Purity Culture is a Complex Trauma
cw: sex, purity culture trauma
(lightly edited for Facebook aka I took out the big bad swears & the tweet numbers)
a few nights ago, I tweeted:
“you ever just sit in your bathroom sobbing late at night because purity culture messed up your life & everything feels worse when you’re tired?”
Someone replied & asked how purity culture did that, so here is a definitely-not-comprehensive-barely-begins-to-cover-it thread of my experience with the trauma that is purity culture
Q: how did #purityculture mess up my life?
A: how long you got? a thread..
purity culture is the pervasive set of beliefs, structures, & actions that place a heavy focus on the virginity & “physical/spiritual/emotional purity” of women/girls
it is heavily influenced by patriarchal beliefs such as male headship, women being unable to serve in the same capacity as men in the church (& sometimes world at large), complementarian gender roles (women are made to run the home, men to provide by working), etc
it is also heavily influenced by a cisheteronormative/anti-LGBTQ belief system wherein virginity is defined by the lack of PIV sex (the only kind of “real sex”), oral/anal/etc are often considered sinful even WITHIN a hetero marriage, & gender binaries determine sex drive
church/youth group/Christian school lessons on sex:
men/boys have out of control sex drives & lust that they can’t control
women/girls want love & give sex to get it
virginity is a gift for your future husband & losing it cannot be undone
losing your virginity is the equivalent to being chewed gum, backwash in a cup, a rose with no petals, tape that has lost it’s stickiness, etc. these illustrations are uniquely applied to women/girls bc it is their responsibility to save this gift for future husband
modesty is imperative bc boys/men cannot control their eyes or lust, so it is the job of girls/women to keep them from stumbling. our bodies are dangerous & capable of causing men to sin, thus WE are sinning if we don’t cover up for the sake of men
even THOUGHTS are sinful, so you must work overtime to prevent even the slightest hint of sexual thought from entering your brain
sex outside het marriage is dirty, an abomination
masturbating is a form of cheating on future spouse & also lust, so dirty/sinful also
there is a heavy emphasis on how terrible you will feel if you violate any of the purity standards that have been set for you, & so normal & age-appropriate sexual exploration becomes a vicious cycle of shame & guilt (sometimes for something as benign as holding hands!)
purity culture also intentionally withholds sex education, because children who aren’t taught about sex will obviously not think about sex, right?
this leads to people like me who cannot identify basic body parts well into my college years
when you spend the first 20-some years of your life trying desperately to repress any sex drive or attraction you might feel bc allowing yourself to feel it would be sinful, & spinning in shame & guilt for failing, it is TRAUMATIC.
purity culture is a complex trauma
it is a trauma of incidents compiled over a lifetime, no one particular thing ever seeming bad enough to rise to the level of traumatic, but put together it causes many of the same symptoms as sexual assault/abuse/trauma bc it is a form of sexual trauma
I got married & discovered sexuality is not a switch I can flip on as I was taught. Even the thought of having sex WITH MY HUSBAND caused anxiety & panic attacks, & actually attempting sex sent me spiraling in shame & guilt despite knowing “it’s okay now bc I’m married”
I also have vaginismus as a result of my trauma. This is a pelvic floor condition in which my vaginal muscles involuntarily contract & do not allow anything to enter as well as causing severe pain upon trying. this is also common in sexual abuse/assault survivors
I cried myself to sleep for months. not only could I not figure out how to want or enjoy the sex I waited so long to have, but my body was physically betraying me. I was a failure & couldn’t give my husband what he needed. I was taught this was my wifely duty & I was failing
the sense of failure only worsened my shame spiral & we eventually gave up trying. I then felt guilty for being relieved that I didn’t have to think about sex any more, bc thinking about it still made me feel dirty as I had been told to feel my whole life to this point
I eventually started therapy & have started the long process of sorting through my trauma surrounding sex, but it’s an ongoing process. I’m now also in PT to deal with the physical aspect of vaginismus, but it’s a slow, painful process w/ no guarantee of full recovery
on top of this, I’m bisexual. I repressed this aspect of myself even deeper than my sexual thoughts about men. I grew up being taught that I would go to hell, that LGBTQ+ folks are abominations, sexual perverts, disgusting.
despite changing theology & being LGBTQ+ affirming by this point, I still couldn’t admit to myself or anyone that I was bi. it took months of intense inner work in therapy to even come out to myself. imagine growing up & being instilled with such disgust for WHO YOU ARE
I was never given space or tools to develop a healthy sexuality. I’m basically in 2nd puberty, trying to relearn & reconstruct my sexuality from the ground up after doing so much work to dismantle the lies I was given as a framework
I still have trouble touching my own or my husband’s genitals, bc they were portrayed as dirty, gross, & sinful.
I struggled for months with the idea that I couldn’t have real sex without being able to have PIV, but sex is so much more than that
my sex drive, when it does make an appearance, is still often guilt & shame ridden. it is so deeply ingrained in my body that sexual thoughts are evil, even when they are about my husband, that shame & guilt often override any sexual desire I might have
if I’m not careful, I still fall into shame cycles about the fact that I’m “still a technical virgin” because a penis has never graced my vagina with it’s presence. when you’re told for so long that’s what defines sex, it’s hard to break out of that mindset
I harmed myself & my husband by saying yes so many times at the beginning of our marriage when I really didn’t want to. I thought I was sinning if I refused him sex, & so I forced myself to try. he struggles to trust my yes now, & I struggle to not resent his asking
when I am able to muster up a bit of sex drive & we’re able to get past all the other baggage surrounding sex, I am unable to communicate DURING sex. I often feel disembodied, unable to speak or make any noise at all, unable to tell him what I like or dislike bc I DON’T KNOW
how am I supposed to know how I like to be pleasured when I was never supposed to touch myself? when I still feel dirty touching myself? when, even though it’s now “okay,” my body feels like a minefield & touching or thinking the wrong thing will give me a panic attack?
to circle back a little, I was also pressured to marry young simply by virtue of the culture I was in. “it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” & I was expected to become a wife & mother anyway. I am forever grateful that Jared has grown alongside me & we fit well
I was told that romance & “true love” would turn into sexual desire, that I didn’t need to worry about sexual compatibility or attraction bc it would fall into place if I followed the rules & stayed pure. turns out, I’m not all that sexually attracted to my husband
I’m gonna end this for now, but I really could probably write an entire book about how purity culture harmed me & messed up my life (bc I don’t wanna hear how my sexuality isn’t a big deal & my marriage should be able to function well despite all this)
this experience isn’t uncommon. there are SO MANY people who have been harmed by purity culture, & if you want to tell your story too, feel free to quote tweet or reply! I’ll end by linking some resources if you want to better understand the trauma that is purity culture
- everything Samantha Field writes about purity culture is fantastic
- highly recommend Northwest Institute On Intimacy & Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers book & blog, here’s a good starting point
- over at Love, Joy, Feminism there are SO MANY posts to help you understand purity culture & the harm it does
- there’s an entire Tumblr dedicated to publishing stories from those who came out of the purity culture associated with “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”
- speaking of IKDG, even the author has acknowledged the harm his ideas did & is creating a documentary about it
so there’s the sparknotes version of how purity culture has messed up my life & some resources, but feel free to ask any clarifying questions