Purity Culture and Bodily Autonomy

Purity culture is a movement from evangelical Christianity spanning years of encouraging ‘traditional’ and rigid gender norms and sexual expectations. For believers in purity culture, gender is binary with strict gender roles in place; women are often seen as ‘secondary characters in a man’s story’. Men are strong leaders of the family, whilst women are submissive and subservient towards their husbands. Women are warned against ‘tempting men with their bodies’, whilst men are seen to have an ‘insatiable desire for sex’. In stark contrast, women are shamed for having sexual agency. Virginity is seen as synonymous with purity and a woman’s self-worth. A ‘pure’ woman is a ‘brand new birthday present’ worthy of being given to her husband, but an ‘impure’ woman is ‘a ripped up present to be thrown in the trash’. Whilst there are many ways this rhetoric has been shown to be harmful, this article will focus on the effects of purity culture on bodily autonomy (“the right to governance over one’s own body”).

Living under purity culture, one’s body is not their own. Young girls and women are consistently told that their body belongs to their future husband. Purity culture serves to further perpetuate rape culture by emphasising the idea that their body not only belongs to their husband, but is owed to them in its ‘purest’ state. Any signs of ‘impurity’ are not only a disservice towards this mythical husband, but a disservice towards God.

Alongside her team, Sheila Gregoire conducted a study in 2020 focused on Christian women’s satisfaction within their marriages and their sexual relationships. Strikingly, it was found that compared to women in the general population, twice as many Christian women that believed in messages like “women must have obligation sex”, also reported having pain during intercourse. Also, believing messages such as ‘men’s desire was the most/all important’ and ‘women’s desire was least/not important’ was a key factor in negative sexual relationships, specifically sexless marriages. To summarise, women subjugated to purity messages feel unable to say no in marriage, feel like sex is owed to their husband and have a disregard towards their own pleasure in favour of their husband.

Moreover, the purity messages directed towards women can lead to a cycle of victim blaming from: “you must have been leading them on/tempting them” or “if you were covered up more, this wouldn’t have happened to you”, to “I must have done/worn something to make this happen”. The purity messages directed towards men (i.e. all men have an innate and insatiable desire for sex,) cause others to downplay abusive situations and minimise the feelings of male victims (e.g. “you wanted it really”).

Due to the myth of virginity and purity alongside sexist double standards, women are often shamed for having consensual and safe sexual activity. This feeds into a cycle of shame, particularly creating low self-esteem and self worth and viewing one’s own sexuality and desires as unhealthy. As well as mental effects, this can cause vaginismus (an automatic tightening/contraction of the vagina in response to penetration) and dyspareunia (painful intercourse — before, during, or after).

So what can be done? Abstinence-only sex education (which is propagated by many religious institutions) is heteronormative and relies on gender as binary. Generally, it is shrouded in fear and focused on scaring people out of having sex outside of marriage, having sex with multiple partners, or having sex for reasons outside of procreation. Conversely, what is needed is comprehensive and inclusive sex education. This would include topics such as: contraception, sexuality, gender identity, relationships and anatomy. Purity culture affects individuals in the long term and goes beyond sexual ethics, infiltrating one’s ability to trust oneself to make decisions about their body in all aspects of life. Abstinence-only education would begin to provide young people with information to empower them to make informed decisions… because maybe truly ‘honoring your body’ is exercising your body autonomy in ways that respect your boundaries and the boundaries of others.

Since drafting this article, on the 24.06.2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe Vs Wade, ending rights to access to abortions for millions of people. The influence and power of the Evangelical Church’s influence on this decision is not lost on me, particularly the war that it continues to wage on bodily autonomy under the guise of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’. Forcing others to live in ways that are rooted in very specific interpretations of the Bible and ultimately bigotry and hatred have no place in society today.

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