If you grew up in the 1990s or early 2000s in the United States then you grew up with, at minimum, a passing relationship with Purity Culture. Purity Culture was the massive wave of social, political, and religious energy that focused on convincing teens and young adults that the ultimate danger and sin in the world was sex.
Healing from Purity Culture
Schools hosted seminars, true-love-waits rings were worn, and pledges of abstinence were made. Abstinence was sold as the only viable option; sex would destroy your mind, make you undesirable to a future spouse, and lead to a life full of STDs and unplanned pregnancy.
One of the most popular books on this subject was ‘I Kissed Dating Good-Bye’ by Joshua Harris. The 21-year-old aspiring pastor wrote an in-depth guide to how to never date again, save everything (including kissing) for marriage, and be in God’s good favor to find your soulmate. Eventually, Harris started to reflect on exactly how little he knew about these topics and how many of his messages were weaponized. He even created a documentary called “I Survived I Kissed Dating Good-Bye” which brought back a flood of memories for me when I watched it.
Purity Culture Is Often Used as a Tool of Abuse Against Survivors
I grew up in purity culture. At 11, I began attending events where I signed pledges to wait until marriage to have sex. I wore three rings on my ring finger that read true, love, and waits. I believed that I was responsible for not tempting boys to sin with my ever emerging curves. I was told I didn’t need to know anything about sex until college. I started having sex at 14. Oops.
As a sexologist who specializes in sexual trauma, I have seen purity used as a tool for abuse against survivors. When abstinence educators took a piece of tape and had everyone hold it, or chewed a piece of gum asking who else would eat it (real teaching methods used) what they told survivors was that their assault made them physical and spiritual trash. I brought this up to chaplains who replied, “Oh yes, I would discuss purity that way if I know someone is a victim.” I asked how they think they would know if someone was a victim. Their response? "I just would."
Purity Culture Perpetuates Shame
Mayla Green, sex and relationship expert, shares how she noticed the purity culture narratives affecting her clients. Purity culture put so much focus, power, and importance on sex that even after getting married, the shame never went away.
“Several years ago, men would contact me and ask questions about how to enjoy sex. They would tell me they love their wife, but are not having fun in the bedroom. I would suggest toys and fun ideas to try, they would say there is no way their wife would ever try a toy.”
However, hope comes in the form of education. The more we openly discuss the barriers to pleasure and enjoyment the closer we can move to an empowered reality. Green also stated:
“I think that the purity culture from 10 - 15 years ago made people think that sexual experimentation is sinful. So, it would never be a topic of communication in the relationship. These days, men and women call me on speaker phone together and asking for advice. Couples are more open to trying toys and new positions, it's like the taboo is dissipating. I think communication has a major role in this attitude shift. Couples are more comfortable discussing sex together and thinking of things they want to try - then pursuing some new ideas in the bedroom. Before, sex wasn't even a topic that would be discussed. Equality between the couple is also more prevalent because women have a say in what they want in bed. Sex has become more interactive and an activity to share (and actually enjoy) together.”
“I think that the purity culture from 10 - 15 years ago made people think that sexual experimentation is sinful. So, it would never be a topic of communication in the relationship."
Physiological Effects from Purity Culture
I have talked to follow sex educators and counselors who, like myself, have even noticed physiological effects in clients who grew up in purity culture. Many women experience vaginismus (or an extreme tightening of the vaginal muscles) on their wedding night and sometimes for years beyond. Men may have regular erectile dysfunction. Orgasms can become elusive for both partners. To enjoy sex mentally, physically, and emotionally requires permission to know and expresses what is natural.
Sexual empowerment does not mean you need to have sex outside of marriage, or be kinky, or like things outside of the most simplistic vanilla interests. It means you make informed and affirmative decisions, free from pressures or anyone’s agenda.
Sex Is Natural
Sex is as natural as eating or sleeping. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it is placed as a survival need. So why do we shame sexual needs whereas we don’t shame the need for shelter or water? Sex education is not a luxury. It is our birthright. It is the path to healing from sexual shame is found in this knowledge. It is my hope that everyone harmed by purity culture or abstinence education finds healing and that we fight to make sure future generations do not have to go through the same struggles we did.
[Spurred on by the importance of this topic, since originally writing this article, Dr. McGuire has enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program with planned study at rabbinical school to follow.]
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.