In the 1990s, the Purity Movement spread across the United States encouraging young people to remain abstinent until marriage. Rooted in the evangelical church, the movement was comprised of various individuals, nonprofit organizations and church groups. Chief among them was “True Love Waits,” an organization that created an abstinence pledge signed by over 2.5 million young people throughout the decade.
Linda Kay Klein was a teenager then, raised in the evangelical church during the height of the movement. She writes about it in her new book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Linda also interviewed several dozen women and others with similar backgrounds about the lasting impact of the purity movement’s toxic messaging around sex, relationships, and gender.
On Friday, November 9, at 7 p.m. at Women and Children First, you can catch Linda in conversation with Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism.
I spoke to Linda about her book and her activist work.
JB: Why is the ongoing effect of the purity culture a feminist issue?
LKK: Where do I even start! Core to purity culture is a concept called “complementarianism.” This is the teaching that men and women are equal in God’s eyes, but were designed to “complement” one another here on earth in a very particular way: Men were designed to be stereotypically “masculine” leaders, and women their stereotypically “feminine” supporters. Savvy readers may notice that this doesn’t actually look a whole lot like equality, despite the word equality actually appearing in the description. On the contrary, it looks a lot like inequality.
“Purity” teachings overlay complementarianism. Though everyone is expected to remain a virgin until marriage, here again we find a set of special rules, and consequences for breaking those rules, for women and girls. In purity culture, girls and women can lose their “purity” — and with it, they’re told, the likelihood of ever finding a good Christian husband and having a happy, Christian family—through their own sexual thoughts, feelings and expressions, and also through the sexual thoughts, feelings and expressions of others, especially men, toward them which they are said to have elicited. This belief is rooted in the teaching that women and girls aren’t very sexual, whereas men and boys are sexually voracious—again, as it is said we’re each designed by God to be—making it girls’ and women’s responsibility to “protect our guys” from sexual temptation by walking, talking, and dressing just right so they never have a sexual inclination. Follow this logic forward and you’ve got the conditions for rape culture.
After leaving the evangelical Christian church, I spent 12 years interviewing people who were raised as girls in the midst of the white American evangelical church’s purity movement, which launched around the early 1990s. Again and again, I heard stories of women being blamed, and blaming themselves, for the thoughts, feelings and actions of others. One of my interviewees, for instance, told me about the day she went to her parents and told them that she was gang raped in college. The first question her father asked her, she told me, was “What were you wearing?”
You’ve spent years now researching and engaging in both the evangelical church and the broader society’s perspective on sexuality and sexual ethics. What has surprised you about the similarities and differences that you’ve found in and out of evangelical culture?
I’ve come to believe that U.S. culture is a purity culture. In the evangelical church, I learned that there were two types of girls—those who were “pure” and those who were “impure.” In society, we hear about “good girls” and “bad girls” and we aren’t talking about how much they volunteer. Jessica Valenti talks about this brilliantly in her book The Purity Myth.
In my experience and interviews, I’ve learned that extreme exposure to this toxic, shaming messaging—the kind we got growing up in the purity movement—causes fear and anxiety that sometimes manifests in ways that mimic PTSD, which can be really scary. But we are all exposed to some degree of this toxic messaging and it is bad for all of our health.
What have you learned about the role shame plays in people’s lives?
Shame is associated with feelings of worthlessness. We might feel we are bad, or that others will think that we’re bad. Either way, it can lead to a fear of rejection which, counterintuitively, makes us distance ourselves from others so they can’t distance from us. We might attack ourselves, focusing all of our energy inward leaving little room for connecting with others. We might attack others, keeping them far far away. We might hide or lie about the thing we are afraid might make them reject us. We might simply withdraw, and so on.
The purity movement taught girls like my interviewees and me to experience shame in association with our sexuality. We learned that others would determine worth (pure or impure) based on their assessments of our sexuality and that this was right and good. The results, for many of us, are life-long.
There is an adage in neurobiology called Hebb’s axiom that states “neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, if two neural circuits—such as sexuality and shame—are fired at the same time often enough, eventually an individual can’t fire one without automatically firing the other. They now have what is called a “brain trap.” I believe that my interviewees and I were trained to experience just such a brain trap between sexuality and shame, which is so sad. The last thing we want is to embed this kind of brain trap into girls’ developing brains, making it difficult for them to connect with others around something that has such tremendous potential for connection.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The purity movement taught girls like my interviewees and me to experience shame in association with our sexuality. We learned that others would determine worth (pure or impure) based on their assessments of our sexuality and that this was right and good. The results, for many of us, are life-long.[/perfectpullquote]
Tell us about your P.O. box and why you believe it’s important for people to tell their stories.
I love that you are asking about this. I bought a P.O. box because I’ve come to believe that very few of us can break free from the sexual shame that we’ve internalized alone. It can only be done together. I am a big believer in the power of sacred story exchange. But not all of us are ready to go public just yet.
The P.O. box allows people to send me a post card with a word, a picture, or a story about what they learned about sexuality growing up and what the legacies of those teachings have been on their adult lives. I post the post cards on the Break Free Together Instagram page with #BreakFreeTogether. People who are ready to share their stories more publicly are invited to post with the hashtag as well.
Can you tell us about Break Free Together?
Over the course of my interviews, I told my story again and again, and then listened as my story was told back to me. The details were different but the core themes—sexual shame, fear, and anxiety that was held in, and often expressed by, the body—were often the same. It was deeply healing for me, and for many of my interviewees as well.
I launched the nonprofit Break Free Together to bring the kinds of healing that my interviewees and I stumbled into together to others. With the mission to help people release shame and claim their whole selves—mind, spirit and body—Break Free Together seeks to meet people where they’re at, providing a spectrum of opportunities for people to share their stories, including the post card opportunity that you already asked about.
Though my book focuses on people who were raised in white American evangelical Christian churches as girls, the audience for Break Free Together is much broader, as sexual shame is by no means only experienced by people raised in communities like the one I grew up in.
The thing I am most excited about that Break Free Together is doing is offering a dinner experience. On the surface, we’re just having dinner. No lesson, no confession, just a chance to tell our stories and talk openly about sexuality. But beneath the surface, we are doing something much more meaningful: We are breaking free from shame and building community around a subject about which many of us have only ever felt isolation.