Why Purity Culture Doesn’t Teach Consent

Why Purity Culture Doesn’t Teach Consent April 9, 2014

by Samantha Field cross posted from her blog Defeating The Dragons

I’m a Star Trek fan, and yes– it’s related. I grew up watching Star Trek loyally, and I’m pretty sure Captain Kathryn Janeway is one of the few reasons why I managed to be somewhat normal. So, when Enterprise began airing, I watched every single episode, and Phlox, a Denobulan doctor, quickly became one of my favorites. “The Breach” is one of the few episodes dedicated to his character, and it explores an ethical dilemma: he has been ordered by the captain to treat a patient even though this patient has repeatedly refused to be treated. To the human captain, it’s a simple matter of saving a life, but to Phlox, it was far more complicated.

As I was watching the episode, I realized there was something rather awesome about Denobulan culture: it is based entirely on consent. To treat a patient without his or her consent would violate everything Phlox believed about ethics and morality. I turned to my partner and announced that we were moving to Denobula, physics and reality be damned.

If there is a single idea that I desperately want to communicate to every single last person on the planet, it’s this one: Consent.

Western culture understands consent inside a few limited contexts– but even in most of those contexts, consent can be overruled if the circumstances are right. One of the areas where consent seems to completely fly out the window is when we’re talking about The Sex, although that is very, very slowly improving. However, in environments that encourage Purity in the form of Virginity, consent . . . just doesn’t show up. The only time I’ve heard consent mentioned has been to mock the very idea– “the world says that sex is fine as long as it’s “consensual”– but we know better than that, don’t we?” complete with obligatory scare quotes around “consensual.”

I’ve been struggling, trying to figure out why it seems so difficult for evangelical purity advocates to talk about consent, why the idea is mocked when it’s presented, and why no one seems to care about consent when it seems, at least to me, absolutely foundational when it comes to sexual interactions. Why does it seem to be more typical for those who teach purity to advocate for the opposite of consent? Why do some of them actively pursue the idea that marital rape is impossible– that being married is automatic consent? Or, if they’re not intentionally teaching against consent, why does it never seem to get mentioned?

Well, and I’m positive I’m not the first person to think of this, but I had an epiphany this morning.

They don’t teach consent because teaching consent would undermine one of their basic assumptions about people. Namely, the assumption that every single last person– most especially men, but also women– are basically nymphos who are straining at their leashes every single second of every single day and if you let that sex-crazed beast out for even just a moment then BAM it’s all over and you’re not a virgin anymore and that’s horrible because now you’re a half-eaten candybar or a cup full of spit.

This is why the “how far is too far?” question is almost unanimously answered with “you can’t do anything that might get your motor going, because the second you’re aroused– at all– there’s virtually nothing you’ll be able to do to stop yourself from having sex.”

To them, consent is always guaranteed. There’s no such thing as a person who would say no to an opportunity to have sex. Ever. The only thing you have to do to give consent is be alive.

If you start walking around teaching the idea that some people may not want to have sex with you and you need to ask first, it completely undoes everything they’re teaching about human sexuality. If you remove the ominous boogeyman of your inner sexual demons, then suddenly it might be ok to start exploring your pants-feelings. Because you can decide whether or not you want to do . . . well, whatever you want to do. Or not.

And it’s the “or not” part that would render most of what they teach almost completely useless. If people are capable of saying no, I don’t want to have sex with you, then teaching people that they cannot ever be alone with someone is sort of pointless. So are all the ridiculous conversations about hand holding and kissing and (God forbid) “heavy petting.”

Purity culture actually strips away empowerment, and agency, and autonomy. And the most horrifying thing about this understanding of human sexuality is that it makes rape non-existent. No one can be raped because we all want it all of the time.

Comments open below

Read everything by Samantha!

Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverfull, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing.

Samantha blogs at Defeating The Dragons and is a member of The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • Astrin Ymris

    Do you think another factor might be that in the Quiverfull culture what someone “wants” is unimportant– you’re supposed to be living in total submission to God’s Will at all times, in all ways.

    Therefore, why even bring up the issue of whether someone “wants” or “doesn’t want” to have sex? If you’re unmarried, you aren’t supposed to be having sex– period! If you’re married, if your husband wants sex, it’s your obligation to provide it– period! And don’t forget to fake an orgasm to make him feel manly.

  • Michelle M

    OMG this is so true. I grew up in purity culture, and I never even thought to bring up this question. I don’t know why I have the urge right now to laugh at the stupidity of it all. I think I’m just so happy I found freedom from this.

  • SAO

    I get the impression that the Fundamentalist culture is very rule bound. They are always telling people how to behave. Consent (let’s assume it’s a woman’s consent) is based on feelings. There’s no rule that can assure a man of the consent of his wife. A consent based on the woman’s feelings is unclear. Instead of having the authority of a rule, it’s all down to the whim of the individual.

    Instead, they have a nice, simple rule: say no to all sex/sexual feelings/actions before marriage, say yes to all after marriage. Complexity (and reality) is swept away in their tidy world.

  • Jewel

    Yes, this. Your feelings, wants and desires are, at best, unimportant, and at worst, evil and sinful.

  • Joy

    I think the lack of discussion around consent is a symptom of a deeper issue. If you ask someone for their consent, it implies that you respect them. Not asking for consent then implies that you don’t respect them.

    Fundie culture doesn’t respect women, and in a lot of ways, doesn’t respect men either. Both are forced to conform to rules that they have not been given the tools to think about or consent to. The rules for women are much more restrictive.

  • This is a powerful insight, and I’ll have to think on it deeper whenever I’m feeling less hot-blooded…

  • Christie

    Sometimes I wonder what it was exactly that I was taught vs what you seemed to be taught. I would have said I was brought up in a purity culture (sex is for marriage), but I also know that I was taught consent from an early age in church and out. Perhaps I was just super lucky. Perhaps I just had decent parents. Perhaps you are referring to something different than what I experienced.

    I think sometimes that we forget that there are extremes and they are noisy and attract attention, but there is also a middle way that is quieter, but more pervasive and is more commonly taught.

  • Ders

    My humble opinion on this is that purity culture is the result of immature, jealous and insecure men who have realized they can use their power to make up for these personal issues. I’ll explain.

    For most people it is uncomfortable to think about the fact that their significant other has had sex with somebody else. One of the worst potential thoughts is the idea that your significant other has had BETTER sex with somebody else. I think a lot of people have had these thoughts at one time or another but most people can handle them. When these thoughts arise you can remind yourself that your partner is with you now and not leaving so you must be doing something right. Or you can remind yourself that you have a past as well so getting upset over something like this is hypocritical. There are many ways to overcome the occasional bad thought. In any event this is something normal people just deal with and do it fairly easily.

    With patriarchal religious power, men have learned they can control their environment so that they don’t even have to deal with these thoughts. “You MUST be a virgin so that I KNOW I’m your best ever and that nobody else has played with my toy and never will get to.” I say grow up.

    This reasoning is also the impetus behind every bit of the culture that attempts to keep women in the home and keep them from being sexually alluring to others. It’s all about jealousy and insecurity.

    The father-daughter stuff is another offshoot where men have learned they can control their environment with this manipulative theology. You’d be hard pressed to find a father who doesn’t cringe when they think of their precious little girl having sex. So let’s tie this all up in a pretty package where women are demanded to stay virgins until marriage while men often get a free pass. That way men can avoid uncomfortable thoughts about the women in their lives while all along doing whatever the hell they want.

  • Rebecca Horne

    An interesting question is *why* this would be such a fundamental part of their worldview. As near as I can figure, it’s because that’s what happens to sexuality when it is repressed. It’s a cycle–deny all sexual thoughts, to the degree that your sexuality becomes the focus of your life and begins eating you up, then point at the starving, perverted beast your libido has become and use that to justify repressing it further.

  • Nightshade

    Means you don’t have to think about it. No need to decide whether you actually want to have sex with this specific person, or are you doing it just to have a warm body in your bed or because you can’t stand to be alone. After all, alone means unwanted, unworthy, right…?

  • Levedi

    I agree except I’d go further. Consent opens the door to wanting or not wanting. What people want is wrong and so if the decision to do something (have sex, eat ice cream, whatever) is based on “what do I want?” then the answer is always going to be sinful. “The heart of man [people] is desperately wicked” – that’s the quote that always came up when I was a child or teen and raised questions about what I wanted or felt I needed. What I wanted was, by definition, bad. And as a woman it was my job to submit. Thus, consent is at best irrelevant at worst it’s an invitation to sin.

  • Nichelle Wrenn

    I have noticed in most conservative cultures (political, religious, social, and economic) everything is black and white, there are no shades of gray. There is no middle ground in your choices. What is good for one is good for all. In light of that sort of thinking consent is dangerous. It means people have choices, choices lead away from this black and white thinking that is the cornerstone of conservative thought.

  • Sharla Hulsey

    Dr. Phlox also had four wives, IIRC… but none of them accompanied him on the Enterprise. Both details are probably neither here nor there, but they suddenly came to mind.

  • B.E. Miller

    Y’know, I keep thinking, that if ALL women are supposed to stay virgins until marriage, but guys can go do whatever they want, then there’s only one way for guys to experiment- with each other. It’s the logical explanation, right?

    Somehow I think a fundie wouldn’t see it that way…

  • Amy

    What’s worse, when they do acknowledge the existence of consent, it is to “forgive” rape victims for having something done to them against their will that would have been a sin if they had consented to it.