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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”. 

Tags : BritainChrissie ThwaitesChristianityPhD researchPurity CultureSexual Assault

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