The intentions of “purity culture” were honorable. Its methods, however, brought shame. (See my first post in this series). Because categories like “clean” and “impure” become identity labels, any hint of imperfection or “defect” is tantamount to a threat. Even the rumor of impropriety or associating with the wrong person can stain one’s reputation.
So, what is a person to do? Where people feel threatened, they attempt to attain and maintain control. This response merely injects a new poison into the social system. As one group seeks to control others, a cycle of oppression and shame begins.
We didn’t kiss shame goodbye
A clip from the documentary “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye” illustrates the point and even reminds me of some tactics used in some conservative Muslim cultures.
Joshua Harris interviews a man, Curtis, who grew up far outside of Christian church culture. One evening Curtis was rebuked by a friend who claimed that Curtis had too long of a conversation with a certain young woman in the church. The friend admonished Curtis to “guard her heart.” The concept sounded strange to him, but, apparently, talking to her for so long was not guarding her heart.
Curtis later saw how far people took this notion. Upon entering a gathering of believers, he noticed all the women were on one side of the room while all the men separated themselves on the other side. It was a throwback to something more extreme than a junior high dance. Again and again, Curtis heard people say about one another, “you have to guard her/his heart.”
Curtis finally replied with Proverbs 4:23, “Guard your [own] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Christian subculture sanctioned mass segregation of gender and a guarding of others’ hearts not my own. Much of the onus fell on women, who were told that their bodies were “stumbling blocks” for men.
CBE International lists 7 lies that purity culture teaches women. I’ll mention two here.
- Women are responsible for men’s sexual sin.
- Women’s bodies are something to be ashamed of.
The CBE post adds,
Rather than placing the responsibility for sexual thoughts or actions on the man or boy who enacts them, purity culture places the responsibility on the woman or girl being looked at and lusted after. It’s almost as if Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, go and tell the thing you’re looking at to stop looking that way in front of your eye.”
If women’s bodies are blamed for lust—if the church claims that they need to be covered up for the sake of men—this inevitably leads to shame.
What does Christian subculture do to combat the threat of impurity? It creates rules to ensure we go nowhere near anything that might possibly resemble or remind us of impurity. But such regulations are extrabiblical and only fuel shame in those who transgress them, even though various behaviors are not sin.
Purity Culture and Fundamentalist Islam
To my surprise, watching the documentary reminded me of the plight faced by many women in conservative Muslim contexts. (In reality, similar cultural dynamics exist in non-Muslim cultures, but most people are more familiar with Islamic cultures.)
In such cultures, the honor of a man and a family is closely tied to a women’s sexuality. A woman’s body is a potential cause for shame. If she is judged promiscuous or even flirty, severe consequences may follow. Modesty, therefore, is a virtue stressed upon girls from a young age. This is one reason for many Muslim women wearing hijabs or burkas.
However, the way society might police Muslim women can become grotesque, not merely oppressive. As mentioned in a previous post, such communities routinely perform female genital mutilation as a way to keep young girls “pure.” Community leaders enforce rules that ensure the extreme segregation of men and women, not only in a mosque but in every social setting.
If a woman dares to challenge any number of social norms (most all of which do not appear in the Koran), the consequence could be dire. Honor killings often stem from a woman breaking customs or rules that meant to keep immorality at a far distance.
In other words, a woman might not commit any lewd or explicitly prohibited command (e.g., adultery, etc.). Still, transgressing any measure put in place to “guard” against immorality becomes a grave offense on its own.
How far is too far?
One question on the mind of every church boy and girl is this, “How far is too far?” In other words, what can I do physically where I can still be counted as “pure”? The obvious problem with the question is that it overlooks the matter of the hear (the subject of my second post in this series).
In the same way, we need to ask the same question to ourselves. When it comes to teaching about purity, sexuality, among other issues, how far is too far? The various guards our (sub)cultures put in place often go too far.
The range of formal and informal rules men used to control women creates an environment that breeds shame. Fear and hypersensitivity to mere social guards push one inward, into hiding, not wanting anyone to see what you might have said or done. A good reputation is quickly lost, only regained at a slug’s pace.
Of the making of many rules… there is no end. We need to be wary of going too far. Otherwise, we not only foster shame in those around us; we allow it fester inside ourselves as well.