Lasting Effects of Purity Culture: Takeaways from Linda Kay Klein’s “Pure”

TW: The book I’m discussing contains stories centered on abuse, rape,  other forms of sexual violence as well as graphic medical detail in certain areas. Please be advised if you or someone you know would like to read this book.

I came across this book one day in Barnes & Noble (aka one of my favorite places to be). I took a quick glimpse at the title and moved on, not really feeling the need to look into it and because I also had a meeting to get to. Just last week, I saw the book again on yet another visit to the bookstore.  I parked in the aisle and read through about two chapters before deciding that I absolutely had to read this in its entirety.

I’m very impressed with how Klein carries out this book, which is really a combination of journalism, memoir, and commentary. With over 10 years worth of researching, investigating, and interviewing, Klein’s Pure takes a look at the 1990s sub-culture of the Evangelical purity movement in which she and her peers were subjected to in their upbringing. For Klein and other young women within this sub-culture, they were constantly seen as “stumbling blocks” for men and were encouraged to work  hard to not be a ‘distraction’, a ‘nuisance’, a ‘temptation’, etc.  But before I go into some of the key takeaways I got my from reading, I really want to take a moment to point out what this book is not.

This book IS NOT

  • Anti-abstinence
  • Virgin shaming
  • Denouncing the Christian faith
  • Man-hating

What Klein’s book really does is give the reader insight to the purity culture, its problematic nature, and how it has had lasting psychological effects on herself and others who grew within that environment. In the beginning of the book, Klein explains how her outlook on the church shifted after the youth pastor of her own church was convicted for attempting sexual advances towards a 12 year old girl. She states that the book is directed towards anyone who has experienced sexual shame. Personally, I think that even if you don’t fall into this category this is still an important book to read.

Romanticizing the ‘Struggling Woman’

“Even outside of the church, everyone loves the good suffering woman: the pretty spinster who never admits her unending love for her sister’s husband; the single mother who gives up her dream so she can make enough money for her kids to pursue theirs; the pregnant woman who foregoes treatment for her terminal illness because she fears it would endanger her unborn baby and dies in childbirth. In books, movies, in just about everywhere else, girls get the message that the more selflessly and painfully a woman suffers, the more we love her.”

Klein describes a lot of her youth as aspiring to be ‘a good suffering woman’, a female martyr like the suffering virgins Agatha and Anges, and the true-to-faith Lucy and Blandina.

This is backed up with more miseducation that suggested the good suffering woman could not outwardly express emotions such as anger or sadness. It was seen as evidence of “letting the devil get a hold on you”. One woman she interviewed, who goes by the pseudonym Holly, stated that if one was too happy then that meant things were too easy. And the only time things are too easy is when you’re giving in to your sinful nature. “If you want to be holy, it was going to have to be a struggle. So, you have to be struggling and suffering constantly… I was taught I should always be in a state of suffering and don’t deserve to be genuinely happy”. It wasn’t uncommon for people to even pray for suffering. One interviewee was shocked to learn that members of her church were praying for misfortune; that her husband would lose his job or that they would go through other unfortunate circumstances to hit rock bottom. According to those members, they wanted the couple to be at their lowest point so they could understand how much they truly needed God.

I found this portion pretty shocking, as it was vastly different from what I’ve been taught growing up in the church. The God I know doesn’t have more love for an individual simply because they’re ‘suffering’ more. God does not desire for us to suffer, but to be prosperous. But these women were constantly shamed for expressing any type of ‘negative emotion’ in the fear that they may turn people away from Christ.

Another interviewee describes that surviving in their church meant living life “on the surface”. Meaning that every action is filtered and reality is lost within that. People putting you in their prayers wasn’t viewed as an act of kindness, but of judgement. It translated to: something is wrong with you, something is wrong with you because you have these thoughts.

Klein references a passage from another book, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us; in which the authors talk about how children (predominantly those who have grown up in the church) will view their past abuse as “good for them”; they view it as a trial designed for them to experience pain and make them more like Christ. No one was there to teach them that suffering is not a prerequisite for God’s grace.

The Lies: Gender Roles, Submission, and What Makes a Good Woman

I remember when I was younger, one Saturday I was out with my mom and sister. I don’t recall much else about the day other than the fact that we went to a Christian bookstore; not Mom’s usual spot, but some other place we hadn’t been before. The one thing I remembered about that visit was when Mom asked an employee where they kept their Joyce Meyer books. The employee (also a woman) responded quietly and regrettably:

“Oh…we don’t have any Joyce Meyer books here.”

And I’m here thinking…well that’s weird, how does this bookstore not have Joyce Meyer? My mom’s favorite! For those of you who don’t know, Joyce Meyer is a well-known minister, has written a bunch of books and devotionals, and travels the world spreading the Gospel. She’s kind of a big deal.

Well, later I realized that it wasn’t because they were out of stock. They weren’t stocked with her books to begin with. That store’s owner, like an alarming number of Christian conservatives, believes that women should not preach the Gospel.

Personally, I feel if someone is called to lead then they should lead. I’ve never actually thought much of this so-called ‘rule’ seeing that I’ve witnessed many women (including my own mom) delivering the Word of God.

A lot of why this mentality exists is due to a concept called ‘complementarianism’–the idea that there are two distinct genders that have equal worth in God’s eyes, but very different roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This mentality suggests that if either gender were to stray from his or her designated role, it could jeopardize the stability of family, church, and society as a whole.

While, yes, there is Biblical reference to everyone having different roles in a family context, I don’t think it should be applied here. Especially in the case of Klein’s friend Piper. At a Youth Group camp, she was scolded by their cabin mother for raising her hand every time the Pastor asked their group a question. The cabin mother accused her of showing off and trying to attract attention from the boys in their group. She accused Piper of being insecure and desperate for attention.Piper (also going by a pseudonym) was introduced to a common lie:

No man will want you if you’re like this.

The cabin mother and other church members of that time didn’t call it dumbing down, rather “giving the man a chance to be a knight in shining armor”. She was told that being this intelligent, wanting to be a leader, wanting to be vocal, would ultimately drive away any man because she’ll rob him of his confidence. Luckily for Piper, as she got older she realized that there would be men (including her now husband) who would appreciate her for being her true and authentic self. But not everyone is as fortunate.Another friend from their youth group, Lucy, was fed a different lie:

I have to put up with everything in my relationship because my opinions and what I want does not matter.

Lucy remained in a very abusive relationship for a long time due to the false belief that she was being a good wife, that she was being a good woman. Yes, the Bible does instruct wives to “submit to your husbands”, but her circle of influence led her to believe that this submission included being his punching bag. People around her even went as far as encouraging her not to report, that the two of them should just work it out themselves.

Not all of the stories end this way, but Lucy and Piper were able to gain their spiritual bearings. It wasn’t until after they stopped listening to these analyses from their religious leaders and started developing their own understanding of how God saw abuse, that their faith was transformed. Piper ends the section by saying:

“I stopped fighting with God because I thought He made me in a way that set me up to fail, and started thinking about how I could better reflect what He had made me to be, and accept it as a gift”.

 

The Obsession with Purity 

“We talked about sexual purity all the time, but sex? Never.”

The sex education of Klein and many of the interviewees ranged from non-existent to unhealthy and destructive. The philosophy that these women looked to was the idea that a girl’s worth lied in her virginity and her ability to remain ‘pure’. Whether women chose to have sex or not, ultimately it was their bodies and sexuality that made them valuable. This idea ironically creates a type of fetishism among men towards virgin women.

Klein states that she and her girlfriends knew that they had to follow a set of rules in order to uphold this purity. The problem, however, was that no one really knew what these rules were. Because sex was such a “shameful” topic and there was never any direct conversations about it, it was too difficult to ask questions. And even when some interviewees did, they might be faced with vague and generic metaphors about what happens to people when they cross the line. But what is the line? Is it hugging for too long? Is it kissing? Is it having the desire to have sex? Is it having sexual thoughts?

Lacking any type of compass, the only option for a lot of girls of the time was shame. Shame for their desire to kiss a boy, shame for their urges, shame for not being ‘pure’ enough to be completely free of sexual thoughts. For some girls as they started puberty, even their body was something to be ashamed about. Laura, the only woman in the book going by her real name, told the story about her rape while attending college. Two boys led her to their apartment while she was drunk and barely conscious and took turns having sex with her, by then, unconscious body. One of the boys clearly admitted fault when she approached them the next day, whereas the other one labeled the event as “a threesome”. One of the most hurtful things that Laura recalls from the aftermath of the incident, was when she realized her parents blamed her for the rape and loss of her virginity; the very first thing her father asked after finding out was “What were you wearing?” Her mother blamed the fact that she had been drinking and brought it upon herself by “bragging about her virginity”. Yes, the fact that Laura was proud to be a virgin was supposedly the cause of her demise, even though she was exuding an ideal that was encouraged within her community.

From my perspective, I feel the word “pure” itself is a strange word to describe any person. When something is pure, it is without spots, contaminants, pollutants, flaws; in other words: perfect. And not one of us will ever achieve perfection. So planting this idea of complete and utter perfection in the minds of children is so confusing. Let’s be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging your kids to be chaste. And as one gets older, there is nothing wrong with making the decision to abstain from sex. But you would be setting these people up for failure if you’re not supplying them with the correct information and tools to fully grasp the situation. This goes beyond understanding “the mechanics” of sex, but also the emotional and mental aspects that go into it as well. Leaving kids completely in the dark on the subject of sex can have serious, lasting consequences.

More important, demonizing someone’s feelings and sexual urges does not help the situation either. For Klein’s generation, there were a lot of object references to women remaining chaste before marriage. There’s the New Gum vs. Chewed Gum, New Tissue vs. Old Tissue, Brand New Car vs. Old Car. It’s the idea that no one wants to have something that’s been used already. In other words, the narrative is that if you do have sex then you’ll have to stick with that person because no one else will ever want you. This mindset is so incredibly dismissive and dehumanizing. Once again, it goes back to the idea that the only real value that a woman can offer lies within her sexuality.

In the context of Christianity, sex itself is not the problem, but sex outside of the marriage bed (aka pre-maritals and what not). The people and clergy in Klein’s life, however, made it out to be the former. The psychological block was so severe for some women. From adolescence to the day they get married the message was: sex is bad. But then suddenly on their wedding night they were expected to not just have sex, but to become masterful. If the husband was unfulfilled and unsatisfied, the blame is somehow put on the woman.

If This isn’t Denouncing the Church, then What Is it Saying?

Even Klein received some push back from people around her regarding the making of this book. The biggest worry, predominantly among her parents and some of the interviewees who later retracted their stories: What if people see this and turn away from God altogether? What if you end up making Christianity look horrible? What will that do to other people’s salvation?

That’s pretty intense. Despite the push back and even some moments of self-doubt, Klein realized that she didn’t just want to write this book, she was called to do so. As I stated before, the aim here is not to denounce Christianity. But what it does call for is the need for a serious change in the way the church becomes involved in sexual education. It calls for us to compare how we are raising boys vs girls. It calls for the importance of learning the difference between the expectations of God vs. the expectations of man.

What I Love About This Book

There’s no way I can describe this book in a way that’s neat and compact. There’s so much to discuss and unpack, but my biggest suggestion would be to just go read it.

What really drew me in about this book is that it may just be the realest outlook I’ve seen regarding the topic of sex, sexuality, and how it is presented in the church. I’m very grateful that my experiences were not harmful or extreme, but it did make me evaluate my own outlook on sexuality and how it was introduced to me. How different could things be in the church community if we were able to discuss the topic of sex and sexuality in a realistic way? How well-equipped would the next generation be if they were guided properly on the subject matter?

I can’t lie, there are portions of this book that turned my stomach and made me very uncomfortable. But an unpleasant subject calls for unpleasant feelings. Why should I have the luxury of feeling comfortable and relaxed while I read about these accounts that these women had to go through? Even the women who moved on to lead happier lives decades later still grapple with these feelings of shame and inadequacy embedded in them during their adolescence and early adulthood.

Regardless of certain passages being difficult to read through, I would still recommend that anyone who is able to read this. The text is very relevant to today’s political climate and the presence of rape culture in our society (despite the content being based on her life in the 80’s and 90’s). Pure brings to light the need for a long overdue conversation– both within and outside of the church.

-Raven

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