By AnnMarie Hilton
Linda Kay Klein, author of the new book “Pure” challenges the shame-laced purity movement found among many Evangelicals. She spoke from personal experience at an author conversation last week at Women and Children First book store.
“We learned together that there are two types of girls: those who are pure and those who are impure,” Klein read aloud from her book. “Those who are marriage material and those who are lucky if any good Christian man ever loved them.”
The purity movement emerged in the 1990s as a central teaching for young women in the “white American Evangelical church.” With shame as a driving force, this movement told young women that they needed to remain sexually pure by abstaining for any sexual thoughts or actions before marriage, and then becoming hypersexual once married, she said.
This rigid binary of pure and impure leaves girls and women with little room to make decisions about their own sexuality, she noted. Klein described it as a “false choice” between acting in a way that is acceptable in the eyes of the church or being deemed unworthy. Not only does this limit her choices, but this strips a woman of her agency.
Klein explained that girls brought up in the purity movement are only given one tool to navigate life’s sexual situations. She described this tool as a ruler that draws an ill-defined boundary between pure and impure.
“You can’t use that ruler to navigate violence,” Klein said. “You can’t use that ruler to navigate respect. You can’t use that ruler to navigate life after marriage.”
Instead, Klein would have appreciated a compilation of tools similar to a Swiss Army knife. These tools, she explained, would be a set of multipurpose values that could be applied to the unique sexual situations that arise in life. Beyond that, Klein said she wished for a nonjudgmental community that supported her regardless of her choices.
Chelsea Hosler, 29, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but now lives in Chicago, attended the event because a friend invited her. Hosler spoke candidly about her own experience growing up in the purity movement, and said she found the event “cathartic.”
Pressure of purity
The weight of upholding a standard of purity is placed solely on the shoulders of the women and girls in the church.
“Girls and women are responsible for maintaining the non-sexuality of the entire community by not inspiring any sexual thoughts or feelings or actions in anybody,” Klein said.
Growing up with the purity doctrine, girls are taught to conceal their sexuality for the sake of the boys and men around them. Much of this is conveyed through the teachings of modesty. More specifically, Klein recounted multiple times when she was asked to change into different clothing so as not to be a “stumbling block” for the boys.
“When I was growing up, I definitely experienced not just being shamed for my own sexual thoughts and feelings and behaviors, but also shamed for the sexual thoughts and feelings and behaviors of men in my community toward me that I was said to have elicited by how I walked or talked or dressed,” Klein said.
In today’s conversation surrounding sexual assault, questions about the clothes women were wearing, the alcohol they consumed and why they were alone with a man hone in on some of the main points of blame in the purity ideology.
“If we would do everything perfectly, then there would be no sexual temptation and therefore no sex, which somehow seems to include sexual violence for a lot of people” in the purity movement, Klein said. “We tend to miscategorize sexual violence as a form of sexual expression.”
This form of questioning underscores the fact that this school of thought stretches beyond the confines of an Evangelical youth group.
“The idea of purity teachings or girls and women being defined by their sexuality…still is embedded into our society as a whole,” Klein said.