Women’s bodies continue to receive an inexhaustible amount of attention. As a society, we have glorified, scrutinized, degraded, hypersexualized, underrepresented, and misunderstood the female body. Purity culture has orchestrated a movement around the management, perception, and regulation of women’s bodies. As a former Pentecostalist, I grew up knowing there was more focus on my body versus those of my brothers in Christ. There was a bodily divergence between men and women that I did not fully comprehend but felt obligated to adhere to; the ideological basis of this difference was filled with much ambiguity.
Each time the church organized a sexual purity event and/or discussion, boys and girls were unfailingly segregated. I was always so curious about what was discussed in the boy’s group so I would ask my brother, Christian boyfriend, and male friends at the church to fill me in on the gossip. In my teens, I didn’t know how to perceive the information relayed to me. Looking back now, I am surprised at the discourse around purity culture and masculinity in the church. During my earlier years at college, I convened with the male pastoral leadership, and they confirmed the following main themes taught to men during sexual purity discussions.
- Men were leaders of the relationship. This meant they were responsible for keeping the relationship pure (free of sexual sin before marriage). Should they fail and engage in sexual sin, the blame was ultimately on the man.
- We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. As our brothers in Christ, the men should protect and respect women. This included women’s bodies which are the temple of God, not the ownership of men.
- Pornography is widely discussed and addressed as a weakness for men. This is considered sin of course, and men were given spiritual tools to overcome these sexual transgressions.
- It is the responsibility of the man to lead and guide the woman to have the most fulfilling relationship she can with God.
In theory, men have quite the burdening responsibilities. In practice, however, these Christian ideals did not function exactly as the church pretends they do. Purity culture arose within the Christian tradition with the aim to regulate and control women and men’s bodies.
In the History of Sexuality: Use of Pleasure, Foucault states, “We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious.”
As humans, we are sexual beings with natural inclinations to instinctively express our desires and bodies with one another. The Christian purity culture is proven ineffective given that 80% of evangelicals engage in premarital sex despite the sexual purity efforts of chastity rings, ceremonies, and purity conferences. I recall my first experience with purity rings when my Christian boyfriend gave me one that read, True Love Waits. I was 16 and should have felt honored given the teachings of the church around this phenomenon, but it actually made me feel uncomfortable. Now, we definitely couldn’t breach physical boundaries; the unnatural pressure was on.
What are men’s experiences within purity culture? Ryan Robinson, author of The Emerging Ana-Baptist Blog, writes about how women were told not to dress immodestly lest they lead their brothers in Christ to sin – that although the men tried not to lust, it was really out of their control.
I asked my Christian boyfriend in college once if he felt I ever led him to lust after me. He said that I was naturally very attractive, and to be completely honest, no matter what I did, he would still shamefully lust after me. Gee, I guess I was unknowingly doomed as a seductress. I contemplated on why, as a woman, my lust was rarely addressed during these Christian purity ordeals. I was mostly instructed on what to wear and how to act, but rarely on how to think. As a former Christian, I can’t help but think how incredibly bizarre and oppressive this culture around sexual purity was.
In truth, purity culture affects both men and women. Men battle with the pressures of being a leader and holding an incongruous position of power and responsibility. Because they are taught they cannot control their urges, many men feel as though they are deviant, even rapists. Women, in turn, develop a paradoxical identity of feeling shame and possessing an unwarranted sexual power.
Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted and raped by her perpetrator from the age of 14, discusses the damaging influence purity culture has on women’s self-worth and bodies. According to the Experimental Theology Blog, “…because of the sexual abuse, she [Smart] ‘felt so dirty and so filthy,’ ruining her for the rest of her life. Such feelings create an inhibition to return to the world where you will be marked and known as ‘damaged goods.’”
Purity culture influences a psychological process, one that promotes a destructive cycle between genders where both men and women learn to lack self-worth. A more egalitarian educational and systematic approach to sexual ethics is necessary in order to develop a healthy sense of confidence, value, and identity within the practice and framework of sexuality. This form of education must take precedence over the sexual purity movement. Otherwise, these ideals will continue breeding deprived, ill-informed individuals who are denied the natural blessings of life.
Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, scholar, egalitarian, and yogi. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture Studies. Andreea also holds a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is writing her memoir on transitioning from Pentecostalism, focusing on institutional power, subjectivities, and socialization. She is the Founder of OrganiCommunications, empowering startups and social enterprises in strategic and digital communication ventures. Andreea plans on pursuing doctoral study within Sociology, focusing on Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of 2 blogs: OrganiCommunications and Progressive Thinking. You can find her in Seattle, WA. with her partner and kitty, probably doing yoga.@convergingearth @integratedcom
11 thoughts on “The Purity Complex: Are Men Really Less Affected Than Women? by Andreea Nica”
“Purity culture arose within the Christian tradition with the aim to regulate and control women *and* men’s bodies.” If you read the early theologians and canon law, you’ll find that Christian attitudes toward sex, marriage, and virginity were permeated with a sexual double standard that very definitely disadvantaged women, often with explicitly misogynist rationales. You won’t find that info in Foucault, but feminist scholars have been documenting it for decades. Things like requiring bishop’s wives to be univirae (“one-man women,” never married to anyone else – this was before the ban on priestly marriage, and of course women had been barred from the priesthood long before that). Or harshness to female non-virgins while at the same time being indulgent toward men’s use of concubines or prostitutes — this is spelled out in canon law, for example in the Council of Elvira circa 304. It’s true that identifying sex with sin had bad effects all around, but women got the brunt of it and still do, to the extent of being blamed for causing rape.
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Women were perceived to be ruled by the body, hence women tempt men while having no ability to control their bodies with their rational minds. This is why men are the ones who are told they have to resist temptation. If this is the theory, then women cannot even be told to resist that because women do not have sufficient rational control to resist the urges of their bodies. Siiiigggghhhh.
I appreciate this article; it brought back memories of my own childhood growing up in a fundamentalist church where I was asked to lengthen my skirts and wear less clingy sweaters so that I wouldn’t tempt my brothers. At the same time, while I was clearly the smartest young person in the teen sunday school class, I watched as far less intelligent and less committed boys were groomed for leadership, while I was offered a future of washing communion cups and teaching in the nursery. I also appreciate the suggestion that both men and women suffer from the sexism of purity culture, although I understand Max’s concern that it’s often too easy to lose our acute feminist awareness of how deeply women suffer the effects of systemic sexism, if we jump too quickly into sympathy for the the collateral damage suffered by men.
I just cannot fathom the heterosexual patriarchal mind. What a waste of energy. What a waste of time. How can women stand to be with these idiots and sexually obsessed men? I’m glad I grew up in the very secular 1970s before these purity fundamentalist nut case heterosexuals got so much power in America. Nut cases. Give me women only space, give me a country where no men live, give me freedom!
I liked the thoughts this article evokes. I’ll say one thing though, the church, (Christians/Catholics/ whatever) is soooo very sexist it disgusts me. Like one of the comments above mine, where she said men were being trained for greatness while the girls are just looking forward to teaching Sunday school. Or we have to cover up our bodies so they don’t feel “guilty” come on. Bleh.I do not know how any educated woman could be a part of any of the major religions.
Thanks for writing this. I had forgotten that women’s and men’s Christian purity education sessions were separate. Makes me wonder more about what they learned.
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The issue is something which not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.
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Thanks for your feedback architectural digest! And I completely agree that this issue, as common as it is, is not yet mainstreamed.
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