Purity Culture

Sexual abuse in the context of Christian purity culture in Britain

Today’s post is by Chrissie Thwaites, a PhD student in sociology of religion at the University of Leeds (UK). Chrissie’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC/UKRI). You can follow her on twitter or keep up to date with her work on LinkedIn.

Researching purity culture in Britain

I’m currently in the final stages of my PhD at the University of Leeds, where since 2020 I’ve been researching the impact of evangelical Christian purity culture on women in Britain. Earlier in my PhD, I wrote for the Shiloh Project about the need to investigate purity culture in the UK. Since then, I have conducted research and begun to share my findings. 

Thus far, most research on evangelical Christian purity culture has focused on the US (e.g. by Sara Moslener and Linda Kay Klein), given that the movement was especially prominent there. There have been a few studies looking at purity culture in some way with both American and British participants (as in Katie Cross’s chapter in Feminist Trauma Theologies, or a chapter on purity culture in Katie Gaddini’s book The Struggle to Stay). But as mine is the first more substantial piece of work specifically and exclusively on purity culture in Britain, I needed to build up a picture of this context, to provide background.

Consequently, my PhD has involved mixed methods research, consisting of an online survey and some one-to-one interviews. The survey gave sufficient breadth and garnered quite a wide reach – the link was opened by 1300 people, 863 then clicked through to somewhere in the survey itself, and over 600 filled it out all the way to the end and submitted a response, of which 580 were considered eligible and included in my study.[1]

Meanwhile, I also conducted five interviews to provide more depth and to ground my research in select personal stories. These were also helpful as I wanted to explore British evangelical youth subculture in the 2000s and 2010s in a bit more detail than the survey allowed, and to hear more about the role of this subculture in people’s lives. Having said that, I also ended up with quite a lot of qualitative data in the survey too – I was very privileged to have a lot of people share their experiences with me in the open-ended questions. I also had a much higher response rate than I’d anticipated, which suggests that I’d tapped into something people wanted to talk about, and that a good number of people were looking for an outlet to share their stories.

Findings: abuse in the context of purity culture

Most of the respondents did not recount personal experiences of abuse, and there were no survey questions to prompt such a disclosure. But some people, of their own accord, did disclose such experiences – including one of my five interviewees. Similarly, the majority of participants didn’t mention any knowledge or awareness of experiences of abuse by their peers or those around them. But again, some did. I felt that the seriousness of this topic meant it required attention, even if the number of people discussing it was in the minority. This was especially the case given that anyone who shared these experiences did so without prompting, as it wasn’t a part of the survey structure. Those who did discuss abuse tended to focus on sexual assault specifically, usually in one of two ways: either in responses to sexual assault (and how purity culture can shape these), or, in some cases, on how purity culture creates an environment which actually facilitates sexual assault. 

With regard to the first, some participants talked about the role of purity culture in the aftermath of sexual assault. One participant described “in response to reporting a rape being told God would forgive me for having sex before marriage (as the first response)”. Not only does this fail to provide trauma-informed support to someone who has experienced sexual assault, the notion that this person is in need of forgiveness implies some sort of transgression and fault on her part. Another survey respondent describes a similar experience: “when I told the pastor’s wife that I had been sexually assaulted in my 20s, she led me through a prayer of repentance, as the assumption was I had done something to cause the assault”. These are different people, but their experience is dreadfully similar, and the implications of both responses are the same: guilt and culpability. 

Multiple survey respondents discussed how the idea that pre-marital sex makes a person tainted had shaped (and worsened) the aftermath of sexual assault. One person, for example, discussed an assault at university: “I was sexually assaulted in uni when I was still a virgin. Purity culture caused me to view myself as ‘used’ and unlovable”. Immediately after this assault, she attended a relationships session at an evangelical church, “which basically boiled down to if you have sex before marriage you’re dirty and unlovable …  The message also made me feel extremely upset and angry as I already believed in Jesus and I still got assaulted, so where was I supposed to go?”. In a place where she expected comfort she was instead told that she was now (in her words) dirty and unlovable. She also reports leaving the church for a period of time because of this, and experiencing guilt and shame. 

Others too described feelings of shame and self-blame. “I 100% blamed myself for my own perceived failings,” one woman said. “Nobody ever told me I had a voice … When I lost my virginity it wasn’t exactly by choice,” which she says led her to a very dark place: “I truly felt like now I was no longer a virgin, I couldn’t do any of the things I had wanted to do – missions work, marry a lovely Christian guy, even play in the worship team at church. It felt like my world had ended and I didn’t know what to do with it”. This idea of the loss of community and the possibility of living a fulfilling Christian life also appeared in others’ stories: “when I was raped in my adolescence I didn’t share my story because I was afraid I had lost my purity and was no longer worthy of love or welcome in the Church or in general,” another participant shared with me. In other words, she remained silent out of an internalised fear of what would happen, and an anxiety that she was no longer lovable or welcome in her church community. For another woman, this fear was realised, and she describes being “thrown out of my church” when she was raped “outside of marriage”. 

With regard to the second, some participants in my research felt that the environment of Christian purity culture did not safeguard them from, but rather enabled, sexual abuse. One woman talked about a boyfriend from a particular church, who raped her during their relationship. “I believe the church contributed to his decision to do so,” she says harrowingly. Another discussed how purity teaching came predominantly from youth events growing up and how in this context, “because sex was wrong, it fetished [sic] force and non-consent. (As that could be the only other way to experience sexual contact!?!?) I had friends as young as 12 or 13 who would talk about rape as a positive thing”. When describing her experience of purity culture, another participant attributed her experience of sexual assault in her late teens to it: “I hold it largely responsible for my rapes in my abusive relationship,” she says. 

Evangelical Christianity has had a number of high-profile abuse scandals in recent years, which have documented serious and devastating abuses of power from those in leadership positions.[2] I was reminded of these news stories when I read one survey submission, in which the respondent disclosed being sexually abused in her mid-teens by the leader of her evangelical youth group, who was over 10 years her senior. As she describes it: “He said that God had been leading him to me, and said ‘God says it’s all right’ when he touched me. In retrospect, I was groomed and sexually abused by him.” This man’s position of power and appropriation of spiritual authority seems to have facilitated his behaviour flying under the radar – and all the while, he outwardly maintained the unacceptability of pre-marital sex. There isn’t much for me to say here; the idea that vulnerable adolescents exist within these environments – ones purporting to keep them safe – is not one easy to make peace with. 

Additionally, many of the examples given by these participants constitute secondary victimisation. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines this as follows: “secondary victimisation occurs when the victim suffers further harm not as a direct result of the criminal act but due to the manner in which institutions and other individuals deal with the victim” (2016). It can be caused, for example, by “repeated exposure” to the perpetrator, or “the use or inappropriate language or insensitive comments” by “those who come into contact with victims” (ibid.). So, take, for instance, the women who shared with someone that they had been sexually assaulted and were immediately told they needed forgiveness. This would be an example of secondary victimisation due to the victim-blaming undertones of these responses, and thus the further harm that comments like these can inflict.

Charting the path forward?

A short article like this one only begins to scratch the surface – there is more to discuss about sexual assault in the context of purity culture. But I find it helpful to categorise my main findings and recommendations based on these into two broad categories: first, how purity culture can shape the aftermath of sexual assault; second, in some cases, how purity culture can even facilitate and conceal abuse.

As I’m approaching the end of my PhD, I’ve spent a significant amount of time poring over my data and re-reading people’s answers, and I am cognizant of the lived experience within them. I am strongly aware that behind every survey ID number is a person – someone who has lived a whole life with nuance and emotion and who at some point, took the time to fill out a survey for the research of someone they don’t know. I get the impression that some of these people also felt silenced because they are seen by some Christians, first and foremost, as a threat with the capacity to tarnish Christianity. What I see first is their need to be listened to.

In my research, I take a sociological approach to studying purity culture; mine is not a theological study, and I don’t attempt to offer a confessional response for people to use going forward. I will leave that up to others, as I am not the right person for it. What I do want to do, however, is shine a light on the experiences that have been shared with me. To do my respondents justice by telling their stories. What comes after this, I am not sure – but it is my hope that in doing this work, all of these people know that someone has heard them. And realise that they are not alone. 

[1] In my research I focus specifically on people who were “raised as girls” within this Christian context, following the language of Klein (2019). This means that my participants are either cis women (the vast majority), or assigned female at birth non-binary (a very small percentage).

[2] In the UK, this includes the lengthy and ongoing investigation of John Smyth, former leader of Iwerne Trust which ran evangelical Christian camps; former leader of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and prominent evangelical leader Jonathan Fletcher; more recently, Mike Pilavachi, former leader of the charismatic evangelical Soul Survivor festivals and ordained vicar of its church in Watford. The latter prompted the Evangelical Alliance to call for evangelicals to “do better”. 

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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at [email protected]

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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Announcing… an event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts

Save the Date… register expressions of interest… spread the word…

An event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

When? 14 – 15 November 2022 (times to be confirmed)

Where? At the University of Leeds (venue to be confirmed). This will be an in-person event only and all participants are encouraged to take part actively in all events.

What? Short presentations by participants, guest presentations by invited speakers, networking, focused discussion groups, informal conversations. 

Why? Research on abuse and trauma in religious contexts comes with profound and distinctive sensitivities and difficulties. While categories such as ‘spiritual abuse’ are becoming more well understood and widely used, and with research on abuse in religious contexts growing, support networks are still sparse.

The aims of this event are:

To bring together postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

To create networks of collaboration and support.

To share information about existing resources and services that participants have found meaningful and helpful.

To identify what is still needed in terms of information and support and to discuss ways to meet these needs.

On November 14–15, activities will be led by Chrissie Thwaites and Laura Wallace. Both are postgraduates in the subject unit of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Because both are busy with internships at present, please direct initial enquires and expressions of interest to Johanna Stiebert, co-director of the Shiloh Project: [email protected]

If you are a postgraduate, postdoc, or ECR working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts and you’d like to take part in the events of 14-15 November 2022 at the University of Leeds, please get in touch, with a short description (one paragraph) of your research. We will endeavour to fund or subsidise participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments during the event. Numbers will be limited. All participants will make a short presentation to the group (10-15 minutes) about their research. 

If you would like to nominate yourself, or someone else (a researcher, activist, practitioner) to make a short presentation at the event (e.g. about strategies and/or resources for working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts), please be in touch, describing the proposed speaker and providing their contact details. We will cover participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments and a modest honorarium. 

To find out a bit more about the project…

This event is part of a large grant called ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’ (AIRS) funded by the AHRC. It is supplemented by another AHRC grant, with the title ‘The Shiloh Project’, on sacred texts and rape cultures. The AIRS grant is led by Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) and the Shiloh Project grant is led by Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). 

This event is aimed at researchers at relatively early stages of their career working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts. It aims to create networks of support and collaboration and to identify existing resources and sources of support, as well as needs for researchers of abuse and trauma in religious contexts that are not met, or not met adequately. Together we will discuss how best to meet these needs.

We acknowledge that researchers working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts encounter sensitivities and difficulties of particular kinds. We acknowledge that researchers working in such areas may themselves be victims or survivors of trauma and abuse, or encounter stress and trauma in working with victims and survivors. Additionally, there may be secondary and intersectional contributing factors and it would be good to discuss and address these, too. Hence, other factors may exacerbate difficulties particular to the research: financial strain, anxiety about employability, minoritized status on account of mental wellbeing, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, racism, ethnic marginalisation, classicism, to name a few.

Sad Angel (CC.BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped)

We hope to create a safe and constructive space to take such conversations forward.

Please help us spread the word and please contact us if you would like to participate. 

Please direct all initial enquiries to Johanna Stiebert: [email protected]

For more information on the project ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’, please contact: [email protected]

[The feature image (of the STOP sign) is by allaboutgeorge, CC-BY-ND 2.0, cropped]

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Announcing AHRC Grant Success 

The Shiloh Project Will Be Involved in a Large Grant Focused on Spiritual Abuse

Co-director Johanna is part of a team that has been awarded a large grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a two-and-a-half year research project on Abuse in Religious Settings. Johanna is one of three Co-Investigators, and the project is led by Gordon Lynch (University of Kent). It will bring together an experienced team of academics, professional practitioners, and people involved in support and advocacy work with survivors, and will work closely with survivors as co-producers of new insights and resources.

Abuse in Religious Settings will involve a series of connected pieces of work examining theological, organisational, and textual issues, how safeguarding professionals and faith communities work with each other, and what relevant legal and policy frameworks have been developed in different countries. It will also work with survivors to learn from their insights about the meanings that abuse in religious contexts can have, as well as what can support resilience.

Johanna’s focus builds on her work in activist uses of biblical texts and with The Shiloh Project. 

The project will be structured around seven main pieces of work, with cross-cutting themes and issues between them also being studied: 

  1. Abuse and the cultures and structures of religious organisations (literature-based study led by Gordon Lynch). 
  2. Abuse in new religious movements: forms and organisational responses (secondary data analysis led by Sarah Harvey).
  3. The role of religious texts in relation to abuse (workshop-based study led by Johanna Stiebert). This will also include the production of more Shiloh Podcast episodes with the fabulous Rosie Dawson.
  4. International comparisons of legal and policy frameworks in relation to safeguarding and abuse in religious settings (review led by Richard Scorer).
  5. Exploring relationships between faith communities and safeguarding professionals in statutory bodies (survey and interview-based study led by Justin Humphreys).
  6. Survivor responses and resilience to abuse in religious settings (interview-based study led by Linda Woodhead and Jo Kind). 
  7. Disclosures and non-disclosures of abuse (photo-elicitation study led by Lisa Oakley).

In addition, the project will also involve activities and events which will build new relationships between individuals and groups working in this field, both within the United Kingdom and internationally. 

If you are interested in possibly contributing to and participating in Johanna’s workshops and podcast episodes (which are still in the early planning stages), please contact Johanna directly: [email protected]

Workshops and podcast episodes will focus on religious texts from a range of religious traditions – not only on the Bible, Jewish or Christian traditions. We welcome postgraduates, practitioners, religious and community leaders, academics and activists working in the area of spiritual abuse and religious texts and contexts.

The project will formally begin with an initial consultation phase in March 2022, with the main research activities beginning in the autumn of 2022. Outcomes from the project are expected to be released by the spring and summer of 2024.

For more information and regular updates about the project, please visit the project website: Abuse in Religious Settings – Research at Kent

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Shiloh’s Routledge Focus series!

Today we celebrate our Routledge Focus book series. The Shiloh Project was the inspiration for the series and the series title—‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’—is the same as the sub-title for the Shiloh Project. 

Routledge Focus volumes are concise, no more than 50,000 words in length. Each volume In our series, consequently, is sharply focused. Each represents research-based activism on a theme within the orbit of religion and rape culture. While unified by this larger theme and purpose, the published and forthcoming volumes evidence considerable variety.

We endeavour to publish around three volumes per year. This year, two volumes appeared and a third is due out in January. (The publication of the third volume was delayed on account of its sensitive content, which had to be carefully vetted by Routledge’s legal team—more on that shortly.)

The first series volume of 2021 is by Shiloh co-director Caroline Blyth (profiled as one of our 2017 activists). The title of her volume is Rape Culture, Purity Culture, and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles. Caroline examines several bibles marketed to teen girls and demonstrates how they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes including rape myths at the heart of rape culture. It’s a searing read that will have you questioning how on earth such publications can justify their claims of helping young women grow in faith, hope and love. Caroline demonstrates the damage perpetuated by purity cultures, and systematically peels back how some teen girl bibles echo or affirm the strategies of coercively controlling parents or intimate partners. It’s brilliantly done. (To hear Caroline talk about her book in an episode of the Shiloh Podcast, see here.)

Excerpt from p.3 of Caroline’s book

The second series volume of 2021 is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. Ericka’s book identifies the enterprise of rounding up girls from across the empire for the Persian king’s harem, as constituting sexual trafficking on a huge scale. After refuting claims that this is some light-hearted biblical story about a beauty contest, Ericka highlights parallels between sex trafficking in the book of Esther and the cultural memories, histories, and materialized pain of African(a) girls and women during the Maafa, or slave trade. The book is a powerful call, both to responsible Bible reading and to action in the face of human rights violation. (Ericka, too, is featured on the Shiloh Podcast: hear Ericka talking about her book here. For a short Q&A with Ericka, see here.)

‘Slavery’, by quadelirus (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and available @CreativeCommons)

The third volume has a publication date of 18 January 2022 and is available for pre-order now. This one is by Miryam Clough and has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. Miryam’s book begins by pointing out that sexual violence is systemic in many workplace settings, including in Christian churches. From here, she focuses on how, among many other devastating consequences, this can destroy women’s careers and vocational aspirations. Because Miryam’s study draws on empirical evidence, including personal stories from survivors of clergy abuse, it required scrutiny by the Routledge legal team. The book is an intense and often painful exposition of clergy sexual abuse of adult women, the conditions that support it, and the pain left in its wake. Bringing testimony into dialogue with theoretical perspectives, the book also makes constructive suggestions for theological models that can heal a broken Church.

‘Devil and Praying Women’, Linde Church, Gotland (from CreativeCommons)

We are delighted with the seven published series titles and excited about the further six that are under contract and due for release over the next two years. 

The volumes are making a timely and important contribution to scholarship on sexual and gender-based violence in religious texts and contexts. They are also ideal for teaching, given their compactness and their availability in affordable e-book format. 

If you, or someone you know, is interested in publishing in our series, please contact series co-editor Johanna ([email protected]). Volumes for the series can be sole-authored, co-authored, or edited collections of essays. Proposals are peer-reviewed, and manuscripts must meet Routledge’s criteria for academic rigour and marketability. Routledge prides itself on a prompt production process and on being in the forefront of publishing cutting-edge research. All volumes are copy edited to a very high standard. Titles appear first in hardback and e-version and, sometimes, later, in paperback, too.

We’d love to hear from prospective contributing authors, and also, from anyone with feedback on volumes in the series, or on topics you’d like to see represented.

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Purity Culture: A Perspective from the North of England

Today’s post is by Libby Jackson. Libby recently graduated from the University of Manchester and is about to continue her studies there towards an MA.

I walked into my undergraduate degree as an 18-year-old, naïve Christian, who thought they would be interested in the philosophical part of theology. I thought I would deeply ponder why there is evil in the world, what free-will really is, and how the Church was formed. I found it quite a shock when I realised there were many theological issues that hit much closer to home.

Much to my surprise, I left my undergraduate degree, still as a Christian, but with a burning interest in the great lack of women in leadership roles in the Church, when there are plenty of women in the Bible. I left wondering why I never hear a sermon about the Daughters of Zelophehad, Rahab, Phoebe, or the Shunammite Woman; I only hear that God is great through the stories of Noah, David, and Elijah. I left wondering why it should be that my body is inherently sexual, why would I form a soul-tie with a sexual partner, but my male counterparts do not? And why is it that my virginity seems more precious than who I am as a person?

From learning about the complete misunderstanding of Eve that we have developed over time, to knowing that Jezebel’s is a classic case of double-standards and sexualisation, I now know my life’s mission is to change the way we view biblical women. My hope is that this will ensure a place in the Church for today’s women. For me, this mission began with researching the ways in which purity culture impacts masculinity and femininity and by starting a blog.

Please feel free to contact me about this post either by email ([email protected]) or through twitter (@libbyjackson29)!


Purity culture’s teachings have been ingrained in my life for as long as I can remember – I just didn’t know it. I thought what I was encountering was ‘just Christianity’, not a damaging evangelical sub-culture.

I’m Libby. I am 21 years old and have just finished my undergraduate degree in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. I commenced my dissertation on the topic of purity culture to explore its impact on my personal life (as I discuss below). Next, I am embarking on my Masters in Religion and Theology at Manchester in September 2021. My aim is to help dismantle the patriarchal culture that gate-keeps attitudes to women and the Bible. It was through researching purity culture that I realised just how important that is!

I grew up going to church every single Sunday (much to my 7-year-old self’s dismay). I still go to the same church today! In fact, my family have attended this church for generations: an evangelical, Pentecostal church in the North-West of England. My church does not use the designation ‘purity culture’ to describe itself; but some of purity culture’s teachings have found themselves into the mouths of our leaders and congregants.

Over the past year and a half (whilst doing my dissertation) I was troubled by the realisation that some purity culture narratives were being taught. So, I am currently working with our pastor to change significantly the way we speak to and about women. From challenging peripheral comments made by teenagers, to developing a statement on womanhood for the church to use as a code of conduct, my aim is to address the pitfalls of purity culture and to create an environment where we exercise Jesus’ love without shame and with copious amounts of forgiveness and love.

Purity culture is a sub-culture within contemporary evangelical Christianity. It is a feature of some Protestant Christian movements that promote sexual abstinence before marriage through the application of scriptural passages, interpretations, and teachings. Tamara Anderson asserts that purity culture first arose in the 1970s in opposition to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Purity culture enjoyed a peak in the 1990s, with its ideas spreading rapidly throughout the United States and beyond, including online and in popular culture.

Purity culture’s advocates argue that that sex is powerful, special, and intimate and that the Bible specifies and regiments when, how, where and by whom it is to be expressed. Once notable among these advocates is Joshua Harris, who has since distanced himself from his influential book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (available here), which has been something of ‘a bible’ for Christian purity culture.

The implementation of such teaching has, however, become somewhat adrift, as I will show.

My Dissertation findings:

My dissertation discusses how purity culture encourages modesty regarding female attire in particular – because immodest dress may cause males to fall into lust, and therefore to sin. This teaching stems from the idea that female bodies are inherently a locus of sexual desire and sin, an idea spread through misinterpretations of texts about such characters as Eve, Mary Magdalene, and Jezebel. This has led to a sense of shame around female bodies and to the responsibility for male sexual sin landing on women and their dress choice. Furthermore, it suggests that men have no self-control and constantly desire sex. Sex, moreover, is framed in heteronormative terms. Homosexual sex, meanwhile, is framed as horrifyingly deviant.

I also discovered that purity culture teaches that men are slaves to sex. It gives simultaneous rise to men repressing their emotions (which might compromise ‘masculinity’, and ‘masculine strength’) and to a constant preoccupation with sex. This sex drive is, on the one hand, expected of masculine men but it also must be channelled into directions deemed ‘acceptable’. Alongside this, purity culture teaches men they are to have headship and be leaders – in the family, in church, and in wider society. Central to this is purity culture’s gender essentialism. This can have negative potential for those men who find leadership a burden. Moreover, repression of emotions and of sexual feelings deemed inappropriate can transpire in mental health issues, as well as in victim-blaming.

Another key teaching of purity culture calls on women to remain virgins until marriage. This is pivotal to signifying female morality, purity, even salvation. It stems from the idealisation of virginity in the Bible, particularly of the Virgin Mary, and verses such as, ‘And he shall take a wife in her virginity’ (Lev. 21:13-15), pertaining to the holiest of men, the priests. The Bible presents a worldview where premarital female virginity is desirable, expected and legislated. This is evident, for instance, in the legal text of Deuteronomy 22:13-21: ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity… then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity…’. Premarital virginity is the mark of a pure and good woman, as exemplified most prominently through Mary. Whilst this may create an affirming environment for those who desire to remain virgins until marriage, or who are uncomfortable with the pressures and troubling consequences of ‘hook-up’ culture, it also creates a double standard that tends to play down emphasis on male premarital virginity (possibly, to excuse the aforementioned inevitability of males’ constant sexual desire), whilst shaming females who are not virgins at the point of marriage (for which there may be many reasons), or who feel sexual desire.

Along with modest dress and the expectation of women remaining virginal prior to marriage, another key teaching of purity culture is the idea that when you have penetrative sex with a man, this breaks your hymen, which, in turn, leads to the formation of a ‘soul-tie’. This soul-tie is understood as an eternal spiritual, emotional, and physical connection between a man and a woman. Purity culture teaches that this soul-tie finds fulfilment in marriage.

Purity culture teaches that virginity until marriage is indicative of moral decency, respectability, purity, and worth. This is conveyed through purity balls, and the ways virginity is constructed and symbolised. The converse notion is that women are no longer (or less) moral, pure, and worthy if they do have sex before marriage, which feeds into some dangerous ideas – especially when considering sexual assault victims.

My Personal Experience:

I was taught that each time I had sex outside of marriage I would be giving a part of myself away. Eventually, I would have so little left of me that I would not be able to give to or to love my future husband as my virginal self would have done.

Meanwhile, my male best friend was also taught he should aim to steer away from sex before marriage. But, if he failed, it was fine. Indeed, it was somewhat inevitable that he failed because he is male, and ‘therefore’, sex driven. This provided a very confusing line for both of us, as well as for other young girls and boys.

I was taught when you have sex with somebody (that is, heterosexual, penetrative sex, of course), you form a soul-tie, meaning you become one flesh with that person. So, if you break up, you rip half of yourself away. This idea concerned me from a very young age, including because the threat of rape was a presence in my life (as it is for most women). Would I form a soul-tie with a rapist? Would it tie me to my rapist ever after? Would all sexual acts I had (willingly or not) hinder my love for a future spouse? I felt trapped in my own body because of the awful repercussions of unwanted sexual attention and, especially, of sexual assault. Would I end up an emptied soul?

I grew up thinking that once I got married, I would be far less prey to sin, because I could exercise my sexuality in a Godly way. The enormous emphasis placed on the sin of premarital sex made me believe it was the foremost, or only sin. If I could turn off my sexuality until I was married, then I would go to heaven. Essentially, I was repressing my sexuality. And the fact I was taught these things in a church in Northern England makes me realise the impact that purity culture has on the church and its people, and that this impact is widespread, worldwide.

Discussing the impacts of purity culture in the UK is crucial to the wellbeing and safety of all – including where rape culture is concerned. As the #metoo movement has highlighted, the frequency of sexual harassment, assault and abuse is immense. From this movement, there emerged also #churchtoo, highlighting that abuses happen in churches too. Both within wider society and the church, victims (disproportionately women though men, too) are silenced. Within the church, purity culture contributes to this silencing, stigma, and damage. The way that purity culture makes God complicit in this process is often especially distressing for victims.

I believe the more people research, write about, and speak back to purity culture, the better survivors can understand the effects and harms it causes and access support and help. In the course of this, the more positive experiences can be highlighted also – because purity culture is complex, and it would be disingenuous to deny this. There is a reason, after all, why I am still in my church today.

Purity culture is not only a US phenomenon but exists (with differences) around the globe. The silence, distortion, and repression it fosters around the topic of human sexuality cause harm and need attention – not least, because silence is fertile ground for abuse.

My own experience is evidence of the negative impact on mental and spiritual health that regulations by the church around sexuality and purity can have. It highlights the necessity for gaining a better understanding of what repercussions particular teachings can and do have on those who receive them: whether that be purity culture teachings, teachings about the superiority of men, or even the prosperity gospel. Going forward, I hope, and I believe, things can get better.

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Why we need to address purity culture in the UK

Today’s post is by Elle Thwaites, a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds researching purity culture.

Purity culture and its problems

I’m currently in the first year of my PhD researching purity culture. My working hypothesis is that purity culture has made its way to the UK, and I hope to explore this further through conducting qualitative research later this year. Over here, purity culture seems to appear in a much more muted and insidious form compared to its US counterpart. So for many years it has gone unnoticed. Recently, however, this has started to change.

See, for example, Hannah Baylor’s recent Shiloh Project blog post on purity culture, where she begins to introduce the ways in which purity culture in the UK differs to the US movement, which reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s. If we are to untangle the influence and impact of purity culture, we need a wider acknowledgement and understanding of its interaction with (especially evangelical) Christianity in the UK.

For example, some of my peers encountered the flower metaphor in their church youth groups – a flower being passed around the group, crumpled up, and used as a symbol for (female) virginity. I know of people who continue to recommend it, even after the author’s public apology and statement. Friends have recounted to me how they were told to cover up their shoulders in church, when it was simply a hot day – the implication being their bodies are primarily sexual and problematic for others around them. And more recently, I’ve noticed the new ‘modest is hottest’ trend taking hold in some UK circles, rehashing the classic purity culture tactic of body shaming women.  

These practices indicate a Christian subculture which goes beyond abstinence. It places the responsibility on women for gatekeeping male sexual behaviour, views female bodies as inherently sexual (and as existing primarily for male pleasure), emphasises virginity as the foremost aspect of a woman’s worth, and gets so pre-occupied with delaying sex until marriage that sex is framed as an inherent danger and something negative, rather than something good – often with fateful consequences, even for those who did everything right according to the rules of purity culture.

The need for research and understanding

In the age of #MeToo, we have turned our attention afresh to the long-standing mistreatment of women in its unfortunate variety. Many individuals have begun the hard work of considering the ways in which they themselves, or the organisations, institutions or social structures they are a part of, are complicit in systems of coercion, inequality and subjugation.

In Christian circles, something of a reckoning has begun. Well-known US Christian figure Beth Moore recently made waves by leaving the Southern Baptist Church, having previously been vocal in her criticism of sexism and outspoken in her advocacy of sexual abuse survivors. The likes of Beth Moore, and recent sexual abuse scandals such as those of Ravi Zacharias, and Jonathan Fletcher here in the UK, force Christian communities to examine the cases of sexual abuse and harassment that lie behind #ChurchToo. Such communities need to evaluate what’s being taught about women, female bodies, gender, sexual relationships, and power dynamics (especially within marriage). Purity culture has something to say about all of these things, so it has come into focus as something that needs to be addressed.

This is reflected in a growing public interest in purity culture. I was recently interviewed for Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 as part of a discussion on this topic. I was pleased that purity culture was being given a public platform for discussion, but it disappointed me to see that the media interest didn’t correlate to understanding.

The online summary of this ‘purity conversation’ says that ‘“purity culture” is used in conservative households attempting to promote a view of purity’. This understanding also comes across in the feature itself. Yet purity culture is part of Christian subculture. It relates closely to theologies of gender (such as those of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), evangelical use(s) of the Bible, and the social-political context of its origins in 1980s-90s USA. That it was framed as a household phenomenon based on parental teaching was therefore very interesting; especially as I hadn’t said or even implied this was the case. References I made to evangelical Christianity were also cut out in the editing process, which felt like an attempt to remove the religious elements of this discussion and downplay the broader socio-cultural aspects of purity culture.

Within the context of this increasing public interest, it’s important that purity culture is discussed with clarity and nuance – rather than employing ineffective caricatures or simply prioritising the ‘spicy’ topics.

Through my PhD, I hope to explore how ideas from purity culture have merged with, and are evident within, teachings on bodies, sexuality, gender, and human nature in UK Christianity. I see my research as part of a budding new area of discussion and research – I hope that you will join in the conversation.

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Bearing the burden

Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.

Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.

In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.

Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.

The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.

At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.

In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.

The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.

Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.

Purity Culture in the Japanese Church

The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.

But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.

I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.

These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.

I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.

Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.

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Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye

Hannah Baylor

Today’s post is from Hannah Baylor.  Hannah Baylor is a PhD student in theology and Christian ethics at Oxford researching sexual consent and a Church of England ordinand. You can hear more about Hannah’s work here: Theology Slam: Hannah Barr on Theology and the #MeToo movement – YouTube

When people find out that I research sexual consent, it usually elicits three responses:

Ooo, that’s so important! (I think so!)

Have you seen that brilliant cup of tea video? (That cup of tea video is terrible; here is my ten-points reason why…)

Or, they tell me their story. It is an absolute privilege to be trusted with stories that have often never been told aloud; it’s a gift which I treasure.  

Being immersed in a topic consisting of painful stories, abuses of power, damaging rhetoric, and continual threats to human flourishing, is often all-consuming and it can be hard to switch off from that. But recent events have had me questioning whether it is right to want to switch off, or whether vigilance is a habit to cultivate.

I recently began to do some research into purity culture in the UK. My initial thoughts were that purity culture wasn’t such a big deal over here, compared with the US with its sub-culture of daddy-daughter balls and abstinence-only education in schools. But as people shared their stories, my illusions were shattered. I discovered friends who had signed purity pledges and wore purity rings and people who had done the True Love Waits and Pure courses. So many people had devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye; a Coptic friend said her church had really pushed that book on its young people. Purity culture in the UK is not just for evangelicals. The more I learned, the more people shared their stories, the more I realised that purity culture makes its mark on impressionable young Christians here in the UK.[1]

Wedding Rings

And then my memories returned. The sermons where ‘promiscuous’ girls were compared with chewing gum and un-sticky Sellotape. The unhelpful notions I had about dating that I’d acquired through osmosis. The church leader who shamed me over my body and called me a stumbling block. The email I had drafted to my rector, saying I couldn’t continue to help with the youth work, because the youth leader owned and taught from The Collected Works of Soul-Destroying Purity Culture and I didn’t have the power to challenge him but I wasn’t going to collude with him either in teaching harmful ideas. And finally, the memory of a throwaway line someone said to me at theological college, which I’d disregarded at the time, but then realised it was solid gold purity culture.

Purity culture in the US signals its presence. Bells, whistles, gaudy merchandise, political fanfare – you can’t miss it! In the UK, however, purity culture has a far more insidious character. It doesn’t necessarily announce its arrival; it seeps into church teaching through more obscure ways. What I recognise as particularly damaging from my own teenage Christian experiences is when legitimate Christian teaching and purity culture ideals were taught together, making harmful ideas harder to notice and reject. This is why I was so alarmed when I realised how casually and innocuously lines from the purity culture script were spoken by those who would otherwise absolutely reject its premise.

I’m training to be a Church of England priest. I will shortly be in possession of an awkward combination of power and authority: the power of ordination as an office, the power that other people confer upon a person in a dog collar and in a pulpit, the not-really-real power that is being a curate at the bottom of the Church of England hierarchy, and the power that the Holy Spirit gifts in her wisdom. And one of the many terrifying things about that power is the potential to cause pain. The last thing I want to do with my power as a soon-to-be ordained person is to say or teach something, which is not only wrong but is abjectly harmful.

I spoke to a variety of Church of England ordinands and curates who had been raised on purity culture. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, albeit often with a long list of caveats; others have eschewed it. I asked them about the interplay between their experiences of purity culture and the power they now have as ordained, or soon-to-be ordained, ministers. There was a uniform reluctance to preach on sexual ethics generally, and often this was to do with wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing and causing someone pain and shame. Another common reflection was how narrow purity culture’s focus is, obsessing over abstinence until marriage, and how this meant the vastness of issues of dating and inter-personal relationships was overlooked. Certainly, I find myself in the corner of every church debate about sexual ethics, shouting into the void that it would be nice if sexual consent got a look in, you know, for the sake of human flourishing and all that.

One person I spoke to said what they lamented about purity culture was it presented everything as black and white; as an ethical system, it’s an attractive one, because it sets up a dichotomy between right and wrong and then unstintingly upholds it. As an ethicist, I am naturally wary of ethical systems, which present themselves as catch-all solutions. I think such systems force us to abdicate our responsibility in the ethical life and leave those with the most power unaccountable for how they wield it. Purity culture is concerned with rendering its adherents powerless and its enforcers absorbing all of the power. 

People shared their stories with me, and it was, as ever, a gift to be trusted with them.

And what no-one wanted was to cause anybody any harm.

For people like myself who grew up with purity culture spooned into our Christian diet in ways we were not always cognisant of, untangling our sexual ethics is an on-going process. I have spoken elsewhere about the need for power literacy,  particularly for those of us inhabiting roles replete with multifaceted power; this is a skill that we must never be complacent about.

Power isn’t static, but this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unstable; in fact, the opposite is true, the more static power is, the more unstable it is. We must remain vigilant to the potency of our power and when it is accumulating, and allow ourselves to be challenged on it and to dismantle it. It also requires awareness of the things we don’t condone but which may still have shaped us, and critically interrogate our stances on certain issues to ensure that we are not perpetuating a cycle of harm and shame.

I didn’t relish being proved wrong about the prevalence of purity culture in the UK. It has been uncomfortable to reckon with my own experiences of it and to realise that I and many of my friends are not as unscathed by it as we might have originally thought. But the awareness that it has raised within me at a point where I am on the cusp of receiving a significant amount of power, is invaluable.

So, here’s to kissing purity culture goodbye and power literacy hello.

[1] I highly recommend Vicky Walker’s book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, and Connection in the Age of Choice (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019) for empirical studies with Christians in the UK and their experiences of purity culture.

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