christianity Today. She criticized a number of them, which include “unbiblical messages about human worth,” and put the onus on women to protect “the sexual purity of both genders.” Seeing some books that put “responsibility for sexual sin and temptation—even assault” on women disturbed her enough that she even “threw a book across the room.”

One of the worst offenders among these books is Every Young Man’s Battle, by Stephen Arterburn. It’s sold well over 1 million copies since first being published in 2004, yet the book, and several others written by Arterburn, have mostly slipped under the radar when it comes to conversations about the dangers of purity culture. I only heard about this book, as well as its companion publications, when abuse victims’ advocate MaryEllen Bream took to Facebook to review it in late January.

Bream slammed Arterburn for objectifying women—allegedly in the name of teaching men and boys to stop objectifying women. For example, Arterburn claims that when a teenage boy practices purity, he’ll look away from a “shapely cheerleader” walking by him in the hall—and do so “without even thinking.” Bream cites this as cringeworthy, because it sends the message that a woman “is not worthy of even being seen, acknowledged, or shown any interest as a person.” She also condemns Arterburn for using language about women that effectively “reduces them to body parts,” and for claiming that wives are “a release when sexual urges” boil over.

Bream first heard about Arterburn’s book while listening to a podcast from Christian marriage blogger and speaker Sheila Wray Gregoire, who was appalled when Arterburn repeatedly suggested that boys were supposed to “ignore women or turn away from them.” She recalled a biblical story in Luke 7, in which Simon the Pharisee looked down on a woman who had been massaging Jesus’ feet with her tears, then anointing his feet with perfume—acts of hospitality that Simon refused to show.

Simon harrumphed that Jesus wouldn’t have let this woman near him if he knew about her bad reputation in the community. In response, Jesus asked Simon, “Do you see this woman?” As Gregoire puts it, Jesus wanted Simon and the others to “truly see” the woman, as he did. She saw it as evidence that “we serve a God who sees women, not one who objectifies us and avoids looking at us.”

I shared Bream’s post about Every Young Man’s Battle in a couple of groups for recovering fundies like myself. One commenter recalled that Arterburn was merely putting a new twist on what she’d been taught as a girl in the 1950s and 1960s, about having to “guard my purity” in order to keep from becoming “an occasion of sin.” Another recalled being raised on Arterburn’s book; her male friends, she wrote, were taught to see women as “objects to be controlled.” Yet another read the book, and its companion books for women, and remembered how they all put the blame on women for stirring up dirty thoughts in men. One male commenter recalled that it actually stirred up “more impure thoughts in me, which then made me feel more guilty.”

Looking at these books made me think back to when stories of the rampant victim-blaming and victim-shaming in the evangelical world first began to emerge. Is it any wonder that so many victims of sexual assault within the church (and outside it) don’t come forward for years, if at all? Many have been taught almost from the day that they can walk that whenever they’re raped, they did something to stir up lustful desires in men.

That was a big reason why when Allison and Paasch first created #ChurchToo, they were flooded with replies. Women around the world—who had to suffer in silence after being abused—finally had an outlet after overcoming the fear and shame that had been drilled into them. As Allison recalled, in an environment in which “objectification of women” and “sexualization of touch” are standard operating procedure, you have a situation that is “ripe for (abuse).”

In some cases, it’s a culture where the concept of sexual assault doesn’t even exist. As author Dianna Anderson wrote for DAME magazine in 2018, “The language of consent is not a language that evangelicals or their heroes speak.” Anderson also told Mother Jones that when they were researching their book on purity culture, Damaged Goods, they noticed that a number of evangelicals believed sexual assault could never happen “if somebody was quote-unquote following God’s plan for sexuality.” Such a mentality, Anderson added, leaves many evangelicals inclined to “disbelieve women” who come forward, and treat assault merely as sin rather than something that ought to be handled by the police.

These “Christian” teachings have been floating under the radar for years, even as we have watched—and often (and rightfully) lamented—similarly degrading behavior taking place in non-Christian cultures. Consider how women fared in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s first period of rule, for instance. Most of us know that Afghan women were required to wear long veils, or burqas, that covered them from head to toe. According to a Taliban spokesman, women had to keep their faces covered because a woman’s face was “a source of corruption” to any man who wasn’t a close relative.

How is this sentiment any different from what we’ve seen from purity culture proponents? In the world of the Taliban, women aren’t worthy of being seen—just like Arterburn and others suggest that men ought to turn away from women lest they have lustful thoughts.

For some time, journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy has been working to turn hot lights on the Muslim version of purity culture. When she was 15 years old, she went on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia: Islam’s holiest city. While en route, someone groped her. She told TIME in 2018 that after reading about a Pakistani woman being sexually harassed while on the hajj, she decided to start the hashtag #MosqueMeToo. As she sees it, the women who have used this hashtag to share their stories are, in the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser, “splitting the world open.”

Eltahawy believes men who sexually assault women in sacred spaces—whether the space is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or of another doctrine—exploit “this tremendous power of silence and shame that the space gives them.” They know that when such depravity takes place in a sacred setting, “everyone in the community” will likely sweep it under the rug in the name of protecting “the sanctity of their holy sites and so-called holy men.” Anyone who has struggled with whether to come forward about being sexually assaulted in church, or the blowback that comes with coming forward, can certainly relate.

More recently, in India, where violence against women “cuts across all religious and caste groups,” a woman was kidnapped and violently gang-raped, then shaved bald and beaten by a mob—made up mostly of other women. According to lawyer Seema Kushwaha, things like this happen because in India’s uber-patriarchal society, women are taught that they are ultimately responsible for any wrongdoing by men. Kushwaha believes that in a twisted way, the angry mob who beat up the rape victim saw themselves as fighting crimes against women, since they were taught that “whatever men do, it is women who are responsible.”

This sentiment sounds almost identical to how promoters of purity culture in this country put the onus on women to keep both sexes pure, doesn’t it? Look to the Duggars for an example. Their faith’s ultra-strict dress code requires clothing that keeps everything from the neck down covered—even in northwest Arkansas’ brutally hot summers.

According to Duggar matriarch Michelle, this was because she and her family believed that if you bare your thigh, you might as well be naked. For that reason, they believe that they can’t expose their thighs or torsos—even in 90-degree heat and 100-degree heat indices—in case “there’s a visual element that might defraud someone,” or “stir up desires in someone else that cannot be righteously fulfilled.” Had this come from the mouth of a Hindutva extremist in India, or a Taliban spokesperson, it would rightly be framed as degrading. Yet it’s no less degrading coming from the mouth of Baptist fundamentalist Michelle, even without her decision to cover up eldest son Josh’s depravities.

So what is to be done? Well, Gregoire offered an obvious solution. She told Christianity Today that in recent years, she has renounced a number of her early books and deleted old blog posts after realizing how hurtful they were to women. As already noted, Harris has followed suit and renounced his old teachings. Perhaps it’s time for other authors to do the same. And if they aren’t willing to do so on their own, we must demand that they do so.

In the long run, however, the most likely way to reverse the damage is to push for reforms in the churches. One of the highest-profile casualties of the #ChurchToo movement was author and pastor Andy Savage, who was ultimately forced to resign after Jules Woodson came forward with her account of how Savage raped her when she was 17—but not before he was actually applauded when he finally confessed. Watch Woodson tell her story here, via The New York Times.

Woodson told Mother Jones that the nature of evangelical churches made Savage’s actions possible because “there are a lot of checks-and-balance systems missing.”

As someone who was chewed up and spit out by an abusive campus ministry in my college days, I can only agree. Many of these abuses happen because of inadequate checks and balances. If the powers that be in churches see that purity culture has contributed to this inadequacy, they will see that it is long past time for these teachings to be relegated to the dustbin. The culture of “silence and shame,” to use Eltahawy’s words, has actually profaned these holy spaces rather than protect their sanctity.

As needed as those changes are, they will likely only stick if they happen from the inside. While many survivors have been so scarred by the abuse they suffered that they left the church altogether, several of them are staying to push for reform—including Woodson, who feels she needs to stay and fight for change, because “the church should be one of the safest places to be.”

Purity | Evangelical America’s Legacy of Shame

My Life Inside The Purity Movement | TRULY

Purity Balls: Lifting the Veil on Special Ceremony

Shamed by Sex, Survivors of the Purity Movement Confront the Past | Retro Report

1 COMMENT

  1. Yep, it sure looks like the Christian faith is exposing itself more and more as a bunch of self-rightous hypocrites! (Sorry for my poor spelling) If only religion had never been introduced to humanity. This world would probably be a much better place for all of us.

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