Contributed by Tee Chuanromanee
Like many other Notre Dame students, I grew up in church. While my non-denominational Evangelical church didn’t seem as formal or institutional as Catholic churches, it still had plenty to say about sexual purity.
In sixth grade, wide-eyed and in the middle of puberty, sitting in a small circle with other girls I listened rapt with attention as my Wednesday night Bible study teacher explained that your body is only to be saved for your Future Husband. She stated that “giving your body away” to someone who you were not married to is like sticking two pieces of tape together. It sticks at first because you have a bond with the person you slept with. But you will always break up, and the tape will never stick as well again. Remember, she said, don’t stick yourself to anyone unless you’re married to him or you’ll never be able to have a good relationship with anyone because you’ve ruined yourself.
I took her words to heart because I had no reason not to. Her message echoed the many others I’ve been told outright or implicitly. Like many who came before and after me, Evangelical or Catholic or in-between, I grew up with the narrative that sex was bad until it was supposed to be good. I received no sex education at church or at home except to say that sex was something to be avoided. I was taught to keep myself (and all male others) pure though my words and thoughts. “Take every thought captive” was my mantra throughout middle school.
It was fine, until it was not. I had no trouble with the teaching until I actually encountered real life, real thoughts, real desires. When my mind wasn’t as easy to control or shut down like the churches made it seem, when I realized I wasn’t cis or straight, it became a problem.
And it made sense. Although this teaching has been entrenched in many churches for the past decades, it harmed me and so many others. Abstinence pledges can result in higher rates of unintended pregnancy and STDs. Even for people who have didn’t have sex until marriage, feelings of shame surrounding sex don’t magically go away. Purity culture is also grounded in the notion of traditional gender roles, perpetuates rape culture, and relies on cissexist, homophobic, and racist assumptions.
I am a product of the purity culture of the late 90s and 2000s, and it gave me a tainted view of sex that I am still unlearning even many years after I left that church. Just two years ago, Linda Kay Klein’s book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free shocked me to the core. I thought that because I disavowed many other toxic beliefs from my childhood and teen years, I was fine now. But how could she see everything that I went through in the past and even in the present? Suddenly I had an explanation for my low-grade depression that got triggered by any sexual or romantic feelings. Even as someone who considers themselves proudly trans, queer, and sex-positive, I was still affected by this garbage.
Unpacking this baggage is a process I have been working at for many years, and it’s still ongoing. Here are some lessons I learned when healing from the wounds caused by purity culture.
1. Question and recognize your views on sexuality.
As humans who have lived our lives going through phases of belief, questioning, learning, and unlearning, our views on things have been shaped by many factors both internal and external. Even as feminists and fighters for reproductive justice, we may still hold unconscious beliefs left over from a different time in our lives. It’s important to learn to question your beliefs and find those that support your values. Purity culture relies on a set of core beliefs, but so does reproductive justice. It’s helpful to clarify to yourself what your beliefs are and to empower yourself by speaking them or writing them down. And contrary to what many of us have been taught, it’s okay to be in a state of questioning. Give yourself time to work things out.
2. Don’t be too hard on yourself
When I first realized the trappings of purity culture and started to distance myself from it a few years ago, I replaced the pressure to be Pure and Nonsexual with the pressure to be the Perfect Feminist. Instead of chastising myself for having less-than-holy thoughts, I would turn it around to chastise myself for less-than-feminist thoughts. For a while, I put all the blame on myself and labeled myself as a bad feminist, but I realized that these were automatic reflexes based on the way I was raised and did not reflect on who I was as a person.
3. Use your anger to fuel your work
It’s natural to feel angry and betrayed when you realize that much of what you have been taught for decades is not true and is hurting you and others. It’s normal to want to rage at the system that caused you and many others so much misery, and letting those emotions fire your passion for reproductive justice can allow you to do many good things. Yet, don’t let that anger consume you to the point that you forget that kindness and humanity that comes with advocating for justice.
4. Surround yourself with people who have your back
When I first started to unpack how purity culture affected me, I felt so alone and isolated. The other kids who grew up in church didn’t seem to have the same problems, but they were also cisgender, straight, and white, so they were less affected by the church’s teachings. It took me months before I felt comfortable enough to talk to a friend who is also trans and grew up in the same type of Christian community. The key is to find people who understand, whether that’s also in the queer community, friends who have the same background, or even other members in your faith community. You’re not alone, you are not the first person who has gone through this, and it is okay to struggle.
Dealing with the effects of purity culture is a doozy. Once you think you’ve deconstructed your beliefs, some more might pop up which makes you want to give up. But there is hope, and this is an opportunity for growth. We will get there.