In the 1990s, evangelical teen girls were given a very confusing message: If you’re a virgin when you get married, you will have a much better sex life. Female chastity had always been an oppressive trope of Christianity, but in late 20th century America, a cottage industry of books, conventions, “purity rings” and creepy father-daughter dances emerged, celebrating the virtues of female abstinence—and the danger of female sexuality.
Known today as “purity culture,” it was a meticulously designed system of rules and mind-games aimed at curbing adolescent Christian libidos. One of the most popular books of this phenomenon, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has since been acknowledged by its author, Joshua Harris, as contributing to a great deal of psychological trauma in its generation of readers.
When Linda Kay Klein was a teenager growing up in the midwest in the mid 90s, she was completely saturated in purity culture, where the simplest thought, sensation, or G-rated touch with a boy was not only destructive to her self-worth, but a threat to his.
“In purity culture, girls are often seen as eliciting sexual choices of others, by the way that they dress, the way that they walk, the way they talk,” Klein says today, reflecting on her childhood. “So girls can be shamed not only for their own sexual behavior, but also those of men and boys in the community who they are said to elicit these things from.”
While Klein and others were taught that any premarital sexual thoughts, feelings or actions are manifestations of a Satanic, sinful influence (their sponge-like adolescent brains permanently associating sex with destruction) they were also incessantly told that if they remain virginal in every sense, their marriage beds would be a sexual paradise, wholly fulfilling for both partners.
As it turns out, incessantly telling girls that their bodies are a turbulent, unpredictable minefield of sin can lead to an unhealthy sex life when they’re adults. Go figure.
In her late teens, Klein’s purity worldview was shattered when news of a sex scandal involving her youth pastor and a young congregant broke. Yet after fleeing evangelical culture in favor of a liberal arts college, Klein found that the world of shame and misogyny she’d escaped geographically was still very much with her psychologically.
Anxiety attacks, paranoia, scratching until she bled, even pregnancy tests (while still a virgin), all consumed Klein to the point of helplessness. The only solace she found was connecting with other survivors of purity culture, whose stories of crippling sexual shame mirrored her own, leading her on a twelve year journey of interviews, therapy, and eventually a memoir, PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.
I recently spoke with Klein about her new book, the movement of healing among survivors, and the role purity culture plays in the Kavanaugh hearings.
VICE: Sexual energy seems almost completely inevitable inside any young person’s body, so what was that experience like for you growing up in purity culture?
Linda Kay Klein: As I was developing as a sexual person, I was experiencing a tremendous sexual fear, shame and anxiety. But I was taught that that was OK, because sexuality was shameful, and something I should be afraid of and anxious about.
So I thought that if I was having anxiety, it was because I was sinful. Even after I became an adult, left the evangelical community and rejected the sexual shaming messages in my early 20s, I was still haunted by a deep and life-controlling sexual shame and fear.
What happened when you became an adult and decided you wanted to have sex?
So as I would get close to having sex the fear would be tremendous. I would end up having what my boyfriend called “freak outs.” This was in my early 20s, with a long-term boyfriend who I loved, and yet, as we were getting anywhere near having sex, I’d start freaking out. I also have eczema, which gets worse with stress, and so whenever I would get anywhere near having sex, I’d start scratching myself until I bled, or fall into a heap, crying. Which was definitely a mood-killer.
The anxiety was relentless, and the only way to steady my breathing was to take a pregnancy test—even though I wasn’t having sex. I needed some external sign that said: The community that you’ve left, yet are still desperate to please, are not going to find out how close you got to the possibility of losing your purity—which means losing your worth in their eyes.
You spent twelve years interviewing a great deal of women who also grew up in the purity culture. What did you learn from this that you didn’t already know from your own experience?
The biggest thing I learned is that I wasn’t alone. For a long time I thought that I was broken, that I would never have a healthy relationship, and when I started to talk with the girls that I grew up with in my church youth group, and tell them what I was experiencing, that was a big ah-ha moment, because they were telling me about what they were thinking and feeling at the time, which mirrored my experiences. And those stories made me realize that I wasn’t alone. Not only realize that I wasn’t alone, but realize that it wasn’t my fault what I was experiencing—it wasn’t my sin, or my psychosis. It was something that I’d been taught that was causing my anxiety.
When I first began doing interviews I just talked to a few of my girlfriends back home who’d grown up in the same purity culture as I did, but I eventually talked to people around the country. Some of them were still virgins and were committed to living a sexually pure life, in some cases they weren’t even kissing people, they were saving it for the altar. Others were married and had waited to have sex until marriage. And yet many of them, whether they were still evangelical or had left, married, unmarried, having sex, abstinent, they were experiencing the same sexual shame, fear and anxiety that I was experiencing. And they were also experiencing physical manifestations of that anxiety, in a way that mirrors PTSD.
What did that look like for them?
Some of them had a very quiet anxiety that their friends and family didn’t know about. Some of them were completely unable to have sex with their husbands. Some of them were hospitalized with panic attacks in association with sex. Some people would go on dates and feel paranoid that they were being followed, so terrified were they of people finding out they were sexual creatures. Or they were searching their homes for recording devices, afraid that their new marriage was being observed and they’d be discovered to be sexual beings.
My experiences with breaking down into tears whenever approaching sex was also common among them. As was the pregnancy tests among people not having sex. And they also had the same thoughts I did, that they were the only ones experiencing this, and it must be their fault, because they’re sinful. And when I’d tell them that they were not the first person to tell me these stories, that I experienced the same thing, as did many others, you could see people begin to separate themselves from what they were experiencing. I’d hear it in their voices as they came to the realization: I’m not the problem, the problem is what we were taught.
A recent poll showed 48 percent of white evangelicals would like to see Brett Kavanaugh nominated to the supreme court even if he committed the sexual assault he’s accused of. Does it seem to you that evangelical culture more harshly judges female sexuality than male rape?
That statistic is really sad, and yet, not as surprising as I wish it were. Growing up, I remember being told that men and boys were sexually weak and that because we were less sexual than they were, it was our responsibility to "protect our guys" by dressing, walking, talking and doing everything else in just the right way to ensure that they didn't have any sexual thoughts or feelings or take any sexual actions outside of marriage.
If consensual sexual activity happened, boys and men were treated like they had messed up, whereas girls and women were treated like they were messed up. Sexual violence was never mentioned. When it happened to my interviewees, they told me it was assessed in much the same way that consensual sex was. I've heard too many stories of men confessing having committed sexual violence and having the church treat them like they just messed up, momentarily gave into their weakness, rather than like they committed a crime that may well traumatize someone for the rest of their lives. I've also heard too many stories of survivors being held at least partly responsible for violence perpetrated against them. For example, one of my interviewees told me that the first question her pastor father asked her when she told him she had been gang raped was "what were you wearing?"
The way Dr. Blasey Ford has been treated by many people feels familiar. This treatment tells young women and other survivors, "if you come forward many won't believe you, and in fact you will be shamed and attacked." And the statistic you shared tells them, "even if you do prove what you say is true, a lot of people won't see it as a big enough deal to substantially change anything."
And unfortunately, the reality is that most survivors who come forward today do so knowing this. But they come forward anyway, because they also know that’s how you create change, that the more stories that are told, the more difficult it is to dismiss them. And that, on a personal level, telling your story is a path toward healing. The more often we tell our stories, the less power the experiences behind these stories, and the voices of those who want to silence us, have over us.
After releasing this book to a secular audience and doing interviews with those who didn’t grow up in this culture, are you finding people are shocked that this is going on in millions of American homes?
There are a lot of people who are surprised by it, but often, once I get into the nuanced details of this culture, people sometimes see that they were also taught to associate fear, shame and anxiety with sex.
There is this shock around how extreme and unapologetically these things are talked about within purity culture—but when we start to get into it, a lot of women were raised with that same core message of: You’re pure or impure, loveable or unlovable based on your sexual life. It’s something our society teaches, as well as evangelical culture. Purity teachings are widespread, they often just go under different names. Gender-imbalance and sexual control are global issues, and they are also baked into American culture. They were just ratcheted up by the purity movement.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.