Purity Culture and Staying in Abusive Relationships

There is one part of the purity doctrines that I don’t think has been talked about often enough, and that is that the emphasis on sexual or emotional purity leads women to stay in abusive relationships rather than leave, because if they leave, having given up their sexual and emotional purity, they will be ruined and no other man will have them. This reality was recently elucidated in a rather moving post by Samantha of Defeating the Dragons:

When I was fourteen, I went to a month-long summer camp at the college I would later attend. Like most Christian summer camps, this one involved going to a chapel service twice a day. Most of the time they were fun, lighthearted—until one evening they split up the girls and the boys. Great, I remember thinking, because I knew exactly what was coming. Segregation can only mean one thing– they were going to talk about sex. I sighed when they made the announcement. Again? I thought wearily.

That evening, when the camp counselors had shooed all the men and boys out of the building, the speaker got up to the podium. She didn’t even beat around the bush, but launched right into her object lesson. Holding up a king-size Snickers bar, she asked if anyone in the audience wanted it. It’s a room full of girls—who doesn’t want chocolate? A hundred hands shot up. She picked a girl close to the front that wouldn’t have to climb over too many people and brought her up to the stage. Very slowly, she unwrapped the Snickers bar, splitting the package like a banana peel. She handed it to the young woman, and asked her, very clearly, to lick the chocolate bar all over. Just lick it.

Giggling, the young lady started licking the chocolate bar, making a little bit of a show of it. At fourteen, I had no idea what a blow job was, so I missed the connection that had a lot of girls in the room snorting and hooting. The young lady finished and handed it back to the speaker. As she was sitting down, the speaker very carefully wrapped the package around the candy bar, making it look like the unopened package as possible.
Then she asked if anyone else in the room wanted a go.

No one raised her hand.

—————

My sophomore year in college, another speaker shared a similar object lesson– ironically, in the exact same room, also filled exclusively with women. She got up to the podium carrying a single rose bud. At this point I was more familiar with sexual imagery, and I knew that the rose had frequently been treated as a symbol for the vagina in literature and poetry– so, again, I knew what was coming.

This speaker asked us to pass the rose around the room, and encouraged us to enjoy touching it. “Caress the petals,” she told us. “Feel the velvet.” By the time the rose came to me, it was destroyed. Most of the petals were gone, the ones that were still feebly clinging to the stem were bruised and torn. The leaves were missing, and someone had ripped away the thorns, leaving gash marks down the side.

—————

For my own emotional stability, I will be brief. The relationship was emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abusive. Like countless other stories, the abuse slowly escalated—I had no idea what was happening until it was too late.

Women in, or who have recently escaped from, violent relationships typically get asked “why do/did you stay?” Very frequently, they don’t have a solid answer to that question. There are a host of common reasons—daddy issues, economic stability, shame.

I know exactly why I stayed. I was crippled, paralyzed, and overwhelmed by fear. Fear that he would abandon me. Fear that, if he left, I would no longer have any value. John had literally ruined me, in my mind, for anyone else.

Be sure to read the rest. What Samantha is saying here makes so, so much sense to me. We were given this idea that if we’d given our heart away, we couldn’t get it back, and that if we’d given our bodies away, we were forever sullied. Sure, we were told that Jesus could make us pure again, that people good be “born again” virgins, but who were they kidding? We knew that wasn’t how it worked. We knew that guys wouldn’t want girls who had had had sex before, and that even something as simple as dating a guy threatened to dent our purity—even without any physical contact at all.

I only ever dated one person—the man who is now my husband—but I remember thinking when I was first getting into the relationship that I was playing at a dangerous game. I only started dating him because I was already about 90% sure I would marry him—I felt “moved by the spirit” that he was the one. I knew at the time that if it didn’t work out, I would no longer be perfectly pure and completely unsullied. It was a gamble I was taking.

What Samantha points out is so, so important—because the consequences of the first relationship not working out are so, so huge, especially if you’ve had sex and thus lost your “sexual purity,” you’re likely to stay in that relationship even if things become abusive or turn out not so great. The option is making it work even with glaring problems, or jumping ship and hoping to catch someone else in spite of being damaged and sullied. In other words, these purity teachings have the effect of encouraging women to stay in abusive relationships.

The deeper you dig, the more toxic these purity teachings appear. Also, many thanks to Samantha for sharing her story. It can’t have been easy to write all of that out, but these are the things that have to be said—and every additional story we tell has the potential to help someone out of these toxic teachings.

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.

  • John Small Berries

    We knew that guys wouldn’t want girls who had had had sex before

    You’ve mentioned before that you were taught that men (or especially teenaged boys) were, under the surface, all sex-crazed maniacs who only wanted to get you into bed. While that in itself is insulting, the combination of those two ideas – that the only thing men are interested in is not sex with women per se, but in specifically taking a woman’s virginity – is just repulsive.

    Not to mention (especially given the rather abhorrent double standard that promiscuous women are sluts to be contemned, but promiscuous men are admirably virile specimens of manhood) if that were really the case, wouldn’t the world be facing a horrible shortage of women that men actually wanted to have sex with?

    And for crying out loud, if it were true that “guys wouldn’t want girls who had had sex before”, then how could prostitution even exist? Or adultery? How could women even be promiscuous, if no guy would want them after they’d lost their virginity?

    It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com M

      Well, that’s what “sluts” are for. Since they’re not pure virgins anymore, obviously they can just sleep around and “service” all the sex-crazed men. Once a woman’s not a virgin anymore, even if she doesn’t want to sleep with someone, the damage is done so to speak, so it’s not like you have to respect her “no” anymore anyways.

      And yes, I just threw up in my mouth a bit typing that.

    • Doe

      In my experience, “guys wouldn’t want girls who had had sex before” refers to marriage. Self-respecting Christian men don’t want to marry girls who aren’t virgins, regardless of their own level of experience. I knew it was crap when I read a letter sent to a prominent Christian pastor. It was from a young man who had finally convinced his girlfriend to have sex with him, and now he was reconsidering marrying her because he “couldn’t feel the same way about her anymore” and felt like she had done him wrong by giving in to his sinful nature or whatever.

      • Jolie

        Speaking of which… slightly offtopic: I guess it”s quite interesting how people use the words “slut” and “whore” and what it said about their concept of ethical sexuality.
        I mean- I’ve seen a lot of people using them almost interchangeably; both being sort of the opposite of “virgin”, “pure” or “monogamous”; whereas I tend to perceive them much more as opposites: slut= a woman who finds enjoyment in sex for itself and pursues it for pure pleasure; whore = a woman who uses sex to get something else: money, material goods, power, social status. I think this comes down a lot to how we conceptualise (morally) good sex vs. bad sex.

      • http://defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com Samantha

        I was taught that if you allowed anything physical into a relationship, that you were telling the man that he didn’t need to respect you– and he wouldn’t. The passage that gets thrown around a lot, un-ironically and horribly, is from 2 Samuel 13: “But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her.”

        Yes, folks, they use a passage about rape to reinforce their purity narrative.

      • Doe

        Jolie – that is an amazing insight. I have always been uncomfortable with the word whore and that is probably why.

        Samantha – that is the exact passage used in the pastor’s response to the letter I talked about, I just didn’t recognize it as a Bible verse because he only used the end.

  • CLDG

    Yep. This is why I “had” to marry my first husband, though it was obviously a colossal mistake.

  • http://wideopenground.com Lana

    Or if you are engaged, and you don’t want to break it off because its equivelent of divorce. I knew a homeschool girl at my college who almost didn’t break off an engagement with a man who dispised her for that reason.

  • http://www.defeatingthedragons.wordpress.com Samantha

    M– I can actually think of several examples of men I know who aren’t virgins, but they treat women who are also not virgins terribly. One of them told me, directly, that he “deserved a virgin.” And he started sleeping with a friend of mine after she’d lost her virginity because, after all, she’s not worth being respected and valued anymore.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com M

      He deserved a virgin? Those words rattle around in my head and refuse to make any sense. There’s so much wrong with that statement … I think it would take a full 5,000 word essay to unpack all the wrongness.

      • Jolie

        Besides, I find it so hard to imagine wanting to have sex either with someone you do not respect (him) or with someone who does not respect you (her).

  • Rilian

    I read Samantha’s description of the abusive relationship and it was eerily similar to my own experience.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

      The “in way over my head by the time I realized what was going on” part? Yup…

      And that was without the “benefit” of purity teachings.

      • Rilian

        And the bit about phone sex, and the webcam. And wanting someone who is submissive. It’ll never be good enough. But I stayed for different reasons. I stayed because of the good moments, and because of the times when he cried and begged me not to leave him. Because I thought it would get better.

  • Jolie

    You know, a while ago, my boyfriend of one year gave me a very lovely bunch of roses for Valentine’s day. Wating to keep them somehiw after they faded, I decided to press the petals in a heavy book (and maybe someday use them in a craft).
    Well, surprise- surprise, I found in the book another pressed rose, from…. well, three years ago ;) ;). My boyfriend told me: “I’m glad you keep good memories of your exes; it’s part of what makes you who you are”.
    Everytime I rad a story like this I wish I could tell girls about it.

    • ButchKitties

      Aww, he’s sounds like a keeper.

      • Little Magpie

        OT I know, but I *adore* your screen name (@ButchKitties) :)

  • Rebecca

    Libby Anne,

    I’m a long term reader, but first time commenter. I was nominally raised Christian but became non-religious of my own accord in my early teens so there are a -lot- of things I just don’t really…get about Christian culture, especially the more strict or Evangelical aspects. I sympathize so much with your stories and the stories you share, but I have a question that I don’t know has been directly answered here (maybe because it doesn’t really have an answer). What up-sides, if any, would someone see in purity culture? To give an example of why I’m asking this, I kind of understand why Evangelical Christianity would support, say, individualism and financial conservatism–sure, in the long run, you lack social services but in the short term you get taxed less (yay) and feel emotionally superior over the poors, plus you have your Church to help you (therefore encouraging people to have a relationship with their Church). I can find no similar up-side with purity culture, especially the nonsense that is emotional purity. Yes, there’s still the upside of moral superiority, but the other side is being able to have relationships, sexual or otherwise, with multiple people without judgment. In other words, I just don’t understand why people would live by these arbitrary restraints on themselves when the alternative is so beneficial and not bound by any law. I’ve read a lot of this blog and know a big piece of this is being raised in the culture, scare tactics, the fact that most people choose their principles through emotion rather than reason, etc, but still something just does not compute for me. I really want to understand because I have several friends who have these views, not to mention that puritanical views of sexuality are pervasive in general. I’m sorry if this comment is insensitive or derailing, or if you did address this in other places. Thank you again for your wonderful blog.

    • ScottInOH

      I agree with Cathy W (below), but I think the charitable interpretation is that abstinence protects you from such bad outcomes as STIs and unwanted pregnancy. It’s not crazy to want your children (boys as well as girls) to avoid that.

      What IS crazy (as I’ve come to realize only recently) is to argue that “because something bad might happen if you do X, you should never do X.” That’s just not how we usually live our lives. We play sports, go on trips, drive to work, shake hands with people, and so on, even though all of those could get us sick or injured.

      As far as recommending “emotional purity,” I think the perceived upside is avoiding the heartache of breakups. The same criticism applies.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      People like to have formula solutions to problems, and a promise that doing ABC will get you result XYZ is very appealing–in this case the formula is that having no interactions with the opposite sex outside of a single romantic relationship will ensure a happy love life. Of course human interaction isn’t nearly that neat, and once you start to peel things apart it’s obvious that their advice does nothing to actually help you have a good relationship at best. But people will buy into things like this because they want to think they have a clear solution to a problem that doesn’t have one (assuming it exists in the first place).

    • Christine

      Don’t forget as well, the reason that people believe it is largely going to be because everyone around them did. It was presented to them at such a young age that they never thought that there needed to be a reason for it. That’s just the way it is. You could just as much ask why people used to believe that daily meat was a necessary part of a healthy diet, or that spontaneous generation was responsible for frogs. There was always a lot of stuff that just didn’t work with those theories, but no one every thought to question them, because that’s just the way things were.

  • Cathy W

    I keep trying to reply to this and it keeps telling me I’m posting too quickly. ARGH.

    The gist of what I don’t feel like typing out in full again: the upside for the authority figures is that they get to keep more control over their daughters, the upside for the daughters is that they get the “protection” they believe they need and the promise of a future God-given blissful marriage (that doesn’t always work out so well in practice).

    • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia Lucreza Borgia

      Clicking back usually brings you right back to the comment you were trying to post.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Oh wow. You said it so well. This is why I didn’t date through most of college- because if the relationship failed, then that would be the worst thing ever, a huge mistake forever staining my purity. I prayed so intensely about every crush- either he was THE ONE perfect guy destined by God for me, or it was a horrible mistake that was all bad and evil and I’d have to apologize to my future husband. Those 2 extremes. Either all good or all bad. And I was SO AFRAID of dating.

    Eventually, I realized that everything I believed about dating and purity was based in fear. I realized, this can’t be right, the bible says God gives freedom and doesn’t want people to live in fear. And I started dating someone and I’m completely going against all that purity stuff I believed. :)

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      ALSO the part about when you started dating and KNEW that it was a huge risk, that you were risking your purity- wow I can TOTALLY TOTALLY relate to that.

      Also if you date someone who’s not familiar with purity culture and doesn’t understand how much is supposedly at stake, that can lead to problems too.

  • Emily

    I’ll one-up your Snickers and rose — the object lesson in my girls purity class was a tampon.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com M

      Thank goodness I had a real sex-ed curriculum in middle and high schools. My younger sister had an abstinence-only one, and when my mom saw the virgin pledge card they sent home with all the girls (dunno if the boys got one or not), she was furious and told my sister not to sign it. Then they ripped it up together and sat down for a real talk.

      At least they didn’t have to sign it in class in front of everyone. They just handed out the cards at the end of the class. Everyone still pretty much had to take one, but the actual signing wasn’t a public, peer-pressured event. The spread of purity culture into mainstream culture is appalling.

    • Nea

      You have got to wonder about a group that equates the size of a tampon to the size of a man.

    • Christine

      Yes, this is my Asperger’s speaking, but my reaction to that is something along the lines of “tampons? But we have much better technology now. It’s re-usable.” (No, I wouldn’t really want to share a cup either, but it can be done if you were desperate.)

  • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com L

    fortunately i married a good man, because my upbringing, both books i read and things my parents said, made it very clear that if my husband turned out to be abusive there would be no way out…
    In fact, being raised in the courtship culture, once my future-husband and i were close friends – teens with nothing romantic going on my parents got mad if i ever seemed to have interest in anyone else. my close friendship had rendered me impure if i married anyone else, and had made me basically a home-wrecker if he married anyone else.
    My dad was worried i had given too much of my heart away but he and mom only lectured me for hours on end, about what a risky situation i had got myself in. He’d never talked to the young man, who actually approached him only a few months after he turned 18 so it’s not like he drug me on for ages. We actually worked on a couple big projects together and unbeknownst to us, our parents got together when those started to agree that we would be able to court if this led to it and it probably would. Looking back, if we had been able to have a healthy, open dating relationship we probably would have dated since age 16, and I wouldn’t have had to endure all the agony of wondering if he would ever ask (he was 17 during most of those lectures, btw), and of worrying i had ruined my purity just by being friends with a male. We ended up having a no-touch courtship, fortunately a short one. It was difficult though, for many reasons.
    I love him, i truly do, but i wish i had chose him more freely, and not because to marry anyone else would have meant i was impure, and i would have doomed my marriage to anyone else before it started. i have regrets along those lines even though i doubt i would have chosen differently. and besides, we are happy together. i’m not going to throw it away just because i regret the beginning so full of guilt, worry, and legalism.. (and in a sense, i did chose him, i chose him to be my friend. not that, for a homeschool girl who is barely socialized with anyone her own age, there were very many options. but there were some and i’d never had a friend like him…)
    I’m glad he’s not abusive because i KNOW i would have no support in leaving a marriage from my friends or family…. i feel so sorry for women like me who do marry abusive men.

  • saraquill

    Can anyone explain why, if having sex with someone more than once is so disgusting, married couples are exempt? By that logic, they’d be celibate or have sex exactly one time.

    • Christine

      You forgot about the magic change that happens when you get married. All of a sudden sexual desire and knowledge comes from nowhere, and sex stops being a horrible bad evil thing and becomes a duty.

    • Charlotte

      One of the reasons this whole belief system is nonsensical is that it is informed by a Catholic worldview that is obscured by protestant filters. This worldview has two relevant expressions. Firstly, sex is always unclean, and that is why priests must remain celibate, Mother Mary must have been and must remain a virgin, and why sex must only occur between a husband and wife for the purpose of having children. And secondly, a woman can be only a pure virgin or a mother, otherwise she is a prostitute and/or a witch. Western civilisation was largely catholic for more than a thousand years and these narratives did not go away and they did not stop being damaging; they have just been dressed differently in non-Catholic circles and are often less explicit.

  • TicklishMeerkat

    This sounds similar to what happened to me, too. It took a while to get rid of that programming about “purity” and “modesty.”

    At this point, I can’t take it seriously when a guy says he wants to marry a virgin. I’d sooner go to a dentist who was just barely out of high school, or a mechanic who had never even driven a car before, than consider tying myself to someone who had no idea what he was doing in bed. And I’d never ever allow access to my Magicalicious Ladybits to a guy who thought my value as a person depended on the contents of my crotch. It just screams “I need an infantilized slavegirl who won’t realize just how bad the sex is so I can feel like a BIG STRONG MA-YUN.” If he can’t manage that with a partner who is well aware of where her O is and how to get it, then I question how big and strong of a man he truly is.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    What else is a problem is the belief that if a guy agrees to marry you, then that is a sign that he loves and respects you, especially if he agreed to wait; but many wives end up being abused by their husbands.

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