Growing up in a religious environment, I was always around talk of staying ‘pure’ until marriage. What this meant was that I was not to involve in sex until I got married – now if you have been a teenager before, you know how difficult this is when the hormones kick in – lol. Anyway, being raised in a conservative and religious society, this was a big deal, especially for girls. Sexual purity was hammered into girls from a young age and it was pressed upon us to abstain until marriage, however, not much emphasis was given to boys ‘purity’. There were so many stories out there about girls who had not been pure before marriage and the consequences but I hardly heard anything about boys – so, like many, I grew up confused. Like many girls I grew up with, I rebelled because it was not fair and to be honest, these same people, mostly men, who were asking us to be ‘pure’, were the same people chasing us for sex! So being an avid reader and having insight into different views on the matter, I made up my own mind on what I wanted my life to look like and carved my own path as best as I can when it came to sex and relationships.
I remember the first time I heard about girls wearing purity rings – I think I was 17 when I first heard about these purity rings, I wanted to ask these girls exactly whom they were wearing these rings for. For some years I forgot all about this culture and it’s practices but then I faced it again in my twenties in church – there was great emphasis on women remaining virgins till marriage, however, the people pushing these narratives were mostly men and they were free to live however they wanted. In 1997, Joshua Harris, a young twenty something year old wrote a book called ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ – I am yet to read the book, however, I have heard and read many stories on how this book destroyed the lives of many people, especially young women. I am not quite sure how this 21 year old thought he had the answers to the sexual revolution and then to tell young people how to live their lives – eventually, he apologised for his book because of the harm his beliefs had caused his followers and stated that he regretted writing the book. By the time he regretted his writings, the harm had already been done to many – especially women.
This culture tells us that the number of sexual partners someone has had determines their worth – that a person is more valuable if they have had no sexual partners at all before marriage. Well that is all great, however, this worth system was mostly geared towards women. So if you are a young woman, who had been sexually abused – then you are worthless, through no fault of yours! And then there was also the notion that men’s sexual purity was based on women – because a woman can cause a man to falter in his purity walk due to how they dressed. These narratives were pushed so much in churches as I grew up that it got to a point, I did not want to date any man in church – because if this was how they thought, I wanted no part of it. I watched one preacher tell a group of young women that their purity was like a wrapped piece of sweet/candy and that the more sexual partners they had, the more people touched the unwrapped sweet/candy and no one would later want it. As I listened to this nonsense being peddled, my heart wept for the young girls who had been sexually abused, or the young woman who had become a sex worker due to human trafficking or the girl who had been looking for love in the wrong places only to be taken advantage of by these same men who were looking for ‘pure’ wives to marry. The message being peddled in these cultures was that a woman’s worth was based purely on what was between her legs – and you know what, we need to shut down that narrative!
I had a reader reach out to me – this is someone I know personally, and he was struggling in his marriage because he felt he let the woman he loved go because she was not a virgin. So here he was, years later, after marrying a virgin, having issues in his marriage he did not think could be resolved and having lots of regrets. For years, he had believed that sex was dirty and a sin and then as soon as he married his pure wife, sex was supposed to be good and perfect in a marriage bed – but you can’t undo that kind of thinking in a day. There were several questions I wanted to ask him – was this other girl a bad person because she was not a virgin? Did he understand who she was and value the person she was without objectifying her? As we spoke, I realised that there was a lot of doctrines he had grown up with that he needed to unpack – this woman he let go was not worthy because of her virginity. The things he missed about his ex were deeper than the superficial reasons why he married his wife. To be honest, I did not know what to say and felt he needed to speak to a professional to unpack some of his thinking to help him make sound decisions regarding his current relationship. As I researched this topic, there were many women out there who had been waiting for the one and had turned down many good men because they were waiting for pure men and now felt they had missed their chances.
I am in no way telling anyone to go out and sleep with everyone they meet, what I am saying is that a person’s worth should not be based on how many people they have slept with. That the purity of a man is not dependent on women – if purity culture is going to be peddled, then let’s make sure that the scale is balanced. When people stand to speak on these issues, I think they should think of women who have been abused or have had to make certain choices based on circumstances that were beyond their control. Also, when these narratives are being peddled, teach both boys and girls on how to set good boundaries and give guys some credit – they are capable of defending their own purity – don’t put the responsibility on girls. If men are to be leaders in the home, as taught in these cultures, then they must be disciplined enough to manage their own purity regardless of how many naked women are around! There are so many people living in shame of their sexuality because of these narratives and I think it is time to let people make their own decisions based on their own experiences and circumstances.
I once sat in a meeting with a few women and in there was a pastor’s wife – this woman was quite young and she and her husband had not been married for long. Every time she spoke about her marriage, she kept emphasising on her being a virgin and getting pregnant as soon as she was married. Being in a religious setting, everyone lapped up her story but I felt something was off. See, for the short hour I was in her company, she mentioned her being a virgin more than 10 times and I knew she was trying to affirm her own worth in the group by making everyone believe she was pure. Who cares, I liked her as soon as I walked into the room – she looked like a cool person to hang out with and I did not care how many men she had been with. However, as I looked around the room, I understood why she felt she needed to make that statement – she was liked and respected by these people because she was seen as pure due to her being a virgin on her wedding night. Years later, I understand she is counselling young women who are about to marry – I would never take advise from her on sex, because to be honest, what does she know?
Whether it is purity culture being pushed in religious or societal setting – I am not in any way saying abstinence is wrong, actually, I really respect that! What I cannot respect and support is the misogyny, victim blaming and homophobia that goes with these narratives. Women are not damaged goods based on whether they are virgins or not – get to know people beyond the teachings of someone you have not even met. If you decide to be part of this purity culture, do it for you – I know there are people out there who want to make meaningful connections without having their judgements clouded by sex – I truly respect that. But if you falter in your purity walk, don’t you dare think you are damaged – it was a choice and sometimes good intentions fail and you know what, it’s ok! Don’t let someone use fear and shame to push you to make choices that you would have to live with for the rest of your life.
For those who grew up in the purity culture like myself, who were not able to stick to this teaching – you are not damaged goods. For the victims of sexual crimes and abuse out there – you are not damaged goods, you are whole and you have gone through bad experiences – you deserve a love that will help you heal not one that shames you. To the people that push purity culture, especially on women, remember that not all women bleed during their first sexual encounter – remember that before calling some girls living out your doctrines all sorts of names. Thank you for always getting in touch and sharing your experiences – please continue to share your experiences so we can effect the change we need.