A journey from trauma to authenticity

Purity Culture

Purity culture in Evangelical churches in the USA has been talked about a lot on social media recently, with the release of the documentary Shiny Happy People on Prime. While this is an extreme example, purity culture also exists in some UK churches. Here are my reflections on my experience of it and the damage it can do.

I grew up in evangelical Christian circles, in the 1980s and 90s, with a very strict moral purity code around sexuality. It was the era of books such as “I kissed dating goodbye” by Joshua Harris (who has since withdrawn it from publication) and Passion and Purity by Elizabeth Elliot. Fathers in the USA were giving purity rings to their daughters, as they pledged to remain virgins until their marriage day. Although it was not stated in these words, what follows is the message I received.

“As a girl, your virginity is one of the most precious things about you. Once you have lost it, you can never get it back, and you will never be pure again. You must only ever give yourself to one man. If you have sex with more than one person, it is like sticky tape, that becomes less sticky once you peel it off. Once you have slept with one man, you are one flesh, you belong to him. You will never be able to form an intimate connection with someone else.

It is your responsibility to guard your virginity. Men are sexual animals. They cannot control themselves. You must not dress in an immodest manner. If you do, and it leads to a man or boy sexually assaulting you, it is your fault. When you are going out with a boy, it is the girl who has to keep the boundaries on the physical relationship. Boys are incapable of stopping once they are aroused. The girl needs to keep the brakes on. If you end up having sex with a boy before marriage, it is your fault for not saying “no” early enough.

Having sex before marriage is wicked. It is a deeply shameful thing to do. If you do this, you will bring shame on yourself, your family and your church community. God will be angry with you. You can ask for forgiveness, and it will of course be given, but you will forever be known as a fallen, disgraced woman. If you are employed in Christian work, you are likely to lose your job.

And you will have to live with the consequences. If you get pregnant, it is your own fault and you will have to bring up that child. Abortion is evil. You will need to marry the man ASAP to mitigate the shame and damage to your reputation, and the witness of the Christian church. If you get a STD, you will be damaged forever. You might die of AIDS.

You must only go out with and marry Christians. If you don’t, and anything bad happens to you, it is your own fault for disobeying this rule.

But sex was created by God and is good. As soon as you are married, you must have lots of it! You must keep your husband satisfied sexually. Men need lots of sex, otherwise they will have an affair, or look at porn. Once you are married, your body belongs to your husband. You must never say “no” when he asks for sex. You must submit to your husband and his desires. If you have honoured God, by waiting for marriage to have sex, and have married a Christian man, God will honour you. Your marriage will be wonderful and you will be happy ever after.

Hand your love life over to God. Trust Him to find you that perfect partner. Maybe you are called to be single, which is more Holy. You must wait on God, not actively hunt for a marriage partner.”


I would like to name the messages given here, and the harm they do.

  • Women are objectified as sexual objects. Girls’ bodies are sexualised.
  • A woman’s value/worth depends on her virginity/purity.
  • A rape-culture is created. While dating, it is the girl’s fault if a man assaults her. When married she has no right to say “no”. This leads to women and girls being raped and assaulted on dates and in their own homes.
  • Sex becomes associated with shame.
  • The moral failure of sexual sins is so bad it can lead to rejection by your community. Sexual behaviour becomes a gate-keeper for admission and expulsion from the church.
  • Women and girls must be passive and submissive.
  • If the husband is unfaithful/has a sex addiction, it is the woman’s fault for not giving him enough sex.
  • Women are expected to stop themselves from having intercourse, when aroused, during dating, and then suddenly switch to wanting sex whenever the man does as soon as they are married. (Obligation sex). This causes a higher incidence of vaginismus in Christian women with these beliefs compared to those who do not. (See the survey done by baremarriage.com) https://baremarriage.com/2021/02/the-duty-sex-isnt-sexy-podcast/ 
  • Sex is all about the man’s “needs” and pleasure, and procreation. There is no mention of pleasure for women being important.
  • Sometimes, the man will use religious teaching to control the contraception (or lack of it) as well, meaning the woman has no control over her own body and pregnancies.
  • It is very difficult for women in these Christian communities to speak up if they are being raped or betrayed by their husbands. Their complaints will either be normalised – “you said yes at the wedding and that’s all the consent he needs.” Or minimised – “Surely your husband desiring you should make you feel good?” Or she, the victim, will be blamed – “You are obviously not giving him enough of it, you must pray harder for him and forgive. You need to submit.”
  • Married women who are experiencing sexual abuse feel used, objectified, and often like life is no longer worth living. They feel let down by God, as they kept their end of the bargain by being a virgin when they got married, and it is not the happily ever after they were promised. They feel ashamed. They feel unloved. They have no one to talk to about it all, as they fear being blamed and shamed. They have been taught God hates divorce, so they are trapped and silenced.

Needless to say, this is not the teaching I am giving my own daughters about sex and relationships. (I do not have any sons). 

First, I am actually teaching them about what healthy relationships look like. We drop it into everyday conversation, when observing relationships on the TV, or in books we read together, or when they chat about their friendships and difficulties with their peers. We think about how different people might be feeling in different circumstances and situations, and what might be healthy for them.

Also, we talk about consent. A lot. And this is done at school as well nowadays, where we live. From the 5-year-old learning to name her body parts, and that her body is her own, and that no-one else can look at it or touch it without her consent. To the older child understanding that “no means no” and that if her friend or sister does not want a hug, she may not force it on her. To tweens and teens exploring more explicitly what consent looks like in sexual relationships, and how to spot controlling behaviours. I am teaching them they have a right to say “no” in any and every situation they wish to.

We talk about porn, and what a pornified style of relating looks like, and what intimacy is. We identify emotions, allow them to be felt, and model regulating them. We encourage boundaries to be set.

We build self-esteem and confidence, allowing them to discover their talents and weaknesses and value themselves as they are, and for who they are.

They choose their own style of clothing, and we never restrict this on the basis of what someone else might think of it.

We encourage them to value their bodies, by the food they eat, through the physical activities they enjoy, and encouraging them to rest appropriately. We try to always encourage “Being healthy” rather than any kind of body shaming language.

We make sure they know about contraception, and protecting themselves from STDs, so that they can make healthy choices.

We talk about misogyny, sexual abuse and assault, equality and their right to protect and defend themselves.

I am not teaching them that it is their job to make men control themselves. I am not teaching them that they should be virgins when they get married. I am not teaching them that sex is a commodity, or that their worth as human beings is tied up with their sexual activity.

I am not teaching them a set of rules and controlling their behaviour through shame. I am not coercing them to accept a set of values so that they will continue to belong and be accepted.

I want them to be informed, empowered girls, able to form healthy relationships, have healthy conversations and make their own healthy choices. I hope that they know they will always belong and be loved and accepted, no matter what those choices are.

I sincerely hope that they will experience sexual intercourse as beautiful, and that it will happen when they are good and ready. I hope they will experience mutually loving and intimate relationships. I hope that sex will be just as enjoyable for them, as it is for their partner. I hope it will be fun! I hope that when they do not want it, or need to set a boundary, that they are perfectly comfortable declining, without any guilt or shame. I hope that they will be equipped to express their sexuality in a healthy way, knowing how to protect themselves from unwanted infections and pregnancies, and how to give and receive respect and love with their partners. And I hope that they will feel free and able to walk away from toxicity. I hope sexuality will be a part of their lives that contributes to their happiness.


If you have been affected by purity culture teachings, I recommend reading The Great Sex Rescue. You can also check out Sheila Gregoire’s blog and podcast, http://www.baremarriage.com


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