The hypocrisy of purity culture enables sexual abuse in churches

Purity ring

By Rosie Dawson

Emily Joy Allison’s definition of evangelical purity culture is the teaching that “it’s mandatory to have complete and total sexual abstinence until legal, monogamous marriage between a cisgender heterosexual man and a cisgender, heterosexual woman. Or else.”

The “or else” can variously mean going to hell, getting pregnant, being viewed as damaged goods, having a nervous breakdown or an unhappy marriage. Or all of the above.

According to Allison, a performance poet and theology graduate from Nashville, Tennessee, the teachings of purity culture enable sexual predators to carry out their abuse within Christian communities, and to escape censure when their behaviour is exposed.

She told a Religion Media Centre online briefing about her own experience as a teenager of being groomed for abuse by a youth leader in her church. She was blamed for what happened, and forced to apologise to her abuser.

Years later, in November 2017 at the height of the #MeToo movement, she posted about her experience on Twitter using the hashtag #ChurchToo. The hashtag went viral as other people shared their experiences of abuse within the church.

Robert Downen, a journalist with the Houston Chronicle, had already been investigating the incidences of sexual abuse by pastors and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The momentum of #ChurchToo emboldened more survivors to tell their stories.

Ms Allison says the roots of purity culture lie in the strategic decision of the religious right to switch their focus from resisting desegregation to the issue of abortion. “Along with abortion comes a whole host of other sexual mores that you’re expecting people to follow, and that created the political situation that has led to what we now call modern purity culture.”

The messages of purity culture were carried through merchandise — from literature to T-shirts, white dresses and purity rings. American fathers hosted “purity balls” at which they would pledge to preserve their daughter’s virginity for their eventual husband. Many women who grew up in that culture speak of the damage it has had on their adult relationships.

Ms Allison says men are also victims of purity culture. “I think that one of the ways that purity culture affects men is it tells them they are these terrifying, horrible sex monsters, who at the drop of a hat could do something horrifying if women don’t dress modestly enough, or help them with their sexual boundaries enough.”

Linda Kay Klein, author of the bestselling Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, said purity culture was spread by federal and state programmes that delivered abstinence-until-marriage messages in schools. “Over two billion dollars of federal funding has been spent on . . . something that very few sex educators actually do, because we know that it’s highly ineffective at meeting the goals the government wanted to meet.

“So, we have young people getting absolutely saturated with this message, and a lot get the impression that it’s actually the way that they go to heaven; it’s the most important thing that they can do to make sure that they will have a happy, healthy life.”

Hannah Baylor, an ordinand in the Church of England and a finalist in the SCM/Church Times first #Theology slam with a talk on #MeToo and the churches, said: “We haven’t had such an easily definable idea of purity culture in the UK.

“The ideas have seeped into teaching and have been normalised in the context of otherwise legitimate, healthy, empowering teaching. So, the real challenge I think we’re facing today is how do you separate them out?”

Baylor sees the roots of English purity culture in an evangelical and public school culture where “men are men being raised to only spend time with men and women being raised to only spend time with women”.

Andrew Graystone, a theologian and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, believes that male leaders from the 1970s onwards turned to purity culture as a way of maintaining their power within the church institutions. “I think that one of the key motivations has been a tribal one, a feeling that their grip on power within the church institutions was getting looser,” he said.

“There’s a conservative evangelical tribe that has a particular interest in this. There’s equally a Church of England tribe that is as committed to purity culture, institutionalises it and at the same time, institutionalises its own hypocrisy about sex.”

Kate Mounce is part of a theatre company called Beside Ourselves. Her play, Just Don’t Do It, which examines the teachings given about sex in evangelical circles, is based on her own experience. She believes that those who have been damaged by purity culture may need to look outside of the church for their recovery.

“I really question whether churches are the right places to do this work. I needed to get out of that environment to be able to really start to heal,” she said. “I think there’s a need for separate networks of people who can become a support network to each other. In the future, churches may be able to step up and do that, but right now they have to do the work on themselves.”

View the online briefing on our youtube channel here

#ChurchToo by Emily Joy Allison will be published on 11 March






Join our Newsletter