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 not so 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 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. As I have heard it said, 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?"
My Diary—May 1995:
My senses are never so alive as they are when I'm with Dean. I don't deserve this happiness. We sit across from one another, and we are so close that our cheeks rub up against each other. If he shaves in the morning, he is already ruff by evening. I rub his back. He rubs mine. It is sweet. It is innocent. But can we be moving too quickly even in the midst of our innocence?
"I think you have gotten prettier since I first met you," Dean said to me.
"I don't think so."
"I do. You used to be pretty, but now . . ." He took a deep breath and gazed at me.
"You are so beautiful," Dean mused, as he rubbed my face tenderly. He is always touching my face. It makes me feel precious.
"What do you think it means to fall in love?" I asked him.
"I don't know," he answered me.
"Do you think it's possible that I could be falling in love with you? Puppy love?"
He kissed me.
"Do you think it's possible," I spoke the words between kisses, "that you," a long kiss, "could be falling in love with me . . . puppy love?"
"Puppy love," he answered me.
I am in the middle of reading Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ's Control by Elisabeth Elliot in my small group right now. In it she says that her husband Jim touched her for the first time by rubbing his finger across her cheek. AFTER he was already her fiancé.
So what does that mean? Once again, I worry that Dean and I are moving too quickly. We have already French kissed. You know, with tongue and all. Yeah, that's too fast.
Dear Jesus, Dean is a sweet gift from You. Please don't allow me to destroy this gift that You have given me with foolish passion. Dean doesn't want to push me. He respects me. How far we go is in my hands. But I don't want it there, because I don't know where exactly You do and don't approve of my hands being . . . Father, please show me what is "too far."
This is going to sound disgusting, but when Dean rubs his face in my hair or breathes into my ear, my groin kind of flips. I don't know how else to put it. Is that what it means to be "turned on"? I don't know.
Have I turned into a slut? I feel dirty and worthless. How can respect exist when I am such a slut?
What is one?
Who is one?
I am not a slut.
Nobody is a slut.
That is a despicable word.
But how dare I call myself a Christian? I spent my morning primping. I spent my afternoon making out with my boyfriend. Then I spent my evening leading a Bible study!
My girlfriends rushed over to my parents' house for the concert of prayer. We sat in a circle on the floor of my parents' basement, bowed our heads, and together asked for God to help me fulfill his command: To break up with Dean.
When the last of them later filed out of the front door, I walked to my bedroom, called Dean, and told him we needed to talk.
He said he didn't understand.
I said I didn't either. But I was sure. It was what I had to do.
* * *
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 changed my mind about attending 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 ticker tape. 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.
I sat down at my parents' kitchen table and paged through old church directories. One by one, I called the families of girls who I thought might still live in town: Hi, I don't know if you remember me but I went to youth group with your daughter . . . Linda Kay Klein . . . Right, right! . . . It's nice to hear your voice too . . . Yeah absolutely . . . You know, I haven't talked with your daughter in so long, do you think I could get her number or email address from you?
I spent a year meeting with childhood friends. Some were single; others were married; some had had sex before marriage; others had waited to have their first kiss at the altar; some were still evangelical; others were decidedly not. Yet in many of their whispered stories, I heard themes I recognized from my own life—fear, anxiety, shame.
That year, I began to piece together an epidemic that I have not been able to turn away from since: evangelical Christianity's sexual purity movement is traumatizing many girls and maturing women haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear, and physical experiences that sometimes mimic the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on our nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia, one might think that my childhood friends and I had been to war. And in fact, we had. We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies, and our own sexual natures, all under the strict commandment of the church.
This was the beginning of a twelve-year journey. In these years, I earned an interdisciplinary master's degree for which I wrote a thesis focused on white American evangelicalism's gender and sexuality messaging for girls; I worked alongside inspiring gender justice warriors to create change within the world's major religions; and I connected with hundreds of evangelicals and former evangelicals from across the country and talked with them about the impact that the purity movement had on their adult lives.
* * *
"So, freshman year of high school, sex ed. The PE coach decides to do abstinence education," Renee told me, sitting cross-legged on the couch in her college apartment, where she was telling me about her upbringing in the South. I moved my recorder closer to her to be sure I was capturing her voice. "She said, 'Who wants this Oreo?' " Renee continued. "Everybody raised their hand. Then she passed it around the class and had everyone spit on it, or drop it on the ground, and when it got back to the front of class it was disgusting.
"Then she said, 'Okay. Now, who wants this Oreo?' No one raised their hand.
"It was an analogy for: 'If you're sexually promiscuous, no one will want you.' "
I have heard many stories about object lessons like this one being taught in churches, community-based organizations, and public schools like Renee's. One object lesson uses a car metaphor: virgins are described as a shiny new car that everyone wants to buy, and all those who have had sex are described as used cars that nobody wants (having gotten stained, rusty, and more and more broken down with every "ride"). Another uses a tape metaphor: virgins are described as a new piece of tape that can easily bind to things (a virgin woman capable of emotionally binding with her husband), but that picks up more dust and dirt each time that it is stuck to something new until it is too dirty to stick to anything (or anyone) anymore. Then there is the unused tissue versus the "used" tissue full of snot, mucus, and phlegm, which is said to represent a girl or woman who has had sex; the clear glass of water versus the one to which food coloring has been added (the tiniest drop changing it forever); and the seemingly endless iterations on food: the untouched cookie or candy bar versus the one that has been chomped into; the unwrapped lollipop versus one that decreases in size and desirability after being licked for the first time, just once, and then licked again by anyone who is willing to put somebody else's saliva in their mouth; the new piece of gum versus the one that has been chewed; and so on.
Though shaming language is embedded into sexuality messaging for both boys and girls, it is especially intense and embodied when delivered to girls. In fact, the only one of the aforementioned metaphors that I have personally heard applied to both males and females is the tape metaphor.
Though Renee was "relatively innocent" sexually, in her words, she told me the lesson made even her limited sexual experience feel life-defining. " 'Well I'm spoiled now,' " she reasoned, looking at the disgusting Oreo no one wanted. " 'So I may as well do whatever.' It was really damaging to my development."
"It's interesting," I replied to Renee. "The emphasis on being devoured, right? This message that we should look at our sexuality as food—"
"For someone else," Renee finished my sentence.
I nodded. "As though it's all about how well we are able to feed others," I continued. "Like, 'If I let this person eat, then this other person won't be properly fed. Or won't want to devour me—' "
"Or 'I just won't be any good anymore,' " Renee added, frowning.
The purity message nestles neatly into the larger "us" versus "them" messaging I was raised with in the church. Those on the "positive" side of the binary are said to have access to God, Heaven, the community, and a happy life as one of "us." Those on the "negative" side of the binary are said to be isolated from God, alone, and headed for Hell, a place of suffering reserved explicitly for "them." Though one's place on that binary is technically supposed to be determined by one's belief system, let's face it—you can't see into another person's heart and know whether she really believes these things or has just memorized a bunch of talking points. So if you want to assess who's really a Christian and who's not—and lots of people do—you need a proxy, some externally measurable quality that is deemed representative of the person's internal commitment. Among single people in the church, one of the most popular proxies is sex. The celibacy represented by a purity ring—real or metaphorical—identifies evangelicals as one of "us." This may never be spoken, but as a girl in the subculture, I can assure you, it is felt.
Growing up, I heard a lot of talk about how evangelical Christians were better people than secular or other religious people (funnily enough, I now hear the exact same self-congratulatory messages from secular liberal people). But the truth was, I couldn't always tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. I saw both lie, both steal, both love, and both unselfishly give to others. But one tangible thing we could point to as evangelicals was that we didn't have sex before marriage. There was that. There was always that. Which is why, I believe, the threat of losing that so-called sexual purity seemed so grave. Were we to have sex outside of marriage, could we even call ourselves Christians anymore? What if we made out? Kissed? Held hands? Had a crush? How close to sex could we come before we were no longer Christians?
"Sex is the big issue that for some reason marks your spiritual standing with God," Renee illustrated. "Like Jessica Simpson. People considered her a Christian because she waited to have sex until marriage. That was her whole marker of faith in God. And every testimony you hear from someone, they have to mention the sexual sins of their past. They might not mention the fact that they . . . I don't know . . . got rid of their shopping addiction, but they mention the fact that they got rid of their addiction to porn. It's like, '. . . and then I stopped sleeping around. I became a Christian and I stopped sleeping around.' "
After all, what other sin is said to fundamentally change you forever? You can be born again and have your slate wiped clean of lying, stealing, even murder. And if you do these things again later but honestly apologize to God, your sin is again forgiven. But sex outside of marriage is the only "sin" that I have ever heard described as changing you. Before sex, you are a virgin. After sex, well . . .
I remember there was this girl's high school retreat where the leader was talking about purity and how important it was and how she felt disgusting. Basically, she started breaking down crying because she hadn't stayed pure, and this happened all the time in my church. My youth pastor's wife, she had walked down the aisle pregnant and now they are married and she has two boys, but she would still weep about it. Not that the youth pastor who she had the baby with is weeping about it! But his wife still weeps about it and says how she feels ashamed, disgusting, and wrong twelve years later. (Muriel)
Sometimes one doesn't even need to have sex to feel this way. The purity movement teaches that every sexual activity—from masturbation to kissing if it elicits that special feeling—can make one less pure.
What does it even mean to be "pure"? The lines were so blurred, and there was so much tragedy tied up with it: "Don't do this, because if you do this you're ruining your relationship with your future spouse . . ." "Don't just be pure in body; you need to be pure in spirit . . ." Everything was just so intertwined with each other. It almost seemed like if you weren't being physically impure, you were being spiritually and emotionally impure. Being "pure" became this really heavy, heavy weight to bear all the time. It almost made me go crazy questioning, "Well, is this impure? . . . Is this wrong? . . . Is this okay? . . . Is this going on?" (Holly)
Some purity movement advocates even teach that sexual thoughts and feelings can make one impure.
I sort of thought of being naked with a guy. I didn't picture him naked. I didn't picture me naked. I just sort of imagined, "I could marry him and be naked with him one day." And I felt terribly guilty over that for a long time. (Rosemary)
And it is implied that the sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions of others can be signs of your impurity as well (because surely you did something to make them think, feel, or do what they did).
I had one half-kiss at the age of sixteen that made me brush my teeth for ten minutes afterward. It wasn't even a kiss. He kissed me but I did not kiss him back. I think I mostly just stood there, kind of horrified and fascinated at the same time. But I felt guilty, ashamed, dirty for years. How screwed up is that? I thought I was dirty and ruined, a soiled package. But you know how it is. They say, "Make sure you don't have to tell your husband the high number of people you've kissed someday. Your first kiss should come from your husband." And I had just ruined it. I ruined it by letting this happen. [But didn't you say you didn't kiss him back?] Yes, but I felt I let it happen. I didn't read the signals. I wasn't on my guard. We jump through hoops to make it about our shamefulness. (Jo)
The purity message is not about sex. Rather, it is about us: who we are, who we are expected to be, and who it is said we will become if we fail to meet those expectations.
This is the language of shame.
Shame is the feeling "I am—or somebody else will think I am—bad" (as opposed to guilt, for example, which is associated with the feeling "I did something bad"). The religious purity messages many of us received as girls were not about what we might do, but about what we would be, or be seen as. Of course, we are all different and therefore respond to shaming of this kind differently. Our family dynamics, the affirmation we receive (or don't receive) for other aspects of ourselves, the intersecting messages we are given about who we are based on our race, our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our physical and mental health, and so on all have roles to play. But the conversations that I have been having over the past twelve years make it clear that the influence of the consistent shaming embedded into the religious purity message, particularly during stages of extreme neural plasticity such as adolescence is for sexual development, can be extreme for many.
After all, researchers have found that our brains bend toward whatever it is that our attention is directed to. It follows that if an adolescent is regularly given shaming messages—like the purity message that a girl or woman is utterly and fundamentally pure or impure, good or bad, pleasing or displeasing, desirable or undesirable, et cetera, based on her sexual expressions or lack thereof—she will become more likely to experience shame in association with sex than she otherwise may have been. As psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson explains in his book The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, "With repeated exposure to events [in which we feel shame], we pay attention to and, via our early neuroplastic flexibility, more permanently encode these shame networks. Thus, they become more easily able to fire later on, even when activated by the most minor or even unrelated stimuli."
This is not good news for the shamed individual, or their potential partners. Shame tends to make people feel powerless and even worthless. It creates a fear of abandonment that, ironically, makes us push others away. We want to hide those aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, so we may emotionally withdraw from those close to us, lash out at them to keep them at bay, or isolate ourselves in self-blame. Whatever it takes to keep the world (including ourselves) away from those parts of us that we have come to believe make us bad.
Over the years, shame adds up, but it can happen so slowly we don't even notice it. We may look at each shaming incident one at a time and tell ourselves that what was said or done to us wasn't that bad. In time, we become less and less sure that we can, or should, heal. Rather than seek help, we bury our shaming experiences deep in our bodies, where they are held similarly to trauma.
Shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains this phenomenon in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think" to "I Am Enough." She references the work of Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Shelley Uram, who calls attention to the importance of recognizing "small, quiet traumas" which she has found "often trigger the same brain-survival reaction" as larger traumas, such as a car crash. In I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), she writes:
After studying Dr. Uram's work, I believe it's possible that many of our early shame experiences, especially with our parents and caregivers, were stored in our brains as traumas. This is why we often have such painful bodily reactions when we feel criticized, ridiculed, rejected, and shamed. Dr. Uram explains that the brain does not differentiate between overt or big trauma and covert or small, quiet trauma—it just registers the event as "a threat we can't control."
Perhaps this explains why I have heard so many stories of PTSD-like experiences in association with people's sexuality, their bodies, and the church.
Today when I go into a church, I can't stop panicking. I feel like I am going into a place in which I was raped, though I wasn't. It is light-years easier for me to talk about being sexually abused as a child—I could give a public lecture about that—than it is for me to talk about what that religious community did to me. Sexual abuse is something that happened to me, but this was at the core of my identity. I participated in the community's messaging about who I was, and allowed it to define me for years. The fear, the obsessing, the anxiety. It's torment. It is Hell. It felt like torture. (Nicoletta)
And yet, the impact that shaming can have on people's lives generally goes unacknowledged and sometimes even unnoticed within the communities in which it most regularly occurs. In some cases, shaming is so common it is coiled around core beliefs, laced through theology, and twisted into doctrine, making it nearly impossible to see.
I'm trained as a therapist, and I didn't even recognize the trauma that I had in my life around religion until a few years ago. I've never spoken about these things with anyone else, not even with my closest friends. I have been through years of therapy and I've never once mentioned it to a therapist. (Nicoletta)
Shame can become like the smell of our own homes. The hum of an air conditioner. The feel of a wedding ring. It's just . . . there. Which is when it is most dangerous. Because it is then that we are most likely to dismiss, rather than deal with, its dangerous effects.
I can't tell you how many people are experiencing the kinds of things that my interviewees and I have and do. But the regularity with which I am approached and asked if I will talk to someone, or someone's friend, or someone's partner about the way in which religiously rooted sexual shame is impacting their lives makes one thing clear: It's enough people that we need to be talking about it.
Ed note: This excerpt omits the author's footnotes.