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Reclaiming My Body and My Life: Healing From Purity Culture

If we took the definition of “virgin” to mean “not married, not belonging to a man—a woman who was ‘one-in-herself’”.  How would you or I utilize this meaning of virgin to construct our perception of ourselves?

In order to understand the contextual environment and effects surrounding the phrase “purity culture”, one should delve into the etymology of the words virgin, purity, and culture.  Culture is often generically defined as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines purity as “the freedom from adulteration or contamination”.  Pure, virgin, and chaste have, at times, been used interchangeably.  Virgin has frequently been used to describe young females that are sexually pure or untouched by a man.  But what if that wasn’t the only definition of virgin or virginity?  How would this shift in what constituted being a virgin affect how we treat ourselves and others?

“The very word [virgin] derives from a Latin root meaning strength, force, skill, and was later applied to men: virile. Ishtar, Diana, Astarte, and Isis were all considered virgins, which did not refer to sexual chastity, but sexual independence”.  Think of the above definition and the derivation of the word virgin.  Let it sit with you.  Have a conversation with it.  What could you change by incorporating this definition?  The heartbreak and anxiety, the disappointment and despondency, and the rumors and name-calling (by others and ourselves) that we could avoid with this view on virginity and purity.

“Purity culture” is the effort by different cultures (religions, societies, etc) to promote purity from individuals (hard emphasis on females) to ensure morality and abstinence before marriage (and even after marriage).  Purity culture focuses on what a female is wearing, how she acts (what she says and does, what she watches or listens to, and the company she keeps), and the sexual relationships she is involved in.

In my youth and early young adult years, I was taught that the way I dressed would invoke certain reactions from young men and that they were created differently. Due to those differences, their sexual urges were stronger than mine and they wouldn’t be able to control themselves.  I believed for years that I was solely responsible for their actions.  That if they touched me or spoke certain things to me, it was my fault.  I was to blame because of something I did or did not do.  My clothes were too revealing, or I was too outspoken.  The idea of purity extended to the shows or music I enjoyed inviting those reactions to happen.

What a burden to take upon myself!  To tell myself that what someone else decides to do is in direct correlation to my behavior 100% of the time.  In statistics, we learn that correlation does not mean causation. Why then, are we not able to link an individual’s actions not to someone else but to the individual?  For many conservative religions, they teach that all homosexuals need to do to be worthy of the favor of God is to reign their urges and not act on them.  Why then, is this same ideology not applied to heterosexual males as well?

If the LGTBQ+ population are able to control themselves, shouldn’t heterosexuals be able to control their urges?  Why has there been a massive push to shift responsibility from one party to the other?  Why is purity culture for females about limiting the urges someone else may or may not have towards them, but for males, the focus is keeping the female pure for another man (notice how the focus is still on the female)?  Males are not taught to restrain themselves, they are taught that the way a female dresses will invoke feelings in themselves that they cannot control; that a female needs to be modest in her dress in order to prevent him from having impure thoughts.

In our swim or pool activities in my church’s youth group, girls were told to wear modest one-pieces and, even with a one-piece, if the neckline was too low or the cut of the bottom was too high, then a t-shirt and board shorts were required attire.  For the boys, they just couldn’t wear a speedo.  The girls were told to cover themselves.  How many of us grew up ashamed of our bodies?  How many of us believed that our bodies were bad— that if we were confident in our bodies, and showed it, we must have been asking for something.

I had an experience a handful of years ago, where, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was manipulated into entering into a deeper intimacy than I was ready for.  Even now, I am still not emotionally prepared to tell the whole story.  Needless to say, the end result of this relationship was me blaming myself for what happened.  I was in denial about the manipulation/abuse and I still am on some days.

There was no possible way that someone could gaslight me, that I could question my own wants and needs, make me believe that what I wanted was not what I actually wanted.  It took me a few years to recognize this and start unlearning the effects of purity culture on my life.  I started to see situations with more clarity and I began to comprehend there is a hard-drawn line between what I am responsible for with myself and what others are responsible for.

In a society and religion where individual agency is heavily prioritized, manipulation does not factor into someone’s choice.  It is flat out dismissed as something outside the realm of possibility.  Manipulation tactics, like love-bombing or gaslighting, don't fit the narrative of “you make your own choices and no one can make you do anything you don’t want to do”.  If we strictly focus on an individual’s agency (ignoring the influence that others can have over someone), we disregard how incredibly damaging manipulation is.  Manipulation tactics are real things that take away someone’s ability to make their own choices.  It takes away our clarity to see the situation for what it is-- abuse.  

For years I struggled (and I still do) with body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  I hated my body.  I would look in the mirror and see this overweight, ugly person.  I did not see what or who everyone else saw.  To be honest, I still look in the mirror some days and do not recognize the person staring back at me—I am and will always be a work in progress.  The deeper purity culture got inside of me, the worse the body dysmorphia and depression and eating disorder went, the looser and baggier my clothes got.  I thought that if I could hide my body and cover up these “imperfections” that would make me undesirable to a male, then I could catch me a “real man”, which would then make me complete or whole.

After the above mention event (there were others, but this one was a catalyst that started the chain reaction of change, albeit a slow one, in my way of perceiving myself), I was told not to tell any future or potential significant other that I wasn’t a virgin because it might deter them from a relationship with me.  That did not sit well with me.  Why would I hide or lie about that part of my life?  It affects the way I am in relationships.  It is part of me.  Why shouldn’t my significant other understand me in the most full way human nature allows?

Furthermore, if I was manipulated into the act and terrified of saying no once it started, was it really my fault for his action?  Is it even my fault for him not respecting my vocalized nos?  Was it my fault, even though I felt that the only option I had was to agree and let things happen because I was paralyzed with fear?  I had consequences due to the manipulation I encountered.  Not once, did someone ask me if I was afraid of vocalizing the no I was internally screaming at myself to say.  Not once did someone ask if my wishes were respected in the relationship.

I placed all the blame on myself because after all, purity culture told me that I put myself in that situation, that he shouldn’t have been over past a certain time, that I should not have been so casual in my demeanor towards him.  Never in any chastity lesson taught at church or at home was I told to know my own boundaries and to have them respected, to understand and recognize red flags of abuse in all its forms (physical, sexual, emotional).  It was all about avoidance of any situation where a man might not have control over himself.  The lessons were about how I had to be the gatekeeper for both of us.  About how saying no was the last line of defense, but if you were a moral/chaste/pure person, it would never get to that point.

Not one person spoke of manipulation.  Not one spoke of gaslighting.  How emotional abuse, no matter how strong one is, can still break past every well-intended and practiced defense.  No one spoke of how sometimes, there is nothing you can do to prevent someone from doing what they have every intention of doing.

How differently the last few years of my life would have been if my worth, my value, my morality, was not tied to this cultural definition of purity.   How differently would I have treated myself if purity was taught as being free from contamination? Contamination in the terminology of something that does not belong to me.  How different I would have treated myself if I utilized the definition of virginity as truly knowing myself; having strength and confidence in myself.

If time travel was possible (Doc and Marty McFly please get on this stat!), I would tell my younger self: 1) you define who you are.  2) You are always enough.  3) No one can take away your worth.  4) The action of others does not dictate you had control over their choice.  5) Wear the damn bikini. Wear that dress you feel confident and sexy in because what you wear does in no way, shape, or form force a response from anyone—their reaction and their sequential response is their own doing.  You are not responsible for controlling anyone’s desires but your own.  6) Love yourself, including your body.

Purity culture is a fallacy.  It is a lie—a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Leave the contaminants of others’ words, their actions, and/or reactions out.  Filter those out so that you remain purely you.  Have the strength and oneness that virgin also means.  One aspect does not define you.  The way you dress or speak does not lessen your worth; your worth is not changeable or negotiable.

I envision an illuminated canvas with a woman in the bottom left corner. The scene is in six parts.  The first, the woman is standing with light bursting from her every limb.  In the second, she is hunched over, weighted from the darkness oozing from the top left corner, swallowing the bright light emanating from the woman.  The third, she is huddled and detached from herself.  In the fourth, she is barely distinguishable from the darkness, the only light is coming from the very center of the woman, small and shaky.  The fifth, the woman begins to push against the dark, she starts to stand.  In the sixth scene, the woman is standing, her light illuminating more than before.  The darkness is fading, but the woman pays it no attention, as she is one with herself.

 References:

cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/7-lies-purity-culture-teaches-women

About the AuthorChelsea Chapman is currently a marketing major, getting ready to graduate.  Her first career was elementary teaching which she did for six years.   She was born and raised in Northern Illinois, moved to Arizona middle of high school, moved to Utah for 9 months, moved back to Arizona, and now I am feeling the wanderlust to move to California.

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