Hello beautiful people, welcome back to Zany Lady. As the title of this post suggests, today I’m taking a deep dive into the purity movement, and talking to a handful of millennial women who have been affected by this movement.
*Disclaimer: This article might be triggering for some people, whether you have been affected by the purity movement, or hold strong opinions about this topic. Also, we talk about sex a lot, so if that makes you uncomfortable, you can go ahead and X-out of this post.
Before I dive in, and there is a lot to cover, I want to give you a little taste of my background. I grew up in a Christian community, in a close-knit Christian family. My father was (and still is) a pastor of a non-denominational church in my hometown. Since the age of 6, I’ve been put into the role of “pastor’s daughter”.
Some of you are already thinking the sex-negative thoughts I probably experienced as a child and growing teenager, and you’re correct, but they didn’t (necessarily) come from my parents. My parents were always very flirty with each other around the house, always kissing and playing around with each other. I knew that physical intimacy was a positive thing in their marriage, something they never seemed to be ashamed of.
Even with the constant flirting of my parents, we never actually had “the talk”. My mom never sat me down and discussed what a healthy view of sex looks like, or taught me about the female body. (Granted, she might have tried, and I probably shut that conversation down.) This isn’t because she didn’t want to talk about it, or she was somehow avoiding the topic, but she was still figuring her own self out. My mom came from a very Catholic family, and her mother was, not sex negative, but body negative. She would emphasize to dress modestly, cover your body up, don’t show any curves. Whether or not my grandmother meant for that message to come across, my mom received it as “my body is not good”.
You can see how growing up with a mother who puts those thoughts and expectations in your head, you lack a knowledge and understanding of your body, what sex actually is, and how to engage in healthy intimacy with others. My mom, as I, as many girls, had to figure the whole topic out, without the wisdom of an elder.
Even though we didn’t have any sex conversations, I still became bombarded with the purity movement at my church. My Sunday school leaders would teach it, parents of my friends would preach it, and I was left confused, generally scared about anything sex-related, and completely lost when it came to sex.
After hearing all of the purity movement rants for years and years, I developed my own stigma about sex. I believed the lies that came from those talks, that having sex is bad, sexuality is a sin, sexual behavior should be avoided like the plague. Most of my close friends growing up were also thinking the same thing, so who was I to question those theories?
We all grew up seeing our older siblings not dating, not kissing, waiting for marriage to have sex, and assumed that was the “correct” way to live life.
Flash forward to when all of us are in our twenties, trying to navigate relationships. The purity movement has been put to rest, although the ideas still linger around our community. What the hell just happened? What do I do with my ever present sexuality? How am I supposed to be intimate with my partner when I know literally nothing about my own body, let alone sex?
Well, we’re going to talk about what the hell you do.
But first, I think we need to go back to a brief history lesson on what the purity movement actually is, in case you were lucky enough not to encounter it as an adolescent.
Wtf Is the Purity Movement?
The purity movement came about in the late 1990’s as a response to a book written by Josh Harris entitled, “I Kissed Dating Away”. The book, written by a 21-year-old, discusses how he believes not dating, or engaging in any type of physical intimacy before marriage is how God wants us to behave. God will think more highly of you if you practice his dating methods (or lack thereof). On the other side, you will be a disappointment to God if you engage in those activities before marriage. If you wait until marriage to explore sexual intimacy, you will be rewarded with a great sex life and smooth sailing. (HA)
Then came the treacherous “purity ring” in which teenagers would promise their parents not to have sex until marriage, and wear a ring to signify the promise/oath. Multiple studies and books came out teaching the same lessons, as you will hear in some of the interviews.
Now, this is a touchy subject, and I know that people have varied opinions. Some people might not see anything wrong about those ideas formed around faith-based abstinence. Some people might think, damn, y’all are crazy, why would you believe that trash. Some of you, like myself, are still trying to grow from the shame we were taught to feel about sex and our bodies, and trying to navigate how to date as an empowered, millennial woman.
I’m not here to say whether you’re right or wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Everyone has the power to choose to do whatever they want with their bodies, whether engaging in sexual intimacy, or waiting until marriage. Whatever. I don’t care what you do.
The point of this blog is to show, first hand, how the purity movement has affected millennial women, and how we can grow as a sex/body positive community.
Lack of Sexual Education
As I pointed out about both my mom’s and my experience as teenagers, we were not educated on sex. Not even just sex, but our own bodies. Our bodies are, to give you a cheesy, Christian answer, fearfully and wonderfully made. They are exquisite. They are built to be loved and adored and pleasured.
But so many girls are left in the dark about all of the beautiful and great things our bodies can do.
Garlyn, a 25-year-old gal getting her Masters in Counseling who recently married her high school sweetheart, opens up to me about the lack of knowledge she had about sex. “I went to a Christian school my whole life and sex was rarely talked about. Because of that I feel like boundaries were very confusing. Like how far is too far?”
Garlyn talked about her husband coming from a similar up-bringing with similar sexual stigmas. When I asked her how their lack of sexual knowledge affected their intimacy, good or bad, she replied, “lack of knowledge encouraged us to explore in marriage so I think that after we got married, it actually helped the intimacy.”
Garlyn is an example on how some women were and are able to take their past sexual knowledge and discover good, healthy intimacy out of it.
I texted my Freshman year college roommate about the topic, knowing she also grew up in a Christian home, and she said whenever her mom tried to talk to her about sex, she’d literally run out of the room. In her case, it wasn’t because her parents didn’t want to talk to her about sex, she just chose not to engage.
Regardless of the reasoning for a lack of sexual knowledge, I believe this is one of the core issues of the purity movement. Even if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, and had no correlation to the purity movement, lack of education stems into unhealthy stigmas, or just wrong ideas about sex.
Rachel, a young creative, mother-of-two, and a total girl boss living in Richmond, Virgina, gives her opinion about the lack of sexual education while she was in school.
“There was little thought given to sexual education. When the focus is on only purity and not also competent education about typical sexual development, it can leave both boys and girls feeling confused and at war with their bodies.
Also, maybe this is just me, but it seems like boys who grow up in the purity culture know literally nothing about how women’s bodies work. Knowing what periods are and how ovulation works, etc. does not detract from little 16 year old boys’ purity. It just makes them better, more empathetic men.”
Teenagers need the facts, they need the knowledge in order to develop a healthy view on what’s actually going on. Like Rachel said, most boys who aren’t taught about women’s bodies are clueless when they start dating, which could lead to some false ideas or expectations. Imagine a world where every guy you date actually understands your body. That relationship would have the potential to be a lot stronger, for many reasons.
Not only does a lack of sexual knowledge give teenagers (and adults) false ideas about sex, but we don’t know how to navigate intimacy in an intelligent way.
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, as well as a graduate professor of sexuality and medical family therapy, talks about her experience with clients, both Christian and not, when they are brought up with a lack of sexual education.
She says, “Clients whose sex lives feel detached, dead, transactional, or filled with obligation, are often ill-equipped to know how to make things better, so they do unhelpful things: they complain, blame, cheat, withdraw, lose themselves in work or alcohol, or distract themselves some other way. These adaptations often make the problem worse, not better, even though they all make sense when we consider that most of us grew up in a culture that failed to teach us any skills in emotional, relationship, or intimacy intelligence.”
I’m sure we all know people who fall under those “unhelpful things”.
A lack of sexual knowledge, regardless of religion, regardless of personal beliefs or lifestyles, results in a negative sexual outcome.
An Overwhelming Sense of Guilt
Unfortunately, a huge after effect of the purity movement is guilt associated with anything sex-related. I felt it during (and after) my first serious relationship, and many of the girls I chatted with about this topic have felt some sort of guilt, having to do with the beliefs they were raised on.
One of my very best friends, Juliana, who is one of the gals I grew up with who learned the same tainted sex lessons as me, opens up about her experience.
“Growing up, I vividly remember the metaphor of a cliff being presented to me alongside the education of sex. ‘Holding hands’ is far away from the cliff. ‘Kissing’ is closer. ‘Kissing passionately vertical’ is even closer to the edge of the cliff. ‘Kissing passionately horizontal’ is dangerously close. ‘Intercourse’ is falling off the cliff. This was all laid out in the Passport to Purity curriculum I listened to and worked through with my mom on an entire purity weekend.
While I was growing up in my house, I remember the stigma around sex being something to fear and avoid. It was something that was bad, and it stayed bad until it all of a sudden became good when you got married. It felt like the biggest sin that you could commit to men. Having a religious background, I saw sex as a rule that could not be broken and also forgiven. I feared sex a lot, and remember being uncomfortable thinking about the fact that I would have to do it once I got married.”
During the purity movement, we were taught, exactly what Juliana said, that sex was bad, a sin, and that doing it is basically the equivalent of falling off a cliff. Needless to say, coming out of a childhood that teaches us those morals about sexuality, discovering our own sexuality, and feeling empowered in our bodies, is a bit of a struggle.
Rachel brought up an interesting point while discussing the topic of sex within the church.
“In the church community, it felt like a lot of the spiritual formation directed towards girls was purity-related, while boys got to read and discuss more general things about following Jesus and God’s character. This reductive approach made me feel like my worth in God’s eyes depended on my purity status, and that things like being Christ-like, embodying the Fruit of the Spirit, and knowing God’s unconditional love for me wasn’t as much of a focus. This didn’t come from my parents, but more from the focus of literature I had access to.”
One of my friends from college, Madison, also grew up during this time of conservative sexual stances, and she recalls, “When I started dating, my parents sat me down and told me that dating would open me up to “physical temptations that I would be unable to withstand.” Any close proximity to a man would put me in a dangerous sexual situation that I would not be able to control. I wasn’t allowed to sit “too close” to my boyfriend, or even male friends. While having some friends visiting from out of town, I was shamed for sitting on the same couch as a male friend, or letting him use the bathroom that was adjacent to my bedroom.”
That shame stayed with her throughout her adult years. She developed a fear of being intimate, or drawing any sort of sexual attention to herself. Even after she has been with the same partner for almost 3 years, she still has regular panic attacks directly related to their physical intimacy.
How To Erase Sex-Related Shame
I know those stories are triggering to some people, myself included. That same and false sense of Christianity was a big part of who I was as a young girl, and what I still carry as a millennial woman.
The question, though, is how do we erase that sexual shame we’ve been taught to feel?
Regarding all of my Christian gals who were taught that God only loves us if we keep our purity, I think it’s important to actually know the Gospel, and what God’s character actually looks like.
Just because people tell you their opinions are “from scripture” doesn’t mean they are the least bit right (or true). You wanna know the facts?
God created our bodies. Every single organ, every single body part and function, He created it and it was (and is) f*cking GOOD. Don’t ever question that. Our bodies are GOOD and POWERFUL and SEXY and there is absolutely NOTHING you should feel ashamed about.
Heck, God gave women a body part specifically for feeling pleasure. Which leads me to my next point.
God gives us the desires of our hearts. Not just some of our desires, all of our desires. God created man and woman to be intimate, and designed our bodies for such activities. You think God would then be surprised that we feel sexual desire? Like, shoot, Tina, what the hell are you doing, you aren’t supposed to feel pleasure even though I designed you to.
No. God rejoices in our pleasure. Desires are good. Yes, some desires are unsustainable, and we may not have the ability or state-of-mind to act on them immediately, nor should we, but that doesn’t mean they are bad.
Phew. We got through that section. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back.
Now for all my gals who don’t have a Christian background, yet still feel the shame and guilt associated with sex: you are enough. Your body is a masterpiece. Your desires are valid. Having or not having sex does not make you any less of a full, complete, confident woman.
Whether you’re feeling shame because you’re insecure about your body or you’re feeling guilt because of a stereotype you feel you must adhere to, I am telling you that your body is perfectly normal and functioning and sexy. I don’t care what you’re seeing on Instagram or what you think your boyfriend is in to. Your body is perfect.
There is absolutely no shame a woman should feel about her sexuality. I don’t care if you’ve slept with every guy on the soccer team, or you’re a virgin who hasn’t kissed a boy. No one should make you feel ashamed or less than the perfect and whole woman that you are.
Dr. Sellers, who I mentioned earlier, talks about healing from sexual shame, and as she works through those issues with her clients, categorizes the healing into four elements: frame, claim, name, and aim.
Frame: Build a Framework of Sexual Knowledge
Like I said, building a foundation of accurate sexual knowledge is a great place to start, really for any person in any walk of life. My mother always tells me, knowledge is power, and it’s true, especially in this case. The more we truly know about sex, the more myths we can debunk, the more questions we can get answered, the better our sex lives will be.
Finding accurate information can be tough, and the internet can spread false facts around. I recommend seeing or chatting with a sex therapist, who is literally trained in sexual knowledge. Dr. Seller’s book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church does a great job at talking about some sexual myths, but also, everyone is different. If you feel like you have a lack of sexual knowledge, reach out to a sex therapist. Find someone who fits well into your lifestyle, and build that foundation through someone who really knows what they are talking about. Remember, no shame. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed of reaching out to a therapist, feel empowered.
Claim: Claim and Celebrate Your Body
So often in today’s society, we are taught to judge our bodies. We are taught that our bodies are never good enough, that there is always someone better. The fact of the matter is, there is no “right” body. There are so many different body types and figures, and each of them are beautiful, including yours. Learning to claim your body, or accepting the beautiful figure you were #blessed with, is a huge part of erasing sexual shame.
Celebrate your curves. Love your body. I know it sounds cliche and like an Aerie ad, but it’s true! Take the time to know and love every inch of your body.
Name: Name and Share Your Story
Honestly, I didn’t realize how much sexual shame I still carry around with me until I was able to unpack it with women who feel the same as me. Talking about it, putting words to those feelings, is mega therapeutic. Even if you’re sharing your story with a close friend who might not have experienced the same thing, being able to tell your story is all part of the healing process. Holding onto those stories and emotions does not feel good. Let it out, share your story, don’t let your past have power over you any longer.
Aim: Aim to Live Your Sexual Legacy
For a lot of the women I spoke to, and for many that I didn’t, our sexual stories have been constructed by others. Often, as Dr. Sellers says, “it’s done without their permission or awareness, and certainly without a sense of self-ownership.”
The “aim” step is all about taking your story back. You’re the writer, you call the shots. You are invited to write your own sexual and intimacy story, one that brings you joy and nourishment. From this moment on, it’s your story, not anybody else’s.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Like I said at the beginning of this article, millennial women who grew up during the purity movement are strong and independent and trying to navigate feeling empowered in their sexuality.
Opening up this conversation for the blog has given me way more insight than I expected to find. For one, talking about all the crazy sh*t we still carry, the baggage still present in our relationships, is weirdly therapeutic. Like, omg, you also have panic attacks while trying to be intimate with your partner?
Or, you’re also trying to discover yourself and sexuality as an empowered woman?
Whatever it is, we need to talk about it. I’m done with this hush hush taboo trash that came from the purity movement. No. Talk about it. That sh*t messed us up, let’s talk about it and grow and move past it. No shame. No guilt. Just authenticity.
I think it’s important to, not only talk and empower our fellow women, but our daughters. Our younger cousins. Our nieces. Have conversations with them. Empower them from day 1 about their bodies. Let them know that their bodies are good. Teach them about how their bodies work. Let’s move away from a time of silence or guilt, and into a time of empowerment and positivity.
Okay, that was a lot, and if you stuck with me through the whole thing, congratulations. Like I said, I don’t know what you believe or how you grew up, but I do know that everyone deserves the chance to feel freedom and empowerment in who they are.
Purity can be a beautiful thing, if chosen and executed as a personal choice. However you chose to navigate your sex life, there should be no shame attached to it.
As former Bachelorette Hannah Brown said, “Jesus still loves me.”