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Purity Culture and My Involvement


I just started reading Pure by Linda Kay Klein, a book about purity culture. Purity culture is a subculture of Evangelicalism that really took off in the late 80s and early 90s. It teaches sexual abstinence before marriage along with antipathy towards sexual minorities, but other things like general misogyny, rape culture, anti-feminism, complementarianism, and domestic violence apology come along for the ride. Well, it got me reflecting on my own involvement in purity culture.

I graduated high school in 1985, so I came of age in the early part of the purity movement. Basically, we learned sexual abstinence before marriage in our Evangelical church, but this wasn't a new doctrine. It was also the time when anti-LGBT rhetoric was becoming popular politically in the conservative arena, but I wasn't exposed to any of the conferences or "Purity Conferences". I was steeped in the general "old-fashioned" views of complementarianism and youth group dress codes. A lot of it was countered, though, by my own ambition to go to med school and burgeoning feminism.

By the time I had kids, though, the purity movement was going pretty strong. And, by that time, I was practicing medicine. And pretty firmly entrenched in the Evangelical world. A couple of experiences in which I was involved stand out to me. I gave an informal talk at our local Crisis Pregnancy Center. Mostly, I was talking about being a pro-life physician and answering questions about services that our medical clinic (not the CPC) provided. One woman, though, asked whether I provided contraception to unmarried women. I said that I did and she countered whether I didn't think this was a "stumbling block" to them. I told her that their sex life was between them and God and I was comfortable with my choice. She persisted with this line of argument for several minutes until finally the Center director stepped in. This was quite uncomfortable for me and showed that while I was part of the purity movement, I certainly wasn't on the fringe.

I also gave talks to parents of teenagers about sexually transmitted infections and helping them help their kids make good choices about sex (i.e. abstinence). I went to one conference sponsored by Family Life to give my talk and was really quite discouraged by the rest of the conference. There was some inappropriate information being given and a very hard sell on the parents that their kids would be ruined by anything but abstinence. At the end of my talks, I always ended with a section about Psalm 51 and David's plea for forgiveness after his incident with Bathsheba (which I framed as extramarital sex, not rape and murder) to remind parents that premarital sex is a sin and not a life-ruining one. I'm not sure how well it went over.

By the time my kids became teenagers, I was souring on the purity movement. Research was showing that abstinence-only curricula wasn't working for our teenagers. Kids who made purity pledges were having sex as often as their peers. I was seeing how young women were the ones being shamed for the choices made by young men and women, particularly when it came to clothing choices. What used to be such a black and white issue was showing itself to have many, many shades of gray.

We were a homeschooling family at the time (and I keep wanting to say, "but not one of THOSE homeschooling families!"). What I'm very glad about is that we used a pretty "centrist" curriculum and I added lots of outside material into it. When I taught my kids about sex, I used information from the CDC about sexually transmitted infections and contraception. I taught them about the HPV vaccines, but didn't require them to get it - they both chose to when they were 18. I found resources about consent for men and women. I thought I had left the purity culture stuff behind us.

What I didn't realize was that I needed to also be teaching about LGBT issues and sexual minorities. My daughter came out to us as bisexual and gender-queer slowly over her second and third years of college. She says now that she wishes learning about homosexuality would have been part of her home education. I do too. I'm not sure how many resources there were around for parents to talk to kids, but I'm sure if I had looked I could have found them.

Looking back, I realized that while I wasn't fully immersed in the purity culture, I played far more of a role than a should have. And, for that I'm sorry. That culture is responsible for many women feeling ashamed of their bodies and learning many unacceptable things about sexuality. If you were hurt by my involvement, please know that I seriously regret it.

Having said all that, I have learned some things in the last 35 years that might be of help to those who are trying to navigate the perplexing world of raising kids to be sexually responsible without having to be sexually repressive. First, love them and keep talking to them. No matter what age they are. Keep the relationship going no matter what happens.

Next, be firm in what you believe and don't get carried away by your subculture's current fad. You know, it sounds good that girls shouldn't be showing off all their skin. But, ask why? I went along with the modestly stuff when my kids were little, but as my daughter got older, I began to teach her to dress for the situation. Now, she doesn't have much of a problem showing off her tummy (which would have horrified me), but she doesn't do it when she goes to work at the bank! If you're in a Christian subculture read the Bible carefully and in context. Here's a hint: domestic violence is never OK! Use the brain God gave you.

If your kids aren't learning what you think they should be learning at school, teach them at home. If your kids are getting an abstinence only education in the classroom, you might want to make sure they really understand birth control - Google is your friend. Even if your kids aren't exploring questions about gender or sexuality, you should probably talk through LGBT issues, if not for them, then for their friends and their relationships with their friends. If you are a Christian and looking for answers, check out godandthegaychristian.com. They have a great resource list. If you want more secular resources, again, check Google.

Love your kids. I said it before, but it's important to say it again. Yes, give them guidelines and even boundaries. Don't let them mouth off to you. Make them keep curfew. All those other age-appropriate things that they rebel against that are so important. But, then cuddle up on the sofa and remind them that you'll be there for them always. And pray for them. Every single day. As much as you love your kids, God loves them more. And if they do go off the rails, keep loving them and praying for them.

God doesn't want us to keep hurting each other the way we have been. Let's find ways to love each other. And lets' find ways to raise our kids that honor their sexuality but teach them appropriate boundaries. And love them.

Catherine