Deconstructing Purity Culture: The History, Impact, & How to Heal
Summary: This blog post aims to help you learn about what “purity culture” is, where it comes from, how it affects the way we view sex & relationships, and our best tips to start your journey of healing from it. Please be aware that this post simply serves suggestions about deconstructing purity culture based on our past experiences & our relationships with folks who grew up in purity culture. It is not intended to provide any sort of licensed professional/medical advice!
*Note: Throughout this post, we’ll be using the terms “man” and “woman” as they appear in purity culture to help show the harmful effects of the very binary beliefs, though we normally prefer to use gender-neutral terms like “people with penises/vaginas.”
As a loud & proud sex shop in the middle of a downtown area, we get to connect with a lot of different types of people – whether they’re recurring customers who visit once a week with their friends, they saw us on the news, or they find themselves timidly walking into our shop for the first time. Whichever category fits you best, know that you are more than welcome here. And one of the groups of people we often get to serve are people who grew up in what we call “purity culture,” and are now somewhere on their journey to healing from it.
Lots of people are raised in environments, religious or not, where sex is treated with shame and fear, and never come to know it in any other light.
Which is why we decided to write this blog post centered around what exactly “purity culture” is: the history behind it, how it affects our views of sex & relationships, and our best advice to begin healing from it. We hope these tips for deconstructing purity culture help you to learn more about why that is, and how to move forward from it!
What is “Purity Culture?”
We’ll start off with a definition for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “purity culture.” According to a 2021 article by NBC News, “purity culture” is “a subculture of evangelical Christianity that peaked in the 1990s – with young girls pledging to their fathers to abstain from sex until marriage by wearing ‘purity rings.’”
Just like that definition says, purity culture largely comes from evangelical Christianity and the belief that sex is a holy act between one man and one woman that should be saved until marriage.
The concept of saving certain kinds of sex for marriage isn’t inherently “wrong” or harmful – we at WinkWink are big believers that sex is what you make it, and what you want it to be. Whether that means you have sex on the first date, the fifth date, or you and your partner both decide to save it until you’re legally married, you do you!
The harm comes when the concept of saving sex for marriage is forced onto children & young adults growing up in a religious household, who aren’t old enough or experienced enough to have their own opinions about it. Purity is a huge topic in most evangelical churches and even more “progressive” denominations of Christianity, and is taught at a very early age.
Kids as young as toddlers are being read Bible verses & stories by their parents that enforce the idea of sexual purity, such as the verse out of Ephesians in which God declares that sexual relations are only to be had between a man & woman once they’re married. The fact that this type of indoctrination starts this young, makes it clear why so many folks grow up feeling such significant shame around their body & desires.
When you’re taught from the get-go that sex is wrong, that your body is shameful, and that you’re a sinner – especially if you engage in pre-marital sex – how are you expected to develop a whole, meaningful, empowering relationship with sex & your sexuality?
A Brief History of Purity Culture: Where Did it Come From?
Before we dive too deep into the real impacts that purity culture has on so many of our lives (whether you come from a religious background or not), let’s learn about where it even came from. Would you be surprised if we told you that the roots of purity culture lie in none other than the patriarchal, stereotype-filled, binary-focused beliefs of old, cishet evangelical men? Doubt it ;)
Although the idea of sexual purity comes from the Bible, the purity culture movement itself really began back in the early 1990’s. In 1993, a program called “True Love Waits” came to fruition under the Southern Baptist Convention. This program encouraged the vow of virginity until marriage, and threatened sin, hell, guilt, and an unhappy marriage if broken. This article from the Guardian tells the story of a young woman whose 13th birthday was focused around the promise of purity through the gift of a purity ring from her parents. It’s a great example of the real lasting effects that programs like “True Love Waits” have had on those who grew up in them, especially women & queer folks.
In addition to purity rings, which became a well-known way for young children to show their vow of abstinence to the world (even if they were too young to fully understand what it meant + consent to it), abstinence “pledges” also saw a rise in popularity. If you attended some sort of Christian Sunday school, church service, or summer camp, it’s likely you were met at some point with the “opportunity” to pledge your abstinence. The most harmful part about these types of pledges & promises is that it’s young children that are being pressured to make them, when they likely aren’t even old enough to fully understand what they’re doing: it’s simply what they believe is right, since it’s what they’ve been taught their whole lives.
With the purity culture movement in full swing into the late 90’s and early 2000’s, abstinence-only education became the main way that children & teenagers were taught about sex, teaching them to refrain from sex instead of educating them about how to actually have safe, consensual sexual relationships. Women were encouraged to “stay innocent” (both in physical practice & in their minds), “be pure,” and to help their male counterparts stay just as pure by – you guessed it – wearing “modest” clothing.
Though men were encouraged to stay pure under the guise of the truth of Biblical teachings, the majority of the purity movement was focused entirely around women, and what they could do to stay pure + help men stay pure, too. Purity & virginity have always been heavily woman-focused, with expectations in place that women are the ones responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings of men. This is detrimental to the way women view themselves and the way they’re treated in the world – and has had lasting effects on our modern society in endless ways, from the rights they’re granted by our country’s leaders to the way they’re treated in their own homes.
We could truly go on and on about the history of purity culture, but for now, we’ll move on to an overview of its harmful effects + how you may see those effects play out in our modern American culture.
If you want to learn more about the history of purity culture and how far it dates back, this New York Times article does a great job of looking at where it comes from, and how it relates to current times!
The Harmful Effects of Purity Culture
The main element of purity culture we wanted to highlight in this blog post are the harmful effects that come out of it. Obviously, there are many, many detailed things we could go into, but for the sake of time and clarity, we’re going to talk about some of the main impacts we often see in the folks who visit our shop + from our own experiences.
Here are some of the major harmful effects that growing up entrenched in the beliefs of purity culture can cause!
This is a no-brainer: the way that purity culture affects our views on & relationship with sex is hugely significant. Purity culture teaches you that sex is good and pleasurable, but only within the confines of a heterosexual marriage; otherwise, it’s bad, wrong, sinful, shameful, disgusting.
Christianity and purity culture put marriage on an incredibly high pedestal, positioning it as the end-all, be-all in romantic relationships. You may have grown up believing that once you get married and have that big wedding you’ve always dreamed of, all of the problems in your relationship will simply disappear. That once you’ve tied the knot, signed that paper, and made it official in the eyes of the government (and God), the sex you’ll have will be out-of-this-world amazing.
The problem with this is that if you’re taught that sex is inherently sinful, you’ll never be taught how to enjoy and embrace sex. We’ve heard so many stories about folks who save sex for marriage, get married, and end up disappointed & confused, because the sex they had on their wedding night wasn’t all it was hyped up to be.
And how could it have been? When you’re taught only about abstinence, and not about how to have a healthy sex life, how to pleasure your partner, how to ensure consent is present for both parties, and how to voice your own desires, it’s inevitable that you may be disappointed the first time you have sex (or the first 30 times). When it’s ingrained in you that having sex is bad, and that your body is sinful, it’s nearly impossible to flip the switch immediately on your wedding night and change your mindset around sex to a positive one.
The amount of pressure put on newly married couples to immediately have mind-blowing sex after years of indoctrination about the shame of sex is incredibly unrealistic, and purity culture only enforces it more!
On your relationship with yourself/your body
Purity culture not only impacts the way we view sex, but the way we view our own bodies, and the relationship we have with ourselves.
Not only is sex between a man and a woman before marriage a no-no in evangelical Christianity – so is masturbation. It’s not said outright in the Bible, but in most churches & religious spaces, masturbation is simply another form of sexual sin. Often, it’s not even spoken about – it’s a very hush-hush topic that many people choose to ignore or pretend doesn’t exist.
In reality, masturbation is incredibly normal, and even healthy! It’s a way for you to get to know your body, what you like, what you don’t like, and what brings you pleasure, as well as a great way to get comfortable in your own skin before allowing somebody else into your sex life.
When you’re taught that sex is only good within legal marriages, and that masturbation is wrong, it’s likely you’ll arrive at your ever-anticipated wedding night, only to have no idea what you like/dislike or how to communicate that to your partner. The stress and anticipcation you’ve built up for your married sex life will definitely have an effect on your ability to be comfortable + confident in your body – especially if you’ve never had the experience of masturbation and doing it on your own. And that’s probably going to result in your sexual experience not being as pleasurable or enjoyable as possible, not just for you, but for your partner, as well!
If you’re interested in getting familiar with what you enjoy, and want to incorporate a new sex toy into your pleasure practice, we highly recommend checking out our blog post on Choosing the Right Vibe: The Definitive Guide to Picking a New Toy!
On your physical well-being
Many young people feel like they can’t ask questions about sex, whether that’s due to the societal stigma around sex or specifically having growing up in purity culture. Everyone eventually learns about sex from somewhere (or someone); unfortunately, what they often get is information that is inaccurate, unhealthy, and dangerous, putting them at risk.
At WinkWink, we believe that all people deserve to have a place where they can ask questions in a non-judgmental setting and get answers from sexuality educators that have their well-being in mind.
Abstinence-only education fails to teach young children and teenageres how to have safe, consensual sex, and therefore results in unwanted pregnancies, STI’s, and traumatic sexual experiences that have lasting physical and emotional effects.
As we’ve mentioned already, the pedestal that purity culture puts on sex within marriage can be incredibly harmful to married couples once they start having sex.
With expectations built up so high, yet very minimal education on how to actually have pleasurable, safe, consensual sex, it can easily be challenging to have a healthy sex life once you’re married after growing up in purity culture. The frustration of disappointing sex can put stress on a marriage, and one or both partners may feel unsure of how to communicate what they want, since they’ve never been taught how to do so!
On society & the rights of women, queer folks
The intersectionality of purity culture & the rights of women and queer folks, race, and class is ever-present in our modern society, especially with devastating events such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Not only does purity culture affect how we view sex & relationships, it also affects the rights we have in this country and the way we live our lives, especially for people with vaginas and queer folks.
Because purity culture is rooted in patriarchy and the control + abuse of cishet men, it heavily impacts the way that people with vaginas are treated still to this day by many people in power: as inferior, lesser-than human beings. As people whose main responsibility is to bear children, to be pure, and to stay innocent. When we’re still viewed this way thanks to the lasting effects of purity culture & indoctrinated evangelical Christian beliefs, our rights are more easily taken away or seen as less important.
Purity culture intersects with race and class, as well, as it is so closely connected to white colonization and white supremacy. Black & Asian women have a history of being hypersexualized and fetishized in America, only made worse through the sexual ideals of specifically cishet, white men who hold a position of power.
4 Ways to Start Recovering From Purity Culture
Although we can’t be there to support each and every one of you who’s healing from purity culture, whether you’re at the beginning of the process or somewhere in the middle, we can give you some of our best advice! Here are 4 ways you can start recovering from purity culture – remember that every person’s journey is completely unique + different, and that it’s your journey to go on however you feel is right for you.
1. Speak to a licensed therapist
We can’t recommend therapy enough as a way to process trauma and harm from purity culture! Speaking to a licensed therapist can give you a safe space to talk through it, dive deep into the ways that purity culture affects your life, and to find a way to heal.
2. Speak to a certified sex coach
Now if your normal therapist isn’t cutting it for you, or you’d feel more comfortable speaking to somebody specifically trained in all things relating to sex & sexuality, you can speak to a certified sex coach. Yes, that’s a thing! You can even work with both a regular psychotherapist and a sex coach at the same time, if you want to – or pick one.
Our shop owner, Jenn, is a certified sex coach herself; she works with folks all the time who have processed the trauma around purity culture, and are now looking to figure out how to explore their body, receive education, and learn tips for communication around sex. Sex coaching can be a really positive way to help get you from where you are now to where you want to be, with personalized strategies and support along the way from an expert!
3. Allow yourself gentle, private space to heal
It’s super important to be gentle with yourself through this entire process, because it can be a difficult one. It’s also important to remember that this can be your own private journey, and you are not required to share it with anyone – family members, friends, past church members/religious leaders, etc. This is your life and yours alone, and it’s 100% up to you what you share and when.
4. Empower yourself through learning
Learning is one of our favorite ways to start your journey of sexual empowerment, and feeling good in your body! Whether you prefer to watch TV shows, listen to podcasts, or consume information through books, there is plenty of amazing media out there nowadays that teaches you about sex through comprehensive education from experts!
Below are four of our favorite books we sell at WinkWink that we’d recommend if you’re on your journey to healing from purity culture.
4 Books to Read for Healing From + Dismantling Purity Culture
1. For purity culture as part of American Evangelical Christianity:
Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms | By Matthias Roberts
2. For LGBTQ+ Christian Teens:
Queerfully and Wonderfully Made | By Leigh Finke
3. For healing from body shame through self-love:
The Body is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love | By Sonya Renee Taylor
4. For exploring + learning about women’s sexuality:
Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life | By Emily Nagoski
5. Connect with people who understand
Finally, one of the best ways to find healing is to connect with people who understand what you’re going through. It can be such a relief to make friends with people who grew up in a similar way, were taught the same things, and have gone through (or are going through) a similar healing process. Finding comfort and connection in others who can support you is huge.
Whew, that was a long one! We hope that this blog post helped you to realize that you’re not alone in your journey to healing from purity culture, and that it gave you some helpful tips on how to deconstruct purity culture in your own life.
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