Their Generation Was Shamed by Purity Culture. Here's What They're Building in Its Place
A swell of voices within — and for some, now outside — the church have come to similar conclusions about the effects of purity teachings that permeated 1990s-2000s white evangelical churches. The context in each story varies, but the common theme identified is how a shame-based introduction to adolescence has left scars through adulthood. And while conversations about the harmful, sometimes PTSD-like consequences of adopting a purity ethic have been happening for well over a decade, the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, and the #ChurchToo movement soon after, offered many the impetus to speak out.
“[People I spoke with initially] were really afraid that their story, though it was true and though it was important to them, was ultimately going to turn people away from the church,” said Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free. “Now those same people, when I talk to them today, have been saying things to me like ‘thank you for allowing me to be part of this movement.’”
Some credit the negative reactions to purity culture as fueling the exodus of young adults from the evangelical church — in 2006, white evangelicals comprised 23 percent of Americans, and that dropped to 17 percent by 2016. As they have entered adulthood, become parents themselves, and have perhaps long since rejected a purity culture that they experienced as harmful to body and spirit, many find themselves left without anything to replace it. But a handful of pastors, writers, and activists have been finding their way forward — through shared storytelling, interpreting a more inclusive biblical sexual ethic, and offering new models for the church to talk about sexuality in a holistic, faithful way.
The Problem: Breaking Body from Soul
“I think there’s a growing cognizance that this didn't work, that this is all based on theory, right?” posited Klein. “This theory that if we taught people about purity — which really is not an accurate way to frame it, it's more if we shamed people into remaining pure … then they were going to have a fantastic, blissful life. They were going to be safe, they were going to be healthy, and they're going to have awesome sex in their marriage.”
It’s that combination of shaming while promising self-fulfillment that distinguishes the 1990s-2000s movement — but the driving cultural forces find root far earlier in American history. In the book Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, Sara Moslener argues that the latest resurgence of purity culture was not just a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 1960s-‘80s, which many analyses point to as its impetus, but rather the latest in a series of U.S. purity campaigns that have typically been prompted by white Protestant fear of national decline that presented the (white, heterosexual) American family as a stabilizing force.
“Regardless of historical context, the ideological connections drawn between sexual immorality and national security include several cooperating impulses: evangelical political activism, deep anxiety over gender roles and changing sexual mores, fear of moral decay, apocalyptic anticipation, and American nationalism,” Moslener writes.
How that looked amid the heightened fears of the Cold War, it turns out, is not all that different from our 1990s version, except this time, it was imbued with a message of self-fulfillment: Save sex until marriage to achieve the best possible life.
It was also bound by a strict set of rules, reinforced by biblical messaging: Dress modestly (so as not to be a stumbling block), avoid one-on-one interactions with someone of the opposite sex (to avoid sexual temptation), and keep your thoughts “pure” (because you can be unfaithful even in your mind).
The methodology to achieve this centered on outward displays of commitment — like purity rings or True Love Waits pledges — which carried with it a threat of shame if broken. But because of the strict guidelines, activity like kissing, “lustful thoughts,” or even being the victim of sexual abuse or harassment, often resulted in that same shame — internalized and rarely, if ever, examined.
Shame, Klein argues, is baked into the latest round of purity teachings. Since those teachings are formalized in adolescence, they become a virtually intractable part of a person’s identity. And that has implications for a person’s connection to their sexuality — and their bodies — throughout their lives and relationships.
“We can overcome trauma. It is shame that is so incredibly difficult to overcome,” Donna Coletrane Battle, chaplain at Meredith College, said at the Courage Conference in Raleigh, N.C., last September. “… At its core, [shame] exposes what we feel is a deficiency in our dignity. Shame goes directly to the heart of where we feel worth and value and it tears it; it rips it apart.”
At the Courage Conference, an annual gathering for survivors of abuse, advocates, and practitioners, most featured participants point to a purity-based Christian ethic that served to further silence and shame survivors of abuse.
In spaces like these — the Courage Conference, the Alliance of Baptists’ Just Sex conference — and in shared storytelling, people are beginning to reframe the narrative they have crafted about themselves.
Breaking Free: The Power of Story
In 2013, breaking free looked like a hashtag.
Laura P.*, a now 40-year-old anthropologist and adjunct professor in Virginia, tweeted out a call for stories from people who had grown up in the church hearing abstinence-only teaching, using the hashtag #noshamemov.
Laura has since created a website, offering a submission-based storytelling platform and repository of sex education resources aimed at lifting up the diverse voices of mostly women who grew up or still operate within an abstinence-only religious context.
“There are quite a lot of people of color who have been a part of that movement or grew up and maybe went to one of those schools, went to one of those churches,” she told me. “There are lots of us, and I do see my voice particularly as being disruptive.”
The No Shame Movement, as well as other hashtags like #ChurchToo and online education communities like Queer Theology, offer space for people to identify the effects of shame or fundamentalist upbringing and move toward new understandings — of faith, of the Bible, of sexual identity, and for some, the actual mechanics of sex.
Cindy Wang Brandt, whose online community Raising Children Unfundamentalist dives into some of these topics, writes in Parenting Forward, "... by becoming aware of ourhistory and the complex ways we participate in systems of inequality or hierarchy, we begin raising ourselves to resist systemic injustice, we empower our children, and we change communities."
“People just struggle with loneliness,” Brandt told me. “… They feel like the odd one out. This is what online communities are good for is giving people a sense of camaraderie. It’s good to know that I’m not alone and I’m not delusional in treating my children like human beings.”
One benefit of these storytelling platforms is that people can hear their stories echoed in others, and they find refuge — and new pathways — online that they often can’t find within their current physical contexts. Some are also looking to bring that same model into the physical spaces of congregations.
Amid the conversations that became her book, Pure, Klein realized that models that promoted conversation could be both part of the healing process and a solution. As part of her initiative, Break Free Together, Klein and trained facilitators partner with congregations to host dinner conversations, using story exchange, that examine what each person learned about sexuality growing up and how those messages play out in their adult lives.
“If we don't do that deep internal work, we're going to end up inadvertently passing on what we're raised with via what we don't talk about, via how we treat people, via the choices we make that young people watch us make, and so on,” Klein said.
Rev. Lacette Cross (Rev. L), pastor of Restoration Fellowship in Richmond, Va., founder of Will You Be Whole, and director of volunteers and outreach for LGBTQ+ youth nonprofit Side by Side, attended one of Klein’s first Break Free Together dinner conversations. Acknowledging that many people involved in the work of sexuality and faith have personal stories that undergird that work, Cross said the model of participating in guided conversation offers a good space to talk about personal journeys.
In taking that shared journey, some congregations find they can built trust among members and move forward in deeper conversation. That could look like a second hosted dinner around the topic of claiming your body. It could also look like a sermon series addressing sexuality or implementing a sexuality education curriculum within the congregation.
But for others, breaking free is still a work in progress.
Breaking Ground on a New Sexual Ethic
In 2015, Joshua Harris, bestselling author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, left the pastorate amid a denominational split and sexual abuse crisis within the Sovereign Grace Ministries network of churches. Harris says he began to question the legalism that pervaded the church, ultimately leading him to leave his pastoral role, go to seminary, and later agree to film a documentary reexamining the basis of his book that had been held up as the relationship gold standard for an entire generation of evangelical Christians.
Harris recently announced that his publisher would stop future printings of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He also apologized for the way his book — and the purity ethic at large — negatively affected people’s lives. But he’s not sure what, if anything, should replace it.
He is caught in a space many current and former evangelicals find themselves in when they begin questioning the tenets of their adolescent education. While some can point to the way purity culture was taught and find fault — Harris points to the “high-demand religious environment” and the “shame culture built around” otherwise healthy relationship ideals — there’s a hesitancy to deconstruct the whole ethic.
Others believe that deconstruction is a requirement.
Bromleigh McCleneghan graduated from high school the year I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. While she was raised in the United Methodist Church and always had access to information about healthy sexuality, she was surrounded by communities and friends steeped in purity culture in suburban Chicago, and said some of that culture spilled over.
“Mainline churches, in the absence of figuring out what to do, either are silent or use watered-down versions of purity culture,” McCleneghan said.
She wanted to find a better way. For her master’s thesis, she examined how religion influenced public policy, particularly abstinence-only education. And in 2016, she released Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option — and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex, positing that “sexual sin is less about particular acts or the way they’re carried out than the way partners treat each other; sexual sin is about a lack of mutuality, reciprocity, and love.”
McCleneghan, echoing Catholic sexual ethicist Margaret Farley and others, argues that the history of Christian thought on the topic of sex is far from uniform, and that the Bible does not offer a clear and consistent message on marriage and sex.
Nadia Bolz-Weber proposes what she calls “A Sexual Revolution” in her new book Shameless. She offers a guiding principle for a new ethic: that of showing concern for self and for our neighbors.
“Ultimately, to me, that is rooted in Jesus' ethic of 'love God, love your neighbor as yourself.' So love of neighbor means showing concern. And concern for ourselves means being as honest as we can about what our actual needs are and who we really are,” Bolz-Weber told me a few days after she made headlines for presenting a vulva sculpture made from melted-down purity rings to Gloria Steinem at the MAKERS conference.
“So it leaves us in that space of having to pay very close attention rather than default to the handbook over and over,” she said. “… We are grown ass people who have to do our work.”
For some, that can be a reach. As Harris told me, “It's almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keep Christianity and adapt it in these different ways. I think I've just been so indoctrinated in a certain way of interpreting scripture and viewing sexuality that it's just hard for me to see the scriptures and its, kind of, overall commands and principles, and see how that can be consistent.”
For those who grew up in a culture that put strict boundaries on sex or didn’t talk about sex at all — so, most Americans, for as Klein points out “the purity ethic is our default sexual ethic as a nation” — what is the way forward?
Breaking the Silence on Sexuality Toward Solutions
Tucked at the base of a nature preserve in Phoenix, Shadow Rock United Church of Christ is one of the hundreds of United Church of Christ (UCC) and Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) congregations, along with an increasing number of other mainline congregations across the country, that provide the comprehensive sexuality education classes Our Whole Lives, named as such because it offers developmentally appropriate classes from kindergarten through senior adulthood.
Over a weekend in February, Shadow Rock’s OWL coordinator Karen Richter and Molly McNamara, a teacher trainer from a nearby UUA congregation, coached a handful of people from various denominations to be sexuality education facilitators for their own congregations or communities.
The curricula is perhaps the most extensive sexuality education taught in congregations — some weekly classes stretch an entire school year — and trained instructors cover everything from anatomy to gender identity to physical and emotional abuse, all undergirded by bedrock values of self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity, and based on the idea that sexuality encompasses much more of a person’s life than their sexual behaviors. Originally published in 1999, the curricula were developed through an ongoing UCC/UUA partnership and authored by physicians and experts in public health, social work, and sexuality education.
“OWL works,” UCC OWL Coordinator Amy Johnson said. "OWL creates close communities, it creates critical thinking skills, and it really is transformational from a faith perspective, giving sacred, holy context to the topic.”
An accompanying manual, Sexuality and Our Faith, overlays a theological framework onto the curriculum — the UCC version includes litanies and other practices to include in weekly classes — and Johnson said some denominations choose to develop their own faith materials to use with the OWL materials.
Given the breadth of what’s reviewed, this theological flexibility is key — after examining the curricula, it’s easy to see where some faith traditions could find objection. While Johnson says she’s not expecting other denominational leadership to adopt and implement the curriculum across their churches, individual congregations have and continue to seek out OWL.
“What I am getting right now is that there’s an urgency that seems to be increasing,” Johnson said, pointing to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. “…more and more faith communities are thinking: We need to be in this. We need to have a voice in these conversations.”
A Time To Speak: Faith Communities and Sexuality Education, published by the Religious Institute, lifts up the values put forward in Our Whole Lives curriculum, but acknowledges that “each faith community will need to review and modify these values in accordance with its own ethics, values, and religious teachings as well as community norms and diversity.”
For Dr. Kate Ott, associate professor of Christian ethics at Drew University and one of the authors of A Time To Speak, congregations need a curricula that speaks to their religious tradition. Theologically customized framing, overlaid on top of a clinically tested curricula, could be one way forward in adoption of this type of education in churches.
“Step back from ‘what’s the replacement … for purity culture?’ What does the conversation need to look like? Even if the minimum standard is that whatever we come up with, it will not perpetuate assault, abuse, or shame,” Ott said. “People would need to come together and have deep theological conversations about what the sacredness of sexuality looks like to them.”
For most of the people I’ve interviewed, that’s the biggest piece in breaking the silence — getting over the taboos the culture has placed on sexuality and entering into a more holistic conversation.
“Once you destigmatize the conversation, and once you take away the shame of it, it’s really not that hard to talk about,” Cindy Wang Brandt said. “… Sexuality is so much more than just the sex act. We bring so much of our whole being into our sexuality. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s spiritual.”
While there is no formula that will replace the set of rules many evangelical Christians were raised with, Christian scholars, writers, and activists are forging a path forward. And you can find plenty of people at various points along the path — as Rev. L describes it — of “explore, deconstruct, and reconstruct.”
*Laura P. asked that her last name not be used.
Editor's Note: This article was produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.