By Summer Mengarelli
It wasn’t so long ago that I believed all these things. That my body being a temple somehow made me housekeeper, maid, guard, but never worshipper and certainly not divine inhabitant. That when I went out in public or spent time with my family at home, I was responsible for the thoughts and reactions of the men I passed in the grocery store or the uncles with whom I celebrated Thanksgiving. That ultimately, at my best, I might become some man’s prize, his to do with what he will and show off to his friends like a new car. That my body was my father’s, my future husband’s, my God’s, but only mine insomuch as I was responsible to keep it pure.
Growing up, my sisters and I read all the books: John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, Dannah Gresh’s And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity, the Ludys’ When God Writes Your Love Story, and of course Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. These books instructed us on how to dress modestly, to make sure that we never led our brothers astray by provoking impure thoughts. The authors, often youth pastors or other members of ministry, drew heavily from a romanticized vision of the “Proverbs 31 woman” to promote a woman’s role as her husband’s support, a partner who takes care of things on the homefront so the man can be victorious in the realm of spiritual warfare in the outside world.
For now, young readers were taught, God wanted us to dress sweetly, act sweetly, learn the trades of keeping house, and avoid men — because God would present our husbands to us when we were supposed to be married. Then, in the single most momentous occasion of our lives, our fathers would hand us off to our husbands and we would assume our God-given roles. We risked ruining this moment in the hours after the ceremony, on our wedding night, if we had already “given ourselves away” before the wedding. In one book, readers were told to imagine a present: a beautiful little box, carefully wrapped and immaculately tied up with a bow. We were to imagine giving this perfect box to our husband on our wedding night — imagine the joy on his face, the satisfaction we feel as we know we’ve given him the best present possible. Then, we imagined the box again, this time crumpled, the corners bent and the bow coming untied, and pictured the disappointment on our husband’s face as we held out the present, avoiding eye contact in shame. The box, the author clarified, is our bodies, our virginities. The message is clear: what man would want a body someone else has already enjoyed?
In the insular universe of evangelical homeschool communities, every girl I knew, myself and my sisters included, wore a purity ring — and none of us ever noticed that boys didn’t wear them unless their last name was Jonas. These communities solved the problem of “impure thoughts” by setting norms for girls’ clothing like ankle-length skirts, or shirts with necklines that didn’t go lower than the collarbone. Beliefs about women’s bodies, gender roles, and romantic and sexual relationships were reinforced by an entire genre of Christian teen fiction that provided us with models of how to live purely, as well as demonstrated the consequences of wandering astray. The TrueColors Series by Melody Carlson and the Christy Miller Series by Robin Jones Gunn, in particular, captivated me with their stories of teenage girls whose struggles I could relate to, but who in the end always rose above the challenges of peer pressure and sexual temptation with the help of the Lord.
The books, the rings, the purity pledges we all signed with conviction, these were the trappings of the True Love Waits movement. The True Love Waits organization began in 1993, created by Southern Baptists and supported by Lifeway Christian Resources. The movement rapidly gained footholds in evangelical American Christianity, and by the time I was reaching adolescence in the early 2000s, our churches and parents were strong advocates for the organization. TLW pushed for sexual purity not only in abstinence until marriage, but also in avoiding oral sex, sexual touching, sexual thoughts — and in Joshua Harris’s case, even dating altogether. I was raised in this environment, which heavily implied a purity continuum on which total repression of sexuality was the ultimate spiritual goal.
I left the homeschooling community my junior year of high school, and in the years following I have distanced myself from evangelicalism and purity culture. As I became submersed in mainstream culture, it was not hard for me to reject many of the teachings of TLW, like modesty and traditional gender roles; a secular environment that allowed space for discussions about equality and gender expression caused these beliefs to fall away naturally. However, it was not until college that I began to unpack the trauma that purity culture inflicts on girls and young women, including myself.
When girls are taught that their bodies belong to someone else, someone masculine, be that God, their father, or their future husband, they are taught that their value as a human being is wrapped up in the physicality they will one day provide a man, and in their ability to protect that physicality until then. When our pastors, parents, and in the case of many homeschooled students, even our textbooks teach us that our virginity is the most sacred thing about us, we have become enlisted as our own bodyguards, and if we fail in our duty to protect our virginity, whether by consent or by coercion or by force, we are made to understand that experience first and foremost through a framework of shame. When we are taught that virginity is something physical, rather than merely conceptual and cultural, and that it can only be stripped away through a very particular sexual act, we are at the same time taught that sexual acts of another nature, such as intimacy with a member of the same sex, are unnatural and abhorrent.
The ramifications of purity culture endlessly pervade not only how women view themselves, but also how men understand their relationships with women. A young man reading the above-outlined scenario with the present will understand that he is somehow owed a perfectly wrapped box — that a woman’s sexuality is created for him to take and enjoy. The glorification and misinterpretation of the woman described in Proverbs 31 enforces gender roles that keep a woman submissive to her husband, with both partners believing that her body and autonomy belong to him. Purity culture creates ideological space for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and domestic violence, and creates theological space for the church to sanction these violent ideas. A brief perusal of the #ChurchToo tag on Twitter will emphasize the damaging effects of purity culture. This hashtag, based on the tag #MeToo that conceived by Black activist Tarana Burke, was founded by Emily Joy, a survivor of sexual abuse in her church.
I wonder if we can come to an agreement that the church has grievously mishandled issues of sexuality, and that perhaps it should take a hard look at itself before it continues to engage with this issue. We should question not what the women in church wear but what the men in church believe. If the church must be involved, it must work to educate young men about consent, about respecting boundaries, and about what healthy expressions of sexuality look like. It must support young women and foster an environment in which they are allowed to understand that their bodies are theirs, that their sexuality belongs to them, that consent is theirs to give or withhold. The church must recognize that sexuality is created by God, is included in the good nature of creation, and is to be celebrated and exercised healthily, rather than repressed and perverted.
I wish I had been taught that my body is my own. That if it is a temple, I am the protector, the holder of the key, the worshipper, and the goddess at once. I wish my church leaders had affirmed the goodness in me, instead of convincing me to believe it is inherently evil. My hope for the church is that it will recognize the ways it has failed both women and men, and have the humility to do better.