Evangelical "Purity Culture" Leaves Lasting Damage on Young Women — I Know Firsthand
In her upcoming book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free — available for preorder now — Linda Kay Klein shares her own story of emerging from a culture that taught her to mistrust her body and view her sexuality as a threat. In the exclusive excerpt below, Klein writes about how her upbringing tainted some of her earliest sexual experiences . . . and how leaving those feelings of shame behind wasn't as easy as leaving the religion she was raised in. Pure is available on Sept. 4.
As a teenager, I went to the sandbox in the empty playground beside my church when I wanted to be alone. I dug my bare feet down deep, cooling them in the damp sand.
"God, I would do anything for you," I remember saying there one afternoon.
"Anything?" I imagined God's reply.
"Anything," I promised.
"Would you become a missionary in a foreign land?" God tested me. "Giving up the lavish life of an actress that you dream about?"
I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured myself a poor missionary living in a small, rural village somewhere on the other side of the world. In my imagination, I wore a thin, cotton dress and my long brown hair whipped around my face in a way that could only be described as romantic.
No, I shook my head abruptly. Not like that. God is asking if I'm willing to make a sacrifice for him, I reminded myself. I could become deathly ill from serving the sick; I might not have access to clean drinking or bathing water; I might spend days working in the hot sun without any protection. I imagined my dress dirty and the skin under it covered in burns and unidentifiable wounds. Satisfied with this new image, I opened my eyes and looked back into the sun.
"Yes, God," I promised. "I would do that for you."
"Would you give up your parents?" God continued.
"Yes," I said quickly.
"Would you give up . . . your boyfriend?"
"Who you think about all day and every night?" God continued. "Who makes you feel so utterly alive every time he touches you? Who you are sure is sin incarnate, even if he is a born-again Christian and thus 'technically' safe to date, and sure, all you've ever done is kiss, but the way he makes you feel . . . the way he makes you feel, you know must be wrong?"
"Yes," I whimpered. "Yes, God. I would."
Later that afternoon, I called my girlfriends for an emergency concert of prayer.
"I think that God wants me to break up with Dean," I told them, trembling. Not one of them asked me why. They didn't have to. After all, we'd learned together that there were two types of girls — those who were pure and those who were impure, those who were marriage material and those who were lucky if any good Christian man ever loved them, those who were Christian and those who . . . we're so not sure about. So, God wanting me to break up with a high school boyfriend who made my whole body scream every time he looked at me?
That made sense.
It's only now, more than twenty years later, that I can see another story beneath the only one my friends and I were able to see then. It's the story of me — a sixteen-year-old girl in her first real relationship. Willing, no, wanting to be tested so she could prove to her God, her community, and herself that she was good.
After all, my sexual energy, sometimes off-color humor, and the '50s pinup va-va-voom of the hips I'd recently acquired were already worrying some in my community. If I wasn't careful, they warned me, I might just become a stumbling block. And maybe, I already was one.
"In the evangelical community, an 'impure' girl or woman isn't just seen as damaged; she's considered dangerous."
In the Bible, the term stumbling block is used to reference a variety of obstructions that can be placed before a Christian. The concept is used in reference to sexuality just once: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."
Yet, in the years I spent as an evangelical Christian, I never once heard anyone use the term the way it's used here — in reference to the onlooker's lustful eye. Instead, I heard it used time and time again to describe girls and women who somehow "elicit" men's lust. Sometimes, our interpretations of the Bible say more about us than they do about the Bible itself.
In junior high, the term stumbling block annoyed me. The implication that my friends and I were nothing more than things over which men and boys could trip was not lost on me. When half the guys stripped their shirts off and began a water fight at the youth group carwash outside of the Piggly Wiggly, I thought it was unfair that it was me who got reprimanded for having my shirt sprayed by their hoses. But even as I bristled, I obeyed. I went home and changed into a dry shirt, longer shorts, longer skirts, higher backed dresses, and higher necked tops. By the time I was in high school and had my first boyfriend, I had been "talked to" about how I dressed and acted so many times that my annoyance was beginning to turn into anxiety. It began to feel like it didn't matter what I did or wore; it was me that was bad.
In the evangelical community, an "impure" girl or woman isn't just seen as damaged; she's considered dangerous. Not only to the men we were told we must protect by covering up our bodies, but to our entire community. For if our men — the heads of our households and the leaders of our churches — fell, we all fell.
Imagine growing up in a castle and hearing fables about how dragons destroy villages and kill good people all your life. Then, one day, you wake up and see scales on your arms and legs and realize, "Oh my god. I am a dragon." For me, it was a little like that. I was raised hearing horror stories about harlots (a nice, Christian term for a manipulative whore) who destroy good, God-fearing men. And then one day, my body began to change and I felt sexual stirrings within me and I thought, "Oh no. Is that me? Am I a manipulative whore?"
Five years after I broke up with Dean, I was still calling myself a slut — though it was no longer high school kisses that spurred my shame, but college attempts to have sex with my long-term boyfriend. Now twenty-one, I had left my religious community, having determined that I was incapable of being the woman they made it clear I needed to be in order to belong. I had withdrawn from Bible college, and begun attending a secular liberal arts college outside of New York City.
Yet, when the lights were turned low, it was as though nothing had changed. The closer I got to losing my virginity, the more likely it was that the word slut would run through my mind on tickertape. Eventually, I'd find myself in a tearful heap in the corner of my boyfriend's dorm room bed, tormented by the same fear and anxiety that had driven me to break up with Dean when I was sixteen.
I had left the evangelical church but its messages about sex and gender still whirred within my body. Even after I calmed myself down and apologetically kissed my boyfriend goodbye, I couldn't let go of the lingering fear that we had gotten too close to having sex this time, that I had gotten pregnant, and that my sexual sins would soon be exposed to the religious community I'd left but still desperately wanted to approve of me. Eventually, I'd walk to the local drugstore and buy a pregnancy test. I was still a virgin, but taking the test was the only way I could steady my breathing.
Until the next time.
I searched for books, articles, and online communities that might help me understand what I was experiencing. And when I was unable to find any, I called up first one, then two, then several of my childhood girlfriends from my former church youth group. I told them what was happening to me, and then, I sat in stunned silence as they told me they were experiencing many of the same things. The relief I felt knowing I was not alone sustained me, but my struggles continued. Until, at the age of twenty-six, I quit my job, drove across the country to my midwestern hometown, and set out to find the others.
Listen to this excerpt from the Pure audiobook here:
Copyright © 2018 by Linda Kay Klein. From the forthcoming book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein, to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.