The Purity Culture and Sexual Dysfunction

I just came upon a post today in which a skeptic Christian blogger responds to a letter a woman raised in the purity culture. In her letter, she discusses her frustrations and sexual dysfunction. No matter how many times it happens, somehow I’m always surprised to find my own experiences mirrored by other writers.

Dear John,

I have a simple-minded question for you. It’s about abstinence from premarital sex. How does this work? No, not the “How do I resist temptation and remain pure?” part. Let’s say that your purity is completely assured. You have quenched your sexual thoughts and desires, and you have not done any sexual experimentation. You are saving your first kiss for marriage. Then, the day of your wedding, you go home to bed with your new husband, and … suddenly and automatically everything works?

I ask because for most of my adolescent and adult life I have been living the purity dream. I suppressed most of my sexual urges. No dating, no fantasizing, no touching. I was more or less asexual, and almost completely clueless. Then I fell in love with a fine young man, and we fully intend to marry each other once our life circumstances settle down. The young man and I started doing the things that young couples tend to do, like holding hands, or an arm around the shoulders or waist, and…I could not handle it. The feelings I had were either so overwhelming and powerful I had to stop, or I felt completely and totally numb.

I have needed ongoing therapy to get over this, but it is clear that for the present, even if the young man and I did get married, the two of us would not be able to have a sex life. The act of marriage would not be able to overcome the years of sexual dysfunction that I have imposed on myself. The young man, God bless him, loves me and wants to marry me anyway, even if this never changes, and even if that means we can never have biological children together.

I feel betrayed, because I did everything I was told with regard to abstinence, and it led me to a place where I wasn’t able to cope with sex at all and feel so broken. Is this how abstinence is supposed to work? I can’t think of anyone I could ask other than you, John, who would listen to me and take me seriously and give me an honest answer. Bless you for just reading this and getting this far.

“I suppressed most of my sexual urges.” YES. Hell yes, I did. “I was more or less asexual.” YES. I didn’t have a sexual thought, didn’t have a sexual fantasy, didn’t have a sex drive. I’d suppressed these things out of existence. Why? Because sexual fantasies were seen as adultery against my future husband. Because becoming attached to any one guy meant you risked giving part of your heart away and never getting it back. Because before marriage sexual experience of any sort, even physical contact like kissing, was dirty, depraved, and sinful. Easier to just push it all away. Easier to shut it off. Easier to become asexual. And I am being deadly serious here.

As a warning, I’m going to talk here about the sexual dysfunction I personally suffered as a result of the purity culture. I will try not to be too explicit, but there are some things that must be said.

When I first started dating the young man who was to become my husband, I didn’t have any sexual feelings toward him. No sexual fantasies. No sexual desires. None. When I told him this, he became concerned, very concerned. He insisted that this wasn’t normal, but I had no way to know, nothing to measure it against.

After a few months, I did start having sexual fantasies. But they were all fantasies of non-consensual sex. Why? Because on some intuitive level that made them safer, less taboo, and less sinful. After all, in these fantasies, I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have sexual agency. I wasn’t choosing to have sex. I wasn’t active. It wasn’t that I wanted to fantasize about non-consensual sex; rather, as a result of the purity culture and my suppression of my sexuality, this was the only kind of sex I could fantasize about.

When my husband and I began having sex, we found that the only way I could orgasm was to pretend our sex was non-consensual. It was as though imagining and miming being coerced was the only way I could truly let go, detach from myself, and give myself permission to feel sexual pleasure. Being an active sexual agent, even in my thoughts, had been a no-no for so long that this suppression had become hard-wired into my brain. It literally took us years to figure out a way for me to have orgasms without pretending that our sex was non-consensual. I have nothing against people who simply enjoy this sort of sex play or this sort of fantasies, and I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just that I really wanted to be able to experience orgasm without having to pretend sex was non-consensual.

It’s been some years now, and things have gotten better. I can have orgasms without pretending our sex is non-consensual, and I now have sexual fantasies in which I am an active sexual agent. There are some things I’m still working on, because these sorts of thought patterns don’t go away overnight, but I’m confident that I’m on the right path and have a bright sexual future.

How did this happen to me? It’s simple, really. I spent the first twenty years of my life suppressing every sexual urge, thought, or desire. I literally became essentially asexual. Literally. My sexuality was dead, because I had killed it. I had sacrificed it on the alter of the purity culture in a desire to make myself pure and godly. And yet, I’d always been taught that once I was married I would experience carefree, romping, ecstatic, incredible sex the likes of which I could not imagine. There is a disconnect here. How is one supposed to go from being sexually suppressed and extinguished to being an active and fulfilled sexual being?

I was taught growing up that every sexual thought or desire outside of marriage is sin. Believing this, I spent twenty years working hard to keep from thinking about sex, and I succeeded. I was essentially asexual. And then, with my husband, I was suddenly supposed to think about sex. My mind rebelled. My indoctrination of my own brain had been all too successful. My sexual dysfunction was only natural.

There is so much that is problematic about the purity culture in which I was raised; it goes way beyond the creepiness of daddy/daughter purity balls, the problems of asking girls to find their value in the men in their lives, or the grief caused by asking girls to make promises before they are capable of truly understanding their meaning. And the more I read testimonials like this, the more I realize that I am not alone.

The Modesty Rules---Not So Simple, Really
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
What Courtship Was for Me
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • LucrezaBorgia

    I never felt guilt about having sex outside of a relationship. Am I somehow broken because of that?"I do not cut myself, threaten to commit suicide or go into a bionic meltdown if people ignore me. I really suggest you study psychology more if you are going to fling out armchair diagnoses to people online whose opinions you don't like. "Those are not the hallmarks of BPD. BPD is about being emotionally sensitive to a very high degree and having an inability to return to baseline quickly. Either way anon, you are ranting and raving and your anecdotal evidence does not back up my own anecdotal evidence, so whose is right?

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    And…yeah. People can have an "external moral compass" without being conservative Christians. Conservative Christianity is not the source of all morality and, in fact, most conservative Christian morality is pretty goddamn immoral, as far as I'm concerned. When are you folks gonna learn that you don't have the monopoly on morality?

  • LucrezaBorgia

    "When are you folks gonna learn that you don't have the monopoly on morality? "I had someone tell me on a forum the other day that Christianity has the best morals out of all other religions and that only religion can instill morality.My head is still spinning over that one…

    • LutheranEmily

      well, some morality is universal…

      but sexual morality?

  • James Ratcliffe

    Ex-Christian, male, happily married but just as happily bisexual. I hope I don't step on any toes, I'm still kind of new to feminism.When I first read this article I was stunned. I was all "HOLY S*** this happens to girls too???" Except I was never much good at repression, only the self-loathing that came after 'giving in to my sinful desires.' But I think it's the other end of the same animal.I was raised very conservatively in a Christian home. Though I had feelings for both genders since a young age, I never so much as masturbated until I was almost 15. When I was caught, our pastor was called to my house (and room) and staged a mini-inquisition full of shame and condemnation. After that was all over I was sure of 2 things: I still had all the sexual urges I'd had since I was much younger, and now I knew that they were sinful and made me dirty both inside and out (thanks a ton, "Holy Bible"). Since I couldn't stop these thoughts and feelings, I couldn't be "good" anymore, or feel good about myself or who I was (which is hard enough when you're an acne-riddled 14-year-old). I sure as hell wasn't going to talk about it with adults (one 'divine intervention' was bad enough) or my peers ("Hey fellow male students, do any of you get turned on by watching dudes? No? Just checking."), I became convinced I was a horrible person, and I should be punished for it. And if no one else knew about my feelings but me, well, then I would have to punish myself. I started sub-consciously sabotaging myself, first in my school performance, but over time my it bled into every other aspect of my life and relationships. When I became sexually active, I could enjoy the act, but hated myself afterwards, feeling like sex was this big sinful drug for me, and I was this addict that God wasn't curing no matter how hard I begged him to because I was so worthless. I sought christian counseling which essentially told me to just try harder to not think dirty thoughts, and to save it all for the marriage bed. (Also, these wonderful people lumped me in with a whole bunch of other sexually dysfunctional men including incestuous fathers, which gave me the additional dread that not only was I a pervert, but also I was probably doomed to molest my children if I eventually had any.) Well what else could I do except obsess about getting married? I still clung to the idea that marriage would fix everything and suddenly God would love me and I wouldn't hate myself.After dropping out of college, I did get married to a wonderful woman (who had grown up in the purity culture as well and brought her own issues to the table, wheeee). I'm sure this comes as a TOTAL SHOCK TO EVERYONE, but I couldn't shake the self-hate I'd held for so long. The damning certainty that there couldn't be a problem with Christianity, because God was perfect and the Bible was perfect, so therefore the problem was me. The friction it created almost ruined our marriage. Eventually we learned to honestly communicate what we wanted from each other, both sexually and emotionally, and things got so much healthier. Not because we were married, but because we learned to communicate with each other, and someone loved me enough to patiently and repeatedly tell me that I wasn't horrible or worthless. Someday I may even believe it.It was hard to write this, but I thought my story might help or affirm some of you the way your stories helped me. Thank you, all of you who shared from your pasts. Every little bit helps me know that I'm not abnormal, and I most definitely did NOT deserve what happened to me in the name of holiness and the Purity Cult(ure).

  • Cecilia

    I stumbled accross your blog and have been reading it for several days now. As a young woman growing up in the world's most secular society (Sweden),our childhood experiences could not be more different. However, I too have experienced some sexual repression. I think a lot of people do, this stuff isn't easy to figure out. I can only imagine how much worse it would be if I had been taught to view sex as a moral issue rather than a personal one (of course, it becomes a moral issue if you go about it in a way that is harmful to other people, but that's true for everything).Any way. hav you seen this? It's fromthe excellent film "The white ribbon" by Haneke.;=related

  • Anonymous

    First time reading, first time commenting. Was referred here by a post on Dan Savage's column (in the comments section heh). I'd just like to say that, even though I don't really have any sexual problems, I too grew up in a Christian place. I have more issues with religion than sex, since I chose Wicca but had lovely parents who taught me sex was natural.To Anon Troll, you can actually have pre- or non-marital sex with 0% risk of pregnancy. When my boyfriend uses my vibrator on me or his hands or his tongue, there's no semen involved. Add the fact that I'm on the Pill as well, and we use condoms on top of that, I really don't think you can use the "Oh someone think of the children!" excuse. Hell, if it wasn't so difficult in this Christian society I would get sterilized. I've had sex with people not in a committed relationship, and it's not because I've hardened my heart, but because I recognize that love is endless. Haven't had a single problem with it.Anyway, I mostly just wanted to say how proud I am of all of you. Facing emotional hurdles is really hard, especially with assholes making it harder.

  • Anonymous

    @above, I got here through Dan Savage's comments section too.I'll definitely keep coming back – love this blog already!@Troll, it sounds like you felt pressured to have sex when younger in a way that really did not jibe with your natural inclinations. I'm sorry for that. I don't think anyone here thinks that people who aren't naturally into casual sex should be badgered into having casual sex. That type of pressure comes from cultural forces that can be just as disrespectful of individual happiness as the purity culture is. There should be room for people of all inclinations, from those who want to be celibate to those who want orgies every night of the week.Although it wasn't their place to badger you, it's not your place to assume that the girls you knew were "deadening" themselves to their actual feelings about sex. Some women have casual partners because they feel somehow socially obligated to do so, which should not be the case (just as others refrain from having casual partners they want out of social obligation). But plenty of women who have non-committed sex actually enjoy it and don't get attached. Not all women are built to bond with all of their partners that easily, just as not all men are built to want casual sex with any attractive woman who offers (surprise).

  • Anonymous

    "There should be room for people of all inclinations, from those who want to be celibate to those who want orgies every night of the week."This is something I figured out when I was about 27 – it is so true! We aren't all the same! How freeing!

  • Jo

    To Anonymous at 6:20. You know what? Kids who grow up without fathers aren't automatically broken. (And kids who grow up with fathers – what about all the abusive dads out there?) I consider myself extremely lucky that my parents are still together after 41 years (go them!); but I know any number of adult friends who aren't so psychologically well because they watched dad beating mum up every time he was drunk; or who got emotionally caught in the middle when their parents divorced and used the child to hurt either other emotionally; or one or both parents didn't really want children in general / a child of that gender / the late child that was an accident just before menopause. Having one loving parental figure is important, having two is probably even better, but having those two parents be one man and one woman, and both the biological parents of the child… seems to me so much less important than the love and commitment to raising them. There are plenty of stories of grandparents (or aunts and uncles) raising the kids, wonderful step-parents, happy adoptions (to say nothing of gay couples, which I imagine may not be so popular a subject here :) )

  • Becky R

    I am happy I was taught to remain pure til marriage and have never regretted that decision.

  • Nathaniel

    Good for you. Have a cookie. Though I'm sure it pales to the sweet taste of self satisfaction.

  • Anonymous

    Reading this blog with great interest and not just this post. I was not raised Fundamentalist, but marginally Episcopalian. I never had much of a concept of original sin or sinning. I find it sad that not having sex before marriage is somehow considered being "pure." Pure from what?

  • Anonymous

    Wow, it is amazingly comforting to know that I'm not alone. I am a victim of the purity culture as well. I can't even begin to describe how I feel about sex. I was raised to think of it as disgusting and only for your husband, forbidden to fantasize or masturbate, and I just kind of shut myself down in that way. I was asexual. I obsessed over romantic love, "prince charming," and weddings as a result, to an unhealthy extent in order to compensate. Then when I was 18 I fell in love (I'm still with him 3 years later). We began to get physical with each other, and then my dysfunction and it's extent was revealed. I am extremely paranoid whenever we intimately touch each other, afraid that we will be "caught," by who I do not know. This is sometimes to the point where I can't even enjoy myself. I can be very frigid, not showing much physical arousal. I feel horrible, because I really do find him handsome and sexy, it's just like my body shuts down. I rarely, if ever, initiate. And the worst of it is that I literally can't have sex. I have vaginismus, and being a poor college student who still lives with her conservative parents, I have no way of getting treatment at the moment. The fact that my boyfriend is still with me and loves me is amazing. Even still, this dysfunction is slowly eating away at my life, and I really hope that this whole purity culture dies because it ruined me. I feel broken, like I will never be a whole person again :'(

  • Anonymous

    Last anonymous, you can self-treat vagnismus with objects that are sanitary enough for the purpose–you don't have to buy dilators. The trick is to start with something that your body is comfortable with, even if it's the size of a pinky finger, and then gradually increase the size of object without ever getting to the point where it's painful or impossible. Maybe, for now, just try to get to the point where you can wear tampons, and then move on to one of your boyfriend's fingers. Small steps can work.

  • Anonymous

    New commenter here…I was also raised to never, ever talk about or think about sex. I think the thing that saved me all kinds of trouble was maintaining non-fundamentalist friendships (for the sake of "lifestyle evangelism", of course) which allowed me to observe a wide range of sexual relationships and thus avoid many common mistakes. As a teen I was so blissfully ignorant of sexual feelings that I expressed them in other ways, never knowing I was sexually frustrated – I was an exceptionally physical, energetic, and aggressive female. I was also terrified of males, having been indoctrinated with the "men only want one thing" meme from the time my parents split when I was 9.I was so very, very lucky that I met my husband right at the time I began to have a serious break with my Pentecostal church. Our physical relationship built slowly as I began to care less and less about the church's rules. We finally had intercourse about two months before our wedding. Our relationship is very good and very healthy, built on mutual love and respect. I wish the same for those who have been more scarred by purity culture than I am. If I knew the secret to my success I would share it.

  • Anonymous

    @ Anonymous Troll: Boy, do I sense a lot of anger! Perhaps you could direct it somewhere other than to a place where people come to discover themselves and to heal…It was people JUST LIKE YOU that caused me to flee as fast as I could from the fundamentalist teachings that vilified sex. I get the impression that you were taught that a woman should be a whore in the bedroom and a "lady" outside of it….typical BS spewed forth by sex-crazed preachers on thrones of their own making. I applaud ANYONE who finds their true comfort zone with sexuality, regardless of what form it takes. Who am I to judge what another person does? Who are you to do the same? I have fought with my own demons my whole life. My mother handed me to her father at two years old, knowing that he would "get off" between my little two year old legs. My father sexually abused me. My brothers, my uncles, my step-foster brother-in-law, and my foster fathers. Did I encourage or deserve any of that? NO. But I have learned throughout the years that IT WAS NOT MY FAULT! It was theirs! Regardless, because these actions led me to believe that sex and sexual contact was "love," I have suffered for years trying to understand what real love is, and have given myself to men for the sheer enjoyment of the act, and also for the commitment of love. All attempts have failed. I enjoy physical closeness, but find it more and more difficult to enjoy the act of sex. To me, it's just a stress reliever. If I get too much anxiety, anger or whatever, there's nothing like a quick jolt to the hormones to change my attitude. Please, just accept people the way they are and STOP trying to change everyone. You just make yourself look stupid.

  • Anonymous

    I may be a bit late to the party here, but I thought I'd weigh in on the vaginismus thing.When I saw someone about it (she described the series of dilators as "old-fashioned", back in 1996) she also taught me a trick, based on the principle that you can't pull a door shut at the same time as deliberately pushing it open.When attempting penetration, push downwards with the relevant muscles (I'm not describing it very well, I know sorry). It feels totally wrong to start with, but it really is like pushing open a door.Also, for the first few times at least, be on top and in charge (oh, how easy to say). You may have to wriggle about to get the right position – even now I sometimes feel as if there's a bone in the way!(I only got the minor form of keep-it-till-marriage. I think in my case it was psykerlogical and probably to do with getting a younger sibling when nearly 3.)- julie paradox

    • Paula

      Dead thread I know, but this is interesting and in case somebody reads this, I think I know what you’re trying to describe & think I know a way to describe it. When you say “push downwards with the relevant muscles” it sounds exactly like the opposite of the Kegel exercise.

      The Kegel exercise is this: sometime when you’re on the toilet peeing, stop peeing and then start again. You can feel that when you stop, you’re doing it by contracting a muscle between your legs–pulling upwards, in Anonymous’s analogy, closing the door. When you start peeing again, you’re using the muscle in the opposite direction–pushing downwards, doing what she recommends doing during sex. (The actual Kegel exercise is, you repeatedly contract the muscle upwards and then relax, several times a day. It strengthens the muscle, preventing incontinence and allegedly increasing your capacity for orgasm. But I don’t know if a woman with vaginismus should do this exercise. Possibly she should do the opposite–practice “opening the door.”)

  • Anonymous

    Great post and comments. As an individual who is both sexually-driven and spiritually-minded, it seems like a good approach to most things in life is one that's balanced, compassionate, broad-minded and humanitarian. Extreme atheism/feminism is just as violent as any other ideology (religious or not).On a personal note, I think the saddest part about this whole post (in the comments section) is the part where it's ardently expressed that "a baby is not a baby during the first trimester." It is a rational statement to make from a purely scientific point of view, and it is troubling that the concept of a human life can be rationalized to such a point. I say this from a humanitarian point-of-view. This sort of thinking allows individuals to shirk responsibility for the consequences of their actions ("I'm pro-choice / I believe in equal rights / I don't need to care about this unwanted pregnancy, so I'm just going to abort it since it's not murder in the first trimester"). It allows for selfishness and self-centeredness to pass of as "freedom of choice."I'm not saying this is Libby's perspective, or that everyone who decides on an abortion shares this perspective. But I can understand the people who are pro-life.I was born/raised Catholic, never repressed my sexual desires (even though it was generally "encouraged" by catechists, etc), and I'm perhaps somewhat of a "scandalous moralist" right now at age 25 (female). I don't support Christianity/a purity culture when it's used to control others into submission. After a few years "out in the wild" (mentally/religiously), I realize it's just as bad to have no moral compass to society (i.e. post-modern society sees the triumph of materialism + science over spirituality + social values).Just my $0.02. — an author/artist/non-conformist

  • Anonymous

    I'd like to ditto what James Ratcliffe said; similar journey here, except I'm still a Christian.Something I've always hated about the purity culture is how it explains away one of the books of the Bible which is essentially a piece of pre-Hellenic erotic literature (the Song of Songs). It's generally explained away as being an allegory of Christ desires for the Church (which is both disturbing and perverse to think about), and the historical record of it as being about pre-marital and inter-racial eroticism is steadfastly ignored.

    • shadowspring

      Not to mention, extra-marital! Solomon had many, many wives and concubines, and the women pursued in Song of Solomon doesn’t seem to fit either (legal at the time) category.

  • Unknown

    Wow. This is such a relief to read, I thought I was alone in my non-consensual sexual fantasies! I've grown up in purity/Christian culture and have felt the effects of guilt for feeling things and having thoughts that a "good Christian girl shouldn't have." I reverted to rape fantasies to ease my guilt, and became addicted to them. To make matters worse, when I was a child I was sexually abused, so as a result, now I can only feel "safe" when I'm with an imaginary man strictly in my control. I'm so hungry for a real relationship with a real man, but I'm afraid I'm never going to be able to date now because of the crushing guilt and fear that I've dealt with for most of my life. I went to a therapist who specialized in sex abuse victims, but she was no help to me. I knew she wasn't a christian, so I felt like I couldn't open up to her as much, afraid she'd think I was just a sad little girl manipulated by the big nasty Christian culture. I believe in God, and I believe he thinks that a lot of the "Christian culture" is pretty dumb too. It really is a comfort to read this and see all of these responses, it makes me feel like there's hope!

  • Little Mrs V

    Libby Anne! Please tell me what you think of this article that one of my friends posted. . .

    She was raised opposite of you and I, yet she gets sucked into it anyway! WHY? Ah this makes me CRAZY!

    • Paula

      Is it really “it” though? (I read the article.) Does a woman who has an auditorium full of kids give a round of applause for sex really have the *exact same perspective* as the people who teach that sex is dirty, just because she wishes she’d waited for marriage and recommends that course to other people and so do they? She just doesn’t sound like a repressed cool-aid drinker. I think there are fine shades to this stuff, y’know?

      I’m sorry. I know I am a complete stranger butting in, so I’ll shut up now.

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