Inside the purity culture, girls and women are not only responsible for their own sexual thoughts and actions but also those of the boys and men around them, says Linda Kay Klein, author of "Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free."
“Because women are seen as the keepers of sexual purity, which is a necessary part of their living out their faith, when men or boys have lustful thoughts about them, then it’s about what they were wearing, were they flirting,” says Klein, who grew up in the evangelical movement in the 1990s before leaving it.
“It creates a tremendous amount of anxiety, because your purity is assessed by others around you. It makes you worry about when you’re going to fall off the cliff and no longer be considered pure and no longer part of the community.”
But if being non-sexual before marriage is of utmost importance, afterward the onus is on the woman to be extremely sexual, able to meet all her husband’s needs lest he cheat — which, of course, would be her fault.
“Zero to 100 is extremely difficult,” says Klein, noting it’s better to ease into sexual experience. “I interviewed women who didn’t know what sex was and suddenly they’re expected to be a sexual satisfier.”
Klein was in her 20s when she left the evangelical church. The impetus was in part when she learned her pastor had been convicted of child enticement with intent to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl who was under his pastoral care. She was a senior in high school and as awful as it was to learn that, it was even more devastating when she discovered the pastor had been let go from two other evangelical institutions after he confessed to committing the same acts. But her evangelical upbringing still bound her even after she left.
“I thought I would be free,” says Klein who during her teenage years was so obsessed with staying pure that she took pregnancy tests even though she was a virgin and resisted asking for help when dealing with what later would be diagnoses of Crohn’s Disease because she wanted to prove she was a woman of the spirit and not of the flesh. “But I wasn’t able to escape them, they were me.”
At least at first.
Writing her book, which took 12 years, was cathartic for Klein who interviewed many evangelical women and likened the fear and angst they experienced as similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Noting there’s a dominant gender teaching in the evangelical church — as well as many other churches, Klein says that patriarchy hurts both men and women except those at the top of the hierarchy. There also is something off-putting to her about the purity culture, and that is the profit motive in the development of products.
“The people on the ground are believers,” she says.
Others make money off of purity rings, which can range in price from around $10 to $600 or more, abstinence education, Christian purity parties, father-daughter purity balls and clothing including T-shirts reading “Modest is Hottest.”
“Over the course of time I did a lot of healing through my research for the book,” Klein says. “There have been phases in this journey. I’ve been angry, but keeping my focus on healing, knowing I’m not alone — I think there’s something powerful that happens.”