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.

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.


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