Growing up, my biggest fear was not being a virgin. I had watched every teen movie involving virginity, talked to my peers about it, and nothing seemed worse. In truth, I was more afraid of what losing my virginity promised — social isolation, rejection, slut-shaming. I can identify the evils of purity culture now, but back then, I couldn’t see past it. Purity was too baked into religion, pop culture, and the education system. So when I was 15 and adults in my church asked me to sign a purity pact, I thought it would protect me from shame.
Unfortunately, purity is a nebulous concept. What makes someone a virgin? Conversations with my peers framed sex exclusively as vaginal intercourse. I had a few classmates, including those who were religious or had signed their own purity pacts, who were having oral and anal sex to preserve their virginity. And many other teenagers were doing the same thing. This misconception reinforces the idea that sex only happens between opposite-sex partners. After all, if oral doesn’t “count,” two girls can’t actually have sex with each other. Even though I knew I was bisexual from a young age, sex with other girls felt too confusing and abnormal for me to consider.
On the other hand, Christian morality requires us to flee from all desire and gratification. In some passages in the Bible, simply looking at someone lustfully is immoral. The religious organization True Love Waits says purity requires us to avoid sexual touching, thoughts, and any relationship that makes us feel physically turned on. In this context, my normal sexual development felt shameful. Touching my own body felt wrong. My first kiss kept me up at night.
Further complicating my experience is the fact that in our society, the responsibility of remaining “pure” disproportionately falls on women and girls who are positioned as the gatekeepers of sex. Religious men, much like men generally, are celebrated for their lack of purity. Their loss of virginity is typically associated with heightened masculinity and social status — and they are enabled to shift blame onto women for “tempting” them.
“Instilling ideas of virginity and pureness further emphasizes the idea that men are the takers and women are there for the taking. It creates an inherent imbalance of power.”
“Purity culture tells women that their only worth is based on whether or not they have a partner, particularly a male partner, and that sluts won’t be chosen for this ‘scared’ role of girlfriend, wife, or mother,” says Gigi Engle, a certified sex coach and clinical sexologist. “The effects are highly damaging, pushing women to stay away from pleasure, personal autonomy, and sexual self-awareness.”
Research indicates that gender dynamics alter women’s ability to avoid unwanted sex and negotiate condom use — it’s clear that “just say no” is empty advice. Women and girls are more likely to experience sexual coercion than men and more likely to be met with persistence when we refuse. Women and girls of color are even more at risk. And experiencing verbal sexual coercion during adolescence puts women at a greater risk for coercion later. But these nuances were never a part of purity culture discussions. Nobody told us what to do when our firmly established boundaries weren’t enough. But purity culture nonetheless held us responsible.
“Rape culture and the widespread sense of male superiority is grown from purity culture and the virginity myth,” Engle says. “Instilling ideas of virginity and pureness further emphasizes the idea that men are the takers and women are there for the taking. It creates an inherent imbalance of power.”
Purity culture infected my friendships, too. Sometimes my girlfriends and I bonded by slut-shaming people we weren’t close with, but I most remember how we policed and shamed each other. It forced us to keep secrets. It made it difficult to trust. We certainly couldn’t lean on each other when we experienced coercion and sexual violence. When I finally had sex two years after signing my purity pact, I felt like I had lost the only valuable part of myself. I was a failure. And I dealt with these emotions in isolation even though I saw my friends every day.
Growing research shows that adolescent sexuality is integral to identity development. More importantly, very few people actually wait to become sexually active — 88 percent of those who pledge to abstain end up having premarital sex. If my friends and I had known that, perhaps we wouldn’t have put so much pressure on ourselves. Perhaps there would have been more compassion throughout the early stages of our sexual development. When we finally came clean about the sex we’d been having, it was hard to understand why we’d stigmatized it in the first place. We’d all been sexually active for at least a year but with little-to-no social support. Sharing this huge secret was an enormous relief.
It’s incredibly clear that abstinence pledges don’t work and that our concept of “purity” does more harm than good. People who pledge to abstain from sex are less likely to use condoms or other birth control, or seek medical testing and treatment. Women are 92 percent more likely than men to have sexual guilt. And vaginismus, an involuntary muscle contraction that can make sex painful, is especially common in religious women. It took me almost a decade to stop associating sex with shame and for other women, it’s even worse.
“I am an absolute proponent of doing away with the word and concept of purity,” Engle says. “We should be replacing these insane notions with talk of sexual empowerment, sexual health, and knowledge, so instead of placing emphasis on virginity, we are instead giving young people the tools they need to protect [themselves].”
In addition, we need to be learning about consent, how to establish and respect boundaries, and that our bodies belong to us. I’m a writer who covers sex and sexuality topics because of the overwhelming lack of education on these topics, but people like me are up against federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programming that received $75 million in 2017 alone.
I deserve better than the culture of purity I was raised in, but it’s not about me anymore. The women and girls of the future absolutely deserve better, too. I hope we can show them.