When I was 11 years old, I was given a teen purity magazine by my church. On the inside cover was an unflattering image of Mr. Bean (you know, obnoxious-wide-eyed-stare-Mr. Bean) and a caption that read, “That cute guy might see you in your shorts and crop top, but so does THIS guy.”
Purity culture really had me afraid of Mr. Bean for a minute there.
Joking aside, purity culture made me afraid of all men. The message of this purity magazine was that a girl as young as 11 is responsible for a man’s impure thoughts and the unwanted sexual attention of predators.
If you have been so blessed to have never encountered the term “purity culture” before, let me explain. To quote my favorite deconstruction page on Instagram (@yourfavoriteheretics), purity culture is a set of beliefs that puts value on virginity and implies a woman’s worth is found in her sexual purity. Emphasis is placed on clothing and emotional restrictions.
Need further proof that such a thing exists in the 21st century? At 12 years old, my mother was told by a female church leader that I made all the boys “horny” when I wore a skirt to youth group — a skirt that I wore several times to school and never once got dress coded. Ironically, I paired this skirt with a pair of sneakers that I had written “God is Awesome” on the toes of.
I grew up in the Christian church. I loved going to children’s church and praising Jesus. I was well behaved, soft spoken and obedient to my Sunday School teachers. I was a sponge.
I took in a lot of good, helpful knowledge those first few years of church; I learned the Golden Rule, that love is the most important commandment and that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that someday I can go to heaven.
Maybe that is why, when I moved up to the middle and high school youth group, I felt what could only be described as culture shock.
Suddenly, the church leaders were talking about my body and boys in addition to scripture. Now, there were all these rules about how I should dress, talk and think. Again, I soaked it all up, like a sponge.
I wanted so badly to be good. I obsessed over it. If I had what the church would label as an “impure” thought (aka a normal, hormonal teenager thought), I would be a nervous wreck. I did not want to be a target for male lust, even inadvertently.
To combat these feelings, I wore a purity ring. I read books like “Purely Woman” and “Before You Meet Prince Charming: A Guide to Radiant Purity.” I attended purity conferences and Bible studies on the topic. I became deeply entrenched in hurt and shame as my body changed.
My parents had no idea how bad things were. I wish I had confided in them sooner.
It all came to a head during my senior year of high school. I was so tired of fighting myself. I had a moment of crisis: A loving, forgiving God would not want His creation to live like this.
My family and I left our church later that year. There were many good, well-meaning people at our church. People we would consider friends, even.
Churches are made up of people, and people are fallible. Anyone can fall victim to and perpetuate bad theology if systems exist that support it and don’t speak out against it.
We may have left the church, but we never strayed from God. We were stripped down to nothing but our bare faith and that was enough to navigate us spiritually. We needed time to heal and to re-establish some boundaries.
Today, I am 21 years old, married to my high school sweetheart and happy. I continue to reconcile with my past in the form of deconstruction. I am in a position to slowly start rebuilding my faith from one that is fear-based to one that is love-based.
My church experience wasn’t all bad. I am glad I grew up learning about the character of Jesus, because that is how I knew what was happening to me was wrong.
Women are not to blame for men’s behavior. I am free to be myself without fear of eternal consequences. I am not defined by what I believed to be true then. I am loved and worth the chance to recover from toxic religious practices.
Religion no longer feels right for me. Instead, I consider myself a spiritual person in a relationship with God that is on the mend.
If you have found yourself hurt by the church or purity culture, when you’re ready, I would encourage you to do the same. You will find that there’s a whole community on the other side. You are not alone.