"In the evangelical community, an 'impure' girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous," Linda Kay Klein writes in her new book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Over the course of over a decade, Klein—who grew up evangelical in the 1990s—spoke with dozens of women, including many from her own youth group, about how their upbringing shaped their beliefs about gender and sex.
Purity teachings are so powerful, she found, that even women who have disavowed them or left the church often struggle to have sex, let alone enjoy it. One woman Klein interviewed wound up in the emergency room, hyperventilating and covered in mysterious welts, after losing her virginity in her thirties. Another, who had a lifelong habit of hitting herself in the vagina whenever she felt "something tingle," found sex so awkward and painful that she and her husband were celibate for years. Here, Klein talks to ELLE.com about purity culture and its lifelong effect on women.
Linda Kay Klein: Women and girls are fully defined by one thing about them, which is the community’s perception of their "sexual purity." They can be considered less pure based on their own sexual thoughts and feelings, but also based on men and boys’ sexual thoughts and behaviors toward them. Women and girls are seen as the keepers of sexual purity, so if men and boys are taking sexual action or having sexual thoughts about them, questions will be asked, like, "What was the girl wearing? Was she flirting?"
Another major component of purity culture is the expectation that people will adhere to very strict gender stereotypes. The primary gender teaching for most evangelical churches is called "complementarianism." Men are expected to be strong, masculine leaders, and women are expected to be soft, feminine supporters. The idea is that, as long as both the man and the woman maintain their adherence to these expectations, everything will turn out great. If either of those gender expectations ends up being disrupted—if the man is the follower, if the woman is the leader—then the whole ethic starts to get shaky.
One example is "object lessons." Many object lessons revolve around food. There’s one where the woman at the front of the room holds up an Oreo cookie and says, "Who wants this?" All the kids raise their hands. And then she says, "We’re going to pass this Oreo around the room, and I want each of you to spit on it or to throw it on the ground." When it comes back to the front of the room, she holds it up again and says, "Okay, now who wants this Oreo?" And nobody raises their hand. It becomes this analogy: The untouched cookie is the virgin and the cookie that has been spit on or dropped by everybody in the room is somebody with sexual experience, who will never be wanted again.
But the majority of the messaging is what I would call covert messaging. People get covert messages from the very earliest years. It’s embedded into the stories that are told. It’s embedded into how you’re treated. It’s embedded into how you see other people treated. It’s in the air.
It looks different for each woman who does it. For many, they focus the attention that might have normally gone into men on their relationship with Jesus. Instead of going on a date, they're going to read the Bible or meditate and pray. For others, it becomes more obsessive—people are actually thinking about going on dates with Jesus. There’s someone who says, "I’m gonna go to Barnes & Noble and browse books in the Christian living section with Jesus." Others are getting dressed up.
I started out thinking it sounded really irregular and strange, but the more I talked to my friends who were doing it, the more I thought, "You’re focusing on yourselves and your spiritual lives and that’s beautiful." This is in a community where you’re raised to believe that the most important thing is to get married and have kids and put your energy into your husband and kids, so that they can be happy and have a good relationship with God.
Even the women who did everything they thought they were supposed to do, who waited until they were married, still had a lot of issues when they became sexually active.
You hit the biggest challenge on the head right there. The purity culture not only teaches that you need to be utterly non-sexual before marriage, but that after marriage, you need to become extremely sexual. You need to be able to meet all of your husband’s wants and needs. If you can’t, that is seen as potentially dangerous—he could end up cheating, he could end up leaving. It’s presented as an equation: If you’re non-sexual before marriage, then you’ll have a perfect sexual life after.
But people don’t have a light switch. You can’t have internalized all of this deep sexual shame your entire life and then all of a sudden snap your fingers. You are taught to experience shame in association with your sexuality. Those neural circuits are fired together so often that eventually, just a thought about sex will automatically fire that shame neural circuit. Releasing all of that shame takes a tremendous amount of hard work. They need to deconstruct what they were taught, and rewire the brain to no longer see sexuality and spirituality as mutually exclusive.
My faith in the institution of the church started to shake when I was a senior in high school. That’s when my pastor was convicted of child enticement with intent to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl under his pastoral care. That was absolutely horrifying for me to learn, but what was also horrifying was that my pastor had been quietly let go from not one, but two, other evangelical institutions after confessing to having done the same thing there.
Learning that those churches had chosen to move him onto another group of children, rather than hold him accountable and end the abuse, was when I began to see the potential for systemic abuse in the church. That was one of the steps along the way to my ultimately leaving. I left the church when I was 21. I’m still a Christian today, a deeply faithful Christian, yet I have much less faith in the institution of the church than I do in God.
The church tends to categorize abuse in the sex category. They think, "If we can just have women and girls be pure, they won’t be touched at all." There is very little conversation about sexual abuse. Instead, there is a hyper-focus on consensual sex.
It is often said, in purity culture, that men and boys are easily sexually tempted, and that women and girls are responsible for protecting men and boys from the temptation that is their bodies. That means not being seductive in any way, not wearing anything that could cause a man to think or act in a sexual way. And that if women and girls would just do that, then everyone would be safe. Nobody would be sexually touching anyone outside of marriage, so we don’t even have to talk about rape and abuse.
I think people on the ground are contending with shame and are recognizing the church’s role in driving people to shame. I don’t hear the spokespeople talking about it, but I do hear that from people on the ground—pastors, youth pastors, chaplains, people who are going to the church. Some people are standing up and saying, "We need to do things differently. We need to stop sexually shaming people."
I have come to believe very strongly that the only way we break free from shame is by coming together. The most healing thing I did was I put myself through twelve years of narrative therapy. I told my story over and over and over again, and I heard my story told back to me in the stories of others. The details were different, but the core themes of sexual shame and fear and anxiety were the same. That experience taught me that I wasn’t alone. If I wasn’t alone, that meant that I wasn’t the problem. That was the beginning of my healing journey.
I encourage people to find a way to tell their stories. If you’re just at the beginning, you have to find somebody who you trust, who will just listen and non-judgmentally hear your experience.
If you feel ready to come into community, we are starting a hashtag called #breakfreetogether so people can share their stories online and find one another.
For a lot of people, this is difficult to talk about publicly. I bought a P.O. box so people can send me postcards with their story, so I can post them online and they can be part of a community without having to expose themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.