My Purity Culture Story
I wanted to write out my story regarding purity culture. To give some context, I grew up in a strict evangelical homeschool household. Although we had some contact with “the world” most of my childhood and teen years were spent in church or with other evangelical homeschoolers.
I’ll start with my pre-teen years as that was the time I started to start having puberty changes and sexual desires. My parents left me with very little direction in regards to sex and sexuality. The messages I got were all about purity and how to remain pure. Avoiding “lustful” thoughts and actions. The words sex or sexuality were never mentioned in the home. And puberty was never discussed. Mom and dad never openly displayed any forms of PDA other than an occasional peck on the cheek. Even “I love you” was only rarely spoken from my mother to my father and never in the reverse order.
I was so confused as I went through puberty. I had nothing to guide me as my body and mind underwent changes. Early on I would say I was just more confused than anything. For instance, I had odd warm feelings towards girls; but no context to process them in.
As I started to develop sexually, I felt more and more ashamed of my sexual desires. I would have thoughts about breasts and have erections. And whit those physical responses, I felt confusion about the way my body was reacting. And felt quilty that I enjoyed the feelings that came from thinking or dwelling on the shape of a woman. I eventually started masterbating (as all teens do), and the shame I felt after that was overwhelming. I was a sinner – those thoughts and actions (masterbation) were evil. Or so I thought at the time.
I had attended church from birth up, and I was told very early on about a very powerful all-knowing God. How God hated my sin. And how God knows every little sin I commit. This was re-enforced constantly by my conservative family and Christian homeschooling materials.
This was part of my children’s ministry materials. This was taught to me in first grade.
I became obsessed with finding a way to free myself of that “sin.” I would have intrusive thoughts about removing my genitals from my body. “If you don’t have a penis then you won’t have those lustful desires.” “Go on, just cut it off.” And then as I spiraled even further down, I would even have thoughts of ending my own life. “God hates me.” “I’m worthless.” “If I really am ‘saved’ then why am I so evil.” These thoughts filled my mind and I found no shelter from the onslaught of negative intrusive thoughts. I would go in circles of asking God for forgiveness then “messing up” aka masturbation or “lustful” thoughts. But I wasn’t able to find any relief there. The “black dog” of depression and guilt followed me for quite a few years.
Toward my junior – senior year of high school my depression eased up a bit, but not my guilt for my perceived sexual deviancies. My parents eventually gave me a few dating talks once I was in my late teens. Not that there was any conversation or dialog back and forth. The normal format was to listen to a sermon on sexual purity. Or a few handpicked purity books – Passion and Purity and I Kissed Dating Goodbye. My parents still at this time wouldn’t even use the words sex, penis, or vagina. It was all vaguely termed as “purity” and “guarding my heart.” The model of “dating” I was given was courting. With a focus on finding a marriage partner and full sexual purity. These were really my only framework for how to interact with a woman and how to “find a wife.” I wasn’t really given any instructions in high school that I could or couldn’t date before graduation. But it was heavily implied that dating before you were “ready to marry” was a waste of time. And my homeschooling environment didn’t really didn’t allow for a lot of contact with other families outside of my church and homeschool group. Also I carried a ton of shame with me for my “sexual sin.” I felt worthless and very much unworthy of love or a committed relationship. So I had not dated or even really had any type of relationship with a woman before college.
The college I picked was Pensacola Christian College (PCC). An independent fundamental Baptist college in Florida. I was cautioned by a few people that they were “a bit legalistic.” But I still went through with it, as my parents and Christian leaders in my life heavily cautioned against going to a “secular” college. I was told immorality and heresy would be taught by the teachers from the lectern of “non-Christian” college. When I arrived at PCC I quickly found out that the “bit” of legalism was actually a lot of legalism. The college enforced strict dress codes. For women dresses or skirts only and they must go to the knee. For men collared shirts and dress pants at all times. Heavy rules were in place for any interactions with the opposite sex. Only areas with a chaperone could be “mixed” aka girls and boys. And women and men were not allowed alone in any way together. No physical touch was allowed between a man and a woman unless the couple were married.
The general culture of the college was heavily influenced by “biblical” marriage roles aka biblical patriarchy. Men were to be the leaders and women the submissive servants. These roles were taught often during the many mandatory church services and college chapel services.
Well despite all the rules, I did find my wife at this college. And we dated throughout our time at PCC. As you could imagine though this wasn’t an easy task. Dates off campus weren’t allowed. Because of the rule forbidding men and women to interact, on or off campus. In fact you would be immediately dismissed from the college if you were to be caught in a “mixed group” off campus. You could have a chaperone take you off campus. But the list of approved people was very limited. So most of our time dating at the college was spent in large chaperoned public areas. You can imagine the issues as it was hard to connect in an intimate way, and impossible to connect in a physical way due to the college’s rules. Our “courtship” was solely marriage focused and quickly we had our lives planned out together. And we even were engaged fairly early into our college relationship.
But we in many ways didn’t even really know each other. We were initially committed to never kissing and maybe just holding hands before marriage. I should add that both me and my wife really had no contact outside of the college walls except for occasional Christmas breaks spent at her or my parents house. We both worked at the college during the summers to help pay off our student debt. So the college had a hand in our lives during the spring / fall semesters and also during the summer.
But our plans for complete sexual purity fell apart after we chose to risk it and sneak off campus for a date together in Mobile. We quickly fell into a pattern of sneaking off. Maybe a bit of petting here and there, some intense make-out sessions, and eventually those activities escalated. We talked together and eventually decided to have sex. I our minds we had already “messed up” by performing every other act other than PIV sex. And we were going to get married soon anyway.
Well we booked a motel. It was in an old Rodeway Inn in Mobile Alabama. Not the most romantic place mind you. It was nothing like either one of us had anticipated. Our fears, guilt, and shame made it difficult to “do the deed.” Add onto that a inadequate understanding of anatomy and sex. Anxiety and guilt followed me around after that day. All I could think was that the college or one of our families would find out. If anyone did, we would lose our standing in our family and / or our ability to finish college. I was convinced the act that I had done was sin. And that God would judge me for that sin. And judge me for enjoying that “sinful” activity.
Because of my shame and anxiety, I tried to break off our sexual activities with my fiancée. This obviously caused some extreme whiplash for her. This fueled doubts regarding our relationship and feeling of worthlessness. She told me that I must not love her and desire her anymore. All those years growing up she had heard how men desire sex and are “visual creatures.” She was left feeling worthless, undesired, and ugly. But it was anything but a lack of desire. I had sexual desires, but I had been instructed that those desires were evil. And I had a sense of overwhelming shame regarding my action or sins (as I thought at the time).
This caused a horrible cycle of manipulation, desire, and shame between us. Culminating with her threatening to tell the college administration about our sexual activities if I didn’t agree to find a way to have sex with her again. Mind you this would have gotten us kicked out of the college, and the college also had the “right” to inform our parents and pastors about our actions as well.
This cycle continued for much of our last year of college. Have sex, feel guilty, back off, fight, get pulled back into it all over again. We were never able to talk to friends, pastors, or college counselors about our relationship and our true difficulties because of the strict no-sex policy and fear of being kicked out. So we were left to navigate our guilt and anger alone. This led to a hate filled relationship and many fights. I know both of us received advice to back out of our wedding. But we went through with it. For my part a sense of guilt over my sexual “sin” being a main factor in it. We were both told that you were ruined after having sex with another person. How could I justify having sex with my fiancée. Leaving her and then starting a relationship with another person. It was honestly inconceivable to me.
Well we did end up getting married. And we both though that would be an instant fix to our relationship. The wedding was beautiful and feelings of love temporarily replaced those feelings of guilt and shame.
But unsurprisingly to anyone else it wasn’t the easy fix we were looking for. We spent most of our first 2-3 years married fighting and blaming each other. And of course for me never letting go of that overwhelming guilt. Moving on past those rough years we have started opening up and talking about our issues. It’s taken another three years to move towards a good emotional connection and healthy sex life. We’ve had to leave behind our guilt and shame.
And for my wife and I part of that has been moving away from fundamentalism and our old views. We’ve also started healing and talking with therapists about our pasts, and how to move forward. We’ve even had the hard talk about staying together or getting divorced. Ultimately we chose to forgive and move on from our past, and start our relationship over from fresh. But it was extremely difficult to do so. I just wish we could have avoided all of the pain and guilt.
I would encourage others to feel free to explore your sexuality both alone and with your partner. Don’t feel guilted into staying in an unhealthy relationship because of a sexual relationship or due to shame. And if you are feeling guilty due to religious beliefs related to sex, feel free to leave those beliefs behind. I don’t believe any deity or divine power would want anyone to suffer or feel shame over sex.
Some book that helped me find some freedom from shame were – Pure by Linda Kay Klein, Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sex, God and the Conservative Church by Tina Sellers, and Beyond Shame by Matthias Roberts. As a forewarning all of these books are aimed at a Christian demographic and most of these authors are progressive Christians.