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The Impact of Purity Culture

Updated: Mar 10

By Laura Ellis, Boston University School of Theology Intern

Purity culture was popularized in the 1990s when purity rings, purity balls, and abstinence-only

sex education swept through many evangelical faith communities. Pushback against the culture

came early, but in recent years there’s been more research on the long term detrimental effects of purity culture. This article explores a few of these effects.

Purity culture controls female bodies and diminishes identity

Though both males and females experience the effects of purity culture, females often

carry a heavier burden. Purity culture tells women and girls that they ought to resist

natural sexual feelings, that their body is a weapon that might tempt men, and that their

bodies are not their own and belong to the honor of men. This places value not in a

female’s whole personhood, but exclusively in her body. Subsequently, a woman's

identity is diminished to her ability to keep her body chaste.

Purity culture shames women and assumes men are primal sex-seeking machines

Purity culture portrays males as people with raging and uncontrollable hormones who

can’t control their sexual urges. Viewing males in this way is unfair to men and women,

and it sets a dangerous precedent by claiming that men and boys do not have to be held

responsible for their actions. Since males cannot be controlled, it is the female’s job to

protect themselves as well as men from falling into a sexual encounter. Girls are taught

not to dress, act, or move their bodies in a way that might be suggestive to boys. If a

sexual encounter does occur (whether consensual or non-consensual), females tend to feel

deep shame for their inability to keep both themselves and the males around them pure.

Purity culture creates communities where it is not okay to talk about sex

Purity culture creates an ultimatum of proper and improper sexual behavior where sex is

not even a topic of conversation before marriage. This makes youth particularly hesitant

to talk about normal sexual changes and events in a faith setting. If they decide to engage

in sexual activity, many feel not only ashamed but unsafe to talk about it to adults in a

purity culture community. Even healthy conversations like boundaries and consent are

rarely seen in purity culture. Additionally, it becomes nearly impossible for a faith

community to become a place to safely talk about non-consensual sexual violence when

even consensual sexual activities are not allowed to be a topic of conversation. 

Purity culture can lead to lasting trauma

People who grow up in purity culture often have difficulty with future sexual encounters.

Even after marriage, many women attest to the shame and stress they feel around sex

with their husband. After being taught their whole live that they must control their bodies

and sexuality, these feelings don’t disappear the moment they say “I do.” Purity culture is also harmful for victims of sexual assault and abuse. Because purity culture places

females’ identity in their ability to remain chaste, many women and girls feel as though

they are no long worthy or pure in the eyes of God after a sexual assault. Some feel like

they are to blame for the violence, since it is the female's job in purity culture not to

tempt men. And some faith communities confirm these victims fear by shaming them for

the abuse.

Faith communities have a critical role in combating the lies that purity culture tells girls, boys,

women, and men. Rather than perpetuating narratives of shame and control which lead to

trauma, faith communities have the opportunity to promote holistic and safe views on sexuality.

Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse links faith communities with domestic violence education through national and local work.

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