If you want to find healing after leaving purity culture, the first thing to know is this: You are not alone. There are lots of people who are recovering from the shame-based messages of purity culture and plenty of good resources to help you recover.
In the books listed below, the authors tackle a variety of common questions around sex, faith, and the church: What does the Bible actually say about sex? What are Christian teachings on sexual pleasure? Is spiritual trauma from purity culture a real thing? And the million-dollar question: If I no longer believe in purity culture, how do I create a new sexual ethic that’s still rooted in my faith and values?
And those are really good questions. But first, some background:
What is purity culture? Starting around the early 1990s, evangelical Christians took an old idea — abstinence — and spiritually supercharged it. With the help of promise rings, “True Love Waits” pledges, and popular Christian books like Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Christian youth were taught that God not only wanted them to avoid sex before marriage (heterosexual marriage, that is), but also to avoid anything that might lead to sex, including kissing, sexual thoughts, flirting, masturbation, dancing, and so on. Many young women were taught to dress “modestly” to avoid causing their brothers in Christ to “stumble;” young men were told that being male made them more susceptible to sexual sin.
If you followed these rules, purity culture promised you a lifetime of blissful, God-blessed sex with your future spouse. Stray from this plan, however, and purity culture had bad news: Not only would you be living in sin (and headed for eternal damnation), you’d also be saddled with lifelong regret, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and an inability to ever bond sexually with a future spouse. One illustration used by youth pastors compared a person who had sexual experiences before marriage to a chewed-up piece of gum.
What are the effects of purity culture? If you’re reading this, chances are, you already know that purity culture left folks with a lot of unanswered questions about sex and faith. Purity culture also instilled expectations about sex within marriage that were, at best, unrealistic, and in some cases downright abusive.
For some people, the harm of purity culture persists long after they ditch its ideas. Some people who grew up in purity culture say they still experience lingering shame about their bodies or any kind of sexual activity. In some cases, purity culture left people “haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear, and physical experiences that sometimes mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” writes Linda Kay Klein in Pure. Others felt hurt that faith communities they once trusted instilled messages of such lasting harm.
And if any of that rings true, the books on this list are for you.
1. Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Equal parts personal story and theological reflection, Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber examines what it would take to transform several millennia of shame-based Christian messages about sex. Or as she puts it: “I wonder how we could begin to honor sexual pleasure as something that can connect us more deeply to ourselves and others and God, yet still speak the truth about the ways in which our behaviors around sex can also do the opposite.” +Read an excerpt of Shameless in Sojourners magazine .
2. Sensual Faith: The Art of Coming Home to Your Body by Lyvonne Briggs
In Sensual Faith, body- and sex-positive womanist preacher Lyvonne Briggs examines how the church’s messages about bodies and purity have uniquely harmed Black women. Mixing womanist biblical interpretation and her own story with West African spirituality, Briggs “invites Black Christian women and femmes to reconnect with and feel at home in their bodies, sexuality, and sensuality,” writes reviewer Deirdre Jonese Austin. +Read Sojourners’ full review of Sensual Faith.
3. The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended by Sheila Wray Gregoire
Directed toward heterosexual Christian women, especially those from evangelical traditions, The Great Sex Rescue analyzes the messages about sex in popular evangelical books about marriage alongside survey responses from more than 22,000 women. Gregoire unpacks many of the alarming teachings and beliefs she found — including the idea that a wife is responsible for offering sex to satisfy her husband and keep him from the temptation of pornography — and offers faith-based (and consent-based!) alternatives. +Read the review of The Great Sex Rescue in Sojourners.
4. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein
In Pure, Klein traces her own journey through (and eventually out of) purity culture alongside a careful ethnography of the countless other women and girls who grew up in the movement. She offers a detailed description of what the movement was like, the challenges it presents, and — critically — shows how many folks are overcoming the damage. +Read more of Klein’s insight on healing from purity culture
5. The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary L. McBride
With insight as a clinical psychologist and stories from her own trauma journey, McBride tackles various distortions — religious-based and otherwise — that keep us from experiencing our bodies as sources of pleasure, agency, and inherent value. She confronts purity culture directly in the chapter on sensuality, but the entire book covers important topics for those rethinking the relationship between their faith and sexuality, including trauma, body image, shame, and the perceived separation between our spirits and embodied selves. +Read more from McBride on embodiment
This book tackles a question that’ll be familiar to anyone who outgrew purity culture and now has kids of their own: How do I talk to my kids about sex in ways that are healthy, age-appropriate, and still rooted in faith? Concise but comprehensive, this book offers practical, age-specific advice on talking to your kids about sex and sexuality from birth to age 18 — without any of the shame-based messages of purity culture. +Read more from Ott on teaching kids about sex in Sojourners
7. Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms by Matthias Roberts
One of the few books about purity culture written by a man, Beyond Shame examines common responses to sexual shame, debunks some of the Christian teachings that often instill that shame, and offers strategies for developing a new sexual ethic that aligns with your values. It’s an excellent resource for anyone wanting to rethink what they learned about sex in conservative faith communities, and psychotherapist Matthias Roberts, host of the podcast Queerology, offers special attention to the experience of LGBTQ+ folks. +Read an interview with Roberts in Sojourners
Other articles you may be interested in:
- Their Generation Was Shamed By Purity Culture — And here’s what they're building in its place.
- Honor Thy Sexual Pleasure? — The Christian ethic of sex needs a transformation.
- The Battle Over Sex Ed — When sex education becomes a spiritual issue.
- The Politics of Contraception — Birth control hasn't always been controversial among evangelicals...so what happened?