Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture – Megan Benninger

Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture – Megan Benninger January 1, 2024

Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture

Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture
Megan South Benninger

Megan Benninger has survived spiritual abuse in a variety of institutional settings, including a religious cult and a Southern Baptist church. She and her partner founded Baptist Accountability, an online database that tracks abuse within Baptist churches. Megan works tirelessly to educate others about spiritual and sexual abuse within churches and religious organizations.

I was lucky to create a Leaning Forward conference with all these women and their wisdom!

Leaning Forward is the title of a book by Karl and Laura Forehand about moving beyond the confines of organized religion. It is also the title of an online conference we have hosted for several years. This year, we decided to host a series of podcasts primarily to help us understand religious trauma and how to move forward. We are also hosting an online conference with the understanding that amplifying women’s voices is probably the most important component.

This is a conference powered by women but designed for men and women who want to heal from trauma and identify ways to do better in the future!
Megan shared “Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture.


The complete version of Megan’s talk is on YouTube! 



Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture

by Megan Benninger

Leaning Forward Conference: What Women Know about Trauma

I’m a cult survivor, a whistleblower, a church abuse advocate, and a mother of five children. I’ve been married for 27 years to my husband, Dom. He and I have co-founded the Baptist Accountability Website where we track abusers and enablers in Baptist churches and institutions.

Purity Culture

Purity culture is a Christian subculture of abstinence-only education. It teaches that there is to be no sex before marriage, sometimes even kissing is forbidden. Dating is discouraged because that could lead to sex. Many versions of purity culture even encouraged the courtship model where the father and the man involved made the deal. Maybe the girl was happy about it, but maybe not.

In this worldview, women and girls are seen as responsible for men’s and boy’s desires and behaviors. They are encouraged to dress modestly in order not to arouse these sexual urges in men and boys. They’re just made the scapegoat. Purity culture also fails to teach about basic biology and consent, and it does not educate about birth control methods since they think this knowledge will lead to increased rates of premarital sex and sexually transmitted diseases. That’s an unfounded belief. Many studies have shown that purity culture has zero effect on preventing unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

It is also interesting to notice that Evangelical Christian purity culture has had a significant influence on our federal government. As the Christian right rose to power, they had an influence and it ended up that abstinence-only education was then widely implemented in public schools. Sometimes you can define purity culture as similar to rape culture, which people talk about in more secular circles.

I listened to one compelling scholar who said that purity culture and rape culture are incestuous lovers. I thought that was interesting, but purity culture is the term in religious circles that we tend to use when talking about this. I am going to be sharing my own experience, and I want to make it very clear that I’m not a therapist. I’m not a professional. I don’t have any certifications in this field, and I’m not speaking as an expert. I am just sharing my personal experience and hoping that it might resonate with some people or be helpful in some way. These are some of the things I found helpful in reclaiming married sex and my own body from purity culture.

If you don’t resonate with my personal experience, I recommend Linda K. Klein’s book, Pure, for an in-depth study of purity culture. She includes a wide range of diverse testimonials on this topic with LGBTQ people, single people, and married people. If you don’t resonate with my experience, I guarantee you will find something in her book to resonate with. It is a brilliant book on the topic.

My exposure to purity culture is that I marinated in it growing up. I went to a very fundamentalist Christian school from PreK through 12th grade. This school was very legalistic. Girls had to wear skirts below the knees and wear long shorts under their skirts. I remember being sent home one day because my skirt was too short the test was to kneel to the ground and if your skirt didn’t touch the ground, you had to go home because it was unacceptable unless you had something at school to change into. It had very strict modesty rules.

We also had a six-inch rule, and I’m not sure that this was technically a rule or if it was a mythology, but I think it might have been an actual rule in my early years. People always referred to it and boys and girls weren’t supposed to get too close. We were not supposed to sit beside each other or be alone. Dancing was not allowed and even when we went on field trips, we couldn’t sit on the bus seat together. We couldn’t stop at restaurants that served alcohol. I know that doesn’t have to do with purity but just to give you an idea of the school known as Heritage Academy. Not surprisingly, the school has been in the news recently for covering up child physical and sexual abuse for over 40 years.

My High School and Junior High school history teacher, Robert Becker, has been convicted recently for child sex abuse and he is now in prison for five years. This is pathetic when you think about it because people who do marijuana get longer sentences than that. It’s just terrible. You may have noticed, in religious news, that this is a pattern that we’re now seeing in a lot of schools, churches, and institutions that teach purity culture. The adults are living like the absolute opposite of what they prescribe, and abuse is rampant.

I also had some influence from my church which was the Grace Brethren denomination. Most people aren’t familiar with that, but it’s similar to Baptist. We had a Wednesday night girls’ group in that church that was called SMM, and it stood for Serving My Master. I know, right? It was similar to Girl Scouts, except that we earned badges for things like sewing, baking, and reading our Bible all the way through. We memorized Scripture and did all the things that would groom us to be submissive and obedient wives and church members.

Serving My Master

This picture is a ceremony for the entire area. All the SMM groups would get together and have this ceremony where the girls were recognized for their badges, and whoever earned the most badges that year, would be crowned Princess. We wore white dresses mostly and carried flowers down an aisle. Please take note of the men looking at me and their expressions. Pictures do speak a thousand words.

Purity rings and purity balls came later in history, so I didn’t experience that, but the messages were still loud and clear. I don’t remember hearing purity culture laid out officially until my senior year of high school. So even though these messages were consistent, I was pretty rebellious, and I experimented sexually, as a teen. Often, I felt great shame about this, and I believed that staying pure was the right thing to do, I just wasn’t doing it and didn’t want to do it. It was like this great war in my mind and body. I knew what was supposed to be right, but I wasn’t doing it, I also was not questioning it either. I was indoctrinated and this was all I knew.

I was talking about this with Dom, and he said, “It sounds like it was biology versus theology.” I said, “Yeah that’s a pretty good way to put it because I was taught this non-stop from birth.” I lived in shame. I was also convinced that I had to marry my boyfriend that I had been sexually active because if you had sex with someone, that was it!  You were theirs. Otherwise, you were used up, and useless for anyone else. So, when he broke up with me, technically, I was doomed.  The boy went to public school, so he didn’t have any of these hangups at all. I was so unaware of what was going on, but looking back I can see how interesting that was. He didn’t feel any of that guilt or shame and here I was just utterly devastated.

My Senior Trip

I had no idea what to do next because I felt so ruined for any other man and my shame just grew exponentially. Then one year later, he broke up with me the summer before my Senior year, and at the end of my school year, my class at Heritage Academy took a weeklong Senior trip to Word of Life Institute in New York. The theme of our entire week there was purity.

As I was researching this topic, just to see where I lined up in the whole purity culture thing, I discovered something interesting. The beginning of organized purity culture was basically when True Love Waits started. True Love Waits is an international Christian group that promotes sexual abstinence outside of marriage for teenagers and college students. It was created in April 1993 by the Southern Baptists and is sponsored by LifeWay Christian resources. If you know anything about what’s happening in the Southern Baptist world, it is rampant with abuse. They started this organization in April of 1993. My senior trip was May or June of 1993. I didn’t realize this connection, but I happened to remember the speaker’s name after all these years, Ron Hutchcraft. I looked him up and, sure enough, he was connected with the True Love Waits movement.

To give a little further context to the purity timeline, most people are more familiar with Josh Harris’ book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye book and that didn’t arrive on the scene until 1997 and I was married by 1996. So, I was really only experiencing the earliest part of purity culture before I got married.


At this weeklong trip to Word of Life Institute, Ron Hutchcraft’s sermons impacted me, and I remember that he compared having premarital sex to opening your Christmas presents before Christmas morning. He painted a picture of just how dreadful it would be to spoil the surprise and have nothing to look forward to. I’m sure he used many other analogies, but for some reason, that is the one I remember and remains in my head even now.

By this point, I had already been called a chewed-up piece of gum by a boy that I had a crush on that year who found out that I had already been tampered with by another male. So now, after a week of concentrated Purity messages, my self-esteem was in the toilet, but I was inspired and resolved to do better! I did not do better by the definition that they were giving of better. Shame did what shame does. I did worse. I felt it didn’t matter anymore because I’d ruined myself, so why bother? I wasn’t, by any means, wildly promiscuous, but by the time I met my husband, Dom, I certainly was far outside of the bounds of the ideal purity culture wedding candidate. To them, I was a rose without petals, a prematurely unwrapped gift, a chewed-up, and flavorless stick of gum.

All of these analogies that had been used objectified women and dehumanized them if we were something that could be used up.

Dom and I met in college, and I felt it was necessary to tell him that I was not a virgin because he was a Christian (probably looking for a pure Christian wife). I have his permission to share our story. When I told him that I was not a virgin, it stopped him in his tracks because he had “saved” himself and I was sure this was going to be a deal breaker. I assumed that I deserved it. I mean I had done this and there was no going back. I was ruined and this period was just really rough as he was taking time to think through whether he even wanted to continue this relationship.

Thankfully he decided he did want to and that he could forgive and, hopefully, get past the resentment. You can imagine that I felt worse than ever about my failings. We continued dating and while we were dating, we struggled not to go all the way and we made it until we were engaged. We couldn’t wait to be married, and even a few months before our wedding was scheduled, we considered eloping very strongly because we didn’t want to live in sin, and we just couldn’t wait for another second. But alas, we did wait for the ceremony. Well, we didn’t wait, but we did wait, and didn’t elope, so marriage felt like a huge relief.


We assume there was going to be no more guilt, but of course, there still was all the guilt from the past. But we weren’t going to be adding to that. We weren’t going to be sinning anymore. We thought our honeymoon was going to be great—but it wasn’t great. On our wedding night, I was just so utterly exhausted from the day I had no desire to do anything, but I felt like I had to consummate our wedding night. So, I pushed myself, no big deal, but little did I know that this would be the first of many times throughout marriage that I would give in to having sex when I didn’t want to. I was too tired, too whatever, but because it was the right and Godly thing to do, to always be available for your husband (I mean that’s what I had been taught), I gave in.

Purity culture didn’t end when marriage started, it just kind of morphed into this new thing. One of the books that I read, as a new wife, was called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. This book was written in 1975, and I was reading it in 1996. I read it and loved it because it reinforced everything I had already learned. It was how to be a good wife now. It is discussed in Kristen Du Mez’s book, Jesus, and John Wayne, where she talks about The Total Woman and how it influenced purity culture and the culture of our nation in general.

Marabel Morgan made what seemed like fun suggestions to seduce your husband to keep him faithful. So that was my duty now. One of her suggestions was to meet your husband at the door in Saran Wrap. She suggested doing all these cute things and the woman’s whole day was to be ordered around making our husbands as happy and comfortable as possible. Once he got home from work, it was it was my duty to keep my husband so wildly sexually satisfied, that he would never even consider looking at another woman. But he inevitably would look at other women because men are uncontrollable and insatiable in their sexual desires, according to purity culture folklore.

So it was this Catch-22! You couldn’t win, but you were supposed to try.

Marabel also set forth very clearly defined roles that supposedly Scripture laid out for women. Spoiler alert—later, I learned these were not so clearly defined as people were starting to understand what that is and what it that describes. We were indoctrinated to define marriage in a complementarian way, and these were the messages in every single Christian marriage book and marriage sermon. We heard this message in any and everything concerning Christian marriage that I ever heard for decades. It was echoed in the Bill Gothard seminar that Dom and I went to, early in our marriage. I also subscribed to the Above Rubies magazine, which promotes the worldview that women are to have as many children as God will let them have (as prescribed by the Quiverfull Movement). Birth control was not allowed because we were building the Kingdom for Christ by breeding.

A friend from church gave me a book about Quiverfull, and I had an intense memory of reading through that book. I came to a part where it said that birth control could end a pregnancy. If it didn’t work right and you got pregnant (which apparently, they were saying many women did), it was just aborting the baby. I was mortified when I found that out because I was on the pill, and I ran to Dom as he was out working in our garage. I just sobbed and sobbed, sure that I had just killed numerous babies already. I cannot tell you how deeply this affected me. I felt like I had committed the worst crime on the planet without even realizing it.

So, the shame grew. I never took another birth control pill after that day, and I soon became pregnant with our first child. I didn’t have the internet back then to check out the truth of these claims and I don’t regret having any of my children in any way now. I love them all dearly and I am so glad I had them, but I very much regret listening to these unscientific claims and hating myself so completely as a result.

Five Children Later

So, years later, we were pregnant with our fifth child, and we were at a Southern Baptist Church. They were holding a baby shower for us, and it was a big to-do because another woman was having a baby too. It was a combined shower, a big crowd, and there were tables set up in the sanctuary. The pastors and deacons were speaking from the stage, and we were jokingly praised by the pulpit for building the kingdom. But it wasn’t a joke because I remember, in that very Church, being shown statistics about Muslims versus Christians and the populations of those as if it were a cosmic competition for world domination. I don’t remember it being at that church specifically, but I remember very much hearing from pulpits and being encouraged to outbreed other religions which just is sick to me now. I mean it’s just sick!

A few years before that, early in our marriage, another thing happened when my aunt bought us a whole cassette tape series on marriage. I don’t remember the title of it, and I’m unsure of the author, but it reinforced all the things we had already learned. It also suggested scheduling sex. This was supposedly to help the man stay satisfied, so he could function properly, and this would supposedly allow the woman to mentally prepare herself for the act and put on her best for the occasion. Somehow this was supposed to build intimacy and make the marriage relationship stronger, but you might see how these ways of thinking could strip sex of any beauty spontaneity or expression of love. Sex was solidly framed now as an obligation on my part and an entitlement on Dom’s part. And if it didn’t happen as scheduled, Dom felt rejected and cranky, and I felt like a failure.

This Dynamic played out over decades and did a number on our sex life. I don’t want to imply that we never had any good times. We certainly had wonderful, beautiful times and a pretty darn good relationship, considering the system we were in. We did well despite our circumstances, but this was a thread that just kept making things worse and killing my desire for anything. As time went on, things gradually got worse instead of better and neither of us was happy with things, even though, we were supposedly doing things God’s way!

We went on to have five children. I delivered them all by C-section and I had no concept of physical trauma or a realization that this much birthing might be hard on my body. Because I’d been taught that female bodies were designed and created for this purpose and God would decide when I was finished. He would either close my womb or cause me to start menopause or whatever. We didn’t see that all the way through, and we did have my tubes tied after the fifth baby. But I mourned over that, and I felt like I was doing something very wrong.

So, I didn’t always live by the things that I believed and was taught, and that caused even more internal and psychological issues. There was also no room in my mind to allow myself space to heal after these births beyond the six-week recovery recommendation given by my doctor. Dom was never pushy about getting back to getting busy, but I pushed myself because I thought it was the right thing to do. It would almost appear that I was my oppressor that I had trained so well. I became my own slave master, my abuser. Looking back, I can see now that I was doing the best that I could to survive in a system where I felt I had no choice. I am learning to have compassion for myself now.

Bad Advice

Another memory that is etched in my mind, happened shortly after one of my children was born. There was a mother of many in my circle of friends whom I admired greatly. Everyone admired her and thought of her as a mentor and the type of biblical woman that you aspire to be in that situation. When I needed help, I went to her for advice. I had just had a baby and my six weeks of recovery was up, and I was doing my duty, but I was struggling so badly. I was just so worn out physically and emotionally and I had no desire to have sex. I wanted desperately not to have sex at this point and asked her what I should do. Her advice was basically that we needed to suck it up for our men because their need is so great and she had to grit her teeth to get through it at times. But this is what is necessary!  She suggested switching it to morning if I needed to so that I would have more energy.

I felt disappointed after that meeting, but also somewhat fortified to do what needed to be done for God. So, all these good intentions on the part of Dom and me just kept us hurting each other, and we didn’t know what to do. So, we kept plugging along, trying the same things over and over because it’s all we’d ever been taught. Why wasn’t God’s way working? Looking back, without therapy, I didn’t have the skills to unwind what was happening. It’s only in retrospect now that I can even tell this story seeing more clearly what was happening. I titled this chapter, Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture, because that has been what I consider my journey to be up to this point. Being able to tell this story now is an act of reclamation for me and I appreciate any one of you who read it.

Finally, about five or six years ago, came a breaking point in all things in our shared life. We had several huge catastrophes all at once. First, Dom and I discovered that one of our pastors, the one who had a great relationship with our kids and who had baptized our oldest two children, was a convicted child molester. Our Southern Baptist Church had covered this up for 12 years and our children had been in danger all that time.


I won’t take time to get into the details of that story, because it is told in USA Today. You can search for it. It is called The Tongue is a Fire. If you search that title, with my name, Megan Benninger, it will come right up. We became whistleblowers and suffered all the consequences that come along with that role.

At the same time as the whistleblowing, I was also having a major health crisis. I was having early Alzheimer’s symptoms. I had physical symptoms for many years, but doctors just kept telling me my blood work was fine, everything was fine. I knew I wasn’t fine, but I was at a breaking point now because I was getting lost driving in familiar places. I was seeing things move that weren’t moving. My brain was not working right. I was so forgetful and I even on occasion had false memories like remembering things that didn’t happen. This was bizarre, so it was to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore and I had to figure out what was happening.

I ultimately got diagnosed with late-stage neurological Lyme disease and I started a grueling eight-month treatment that left me mostly bedridden. I can see now how a lot of my symptoms could also have been trauma and how hard it was to unwind it. Many people will talk about the relationship between chronic illness with trauma and abuse. It did a number on me. Meanwhile, our support system, our church, was suddenly gone. We were being shunned, defamed, harassed, intimidated, and doxed. We had our personal information published on Twitter–all the things that I used to think only happen to people leaving cults like Scientology or maybe the mafia, but not a small-town Baptist Church.  It was just crazy and “dark night of the soul” feels like an understatement for this period. I was having a complete breakdown physically, mentally, and spiritually.

I had had a lot of spiritual traumas over the years, not just in my church and school growing up. Dom and I were also involved in a cult for three years during college and the first year of our marriage which I won’t get into. There was a lot of spiritual trauma there. We went on to other abusive churches in various denominations. We tried charismatic churches and went back to Southern Baptist. The spiritual abuse was everywhere! I took to heart when people said this wasn’t God doing this to you this was just people. So, I refused to give in, and I let that spiritual trauma drive me deeper into my Christian faith where I was always trying harder and trusting Jesus more.

So even after this whistleblowing incident and the betrayal of a church cover-up and having my children put in danger, and even after having this complete breakdown on all levels, I did not give up. We found a new church, but I was having major trauma responses. I was wailing during the services, having to run out of the sanctuary balling. It was just horrible and it would take me days to recover! Then I would start the whole thing over again the next Sunday and church was one of the only outings I would do during the week because I was so sick.

Licensed Therapy and Taking a Break

I will say the one silver lining to this whole breakdown was that I finally went to try professionally licensed therapy as opposed to church counselors. I got my foot in the door because the therapist I went to specialized in chronic illness and that somehow felt slightly more okay than maybe going for some other reason. Of course, I had been indoctrinated and it seemed wrong to seek any worldly pop psychology help outside of God’s Word. Psychology was sinful and to be avoided at all costs and Christ was sufficient. My therapist was a lifesaver, and she was the one who finally recommended that I take a break from the church, she said that I wouldn’t heal if I kept retraumatizing myself week after week.

Soon after she had said this, I was sharing with Dom just how much therapy was helping me and how it was nothing like I thought. So, Dom also started going to a therapist and his therapist gave him similar advice. His therapist said, “You can’t heal from a burn while continuing to play in the fire.” So, at this point, we’re both taking a break because I desperately wanted to heal myself for my children. I was willing to do whatever it took at that point. Since I was stopping church, I assumed I might as well stop anything having to do with my faith because it all triggers me now–praying, listening to sermons, listening to worship music–all of that just made me sick. I stopped everything, thinking it was going to be temporary.

After three months, I noticed a shift and, at the six-month mark, I felt like a different person. My thinking had changed so much and when I look back on, the silencing of all the Christian faith messages, I think that what happened is that I was deprogrammed from years of constant indoctrination. My worldview simply did not hold together without the constant programming, teaching, music, lyrics, books, etc. This was the beginning of my deconstruction journey.

It took another year or so for Dom and me to realize that our deconstruction journey, which we began together, extended to our sex life. We started reading a lot and learning about the ills of purity culture and how that was working out for people and began to see that it was affecting us. Even after having this cognitive understanding, nothing was getting better, so we realized we needed help.

Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture

There are two major ways that I have worked to reclaim both married sex and my body, my autonomy. The first was deconstructing the actual Theology and underlying beliefs of purity culture. It is very important to understand where it went wrong and then also what to do after that. So, the other thing we did was seek out professional sex therapy and learn to build a new personal sex ethic.

I am just going to discuss briefly unwinding the theology a little bit more because it is an important part. Although it didn’t change anything in and of itself, it is important to understand it cognitively for things to start changing. I began to see the problems that stemmed from the supposed biblical worldview of sex and marriage. I discovered egalitarianism, which is kind of the alternative to complementarianism. It’s a philosophy where males and females are viewed as having equal power and authority, not having predetermined binary gender roles. I discovered that some denominations and brands of Christianity had held the view of egalitarianism for a very long time, and they could defend it scripturally. They even allowed women to be pastors! I read a lot, and I joined a Facebook group that was helpful called Biblical Christian Egalitarians. It was very liberating to see that people could interpret scripture so differently and be as convinced of their doctrine as my camp had been about ours.

But that was just the beginning. I marinated there in the egalitarian Christian world for maybe a year or so. I was thinking I could save my Christian faith at that point if I found the right theologies. But as time went on, I ran into biblical scholarship which is a whole different wing of things. I started following people like Pete Enns, Bart Ehrman, and more recently, Dr. Jennifer Bird, who were pointing out that the Bible isn’t anything like what we taught. It was the way it was written, and who it was written by. We have been dreadfully misinformed by pastors and some of them don’t know it. I think some of them do and just don’t want to lose their jobs because this stuff is taught in seminaries.

Learning generally about the Bible changed so much and these people also seem to be saying that when you’re looking at the period of the Bible, even most progressive parts are still patriarchal, and women were still property. Even in the New Testament, it was important to be honest about that and that doesn’t fit well with a view of the inerrancy of Scripture, so I started unwinding all of that. Dr. Jennifer Bird points out that marriage in the Bible was about women being property. There was no concept of a relationship beyond sex and ownership and sex was how a man marked his territory. So, it wasn’t this beautiful romantic mutual love that we think of now, and it’s not okay to read that into the scripture because it is not what they were talking about.

A woman’s consent wasn’t even necessary for a marriage to take place and men were often married to multiple wives and had access to their wives’ slaves for sex. There were no purity teachings for men whatsoever. It was only for the women and even then, it wasn’t spelled out. A man took or bought a wife, and a father gave or sold a daughter. It was a transaction of property.

In conjunction with studying and unwinding the theology of purity culture, we also sought out specialized help. I began seeing a licensed sex therapist. Surely a sex therapist could tell us how to fix everything. Three years later, sometimes we feel like we have not made any progress, and some days, it feels like we have. But it is not a quick fix like most things. These beliefs are so much deeper than I could have ever imagined, and we are totally in the mid-process.

I’m not here to necessarily teach you anything, but I want to tell you about our experience and what was helpful while seeing the therapist. As we went to this sex therapist, we were both hopeful that she was going to lay out the new sex ethic for us. I was imagining a whole new way of doing things. We knew what we had been doing was harmful, and we knew what not to do, but we had no idea what the right way to go about this now. As if there were two options and she was going to tell us the other one. We soon realized it would be a journey where there were no clearly defined rules.

We have been encouraged to look at the research and evidence of how things affect people sexually consider our values and make a new plan together. I discovered that I had a lot of trauma, some caused merely by the messages I’d been given my whole life. Dealing with shame is one of the hardest parts of the process. Some of my healing has been taking long breaks from sex altogether and thankfully Dom has been very understanding and given me all the space that I need. It hasn’t been perfect or easy, by any means, but he acknowledges that he was the person that benefited most from the system that we were in. It certainly harmed him too, but he was also benefiting from it, and he can admit that and has permitted me to share.

Sometimes I just needed the rest that I didn’t give myself. Our sex therapist has had me look Dom in the eye and say repeatedly, “I am not responsible for your pleasure” and that is so hard because that is the opposite of what I was taught. My body needs to feel safe again like sex is something to be desired and enjoyed, not just expected. So, this is what it takes!  Occasionally, when we realize them, we have to address really hard things.

Another main theme in our Sex Therapy has been finding our sexuality apart from each other. We never had this opportunity within purity culture teachings. One thing she recommended is masturbation and I don’t love that word because I think it has so much baggage. She introduced us to a new term, self-pleasure, which I prefer to use and that is an issue that has been completely demonized by Evangelical Christianity and purity culture. There’s nothing about it in the Bible. There’s one story about Onan in the Old Testament who was supposed to impregnate his dead brother’s wife so they could carry on the lineage, but he pulled out before the sex act was over and spilled his seed on the ground and God struck him dead. So that was supposed to be proof that somehow masturbation was wrong because you’d be wasting semen, as if it was being rationed couldn’t be wasted.

So obviously they didn’t understand biology back then, but that was not referring to self-pleasure anyway and self-pleasure has been an important tool in getting to know our bodies and reclaiming our bodies. I think certainly purity culture has a way of disembodying us and making us dissociate from ourselves, especially when we’re repressing sexuality constantly and/or enduring sex. Women dissociate sometimes just to get through it, it has been an important practice for us to reclaim our bodies and it can also we found out be therapeutic.

For a person with lower desire, it can help build desire and it can be therapeutic for a person who has super high desire and maybe their partner has low desire, so that they can be self-sufficient sometimes with their needs. If their partner isn’t always available or in the mood, porn is a big issue I don’t have time to get into, but it is something that we have delved into a bit. Some couples do incorporate that and if it is an ethical source, which our sex therapist assures us exists, some couples do choose to implement that. She also let us know that porn isn’t what we think. It isn’t always visual because steamy novels can be porn and there’s audio porn. It’s important to consider different things like that which you don’t always think about.

She helped us talk through our ideas about sex that we had and where those came from, how that line up with the researched evidence and gave us options of things we may never have considered. She never pushed us towards doing anything but saying, “Here’s something you can try that some people find helpful.” She’s given us a lot of different exercises to explore intimacy even apart from sex, like different levels of interaction.

I think I’m very fortunate to be in a situation where my partner is willing to work with me and we’re unwinding this together. I want to acknowledge this is just my experience and I know that there are many women out there whose partner is not on the same journey, and I can’t even imagine that. That’s a whole different story and I think a therapist can help people unwind these types of things. I know a lot of people do end up separating because it’s really hard to heal if you’re in an environment where you’re constantly being harmed. That is a difficult situation, so I recommend, if your partner is in with you or if they’re not, seek out a professional therapist, maybe even one with religious trauma expertise.

If you think you may be in an abusive relationship and you decide to seek out therapy, it would be best to go alone first without a partner. Abusive people are very skilled at fooling even therapists and you will be able to speak more freely about your side of the story and unwind what’s happening without that person being there. This is just advice usually given by abuse advocates, so it’s a tricky thing sometimes for people to unwind if they’re being abused or if they are in an abusive system.

Dom wasn’t trying to gain power over me, but he thought that he was what he was supposed to be. It can be really hard to unwind, whether it is deliberate or not. If you feel safe with your partner, it would be great to seek out couples therapy or sex therapy together. That’s a great way to go, but as I said, much of my journey has involved Dom taking a step back and giving some things up. So, you have to kind of weigh whether your partner is willing to do that. While he was never abusive intentionally, my body experienced these expectations as abuse. I wouldn’t have defined it as such, but the outcomes of our behaviors are often different than our intentions.

I want to say here again some partners do intend to abuse. They are deliberate and calculated and excellent at hiding their motives. Do some research if you’re not sure about narcissistic abuse or coercive control. Another great thing to research is the National Domestic Hotline. They have a menu item called identifying abuse that goes through all the different kinds of abuse, not just physical. Abuse can be emotional, financial, and other things. These tools can help unwind and identify for sure what kind of a situation you are in because Purity culture itself is abusive. I would go so far as to say Evangelical Christianity is abusive as a system. Even if it’s unintended, you are most likely experiencing harm in that system.

This is not a beat-up the men exercise. I’ve had to have my reckoning for how I’ve raised my children. Toxic theologies and environments hurt so many areas of our lives. These hierarchies, and we all when we’re part of those systems, can become abusive in ways that were not intended to and have done harm to people. I am not putting this all on Dom or men. We women took part in it too and have things that we have to own now and work towards reconciling.

Final Thoughts

I’m not telling anyone what is right or wrong. You can make different decisions and come to a different sexual ethic than I have. I do personally think the cure for purity culture is consent. It is not a new rules-based sexual ethic. What we need, I believe, is communication where partners set and respect clear boundaries. These boundaries should be able to be renegotiated over time because we grow as people, and as long as we have clear and open ongoing communication, it’s all going to be okay.

To see other speakers and a few extras, access the following link:

The videos below are from the conference held on December 9th. They are free to access, but please consider donating to help offset expenses using the scan below.
Reclaiming Married Sex from Purity Culture
Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Out into the Desert, Leaning Forward,  Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart, The Tea Shop and Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authenticity.  He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast and community.  He is married to his wife Laura of 35 years and has one dog named Winston.  His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply! You can read more about the author here.

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