Here's What Purity Culture Gets Wrong About Sexuality — & How I Reclaimed Mine

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

I’ll never forget the first thing I learned about sex: it belongs in the context of marriage. This seemed as non-negotiable a fact as “the sky is blue” or “too much ice cream will give you a brain-freeze.” Growing up in a Southern community where many of my friends and mentors were avid church-goers, my views on sexuality were shaped by the ideals around me. And those ideals seemed far from open-minded. Southern Christian purity culture affected my views on sex in lots of ways that continue to shape me to this day, even though I’m trying to move past them.

A popular tradition in the Tennessee town where I grew up was for young girls to attend the Father/Daughter Purity Ball, an event sponsored by a local crisis pregnancy center — a group that also happened to be staunchly anti-abortion. Though my parents never took me to the dance, I saw all the photos of my friends dressed up as princesses, and I can’t lie, I wanted to be there. This is one of the earliest memories I have of the “purity” concept — the idea that a woman should “save herself” for her future husband and that sex outside of marriage was morally wrong or unclean.

Always one to follow the rules, I took this notion very seriously. Friends at school and church reinforced my beliefs. If sleeping with someone meant giving them a part of my soul, one that I could never get back, I didn’t plan on (literally or figuratively) screwing this up. Sex became this huge, scary, loaded concept that totally freaked me out. I didn’t want to risk getting hurt by neglecting to guard my body and my heart.

Throughout middle and high school, several of my female friends wore purity rings to signal their intention of saving sex for marriage. Again, I never participated (shoutout to my wonderfully progressive parents who weren’t fans of all this hyper-religious stuff), but I still picked up the message that physical intimacy equalled a loss of innocence. That giving your body away to someone meant losing something you could never get back.

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

At the time, this just seemed like the way things were. I didn’t realize how unhealthy this mentality was until it started affecting my attitude toward relationships. All throughout middle and high school, I was terrified of getting involved with a romantic partner. First of all, I’d had very little quality sex education, so I had no clue how physical relationships were supposed to work. But second, I was petrified! Any situation that opened the doors for intimacy was one that I hoped to avoid. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might make the wrong decision and get physically involved with someone who wasn’t right for me.

Meanwhile, I didn't see boys feeling the same kinds of pressure when it came to sex. As far as I understood it, women should be careful not to “tempt” men into lustful thoughts about us — because men were apparently the ones who wrestled more with sexual urges. Wow, I remember thinking, sex is a really powerful thing that distracts couples from pursuing an intentional relationship. Never did it cross my mind that maybe sex could play a role in pursuing meaningful connection with someone.

I grew up believing that sex was something I would do for the sake of my husband, not something I might ever seek out for myself.

Beginning in college, my worldview slowly but surely opened up. Thanks to the support and guidance of really great friends (and awesome therapists), I came to embrace my sexuality as something to be proud of — which happened around the same time I distanced myself from my religious upbringing. I turned to feminist media outlets to teach me about women's sexuality, and I watched shows like Friends and Sex & The City and thought, this is such a breath of fresh air. Seeing women I admired (even fictional ones) pursue their romantic relationships boldly was like a giant weight lifted off my chest.

This isn’t to say everyone from a faith background comes away with negative perspectives on sexuality. For some people I know, religion provides a positive lens through which to view physical intimacy. But in my case, I’ve had a lot of healing to do. The decision to love myself and my sexuality, without fear of shame or judgment, has been one of the most difficult and freeing tasks of my young life.

Courtesy of Sarah Ellis

The problem with purity culture is that it teaches young women that sex is all about the man. A woman who has slept around is “used goods,” and her spirit is probably shattered into a million pieces because she’s given herself away to so many people. If you don’t save yourself for your husband, you are denying him a precious and irreplaceable gift.

I don’t hear the same kinds of things being taught to young men. My fear is that the purity narrative causes women to feel disempowered to speak up for themselves in sexual situations, which is part of what lies at the root of many of these #MeToo stories we’ve heard in recent years. If women felt confident and assertive enough to stop a man’s advances without feeling pressure to passively adhere to his demands, think of how far we could advance toward gender equality. If we didn’t learn that “boys will be boys” and that it is our job as women to keep their sexual urges under control, the world would be a different place.

Young women need to hear that their bodies are beautiful, miraculous things and that their sexuality is something to celebrate — in whatever way feels right to them. This would have changed my life as a teenager. I grew up believing that sex was something I would do for the sake of my husband, not something I might ever seek out for myself. I also grew up thinking I would be irreparably damaged the moment I slept with someone without a ring on my finger.

This matters to me because it still triggers something deep inside my heart. Even writing this essay, this public declaration of how far I have come, makes part of me feel fearful of judgment from others. These feelings take a long time to unlearn, and lucky for me, I’m getting there. But for anyone reading this who worries about her sexuality, or who feels that for some reason it makes her less than perfect, please hear me: you are whole, complete, and powerful, and your body belongs to you. You have the choice to do with it whatever you please, and you are no less than anyone else because you recognize yourself as a sexual being. In fact, I’d argue that it makes you all the more courageous, independent, and strong.