I was asked recently by a friend who has been reading my posts for more information on what purity culture is. It’s a bit hard to sum up, as it can vary somewhat from person to person. Rather than trying to capture purity culture as a whole, I decided to write about what purity culture was like for me.
The first time my mother ever mentioned saving sex until marriage was when I was 11 or 12. She brought it up in concert with “The Talk,” where she explained the very basic mechanics of sex and told me this was something that should only happen once a man and woman were married. Outside of marriage, she told me, sex was a sin. This brief discussion was all the sex ed that I ever received. Even once I got a little older, there was never any discussion of contraceptives or how to have safer sex. I was never really told about STIs, either, I only heard about them in the context of how they were horrible things that happen to girls who have sex outside of marriage.
When I was 13, my mother bought me a series of Christian fiction books about a young girl named Elsie Dinsmore, which we read together. These books emphasized Elsie’s submissiveness, particularly towards her father, and her diligent preparations for marriage from a very young age. They followed her through her teen years and her courtship with and subsequent marriage (I believe the series continues beyond that, but we did not finish the series). I can remember my mother exhorting me to follow Elsie’s example of submissiveness and always striving to be a Godly woman, particularly when it came to her courtship and how her father managed the whole affair. And so the idea and expectation of courtship was set before me.
Not long after this, I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris, found its way into my hands (placed there, as I recall, by my mother). I eagerly lapped up every word he wrote, absorbing the idea that dating was just practice for divorce and resulted in giving away pieces of your heart to a man who would disregard and disrespect them. The illustration he gives in this book of a man standing at the wedding altar with his bride still stands out in my mind. In this story, as he says his vows, a line of women stand beside him, each of them women whom he has been in previous relationships with and to whom he has supposedly given a piece of his heart. His bride is heartbroken and disappointed to find that she only has the leftover pieces of his heart.
By the time I finished this book, I was sold on the idea of courtship and determined that I would never allow any man other than my husband to have even the smallest piece of my heart. I studied the text that told me how to guard my heart, and began formulating rules based on what I learned, rules that were designed to make sure that I didn’t give away pieces of my heart, as the book warned I would if I let any men become too close.
When I was 14, one of the breakout sessions at a church camp for teen girls was about the True Love Waits movement. Along with a group of about two dozen girls, I listened as we were told of the dangers of dating and of being too friendly with boys. Dressing immodestly would lead boys to lust over us, inviting the attentions of the less-than-honorable, and causing the “good” Christian boys who were trying to guard their hearts and minds to stumble into impure thoughts. Flirting, we were told, was a sin. We were warned that kissing would inevitably lead to sex, which would cause boys to lose all respect for us and ruin our relationship, unless we were already married. The only way to have a chance at a marriage that didn’t end in a disastrous divorce was to remain a virgin until the wedding night.
Towards the end of the session, we were all encouraged to sign True Love Waits cards. Along with several other girls from my church, I solemnly signed one of these cards, which has the following pledge:
Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.
I remember taking my card home and showing it to my mother, who was very pleased to see that I had taken the pledge. I carried that card in my wallet for the next 6 or 7 years, a constant reminder of my pledge and the goal I had set for myself of physical and emotional purity. When I was 15, my mother gave me a beautiful gold ring with sapphires and diamonds. I wore it on my left hand to symbolize that my heart was already reserved for my future husband, and that I was waiting for him to come and replace it with an engagement ring. The idea was that he and I would exchange our purity rings as part of our wedding ceremony. I never took the ring off, wearing it in the shower, to bed, even out to the barn to train horses.
Over the next few years, I read every book on purity culture that I could get my hands on. And the Bride Wore White, Boy Meets Girl, When God Writes Your Love Story, When Dreams Come True, Authentic Beauty, Beautiful Girlhood, Lady In Waiting, The Secret Keepers, Every Woman’s Battle… the list goes on. With every book that I read, my rules got more and more strict.
My guidelines for myself on modesty weren’t quite as extreme as it is in some groups – I didn’t insist on always wearing skirts and dresses. I was pretty strict, though, and would periodically go on a crusade against my wardrobe and weed out still more clothes that didn’t meet my ever-tightening sense of modesty. I mostly wore jeans, but shunned the skinny-leg look, feeling that this drew too much attention to my legs and behind. I had a few pairs of shorts that were knee length, but preferred capri. Skirts and dresses were never form fitting and almost always fell below the knee. I ruthlessly judged other girls and women who wore clothes that didn’t match my modesty standards, feeling superior to them. After all, I was making sure I didn’t tempt my Christian brothers to lust after me, as purity culture warned they would if I didn’t dress modestly enough. The funny thing is that “modest enough” was an ever-moving goal post. It’s a trend you can see in Christian culture, today – there is always some new article of clothing that is being targeted and declared to be a temptation to men.
I guarded my interactions with men closely, mindful of the warnings that I had read that women are emotional creatures, who develop emotional ties at the drop of the hat. I avoided conversations with men in any sort of one-on-one setting whenever possible. I didn’t talk with them online, or exchange emails with them, for fear of cultivating too close of a relationship with them and giving away a piece of my heart. I stuck to women’s Bible studies whenever I could to avoid the possibility of becoming spiritually intimate with a man. Only my husband should be allowed that level of spiritual connection with me, I had read. And so I built up walls around myself and around my heart. If I felt the smallest inkling of interest towards a man, I squashed it and shoved my feelings into a tiny, dark box in the corner of my mind where I could ignore it. Over time, I learned to disconnect from those feelings entirely, suppressing them quite ruthlessly.
If my emotional restrictions were strict, my physical ones were even stricter. I avoided any sort of physical contact with men, beyond just shaking hands. I wouldn’t even sit on the couch in youth group at church, for fear that one of the boys might sit next to me. I found it inappropriate even if he was sitting on the opposite end with absolutely no danger of touching me, so I always found myself a chair in the corner where I could safely stay away from any sort of contact with them. I skipped out on all the youth retreats and overnighters at my mother’s advice. After all, no good could possibly come from boys and girls being in the same building overnight, even if they were constantly chaperoned. And so I skipped out on these events, shunning anything that would possibly put me in the position to cross any of the strict boundaries I had put up.
It was my expectation that any man who was interested in me would first speak to my mother and brother to obtain their permission to pursue me. I had originally planned for them to speak to my father, but after he all but disappeared from my life after he and my mother divorced, that became an impossibility. And so I reconstructed my visions of courtship to include my mother and brother extensively interviewing any prospects to ascertain whether or not they would be a good match for me and if they were ready for marriage, spiritually and in terms of providing for me. They would also continue to meet with suitor throughout that courtship process, to continue to verify his readiness to become a husband and his continued spiritual growth, etc.
Only after obtaining their permission would a man be allowed to approach me. Our courtship would be strictly supervised, with all interactions and even our correspondences carefully chaperoned, to help to keep us from becoming too emotionally involved with each other too quickly. During the courtship, there would be absolutely no physical contact allowed, according to my plans. After all, the books I had read made it clear that any sort of physical touch would start us down a slippery slope that would make it hard to stop. Therefore, I concluded that it would be best to simply abstain from physical contact to avoid any sort of temptation (because, apparently, the vacuum of physical touch wouldn’t leave us tempted to try some sort of physical contact).
Once we had been courting long enough, my suitor would once again have to speak to my mother and brother to obtain their permission to propose to me. Only once we were engaged would it be appropriate for us to say “I love you,” or to hold hands, or get in a quick side-hug (because frontal hugs clearly tempt men, because BOOBS!). Our engagement would be relatively short to avoid prolonging the period of temptation for us, and we wouldn’t kiss until after the minister said “You may kiss the bride.”
Until that suitor came along, I was responsible for making sure I was preparing myself to be a wife and mother. I learned to cook, clean, and sew (in all fairness, my brother also learned some cooking and cleaning skills, too), as well as how to care for children and serve in the church. I focused on my own spiritual growth, determined to be the most godly woman that I could possibly be, all so I could be the best possible helpmate for my future husband. I often thought about what it would be like to be married, and even wrote letters to my future husband, which I kept in my hope chest. It was my plan to go to college for piano performance and get a “Mrs Degree” while I was there. After that, I would start popping out babies immediately, whom I would homeschool while I kept house, served in the church, and taught piano lessons on the side. This was the future that was laid out for me by my mother from a fairly young age, and reinforced by the books that I read on purity.
Am I saying that my mother forced me into purity culture? No. But it was presented in such a way that it seemed like the only godly option. And, like most children, I desperately wanted to please my mother, so I swallowed this idea whole without ever stopping to examine it. As is typical for my personality, I threw myself into purity culture until I was consumed by it, taking it fairly major extremes without considering if this was something I truly wanted or believed.
I’ve discussed why I got out of purity culture and what some of the consequences of it were in my life in other posts, so I won’t go over that, here. I will just say that the following pictures were the result of me finally stopping to examine this purity culture that I had been brought up to accept and embrace, and the conclusions that I drew from that examination.
Here is the card that I carried for years.
This is what happened to that True Love Waits card, 15 years to the day after I signed it.
Needless to say, I don’t carry this True Love Waits card anymore!
This was my collection of purity culture books.
This is what happened to those books.
Bye bye, books. I don’t miss you at all.