With the surge of the #MeToo movement, OnlyFans accounts and improved education on consent in schools, it may appear as if American society has abandoned purity culture in pursuit of a more inclusive and sexually liberal future. However, the remnants of purity culture are still alive and well, thriving among immigrants and conservative Christians who continue to base a woman’s worth on her virginity and her modesty.
Purity Culture in Evangelicals
In the modern era, purity culture, as a term, is often used to refer to the mass attempts by white Evangelicals and other conservative Christians to promote a biblical view of purity in America. Focused on encouraging complete sexual abstinence until marriage and discouraging contemporary forms of dating, many of those who proudly identify with the movement even push age-old Abrahamic ideas about courtship and marriage.
Those who participated in or observed the sexual liberalism of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, also known as the Sexual Revolution, were often disillusioned by its adverse effects. As the increase of sexually transmitted diseases followed the rise of teen pregnancy, marriage and divorce, some considered promoting purity as the radical but only sensible solution.
Organizations such as True Love Waits authored sexual education materials, including songs and pledges, to appeal to youth. The Silver Ring Thing organization, now known as the Unaltered Ministries, created the still incredibly famous purity ring, a public symbol of one’s acceptance of sexual abstinence prior to marriage. “Purity” balls, in which fathers escorted their daughters, became a replacement for debaucherous teenage proms. Joshua Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in which he emphasizes the importance of biblical courtship, became the second most important text of the movement (right after the Bible).
Purity Culture in American South Asian Immigrants
While purity culture as a term and movement may be derived from the language of conservative Christians, it is still prominently found in American immigrant culture. American immigrants from all corners of the world ushered in their own versions of purity culture, often linking the preservation of their cultural beliefs with sexual conservatism.
My own experiences as a South Asian woman reflect this. In pursuit of the American dream, many South Asian immigrants arrived in unfamiliar circumstances, causing many to cling to their beliefs as a safety crutch. Refusal to assimilate their home country’s cultural beliefs with Western beliefs was common, as the latter was seen as “shameful” and “not honorable.”
This specific idea of honor, or izzat, often becomes key to understanding sexual conservatism and the importance of remaining “pure” in South Asian immigrant societies. Women’s rights activist Manisha Gupte describes honor in South Asian societies as a gendered concept that intrinsically makes men the bearers of honor, and women as those only able to possess shame (sharm) and lose that honor. Izzat must be maintained, which often has devastating consequences for women.
Seen as the biggest threat to a family’s izzat, women’s conduct is often more heavily regulated than men’s. Sexuality is perhaps the area with the largest number of rules of conduct. If a woman participates in improper courtship or even is publicly known to have engaged in sexual acts before marriage, she will have ruined the fragile reputation of her family.
However, it is important to note that concepts such as izzat and sharm do not make every South Asian woman a victim of non-Western beliefs. Rather, these concepts simply explain the cultural dynamics between communities and can be linked to explaining the greater numbers of statistical violence against South Asian women.
The Toxicity of Purity Culture in Evangelicals
The toxicity of purity culture becomes evident when one examines similar patriarchal notions within the movement. While both men and women are taught that sexual abstinence is key to promoting healthy relationships with others and God, teenage girls are the ones who feel the most adverse effects of this sexual policing.
Linda Kay Klein, the writer of “Pure: Inside the Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” focuses on how her experience with Christian sexual conservatism gave way to years of regressive thinking about her body. Often associating sexual desire with shame, Klein emphasizes how women’s relationships with their bodies were forever fragmented by purity culture. Women were taught that their minds were “a gateway to sin,” forcing them to be responsible for not only their desires and urges, but their male counterparts’ as well. Certain types of clothing and behaviors were prohibited in fear that they would cause men to become overwhelmed with lust.
Propagated myths of sexual conservatism include the idea that women should not have sexual desires and are somehow wired differently from men. Unlike men, who are unable to control their sexual desires and have constant sexual urges, women should have a stronger grasp on their sexuality.
Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), a group of symptoms that arises in response to traumatic religious experiences, can be a common trait of women who strayed away from their religion (and even those who still hold many of those beliefs). Even after many of these women were happily married, they found themselves unable to participate in sex due to being shamed for their sexual urges throughout their developmental years. After a lifetime of being told that virginity is the only marker of your worth and that people would see you as dirty and unclean if you participated in sex, suddenly being able to do so can cause mental breakdowns, panic attacks and a lifetime of uncomfortable sexual practices.
The Toxicity of Purity Culture in South Asian Immigrant Cultures
Purity culture can have similarly devastating effects on the mental and physical health of South Asian women. Before the age of marriage, everything a woman does is scrutinized. The saying “What will people say” is a constant reminder that one’s reputation has incredible worth, and that reputation depends on maintaining social norms. Conforming to modesty and sexual abstinence is not only encouraged, but expected. The responsibility of controlling a woman’s sexual urges is often laid upon her male family members.
As a woman reaches marrying age, arranged courtships are then pushed upon her until someone finds her suitable for partnership. She suddenly needs to know how to hone her sexuality enough to lure a partner, which can be jarring for those who have been praised for being pure their entire lives.
The real violence arises when one refuses to conform to these social norms and deviates from familial obligations and ideas about honor. Honor killings are defined as the murder of a girl or a woman by a male family member due to the claim that the victim brought shame and dishonor upon the family. Honor killings are not particular to any religion and often occur outside of South Asia (including America and the U.K.).
Those who have engaged in inappropriate sexual activities — which can even include dating and speaking with men improperly — often face threats of violence from their male family members until they are finally killed. At times, the woman may have not even committed the sexual act; the mere rumor or suspicion that she could have done so can lead to an honor killing. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 5,000 women annually are killed by honor-based violence. However, even this number does not accurately represent how many women are killed and many deaths are never properly investigated.
Purity culture and the shame that follows those who participate in it are incredibly destructive to women and their health. In order to create a more inclusive society that gives women more agency and freedom over their sexuality, we must push against purity culture and continue to make our own empowering choices regarding sex.