Don’t Just ‘Reframe’ Purity Culture—Rethink the Whole Concept

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Commentary Religion

Don’t Just ‘Reframe’ Purity Culture—Rethink the Whole Concept

T.F. Charlton

Despite numerous popular critiques of purity culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

When I was in eighth grade, the tiny Pentecostal church school I attended announced it was closing. My family was about to move two counties and an hour’s drive away. My classmates, all seven of them, would still be able to see each other at church, but I was leaving for good.

In the absence of the real thing, we used our class photos as makeshift yearbooks, scrawling poignant and juvenile final messages for each other in the narrow borders of the cheap paper frame our photos came in, or on the backing underneath.

As I got my picture back, I noticed a classmate, a white girl, behaving in a nervous, almost embarrassed fashion around me. She’d made some effort to cross out some of what she’d originally written to me. I could still make out the words, though: “Don’t come back pregnant.”

This may have been an ignorant attempt at humor; I had quite a reputation as the class prude. Or maybe that’s just what she expected of me.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Between being a recent immigrant and attending a predominantly white church actively invested in racism denial, I rarely recognized racist behavior. But in that moment, it was crystal clear to me that she’d written this because I was Black. We both knew it.

There was more to her original note—some more pleasant sentiments of which I have no memory. The one sentence she hoped I wouldn’t see, I remember.

I also remember our white pastor announcing before the entire church his suspicions that another Black girl in our congregation was having sex. I remember how church folks presented “godly” and “natural” femininity as chaste, quiet, and submissive, in the same breaths that they stereotyped Black girls and women as hypersexual, domineering, belligerent.

These are my recollections of growing up in white Christian purity culture. But, despite numerous popular critiques of this culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

I find, instead, frustratingly predictable laser focus on women who are white, cisgender, straight, middle-class, able-bodied—and an unwillingness to truly question assumptions shaped by these experiences, and often even assumptions of the very purity culture critics are trying to change.

Emerging Evangelical Critiques of Purity Culture

Abigail Rine explores these tensions in purity culture critique in a May 2013 piece for The Atlantic on how women are creating a “revisionist evangelical view of sexuality.” Leading voices in this conversation hold a range of “post-purity perspectives”: some center consent, health, and pleasure, while others “seem reluctant to relinquish the abstinence ideal entirely—which creates an interesting tension.”

That a sustained evangelical critique of purity culture exists at all is remarkable. Evangelical women online have single-handedly created this conversation, breaking powerful taboos against discussing sexual histories, sexual violence, and the harm done by fetishization of female modesty and virginity. Healing, productive conversations about misogynist teachings and how to counter them are taking place between women who often disagree sharply on sexual ethics. This welcome development shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as Rine observes, these differences of opinion also pose obstacles to creating “fleshed-out alternative[s]” to abstinence and marriage-focused sexual ethics. I would go further: A critique of purity culture that doesn’t explicitly reject the premise that sex outside of marriage is de facto sinful can ultimately only contradict and undermine itself.

“Single Stories” of Homosexuality?

Take a recent blog post by author Rachel Held Evans, one of the women Rine profiles, on “Homosexuality, Evangelicalism, and the Danger of the Single Story.”

Evans is a prominent critic of marginalization of women in evangelicalism. She’s drawn the ire of conservative leaders for this, and for supporting marriage equality and LGBT inclusion in the church. Yet in her blog post, Evans challenges stereotypes of hypersexual and “drug-fueled” gay people, not by examining how they objectify and dehumanize, but with examples of gay people who are upstanding Christians saving sex for monogamous marriage: her lesbian friend whose “gay agenda” consists of mundane routines of nuclear family life, and Justin Lee, head of the Gay Christian Network, whose distaste for people in “[p]ride parades … dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all” led him to deny for some time that he could be gay, because he was so unlike that. (He expresses similar sentiments in a 2011 Q&A on Evans’ blog.)

Evans contrasts stories of gender conforming and married monogamous gay Christians to unfavorable portrayals of “promiscuous,” flamboyant queers. When she says, “Not all ‘gay lifestyles’ are the same,” it comes off as, “Not all gay people are like that. Some of them are just like you.” Gay folks, too, can be uncomfortable with gender nonconformity and apparently excessive displays of queerness. They too “[form] faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians.”

This isn’t the defense of queer humanity and diversity Evans probably intends. Nonjudgmental recognition of different ways of embodying queer sexualities would be more in keeping with the “single story” concept, which Evans appropriated from a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. In the talk, Adichie discusses how stereotypes of people and places (specifically Africans and Africa) are created by the repeated telling of the same, monolithic stories about them—for instance, Africans are “poor” and listen to “tribal music.” She notes that sweeping generalizations of groups usually happen along lines of power, so being able to tell “single stories” about a group is about who has power and how it is exercised.

But Evans implies a moral hierarchy of queerness. Her offhand conclusion that “progressives” shouldn’t “dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in [rare] cases”—referring to “ex-gay” testimonies—only reinforces this impression.

Beyond “Reframing” Purity

Evans is far from alone among evangelicals in implicitly shaming people for their sexual behaviors while simultaneously indicting purity theology for inculcating shame. In June, blogger Jamie Wright touched off a firestorm when she argued that churches, rather than emphasizing virginity, should teach that waiting until marriage to have sex “empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.” Her conclusion (emphasis hers): “Why wait? … Because you need to learn some freaking self-control. That’s why.”

Wright’s sentiments reflect commonplace “post-purity” disapproval of “promiscuity,” “commitment-free sex,” and lack of self-control. “Inclusion” in this discourse means shoehorning LGBT people and people of color into a “reframing” of still harmful theology created by and for white, straight, cis people. (And look how well it’s worked for them!)

The most visible evangelical critiques of purity culture themselves tell “single stories” about what purity culture means, and how to counter it. Lola, a Black woman whose family attended white evangelical churches between stints abroad as missionaries, observes, “Many evangelicals lamenting purity culture are still enforcing it. They’ve reframed abstinence as a ‘choice,’ but there’s only one right choice.” Some “recovering conservative Christians” feel frustration over being “shamed for sexual desires” by evangelicals who denounce shame-based theology.

Lola (not her full name) has channeled this frustration into the No Shame Movement (NSM), a “platform for people to share stories of ‘unlearning’ purity culture without judgment or condemnation.” What began in June as the #NoShameMov hashtag has grown into a Twitter and Tumblr community. Lola envisions it creating space for people to “relearn” alternatives to purity theology, “get to know their bodies and be comfortable with themselves,” and share “practical information” on “contraception, reproductive health,” and more. An added bonus: “When another ‘well-meaning’ blogger says, ‘Gosh, purity culture is awful, but shouldn’t you want to keep your legs closed for Jesus?,’ I have a feed full of personal stories about how this mentality is harmful.”

NSM illustrates how this conversation has broader scope and impact when critics radically rethink, not just repackage, purity culture.

Similarly, centering the voices of women who are trans, queer, and/or of color highlights the limitations of popular critiques that reduce purity culture to images of girls and women as naturally chaste, delicate, and in need of patriarchal protection. Many white evangelical women, Lola says, “assume all women are held up to the same virginal ideal,” though women of color, Black women especially, “have historically been left out of it.” Jennie Kermode, a Scottish trans and intersex activist who grew up evangelical, writes that purity culture casts trans and intersex people as incapable of modesty or chastity. Their mere existence is “immodest,” she says, and their bodies are viewed as indecent.

Nor does white purity culture universally insist that “women” are inherently nurturing and maternal, created to be “keepers of the home.” Queer and transgender women, mothers included, are cast as deviants, predators—deadly stereotypes, especially for trans women of color. Black women are demonized as perpetrators of “Black genocide,” the greatest danger in existence to Black children. Black mothers are government leeches who need to be put to work—preferably the sort that requires endless labor for minimal pay. We are, as writer and activist Monica Roberts puts it, threatening “unwomen.” So much so that white people scramble for reasons to explain why white, 54-year-old Theodore Wafer was justified in shooting Black, 19-year-old Renisha McBride—“bleeding and disoriented” after a car accident—in the face, through a locked screen door, in supposed “fear for his life.” Protection is the last thing we are seen as worthy of.

To present purity culture as monolithic expectations of quiet, submissive virginity universalizes patriarchal ideals of white, hetero, and cis femininity into the story of all women. Can such a narrow understanding of purity culture really succeed in pushing back on it? Women of color, queer women, and trans women are already creating our own critiques of purity culture in which our experiences are centered. Rather than looking to make purity theology gentler and kinder, mainstream evangelicals who truly wish to see an end to the violence this theology does would do better to listen to and engage with our stories.