Start with Part One of “Problems with Purity Culture” here.
In the first part of this reflection on the problems with purity culture, I examined how there is a heavy reliance on instilling fear as a motivator for young people to behave a certain way, without providing much information or education about their bodies, or emphasis on the goodness of sexuality and desire. From there, young people become adults with very warped ideas and understandings of sexuality, as well as how to relate to one another in non-sexual ways.
In this second part, I will address how this dis-integration affects men and women in different ways. This is manifested in the heavy reliance on gender segregation - i.e. “men’s talks” vs. “women’s talks” - in most chastity materials and events, as well as through different gender socialization that happens to young boys and girls from an early age as a result of the explicit and implicit values they’re taught by their parents and communities.
It’s important to examine thee messages in purity culture because they are still far too prevalent in Catholic circles.
It’s important to examine thee messages in purity culture because they are still far too prevalent in Catholic circles. In an effort to convey Truth, purity culture often employs harmful tactics - at best simply ineffective at instilling virtue, and at worst, these tactics can be spiritually and psychological abusive, even leading people to completely disregard any kind of relationship with God or to develop damaging neuroses, addictions, and other disordered behaviors.
Therefore we must deconstruct and reevaluate how we communicate about and teach sexual morality and theology. Here, I will examine the current language and messages that purity culture conveys to both men and women, along with the disconcerting effects of each.
Messages that “purity culture” conveys to men
These are the messages I have seen communicated to men through chastity books, talks, articles, Scripture taken out of context without healthy or holistic interpretation, the testimonies of friends raised in the purity culture, and other resources.
Explicit Messages (things actually said or communicated or taught)
“You are the protectors of women. After all, each woman is another man’s daughter.”
“You must be strong and uphold their dignity, their purity… it is every man’s vocation to protect the dignity and beauty of every woman”
“Some men are not as in control of their desires and can hurt women so you have to protect women.”
Implicit Message: (things understood or implied)
If you’re not strong and physically tough or able-bodied enough to physically fend off an attacker, you’re less of a man.
A protector could take on another man if he tried to attack him or “his woman".
The purity, chastity and overall being of a woman is the property of her father until he gives you permission to take her as your own.
“You must not give in to the desires of your flesh.”
Don’t talk about your sexual desires openly and don’t act on them. Don’t acknowledge them. Repress them.
“You must avoid getting girls pregnant.”
“You must not break their hearts”
“All women could potentially be your future wife or some other man’s future wife.”
“All women could potentially be the mother or your children or of another man’s children.”
Women are first and foremost vehicles for baby-making.
Women are sensitive and emotional and experience heartbreak. Unlike you, because you’re a man and you don’t cry or show your feelings. If you experience heartbreak, repress it, or you’re a wuss, or less of a man.
Women’s identity is in which men they belong to. Think firstly about woman as potential wives or sexual objects, even in settings that have nothing to do with sex or romance (eg: in offices or professional settings, when they’re jogging or exercising, when they’re taking your order at a restaurant). Think firstly of their fertility and sexual capability rather than of any other non-sexual abilities, desires, or goals they may have.
In fact, women don’t really have their own wants or interests or identities outside of being your or another man’s future wife and mother of your or his children.
(which leads to) Women who do have other desires or interests are selfish and sinful.
“Avert your eyes from certain parts of women’s bodies lest it lead you into sin”
“Those parts of the woman’s body are only for her husband to see. Once you’re married you can do whatever you want.”
“If you look lustfully at a woman ‘pluck out your eye’” (Mt 5: 29)
Don’t think of an elephant. What are you thinking of?
Certain parts of women’s bodies are taboo, exotic, to be fetishized, to be focused on, yet it’s a sin to focus on them. Unless you’re married to her, then you can focus and look and use them for your own pleasure all you want. Basically, within marriage, don’t govern your desires and it’s now okay to sexually objectify your spouse.
In fact, women are parts, not whole persons.
If you do find that your eye strays to certain parts of the the body, or that you experience desire for a woman or her body parts when that woman is not your wife, feel a lot of shame about it.
“Avoid immoral, sinful, evil women, they will lead you like an ox to slaughter” (paraphrased from Prov 5, 7).
“Men have stronger sex drives than women… it’s just harder for them to control those impulses”
“Everything that is veiled is holy and sacred, like a bride when she walks down the aisle or women who wear chapel veils”
You don’t have to take responsibility for yourself when it comes to your sexual desire. You are like an ox, a mere animal. Those are the kind of women who are basically asking to be objectified or used. Who can blame you if you give in?
You’re weak when it comes to sexual desire, but women who are sexually strong and powerful and have sexual agency are sinful and evil and can overpower you. But remember? You’re a man and you’re supposed to be the one in power and control - take back control...
Women who don’t cover up as much or aren’t as modest are less than the “good” and “holy” and “sacred” women. They aren’t as worthy of your time, attention or love.
Women who aren’t virgins are soiled, they’ll always have the mark of another man in and on them, so they’ll never be fully yours. Women who are virgins are holier and better and more worthy of praise, love, and affection.
All of these messages focus on men as agents and women as objects - whether to be used benevolently or with hostility. Except evil or sexually available women - then they are actors and have full agency and control, which makes them a threat, because men are the ones who are supposed to be in control. None of these messages examine women as whole persons with other aspects to themselves besides their sexuality and fertility. These messages also instill impossibly high ideals of “masculinity” in which men inevitably fall short, while simultaneously reducing men to animals when confronted with women who are or who are perceived to be seductive. These messages also fail to account for male emotions. The focus is often on the physical and the sex drive, but less on men’s hearts, feelings, and deepest desires beyond libido or primal instincts. Neither emotional vulnerability nor emotional awareness are cultivated or encouraged.
The focus is often on the physical and the sex drive, but less on men’s hearts, feelings, and deepest desires beyond libido or primal instincts.
How these messages affect men
I’ve dated and been friends with guys who came from extreme Christian purity cultures, where they were so inundated with shame regarding sexuality, that it led to repression, to porn addictions, to deep self-hatred and self-chastisement, to rationalization of other sexual behaviors that were not sexual intercourse (because then they were still technically “virgins”), to shaming me about the fact that I was not a virgin and they were, to extreme insecurity and jealousy.
In a recent conversation with a male friend who is a devout, more traditional-leaning Catholic, who is not a virgin, but now is seeking to abstain until marriage, he told me (all in the same conversation): that he was “playing the long game” with a girl he deeply respects, whom he was refraining from even kissing, yet he had recently hooked up with some other girl (because he just couldn’t help himself) when he and the respectable girl weren’t in a relationship. He then went on to say that “women are the crown of Creation.” What allows him cognitively to be able to hook up with one girl, while he wouldn’t even allow himself to kiss the other girl (whom he is seriously interested in courting and marrying) if he believes that all women are the “crown of Creation”?
Men are socialized to see that masculinity consists of being sexual agents - macho, aggressive, tough, strong, not in touch with their emotions, and powerful - alongside being taught that they are to be the protectors of virginity and that giving into their sexual desires is deeply shameful.
When men are socialized to see that masculinity consists of being sexual agents - macho, aggressive, tough, strong, not in touch with their emotions, and powerful - alongside being taught that they are to be the protectors of virginity and that giving into their sexual desires is deeply shameful, then it leads to a double-thinking mind, a kind of cognitive dissonance. This is a state of holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors, which produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.
To a degree, we all live with some cognitive dissonance. That’s what it means to be a sinner. We all agree that sin is bad, yet we cannot seem to help but fall into it. But as Catholics, we are invited to acknowledge our sin and ask for the strength to avoid it in the future, and to change our behavior. However, sometimes we do not recognize our sinfulness, or we rationalize it. For example, we can mostly all agree that cutting someone off on the highway is bad, but then when we do it, we are in a state of dissonance: how I acted is different from my values or beliefs. To relieve the dissonance, we have to choose how we reconcile it. We can either justify our action, thinking “I needed to get in that lane because I’m running late” or “that driver was so slow anyway,” or we can acknowledge that we acted hypocritically - if we have enough ego strength to admit that.
With the example the friend mentioned above, he holds a value that hooking up is not morally right, and that women ought to be respected and protected. But then he hooked up with someone, so to resolve that dissonance, he can admit that he acted hypocritically and resolve to try not to do that again, or he can decide to justify the hookup, saying “I couldn’t help it” or “well, that girl was different from the other one who I respect more”. But it’s precisely, that choice to see one woman as different from the other, and therefore, able to be treated differently, that is a sexist attitude. . This particular kind of cognitive dissonance is called “Ambivalent Sexism.” And when these attitudes are held on to, repeatedly, by many men, who are also in positions of authority and power, either professionally, societally, or otherwise, this leads to systemic sexism, where the treatment of women by men on a broader scale is affected by sexist attitudes.
When men experience ambivalently sexist attitudes, again, they have a choice in how they resolve them. While a secure, healthy approach would be to acknowledge one’s hypocrisy and seek to change, often they don’t have the inner strength to do that, and so they justify their behaviors by blaming them on others, rather than taking responsibility for themselves. Social worker, speaker, writer and researcher Brene Brown explains how, when we experience shame, pain, inner dissonance, or self-discomfort, we often expel it in the form of blame. When men hold ambivalently sexist attitudes (eg: women are the crown of creation - except for “sinful” women), they often will blame women for their sexual behavior (“she was basically asking for it”; “I couldn’t help myself”).
When men hold ambivalently sexist attitudes (eg: women are the crown of creation - except for “sinful” women), they often will blame women for their sexual behavior (“she was basically asking for it”; “I couldn’t help myself”).
Some women will be categorized as tarnished, sinful, and as to be hated/avoided, or worse - to be used when “you need to scratch that itch” (thus seeing them as an object for sexual release in acts of expelling their own interior shame). Other women will be categorized as “holy,” and even lifted higher than themselves as “lowly” men. These women who “make them better” are also held to extremely high standards based on their apparent purity (thus objectifying them as validators and prizes to be won). This scenario is also referred to as The Virgin/Whore dichotomy.
Meanwhile, the Catechism explains that in true chastity this dissonance shouldn’t exist:
The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech. (2338)
While chastity is connected with power and freedom, it’s about the integration of both. To embody chastity is to live consistently. Obviously, all human beings wrestle with their desire to be their best selves, and their tendency towards that which isn’t always good for us, especially when we are hurt, stressed, or in some other way weakened. But I posit that the misguided presentation of chastity to young men makes it even harder for them to recognize this dangerous duplicity within themselves.
To embody chastity is to live consistently.
Messages that “purity culture” conveys to women
Again, these are the messages I have seen communicated to women through chastity books, talks, personal experience, articles, Scripture taken out of context without healthy or holistic interpretation, the testimonies of friends raised in the purity culture, and other resources.
Explicit Messages (things actually said or communicated or taught)
“Your virginity is a gift to be cherished.”
“Don’t use tampons or get a well-woman exam because that will make you impure.”
“Purity is your real beauty.”
“If you crush a pure, white flower in your hand, you cannot uncrumple it and make it the same again.”
Implicit Messages (things understood or implied)
If you’ve thrown away your virginity or lost it, then you have lost a part of yourself that makes you less whole.
Purity is measured by having or not having virginity, by the presence or absence of a hymen, by how much you have done physically. If you’re not a virgin, you are not pure, you’re not beautiful.
Once you’ve lost your virginity, you’ve lost a fundamental part of yourself and your identity.
You are like that flower.
“Women are daughters of the King so that makes you all princesses, beautiful princesses.”
“You’re beautiful. Remember ladies - you are beautiful.”
“Beautiful… beautiful… beautiful…”
If you aren’t into generic images of princesses, then you’re not as much of a woman.
Beauty is your primary attribute because you’re a woman and therefore you’re less of a woman if you aren’t beautiful or if others don’t see you as beautiful.
Focus on being beautiful and desirable and praiseworthy.
“Your identity belongs to your Heavenly Father, but also secondarily to your earthly father, who will be your protector until you marry a man who will then be your protector.”
“A woman’s deepest desire is to be loved and cherished by a man. You need a man who can protect you and your future children.”
“It is a mortal sin for a woman to work outside the home when she is a mother if she does not have a grave reason for doing so” - (literally words spoken by a priest)
You need to be protected. You need a man to protect you. You cannot do it yourself. You are the fairer yet weaker sex.
In fact, real femininity is in letting men do things for you that you could easily do for yourself. If you don’t let men do those things for you, you will tear down their fragile masculinity.
Focus on finding a man. You’re less of a woman without one.
Put aside other aspirations, goals, or pursuits because those are not really what make you a woman and it’s selfish.
When you pursue other career goals outside of motherhood and being a good wife, you separate yourself from God.
“Wives be subordinate to your husbands”
Men need to be in the lead, and women need to be subordinate to them, less powerful or less ranked than them.
“Ladies let me tell you something - guys, I’m breaking code I’m sorry - guys say: ‘There are some girls that you play with and some girls that you marry’ and all guys protect the girls that you marry and then the girls that you play with… unfortunately we know the reality. But those girls that guys say are meant to be married, it’s because they see something in them. Cultivate that within you…” (a direct quote from priest at a youth conference)
If guys don’t treat you with respect or see you as a future wife, it’s because they don’t “see something in you”. You are lacking the quality that would make you a good wife one day or the quality that makes you worthy of more than simply being “played with”.
A man’s lack of respect towards you is a product of a quality you aren’t cultivating in yourself enough.
“You shouldn’t be immodest because your body can evoke lust in other men, so cover up ladies”
“Modest is hottest!”
“Everything that is veiled is holy and sacred”
If you wear clothes that reveal too much skin or parts of your body, you are responsible for leading them into lust and sin.
You are responsible if you are harmed because you might have been asking for it based on your immodest way of dressing. Remember, when it comes to your sexuality and beauty, that’s your only power, and men are powerless and cannot help or control themselves.
Focus on your body and your appearance, that’s your main purpose. Remember, you are ornamental.
If you don’t wear chapel veils or you don’t cover up as much, you are not as holy and sacred of a woman.
All of these messages are the basis for self-esteem issues, victim blaming and rape culture. They reinforce a belief in women that their primary role is to belong to and to serve at the pleasure of men. They ultimately convey that a woman’s sexuality is not her own, but is defined by her (future) husband and his potentially conditional love and acceptance of her as predicated by her degree of purity (measured by prior sexual history), yet also by her beauty or desirability, as far as it caters to him and him alone. These messages teach women to be self-conscious, hyper-focused on or even ashamed of their own bodies and desires. These messages create no context for women to explore or understand their own sexual desires.
They ultimately convey that a woman’s sexuality is not her own, but is defined by her (future) husband and his potentially conditional love and acceptance of her.
Again, this is not what the Catechism illustrates at all. To the contrary, purity is an interior disposition, rather than a state of being that is irreversible based on one action:
Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence. (CCC 2342)
Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection.... "Man… day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.” (CCC 2342)
Yet this is not what is conveyed. Without a holistic understanding of the challenge and joy that wrestling with our desires and our hearts is, we fail to be gentle with ourselves and other women and it leads to oppression and shame.
How sexism in purity culture affects women
A personal story was posted in XO Jane in 2014 about a girl who felt so much shame or self-disgust when she was not a virgin anymore even though she had waited until marriage, and her cognitive dissonance was ultimately resolved by choosing to give up her faith. Based on her upbringing in the church and her understanding of sexual morality, she could not be the sexual woman she was while also being a Christian---so she chose sex and having a healthy marriage.
So much of her faith identity and sense of belonging was built upon that label: “virgin.” On the show, “Jane the Virgin,” a similar scenario is played out. During the wedding she imagines saint statues singing to her that “she can go have sex!” and on the night when Jane finally does have sex with her husband for the first time (not her wedding night, go watch Season 2), she has an underwhelming experience because she feels she has lost a part of herself. She couldn’t help but envision the flower her grandmother told her to crumple up in her hand as a young girl, and now she saw herself as that crumpled flower.
So much of her faith identity and sense of belonging was built upon that label: “virgin.”
The messages purity culture relays to women also can lead us to perpetuate our own subjugation. Many straight women often subconsciously turn themselves into objects for men - believing their essential worth and value is in their physical appearance, sexual desirability, and ornamentality. When we accept the virgin/whore dichotomy, we slut shame other women who appear to receive more sexual or romantic attention or participate in sexual activity, we compete to be seen and admired, and we compare ourselves to them and their bodies, their attractiveness or purity. When we do this to ourselves and each other, we ultimately enable men to continue to do this to us, too.
Purity culture may also lead women to repress their sexuality, in an effort to fit a virginal ideal. The shame experienced in repression of that which is human and natural can increase a sense of cognitive dissonance, which can lead to rationalizing certain unhealthy sexual behaviors as a way to expel that shame, such as developing a porn addiction (women have them too! Catholic singer-songwriter Audrey Assad addresses the root of and struggle with her own addiction here.). The habitual use of porn or indulging in other dis-integrated sexual behaviors can increase a sense of shame and dissonance, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Perhaps most damaging, women may also blame themselves if they are victims of sexual assault because they have been taught that it must have been something they did to bring on the assault. They might not have been modest enough. They might not have acted “purely” enough. Some women may react to their repression and/or oppression by shutting down their sexuality while others may act out compulsively in a desire to seek empowerment and a sense of control and security over their bodies not being respected as their own.
Women may also blame themselves if they are victims of sexual assault because they have been taught that it must have been something they did to bring on the assault.
The idolatry of “purity culture”
While the messages conveyed in purity culture seem to lead to varying degrees of cognitive dissonance for men and for women, which play out in some similar and some different ways respectively, this runs quite counter to what the word “chastity” actually means.
The problem with so-called Christian “purity culture” is how much it lacks Christ, who alone is truly pure and is the source of purity. The Christian narrative, the “good news,” is a story of mercy, of healing, of renewal, of resurrection, of unconditional love and forgiveness, and of the upholding of the human dignity of each and every individual - which includes our sexuality! Christ, above all else, was concerned about the orientation of the heart, mind, body, and soul, toward God, Abba, the Source of all life, love, goodness, truth, and beauty. All our actions are meant to flow from a rightly-oriented heart.
When we focus on addressing, judging, or trying to control or modify behaviors without examining hearts, without taking into account the whole person, we completely miss the mark of what it means to be a faithful Christian.
When we focus on addressing, judging, or trying to control or modify behaviors without examining hearts, without taking into account the whole person, we completely miss the mark of what it means to be a faithful Christian. When we pigeonhole men and women in their experiences of being embodied, of having sexuality, we also fail to be like Christ, who addressed each person as an individual, versus making sweeping generalizations that upheld double-standards. When we fail to be vulnerable and authentic with our children, especially in matters as important as sexuality, but instead instill fear and unrealistic expectations, we enable objectification, and we fall short of leading young people towards a true chastity, a holistic integration of their body and soul.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the failure to actually teach the true meaning of the word “chastity”--- the virtue that it is, which includes but transcends sexuality, in the failure to present the concept of chastity to young men and women equally, and in the failure to practice what is preached without maintaining an atmosphere of harsh judgment and authoritarianism.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the failure to actually teach the true meaning of the word “chastity."
Within the context of purity culture, there is an inordinate focus on sex and virginity, a virtual idolatry. Perhaps it originates in an effort to combat the inordinate emphasis on sex in mainstream culture which promotes it as a free-for-all. But ultimately, either way, on both sides of the spectrum, sex is being placed on a pedestal. When we place virginity on a pedestal, and measure purity by having or lacking it, we do a disservice to deeply appreciating the full gift that sexuality is, that God created and gave us. We focus on the act more than we focus on the persons engaging in it. God has always been more concerned with people, with the health of souls, than with actions. We are, after all, human beings not human doings.
Fr. Ronald Rolheisor speaks of virginity ultimately as a state of having yet to experience something and of living with the tension as well as the wonder and awe of that which has yet to be experienced. Once you’ve experienced something, you now have the memory of that experience, versus the fantasy or idea of what it might be like - the veil has been lifted, the mystery dispelled. And it is human nature to become somewhat habituated or even somewhat desensitized to certain experiences. Virginity, by itself, is simply a state of having yet to experience the mystery of sexual intimacy. One who happens to be in that state, through their choice and human freedom, grounded in the true virtue of chastity, may allow their virginity to point to the sacredness of sexuality itself - to the beauty of two sacred persons mutually, freely, faithfully, totally, and fruitfully sharing in a particular expression of self-giving love - and to sexuality’s capacity to deepen intimacy and bond partners together.
But rather than valuing virginity for what it points to, and proclaiming chastity as being about both virginity and purity of body, mind, heart, and spirit, many Catholic circles fall into the purity culture trap of getting hung up on virginity itself - that particular state of being.
But rather than valuing virginity for what it points to, and proclaiming chastity as being about both virginity and purity of body, mind, heart, and spirit, many Catholic circles fall into the purity culture trap of getting hung up on virginity itself - that particular state of being. We treat it like a qualifier for love, for acceptance, for validation. When we do this, we then treat sexuality like an academic transcript or an attendance record, where one A- or B or one missed class completely destroys our record, or as a prize to be won. Then sexuality fails to be treated the way it is meant to be. It is no longer sacred by its own merit, but it becomes a marker by which we try to define one another’s sacredness, which is blasphemous, for we are all made in God’s image. We each bear God uniquely and sacredly. We are each beloved intrinsically. Our sexuality is meant to be an expression of that deep place where our trinitarian knowledge of self, the other, and of God meet.
When we - as the Church - can take this approach to understanding and speaking about purity and chastity, then this will be a place where we can begin to build a healthy, holy, truly Christian and truly feminist purity culture.