My Walk Through Purity Culture: Not a G-rated Blog Post

How exactly does one get writing again after a year’s hiatus? I admit I froze up the first few times I sat down to try and compose some thoughts. Following all that happened last year (read all the tea on that over here), and knowing this news cycle could spin off again at any moment depending on the course Liberal Party Politics takes over the course of the next four years, I’ll admit I found myself feeling — a little over-exposed. 

But nevertheless, the wheels keep on turning in this little old head of mine. Since exiting my childhood church seven years ago, I’ve found myself an accidental storykeeper of sorts. Stories from those who had left or been asked to leave. Stories of those who had faced heartache and loss. Stories of people who had negative experiences in high-demand or high-control churches. Our experiences, though unique in detail and nuance, were similar in kind. And so I became part of the deconstruction movement where we who have found ourselves out on our proverbial behinds grapple with the good, the bad and the straight up hellish. 

Some of us find our way to some form of spiritual practice. Some of us find comfort in atheism. Some of us vacillate or find mental solace in the possibility of something godlike but disengage from the practice of faith because its too darn traumatic. All are fine. That was why I started the podcast (Unchurchable) a few years ago. And because I was scared, having just gone through arguably the most scarring trauma of my life in the wake of what some may call shunning, I adopted a pseudonym so I could write what I knew needed to be written without freezing up completely. 

I talked about theology, culture, and current affairs. I interviewed a lot of other people about their experiences. We laughed. We joked. We even told dick jokes and didn’t get struck down by God for doing so. Guest after guest told their story of experiencing purity culture, but I never told mine. Ironically, I haven’t sucked up much blog space telling my own story at all. Because look – ya girl is chicken shit!

So much so that it has taken me four paragraphs to get to the point. Last week on Australia’s “Four Corners” program, investigative journalist Louise Milligan did a deep dive into a Catholic or Catholic adjacent group called Opus Dei – the independent schools and school communities who engaged in some pretty hardcore practices associated with what we in evangelicalism or exvangelicalism know as purity culture

As I watched, I found the similarities unsurprising. I’ve spoken to enough people to know we all experienced a similar sort of artillery fired at our undeveloped sexuality. “Don’t have sex before marriage. You’ll be like chewed up gum that nobody wants.” Sexual acts, desires, or even thoughts were some special sort of sin that diminished your value permanently – especially if you were born without a penis. Girls learned to hide their bodies, because to wear anything “too revealing” would be to cause their brothers in Christ to fall. 

As a collective, we learned that our breasts were weapons of a special sort of sin. Our butts and hips were deadly weapons we could all-too-easily deploy in service of Satan. We learned body shame, strict gender roles in many cases, we were told men were visual and shouldn’t (couldn’t?) be expected to control their desires so it was our responsibility to watch for them. And so we learned to fear sexuality. We learned to shut off sexual desire. We were given either no sex ed, or worse, bad sex ed. And for so many exvangelicals, we waded into marriages thinking we would instantly become sex gods because we saved ourselves for the night that follows the big day. 

Spoiler alert: that doesn’t happen.

Instead, I am now seeing much needed services pop up around the globe as sex and intimacy coaches, therapists and sex educators help purity culture survivors learn what we were actively misinformed about – that sex is good, that women are important, that boundaries should be honoured, that pleasure is more than just okay, and well, some basic mechanics of it all in the mix. Heartbreakingly, I’ve heard stories of sex lives and marriages under pressure because of the deep conditioning against sex and desire that the nervous system has been unable to unlearn. 

Of course you know my story. I married a gay conversion therapy survivor. And while I joke about being the beneficiary of eight years of overcompensation, ultimately, our divorce settles this month. 

There are so many great resources on purity culture so I’m not going to do a big expose in this post. But beyond the broad strokes of purity culture universal – I’m going to get brave and tell you my story. Here we go folks. 

My First look at Purity Culture

I’m going to say that this part of my church life was a pretty unremarkable. My teenage years were spent in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, with a typical evangelical soundtrack including Rebecca St. James’ “Wait for me” (a love song to her future husband, who would turn out to be Cubbie Fink of that group that played “Pumped up kicks.” Weird.) We also had DC Talks “I don’t want it, I don’t want your sex for now.” Actually I think we really did want it, but that didn’t fit the vernacular. The Bible of our generation was Josh Harris’s “I kissed dating goodbye” and its younger sibling “Boy meets Girl.” The books systematically demonised dating, emotional and physical attachments before marriage and introduced ‘courtship’ as the solution for this generation of young celibates. 

Years later, Josh Harris renounced his life’s work, left his job as a pastor, left his marriage and deconstructed his faith. His was the heavy burden of facing up to the damage he had done. Yet the truth is Josh Harris didn’t invent purity culture. The good Christian Patriarchy had been policing women’s bodies for years and it wasn’t done yet. Its not done yet. We see that in the SCOTUS reversal of Roe V. Wade, and in consistent efforts by conservative governments across the world to police access to reproductive health and options for women. Butttt thats another rant.

I completely understand that purity culture showed up as an answer to parents who didn’t want their kids screwing around. Perhaps it showed up as a way they could have their kids avoid the heartbreaks they had faced on the road to happily ever after. What parent could truly deny wanting that? I get that no one foresaw the results. So on this, I am completely unbitter. (Totally a word)

But in truth, this doctrine became our generations legalism. Virginity became the ultimate prize and a marker of pseudo-spiritual devotion, sensuality became the ultimate shame, and we wouldn’t figure out the breadth of the damage until years later. I was probably conditioned to purity culture long before we got the handbook and the soundtrack. I got the purity talk the same day I found out what a period was and the bit about purity took all the bandwidth. Only a small part of this vital chat was devoted to what the heck was going on in my young body. Purity before puberty. How icky.

My first overt taste of purity culture occurred when a group called “The Masters Commission” visited a sister church. The MC’s as we called them, were young people who had been recruited to what I would now call a high-control gap year where they signed over every aspect of their life to high-demand, high-control discipleship (My characterisation of the program anyway). But in this first year class of MC’s, their mission trip come victory lap around churches involved something called “the courtship drama.” 

The suite from Forrest Gump plays over the speakers.

An elegant dancer, clad in virginal white flowing robes enters the stage portraying naivety and innocence. Gradually, we see her being taken advantage of by all these men who only have one thing on their mind and who will take part of her heart along with it. And because you apparently can’t have sex without becoming eternally bonded in a ‘soul tie’ to your sexual partners, by the time she approaches her wedding day, she has no heart to give. She is used up. Unworthy. Unloveable. 

I didn’t see it as insidious. I saw it as inspirational. Enchanting. And there was this bit about redemption and being forgiven for having the sex (or the intimate connection). I can’t really remember the details. But I do remember being absolutely taken with the artistry and thus the message of the courtship drama. 

Something sinister happened beneath this veil of entertainment though: us girls all cast ourselves as the dancer, and cast men as those who would want to take from us. The boys likely cast themselves as deserving of our virginity (and that is something poor Josh Harris has had to deal with in his deconstruction). All of us cast sex and sensuality before marriage as evil. During that week, we heard about how we aren’t designed to switch off half way. How if you’re kissing, you’re going to want to go the whole way. Therefore, we needed to not engage with desire at all, lest we do the sex, catch pregnancy and demons, and then be judged by God and die (I exaggerate here, of course. But the fear was there in the subtext). I think, on a subliminal level, I and others likely associated sex with the abandonment of our faith. As some special class of sin, and because you can’t unvirgin yourself, it seemed to make you irredeemable. 

Years later, I recall going to a youth camp hosted by the same church. I’ll never forget how two youth leaders, just weeks short of their wedding, gave the sex and purity talk to the eager listeners at that camp. Oh the sexual tension between them! It was unbearably awkward. If any of us allowed ourselves to even think in terms of innuendo, the recognition would have been “WOW these two want to bone.” In hindsight, its kinda amusing to the point of cringey.

In my case, these moments, these books, these songs – they were all met with a discipleship culture that soon put accountability around what we wore and how we behaved. No flirting. That was ‘discouraged’ (read: shamed). No dating. That was practice for divorce. We learned that courtship was the way. We would submit our crushes to the pastor who would pray about it and become the romantic intermediary who would either approach the desired party or advise against the match. Most of us participated in this wholeheartedly, having internalised the pseudo-biblical doctrine of policing womens bodies and repackaged as a better way to love. Over the years, more than one couple in my orbit decided to “date” and I recall how many soon found themselves pressured to leave, removed from leadership or service, or even publicly chastised for their choices and their sexual ‘sins’ made fodder for the leadership and thus gossip for the whole church. The majority left, and as this happened, the ‘covenant’ relationships they experienced inside the church vanished into thin air (as numerous survivors have recounted to me. This also lines up with my observation and my own experience in leaving).

As the pastors eldest daughter, I found myself saddled with a triple bag of fun here: purity culture pressure in and of itself. I have a naturally bubbly nature and thus innocent flirting comes naturally to me. But it was not okay. I learned to suppress part of my personality. Being a pastors kid was the second part of my triple burden. I knew people looked to our family as being an example. My parents were regularly praised as being the ideal parents. Others would model their parenting after my parents methods, and a number of ex members recall how my parents began to usurp their natural parents in terms of affection and influence. Finally, I was an eldest child and thus the example for my younger siblings. The pressure was immense. Not only was I at war with my natural disposition, I felt as if I was in an unwanted spotlight where every action and inaction had consequences. I was paralysed with fear every time a guy showed interest in me, and so I began to  mentally block out desire and try to subdue personality. 

When I was 27, my dad finally suggested a match to me that I didn’t turn down. There had been several before that, but I’d proven difficult to charm. In truth, I was in a complementarian system that believed in female submission and male headship. I wasn’t suited to that life. I wanted to think, and achieve, and fly. Finally, Dad had suggested someone who already treated me as an equal – who even looked up to me. 

As 60 minutes and The Age will tell you, that didn’t turn out ideally. My intended life-long love was gay. A survivor of gay conversion therapy which – spoiler alert – does not work and does immense harm. 

I was 29 when I married. And only days prior, I’d gotten the sex talk from my mother in the Bunnings cafe. Mortifying. Especially because she yelled it over the sound of coffee being burned to oblivion, and because she was unaware that I’d been dispensing the puberty talk to people who refused to read “preparing for adolescence” by James Dobson for quite some years now. I’d also been a bra fitter for 5 years. Don’t know how I got away with that. 

So my first kiss was – lengthy – and only two days before my wedding. 

Fast forward two days and its time for purity culture to make good on its promise to transform both of us, instantly, from chaste virgins as pure as the driven snow to sex god and goddess who are absolutely sexually compatible and swinging from the rafters. 

Yeah nah. Not what happened. 

My beloved had been promised a coy bride who would need to be coaxed and encouraged beyond her virginal timidity. What he got as a horny almost-nympho with a damn good lingerie collection, and a “hell yeah! Did not become the 30 year old virgin, let’s make up for lost time” attitude. 

It threw him for a loop and destroyed the programming he had subjected himself to with both purity culture and gay conversion therapy. 

There was probably also a “holy shit, I really am gay” moment in there too. But we got through eight beautiful, complex, incredible, joyful years of marriage before he acknowledged that this was unsustainable. And before you go thinking they were sexless years of marriage – no. I’d give details, but they’re mine. And I’m sure they’d horrify the people who read my blog for the sake of rage. (You’re welcome guys)

I never thought I’d have to deconstruct my faith. Nor did I think I’d have to deconstruct purity culture. What came next for me was a shocker.

Life after Separation

There we were: newly separated, still living together and traversing a pandemic, a massive relocation to three hours away from the town we had called home, parenting two young kids, and for me, recovering from the physical toll of two full term pregnancies (and five miscarriages). Being that I have a neural tube defect which manifests as both a congenital and degenerative back condition, I found mobility to be a huge challenge and had to relearn some basics after trimester three. So look, when the Physio wouldn’t even let me walk 500 metres unassisted, you can bet your arse losing the mummy tummy wasn’t high on the list of priorities. The stress of the years had also etched deep worry lines into my forehead. Dating, let alone adopting the “fuck the pain away” mantra so many of my more sexually liberated divorced deconstructors adopt – well that didn’t happen for me. 

I had to learn to love my body for surviving all it had allowed me to survive. I had to allow myself to spend money on my appearance – as I also had to realise that prioritising myself was prioritising my children. 

I think in that first year I went on 19 first dates and I purposefully tanked them all. It took me a long time to realise that purity culture had taught me to either shut off or want it all. And the internalised slut shaming for even wanting more than a meal together and a handshake was something I wore like an armour. I was seeing someone for about six months there. But I also had to learn that I shouldn’t just accept the guy who wants me – that I was also desirable, smart, vivacious and had the right to choose the guy I wanted. Ironically, choice-making was something I believe purity culture robbed me of. “God” chose. And we just had to hope we liked the choice.

I also had to learn to stop mirroring my date. I recognised that I would instantly, upon meeting in person, assess what this person wanted me to be and I’d switch into being that girl. It was a trauma response, no doubt. I’d somehow learned this thing where women are safe when the men we are with aren’t threatened by us. But it also came with the idea that men as these bad, sex-obsessed things with no self-control. I had to learn my way through that mental barrier (and to learn how to pick the bitcoin bros, from the fuckbois, to the nice guys who are worth your time but not quite what you’re after. Its a thing people. Stay married! Dating in your late thirties isn’t fun!)

I had to learn to say no. I had to learn to understand consent, in the beginning I didn’t even know consent could be withdrawn. I had to make my way through the mire of forming my own sexual ethic, realising the soul-tie thing as complete BS, and had to unlearn a lot of taboos and non-facts I’d adopted into my bag of beliefs. I also had to learn that if I wasn’t comfortable with sex outside a genuine connection or a relationship, that was absolutely fine too and I didn’t need to explain that to anyone! This was a process I mostly went through by myself. And hey! If I wanted to (as my comedian friend Sam puts it) “ride a carousel of cocks,” that would be fine! Oddly, I found it more difficult to justify not doing so. Turns out I think I’m maybe a bit demisexual. The almost-nympho is there, but she will only show up in the context of a genuine connection that fits with my personal sexual ethic. So yeah. I’ve probably got a way-less than average body count going on and I’m absolutely ok with that. Who cares about body counts anyway. Thats slut shaming and I won’t do it.

What I’m not okay with is this: purity culture didn’t just do a number on my mind, on our minds because I’m talking about the collective here too. It did a number on our bodies. There is an element of conditioning on a nervous system level that goes on here. If all our lives, we think sex is some cardinal sin, some special class of wrongdoing that will throw us into a special sort of hell populated with the ghosts of conquests past – it requires undoing on a body level not just a mind level. You can’t think your way to normal sexual arousal if your brain connects sex with the fear-type fight or flight arousal which actually represses sexual function. Who wants to be making a baby when you are running from a bear?  When that baby-making action is the bear you’re running from, friend you’ve got some deconditioning work to do.

I’ve spoken to so many purity culture survivors who are learning this. Some of us struggle saying no, because we think if we’ve let a date kiss us goodnight we also need to submit to their sexual desires. Some of us struggle to say no because we don’t understand consent, as women just do what they’re told. Some of us feel shame at enjoying sex outside of reproductive purposes, or shame at developing a healthy sex life with a partner of our choice who we aren’t married to. In a world where ethical porn and erotica is available, some of us feel crippled by even casual use of the genre – instantly thinking ethical porn use is an addiction and shameful. 

I don’t have the answers here. I happily refer people who my favourite sex educator, Erica Smith who works specifically with what she terms “purity culture dropouts” and my favourite sex and intimacy coach, Meg Cowan, who works with a broad spectrum of couples and individuals who experience issues with sex, sexuality, intimacy and connection. 

Where am I at now?

Well in truth I don’t have to tell you this. And that is growth in and off itself. I didn’t really date at all in the last year and a half, save for a couple of ill fated dates that I actually think could belong quite happily in a comedy bit. Needless to say they didn’t go far! But I also recognised I had some baggage to move through and this wasn’t an experiment I’d want to run with any participant other than myself. 

So here we are. Valentines Day 2023, and I’m happily owning the space I’m in. I’ve got a firm idea of my sexual ethic. I know what I’m looking for in a man and indeed in a relationship now that I’ve got the modern woman thing down. I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I finally understand consent and healthy boundaries.  And I finally own the fact that it is okay for women to like sex. How am I celebrating V Day? I’m going to a girlfriends house to bitch about the guy she just dumped from the emergency room of a hospital, and to laugh about my latest clangers on the dating apps. We will eat burgers and not care if we get bloated. 

And I’m going to listen to “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus, recognising that she stopped one revelation short. It is so okay to buy your own flowers, but you can also buy your own sex toys. Because pleasure isn’t the demon we thought it was. Its alllll good. You do you, boo. 

Good luck making your own way through purity culture. If you need to, contact Meg or Erica. They are the OG’s! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s