Enough is Enough: Thoughts on Purity and Slut-Shaming

Talking about “Purity Culture” is all the rage. Yeah, we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. God made us to be sexual beings. Blah, blah, blah. I figure that’s real sweet and all, but what does purity even mean? Just by waking up and thinking unkind thoughts about my neighbor who slams her door every morning at 6:00 before heading to work, I am terribly impure. I also experience fear that stops me from helping people, arrogance, envy, selfishness, and the worst thing I do I’m convinced is to go beyond unkind thoughts and pursue unkind actions. That to me is impurity. As I told a friend once, I’m pretty sure that while God cares about our sexual choices God cares more about whether we treat people kindly, justly, and compassionately than whether we wear micro-minis or have sex. So, instead, I want to talk about something at the root of Purity Culture, euphemisms not included.

Let’s talk about slut-shaming.

You know what it is. If you don’t, I’m sure you’ve observed it, or maybe took part in it without knowing what it’s called; well, it’s called slut-shaming. It’s actually really easy. It is the act of making assumptions about a person’s (empirically, this is usually women) general moral/ethical fiber based on whether you think she or he has been sexually active and for what purposes, and then relating to them in a way that projects moral reprehensibility. Probably, she has been less sexually active than people assume or not all for vindictive reasons, but hey, it’s awkward to actually talk to someone about their personal life, so she’s probably slept with a bunch of people, or at least let them motor-boat her in the back of their Honda Civic. Because those are the sexiest cars ever.

Slut shaming isn’t always manifested in cruel public humiliation scenarios; sometimes it’s quiet, direct, and intended to better a person, though it usually makes them feel awful. Just a few days ago, a young woman who grew up in my family’s friend circle posted a long, eloquent apology on Facebook for using what she had been told was an inappropriate profile picture. Her mother commented that she hadn’t noticed, but it is good to always be protecting others from lustful thoughts. The photo did nothing more than show this young woman to be attractive. She was fully clothed and not making graphic gestures of any kind. But that still made some people feel uncomfortable enough to call her out on it. Heaven forbid you should find someone attractive or even “sexy.” I guess the paradigm holds that not only is attractiveness bad but one cannot refrain from having sex with someone they find attractive. ß That’s weird and creepy, and in my experience false. But that’s one side of the culture I grew up in. 

I grew up in the heart of what many more liberal Christians are now calling “purity culture,” where women have reported feeling like their bodies are shameful and their sexuality—or at least their virginity—is a “priceless gift to be saved for their husband’s enjoyment alone.” Not their own enjoyment, their husbands. Sucks for those chicks who never get married. In my little corner of purity culture, there were no defined rules about how many inches above the knee our skirts could be, and we were allowed to wear jeans, unlike some of our friends (who secretly changed into jeans when they went out anyway). But my mom talked a lot about modesty and waiting to have sex till marriage. I grew up hearing about dressing and behaving in such a way that wouldn’t “cause my brothers to stumble.” Ew, like I would ever want to turn my brothers on. Figures of speech are important, folks.

 In this so-called purity culture, there are purity retreats (been there), purity books (read that), like And the Bride Wore White and Every Young Woman’s Battle, and purity balls—as in, fancy formal dances. But none of these carry the presence like the icon of this way of thinking—no longer being the bride’s white dress—the purity ring. I wore a purity ring for several years until I decided that knowing about my personal choices was something people had to earn through developed trust rather than glancing for a religious symbol on my hand.

You see, all of these ideals of “modesty,” which is a synonym for “humility,” were pragmatically problematic for me, because I also grew up absolutely loving to be naked. We lived in a pretty small house and my favorite thing to do was to run from my room to the bathroom, screaming gleefully, and stark naked, to take a shower. There was also a small area by the carport that would turn to a thick pit of mud when it rained, and I loved to strip down as far as I could without potential gravel being able to irritate my skin (ask me about the knee split injury from the great mud fight of 2007), and wallow in the mud. And on warm evenings, I would get special permission to skinny dip in the pool alone (with someone nearby to rescue me). I had to learn to temper this as I grew older, since running around in the nude is frowned upon in most societies.

 Purity culture and slut-shaming are best friends, even though “purity culture” would never admit slut-shaming is more than a drunken girl’s rant after catching another girl making out with her crush at a hometown football game, but she’s wily like that. Wherever you grew up in relation to purity culture, you might think slut-shaming isn’t a big deal, because a) that only happens in teen movies and television shows, b) no one really pays attention to gossip or little snide comments, or c) if those girls were more discrete, this wouldn’t happen to them.

Starting with “a,” go on Facebook, and search for the persona Newberg Nancy. It’s the Facebook account of someone who takes messages from Newberg High School students slamming their peers, and posts them anonymously with pointed criticism and bullying. This page has been taken down multiple times and pops back up, only to be reported again. It’s mostly a collection of attacks on young women, targeting what else? Their sexuality. Because that’s still the most powerful way to cut down another woman: call her a whore, say she’s a boyfriend stealer or easy, and then don’t forget to mention that she has small tits anyway. Newberg Nancy is a real phenomenon, targeting real high school students (I know an NHS mom who knows some of these students). It’s happening where we live and broadcast over the World Wide Web. 

Now for excuse “b”: gossip and snide comments, even casually stated, hurt and are deeply inappropriate. I know because people have shared their stories of being shamed with me, and I remember a former coworker making a hurtful comment to me. I asked with a laugh if the fake foliage hung above the doorway was in fact faux mistletoe, to which this person replied under their breath, “You would know more about that than me.” For a split second I thought about responding, “Well, actually, I probably do,” since I have been moonlighting as a florist since my early days in college, and since—confession—I’ve made out with several people. But I didn’t say that, because the way it was said to me carried the implication that my choices and relationships—and the sheer number of people I’ve kissed—reflected negatively on me as a person. And if I made a snarky retort, that would imply that this person’s romantic choices somehow reflected negatively on them as a person, too. Who am I to bash someone for being married and having kids and a picket fence? At the right time in life and with a compatible person, that can be a beautiful and powerful choice, making bashing it pretty douchey.

Now allow me to tackle excuse “c.” If you think this, I’m sorry, but you’re archaic and judgmental. Remember that a lot of the time slut-shaming is exaggerated, but even if it’s not, no one deserves to have their private, personal choices used as social weapons against them. Especially since no one has been able to prove a causal link running in either direction between sexual activity and meanness. Sorry. That’s not really a thing.

As a home school alum, I missed high school hallway slut-shaming and that particular gossip mill, but even to this day my earliest memory is witnessing a young woman publically confessing her pre-marital pregnancy in front of an entire congregation with tears running down her face. (If you want to read that story, it is scheduled be republished in a collection of adoption-themed essays in the near future.) That was like my coming out party into the world of “purity culture” and slut-shaming. Man, it starts early, doesn’t it? So, I guess this topic is irrevocably close to my heart.

About a year ago I read a blog post by an author who grew up in what looks like a similar context, and who also stopped wearing a purity ring, her reason being because she no longer focused on waiting for sex but on loving Christ. She critiques popular mantras, stating:

“You’re right, God,” they say. “We’re not satisfied in you yet. We will put you first and then you can bring us a husband in your timing.”

But many of them – if they’re honest – will tell you that time has passed, and it’s wrecking their view of God.

If this is who God’s supposed to be, then He’s tragically late.

So some decide to chuck “Lady in Waiting” out the window … and possibly their virginity with it. Church goes next. God might go next, too. If He doesn’t answer these prayers after they’ve held up their end of the bargain, why would He answer any others?

Whether it was the fault of the leaders, the fault of us girls, or both, a tragedy happened back then.

A lot of girls were sold on a deal and not on a Savior. . .

If we had learned we don’t abstain from sex because we’re “waiting.” We abstain because we love Him. . .

And that’s why I slipped off my ring that day. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with people – I haven’t. It wasn’t a slap to True Love Waits, or to anyone who wears a purity ring – saving sex for marriage is good and is His design.

While I can respect this author’s progress to seeing herself as a moral agent with her own relationship with God to tend to, rather than someone being pulled around by the possibility of whatever she’s waiting for, this approach still doesn’t tackle the assumptions that sexuality is something you can side-step, which you can’t, even while pursuing the goal of being like Christ. Blogs like this are encouraging to others from a personal growth perspective, but what do they do about dismantling the obsession with young women’s virginity? I fear very little. The author assures readers that she has not slept with anyone, but what if she hadn’t said that? Why is that anyone’s business but hers and presumably God’s? If one chooses to wait to have sex till marriage it should be because she knows herself and what she needs and expects from relationships and not having pre-marital sex is what she discerns will best help her to achieve that.

Until liberal (or conservative) Christians—or those assholes sending slander to Newberg Nancy—can flat-out say, “Your sexuality is not a gauge of your moral fitness” and truly believe it, people will continue to be hurt. This is not just a problem fostered by a group of fundies with an axe to grind, since they aren’t grinding anything else. Nope. There are lots of people of both religious and non-religious affiliations who think slut-shaming is wrong, and many more people who accept it as a normal part of life. This is a cultural epidemic.  

You may ask why I’m being so merciless and less diplomatic with my post than usual. Well, here’s the deal: slut-shaming has to end. It’s got to go. And euphemistic blogs about how God made us to love him, so we should concentrate on that rather than dealing with sexuality, are pusy-footing around. In the meantime young people are left feeling weighed down by shame or even committing suicide heavily influenced by cyber-bullying or guilt concerning their sexuality, and we continue to foster a culture in which even when we no longer see our bodies as shameful, our agency and power to consent or withhold consent are used to cut us down.