Book Review: Pure by Linda Kay Klein
Evangelical “purity” culture, roughly defined, is the belief that Christianity requires sexual abstinence before (heterosexual) marriage, especially for girls and women, and promises sexual fulfillment to those who save sex until marriage. It’s a belief system often accompanied by messages of shame for those who fail to remain virgins until their wedding day—who are not only said to be breaking God’s law but risking lifelong consequences for their sexual “sins.”
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, by Linda Kay Klein, was unlike anything I’ve ever read and yet, as a millennial who grew up during the height of purity culture, each page felt like a part of my own story.
While the idea of abstaining from sex until marriage has existed in various religious communities for thousands of years, in the U.S. in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it became a movement, a theology, and soon after, a for-profit evangelical industry that exists to this day. Even the government got involved, funding purity-related sex education initiatives, such as the Christian abstinence-only group Silver Ring Thing, which received $1.4 million from the federal government until a 2005 lawsuit demonstrated that it was illegally evangelizing with taxpayer funds.1
A tidal wave of purity-pushing books and Bible study materials were written and marketed to teens, parents, and pastors of teens, chief among them Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity, and Josh Harris’ cult classic I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Church youth groups began sending their teens to conferences like True Love Waits, an event started in 1993 by LifeWay, which, as the product-selling arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, had access to the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.2 (The SBC’s commercialization of purity culture closely coincides with the conservative take over of the denomination in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which sharply curtailed the rights and role of Southern Baptist women.) At True Love Waits events, young people were encouraged by the thousands to pledge their virginity to both God and family. Formal “Purity Balls” for fathers and daughters,3 complete with post-dance “Purity Certificates,” drew families from further outside the mainstream conference circuit.4 And celebrities like Nick Jonas and Miley Cyrus donned “purity rings,” helping usher in a wave of related merchandise, from purity themed T-shirts to bumper stickers to coffee mugs and more.5
When Klein read Elliot’s Passion and Purity, she was left with such overwhelming guilt for having kissed her boyfriend that she felt God was directing her to break up with him. At school, a sex ed lesson consisted of a teacher passing an Oreo cookie around the class, and, after it had been touched by each person, dropped on the ground, and spat upon, warning students that if they let themselves be treated like the cookie, “no one will want you.”6
Klein’s experiences were echoed by dozens of women she interviewed, who were variously taught that purity meant: waiting until their wedding ceremony, or at least their engagement, for their first kiss; trying to avoid all feelings of sexual desire prior to marriage; dressing modestly; or a sliding scale of rules: only kissing in public places or only while standing up, kissing and touching while lying down but never achieving orgasm, or, on the far end, engaging in “everything but” vaginal intercourse, up to and including oral and anal sex.
The only universals, it seemed, were a heavy dose of guilt and shame, ladled on in the name of God, and the distinct lack of any actual sexual education. And the repercussions of the latter is a recurring theme in the book, leaving the women Klein spoke to filled with confusion, fear, and shame. Some told Klein of not understanding even the basic mechanics of sexual intercourse until their senior year of college or their honeymoons. As one woman in her mid-twenties explained:
...our “sex talks” were all generic metaphors and warnings about what would happen to us if we crossed a line, which was defined differently by so many people that we were left guessing all the same. Meanwhile, we knew we would be shamed if we asked sexual questions; shamed if we discussed sexual decisions; shamed if we shared our confusing sexual feelings and thoughts; and shamed worst of all if we admitted we had already done anything sexual.7
But it wasn’t just awkward first kisses at the altar, or an embarrassing ignorance of anatomy. Women raised in evangelical purity culture also found that the fairytale honeymoons they were promised were in reality marred by panic attacks, long-lasting shame, and physical pain, all of which haunted (and in some cases destroyed) their relationships and marriages. Many faced a double bind: having long been expected to shut down their sexuality, upon marriage they were expected to be “tigresses” in bed.
It didn’t work. The same shame used to keep women from violating purity rules followed them into their marriages, leaving many unable to experience orgasm or relax during lovemaking. Many experienced painful sex, or found themselves unable to actually have penetrative sex for weeks after their honeymoon—which in turn brought more guilt and shame. For some, these symptoms lasted years, leading to depression, self-harm, medical complications, and withdrawal from otherwise healthy relationships.
The shame and fear was compounded for those in the LGBTQ community, since purity culture held that being “pure” also meant being heterosexual, as it was when purity culture collided with sexual assault, since purity teachings rarely differentiated between assault and consensual premarital sex.8 In some cases, purity teachings were even used as tools for sexual predators. Klein’s own youth pastor was convicted of child enticement with the intent to have sexual contact after he groomed a 12-year-old girl in the same youth group where Klein was taught to be pure. Throughout the book, Klein addresses major sexual abuse scandals within churches that heralded purity culture, such as Joshua Harris’s former Maryland megachurch, Covenant Life Church, which became the center of a child sexual abuse and cover-up scandal in 2014.9
While some purity culture preachers purposefully may scheme to use the teachings for abusive agendas, many others clearly believed they were helping a generation of young people understand their version of God’s plan for sexuality. But Klein’s book makes a strong argument that, irrespective of intentions, this movement leaves too many young people scarred for life.