Let's Talk About Purity Culture

What it teaches, the harmful consequences, and how we can heal.

TRIGGER WARNING- This blog discussed explicitly the harmful messages perpetuated by the purity culture movement. My hope in writing this is to empower survivors by validating that these messages were/are harmful. Naming abuse and harm for what it is, is an important step in healing. 

That being said, if you for any reason are not in a place where that validation would be supportive, I encourage you to skip this blog and focus on what would empower you today. If you decide to read this and you notice any painful feelings/body sensations, take a moment to breathe with a slow exhale. Be gentle with yourself. Reach out to your support system if needed. 

You can also skip to the section titled Here’s the Actual Good News if you want to know more about responding to the harmful messages and not re-read what they were. 

The Context of Purity Culture

The 90’s, and early 2000’s were a thriving time in the United States’ evangelical purity culture movement filled with I Kissed Dating Goodbye reading, True Love Waits pledges, and the Jonas Brothers modeling their purity rings. The whole country got behind this teaching. 2008 was a peak year with over 177 million dollars going to abstinence until marriage programs.

Purity culture taught that everyone should be sexually abstinent until marriage. Masturbation was discouraged for all but especially for people assigned female at birth (AFAB). This movement taught gender roles that included people assigned male at birth (AMAB) to be the leaders of the household and the decision makers. On the other hand, if one was assigned female, they are to be the helpers and submissive to male leadership. 

It is important to state that purity culture was harmful to everyone but it uniquely harmed those who are genderqueer, transgender, nonbinary and gender non-conforming. Unlike for cisgender people where this movement stated how to fit the role, purity culture erased the existence of gender non-conforming people entirely. The oppression of growing up being explicitly taught you don’t exist cannot be overemphasized.

My Story

I hit the awkward middle school years in the early 2000’s where I was fully immersed in purity culture messages at my youth group and church. As a cis girl, I had already witnessed throughout my childhood at church that men were given the leadership roles. I instinctively knew to be the helper. 

So when I entered puberty and received messages that are both overt and covert about how to be, both in my gender as well as in my sexuality, it already fit with my understanding of being a follower. The survival skill of fawning, a trauma response where someone establishes people pleasing tendencies to avoid conflict and create security, became a go-to form of survival for me. 

This makes sense because when you’re taught from an early age that you’ll be abandoned by god for even thinking anything “sinful” (anything that goes against or questions what the church is teaching), you get really good at learning what the rules are and how to follow them. 

All that to say, I listened and absorbed the purity culture messages intuitively. Looking back now I can see clearly what harmful messages were included in this for me as a cis queer woman. This list speaks from my identities and experiences as well as from my work as a therapist for people recovering from purity culture. This list is not all encompassing but covers many of the harmful messages.

- Skip this section if it wouldn’t be supportive to read these harmful messages. -

Harmful Messages From Purity Culture

  • Gender is binaried and comes with a specific set of roles/rules that will define one’s career, family decisions, and life script. This erases people’s identities and often controls marginalized gender identities by limiting their possibilities of roles, careers, and life choices.

  • Everyone is straight. Queer people do not exist. Therefore anything other than straight sex is sinful and not what god-intended. This creates internalized shame, erasure, and fear around sex and sexual identities that are not straight.

  • Sex is for procreation. For AFAB people, having children is a duty. Sex can sometimes be for pleasure but that’s in a straight marriage. People AMAB will be the ones to enjoy it mostly. People AFAB will get through it but more to keep her husband from straying and to have children. Abuse and control can thrive in this teaching. Women and other marginalized genders are robbed of pleasure and healthy sexual development. Everyone is denied the right to choose what they want in life because this teaches there is one right way of having family. Everyone is harmed by not being taught consent and healthy sexual connection/ communication. 

  • Sex drives can and should be suppressed until marriage. Sexual development, consent, and autonomy over one’s body is not taught, therefore does not exist or is not important.

  • Shame for having a sex drive is taught to be appropriate. No matter a person’s gender it is important to regularly confess these sins to others to further reinforce shame responses. The shame cycle this creates is deeply harmful psychologically, physically, and mentally.

  • Girls/Women should dress modestly to protect the boys/men from sinning. Boys/men have no control over their sex drives whereas girls/women don’t have a sex drive. This perpetuates rape culture and victim blaming. 

The Ways These Harmful Messages Show Up

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Shame about failing to be pure

  • Chronic guilt

  • Distrust of the body and emotions 

  • “I’m not good enough” belief

  • “I am bad” belief

  • “I don’t exist”/”I don’t matter” belief

  • Sexual dysfunction

  • Disordered eating

  • Dissociation, numbing, and disconnect from body

  • Addiction

  • PTSD

  • Trauma responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn

  • OCD and religious scrupulosity

  • Internalized homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and cisgenderism

  • Inability to verbalize needs/wants in relationship

  • Attachment insecurity

  • And more.

What This Boils Down To

The purity culture movement essentially teaches that your worthiness and goodness as a human being is tied to fitting particular gender and sexual scripts. These messages create hierarchy and justify discrimination towards people that do not fit into them. They promote shame and fear while also stigmatizing natural parts of our humanity making it difficult to impossible to explore who we are as unique humans.

Here's the Actual Good News (pun-intended for all the exvangelicals ;))

Our brains are plastic. The experiences we have and the harmful messages we were given can be reprocessed. So even though we cannot erase this experience, we don’t have to think and act from these messages any longer. 

There are tools and resources to return to your body, your self, and your inherent worthiness. 

For me, the return to myself was a long journey after purity culture. I didn’t feel safe to explore who I was, how I connected to gender/sexuality, and even what I wanted in my everyday life for a long time. I had to learn that my body isn’t bad through experiences that taught me I could trust myself. 

To do this, I needed safe spaces to be myself. I want to acknowledge this is not accessible to everyone. So if you’re reading this and you find yourself in a home or community where it’s not safe to depart from the script of purity culture, I honor that you are acting in favor of your survival. 

You deserve to not go through this alone. If therapy is an option for you, reach out to set up your complimentary consultation below. If that’s not accessible right now, try SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for more resources. You also can receive crisis support by calling 988 at any time.  

If you’re able to focus on recovery and support following purity culture messages, here are 5 tools I’ve learned both as a therapist and as a wounded healer, working on my recovery over the years. 

5 Practices For Healing

1. Get curious about your nervous system states. Get familiar with when you are in “rest and digest”. 

The harmful messages from purity culture can cause someone growing up to feel constantly under threat. This can create an overactivation of the sympathetic (fight or flight) responses or the freeze response (shutdown). This causes a person to live in a state of fear and survival mode.

Stephen Porges, the person who coined Polyvagal theory, breaks the nervous system down this way. We have the ventral vagal response at the top of the ladder, which includes our system resting and digesting as well as social connectedness and felt safety. Next is the sympathetic response including fight or flight and last the dorsal vegal response of freeze and fawn. 

We can support healing from trauma by helping our nervous system climb back up the ladder. Start by simply observing body sensations to identify what state you’re in. Here’s a helpful video with more examples to support you. The more you can identify which state you’re in, the more you can use tools to help your body turn on the safe feeling in your body.

2. Find an activity that helps you feel connected to your physical body. 

Often trauma takes us out of the body as a form of survival. Then a person because disconnected or dissociated from their physical self. So activities that create integration- help a person connect their brain and their body- are a part of the healing journey. 

For me, yoga was a gateway to reconnecting with my body and listening to her. From their I’ve found other forms of movement that help me get into my physical body such as gardening dance, aerial arts, and lifting weights. This can be through movement but it also can be through feeling the senses while creating art, using your hands for pottery, petting your furbaby regularly, etc. There are so many ways to connect with our physical form that can help that brain integrate.  

3. Connect with people that validate the harm of purity culture.

One difficulty that clients who’ve left religion often bring up is the isolation. Church for many means you get a quick “family”. You are immediately brought into a whole community of people. So the loss of leaving or no longer fitting in can be devastating.

For some of my clients, continuing to be in an organized religion but of their choosing has been supportive for creating community. Unfortunately, when someone has religious trauma it is easy to find oneself following a different cult or gravitating to another form of being controlled. Teresa B. Pasquale discusses this in her book “Sacred Wounds”. This is a helpful resource to go more into depth on looking out for the corrupt teacher. 

That being said, some benefit from a new spiritual community or from secular community groups like on meet ups, running clubs, board game nights, etc. Finding new friends and support is key. Some of my friends who have been the most supportive in validating the harm of purity culture are ones that didn’t grow up in it- so they express surprise and distress at what was once normal for me. This feels really good!

Additionally, there are support groups for people who are deconstructing. Check out my religious trauma group tab for the one I run. This can be especially validating to talk to other people who have been through this and are recovering. 

4. When you’re in a grounded state- ask yourself what resonates with how you experience your sexuality or gender. 

One of my therapists that supported me recovering from purity culture, encouraged me to start paying attention to what attracted me. She gave me the permission I needed at the time to be curious about my sex drive and myself. 

I started with noticing what was attractive to me. I got curious about how I wanted to present myself and my style. I asked myself what clothes I liked. I looked out for when I felt that spark of attraction. I started creating comfort and familiarity with my sex drive rather than suppressing it or being ashamed of this part of my humanity. 

If you’re someone that experienced a lot of sexual repression like I did, start small. See if you can notice that spark of attraction and tell your body that it’s okay to feel that- it is simply a part of being human. 

** A note, asexuality exists. This practice is simply a tool to get to know one’s self. And if in that practice you discover that you don’t experience sexual arousal, that is valid too. Then you can understand yourself rather than be limited in self understanding as a byproduct of suppression from purity culture.  

5. Get professional support. 

You might consider surviving purity culture to be like this. If you survived exposure to a toxin, it didn’t destroy you but your body still absorbed that toxin. Then it shows up in physical symptoms and you can’t move on or “just get over it” because it’s literally still in your body. 

In the same way, the harmful messages from purity culture have now been absorbed and need to be detoxed. For targeted detox support, a trained professional can work with you on exactly how these toxins are showing up in your life so that you can be free of them. 

Because many therapists do not understand trauma let alone religious trauma and purity culture, I recommend reaching out to a counselor or therapist trained in trauma, and even better yet if they understand purity culture you can get that targeted support. 

If you want a therapist who has been through this too, reach out for a complimentary consultation and we can make sure I’m a good fit for you. You deserve support that has been there and has helped others like you get through this. Click on the button below to request an appointment.