CONTENT WARNING — Sexual Assault
During the mid to late 2000’s, purity culture was out there, but it was never something I had heard of. I was baptized as Christian and attended our local United church as a child from birth until I was eight years old. Between preschool and elementary school, I had always been in a public school. Although, I had not attended a Christian school during a few of my childhood summers (primarily between ages six and eight) I attended Christian day camps. Much of this is a blur and all I can recall from either experience is Veggie Tales and pink visors (I know right?) but my main recollection of Christianity, actually stems from my secondary school experience where I attended a Catholic school (uniform required) and unaware of it at the time, had purity culture all around me.
Before delving in I would like to note my experience at a Catholic secondary school was not terrible. Some of my best friends from high school are still my friends to this day, and I had some really fantastic teachers attended, fun events, and participated in great field trips. Although these were wonderful experiences, I realized once I got to university, that they were also very closed experiences (if that makes sense?). Essentially, upon going to university I learned far more about the world than I did in high school.
While in high school, we had a terrible health class that hardly touched upon sex education, and it certainly never mentioned LGTBQA+ topics, nor did it focus on women’s abortion rights, how to use a condom or consent. What did it cover then? Abstinence before marriage, and anti-abortion. It discussed pregnancy and how the human body functioned but did it even talk about masturbation? Nope. I did not know what the word masturbation meant until I was 20. I KID YOU NOT.
Now at home, I was lucky because of my parents although they are Christian, they are non-practicing. My mother believes in God, and I think my dad does as well? (He never really talks about religion so I’m not sure…). Since I had left church society at such an early age, I was much more aware of different perspectives on a variety of topics, however, purity was not one of them. Elementary school even though a public one did not have a sex education curriculum that went over pregnancy, abortion, condoms, consent, or LGTBQA+ topics. What it lacked, however, was the ideology of abstinence before marriage. That topic was quite popular in my Catholic high school.
I remember in high school, it was interesting for me because despite my friends going out and having boyfriends, having their first kiss, or sometimes even sex, I never felt the urge to do the same. I understood in class they taught abstinence before marriage, and I remember that as soon as anyone in high school did have sex, although teachers wouldn’t know about it, the other students would, and would automatically call them names like “whore, slut etc.” and I never understood that. “They are just dating someone? Why the name calling?”
It also did not help myself because here I was “following the rules” by abstaining from sex, but I also never had my first kiss. For me, I saw everyone else doing this and although I wanted to date someone, kissing or sex never “felt” right, and I never saw it as something attractive. It was not until university that I realized it was because I was asexual. That being said, here I was abstaining from sex, while it was really just that I didn’t care to have it at all. Others at my school said things like “you are such a good girl, waiting until marriage the way you are, your family must really cherish you” or “I don’t think I could wait as long as you, I want to get married as fast as possible. I need to consummate that ASAP!” Other events somewhat related to purity culture was the school trip to Parliament Hill for the “March For Life” protest which is a pro-life/anti-abortion protest. The basis for this march however, at least when discussed to students was not about “we shouldn’t kill babies” while it was more about “if you do not abstain from sex like we said you should, and you get pregnant, you need to live with the consequences, and keep that baby alive”. This was quite problematic.
All of these examples were something I never understood, or why sex was always “hush hush” when any teacher or adult was around. It was completely taboo. That isn’t to say that most would not want to share their personal stories with teachers… but it isn’t news that teens are sexually active right?
That was when purity culture really came to the forefront. It was no longer the microaggressions of purity culture, but a real firsthand experience a friend of mine had that I never understood until reading more about purity culture.
(Warning: Triggers Ahead eg. Sexual Assault)
When my friend was sixteen, she got raped.
She was attending a party, and there were some guys from another school there. She was drunk, and he was drunk. (Also being drunk is not an excuse…not victim blaming anyone here. No always means no.)
My friend came back to school the following week and she seemed very upset most of the week, leaving our classes every so often and coming back looking like she had just cried. One day in my art class she did break down crying and proceeded to tell my other friend and I what had happened. She told us about the event and how she proceeded to buy a pregnancy test and take it in secret, hoping beyond hope she was not pregnant because she didn’t think the guy used a condom. Throughout her recollection, she kept saying things like “I can’t be pregnant at sixteen… I’m not even married to the guy, nor was I planning to!” and also “I never wanted to have sex before marriage! How could I let this happen?! I shouldn’t have been drunk… this is all my fault!” and consistently blamed herself for what had occurred. Looking back, it was her comments about marriage that really reflect purity culture that I don’t think I had realized at the time. I had asked her if she had told anyone else and she said “I can’t… I can’t tell anyone else… they would be so mad at me for what I have done… I’m so embarrassed… I’m Catholic… I basically just sinned on a whole other level.” I cannot even recall how I responded to her. I spent most of my time listening as I really did not know what to say. I had never been faced with anything like this.
Looking back on this now, I wish I had tried to offer her more comfort, shown her that I was there for her and that she was a victim, that religion had nothing to do with what happened. At the time though, I was ignorant, and I just did not know. Rape was not talked about in our health classes. I did not know what to do at that moment. I’m not even sure if I may have in my subconscious thought “you shouldn’t have been drunk… maybe if you weren’t drunk” but when I was younger, victim blaming was so ingrained into my young brain that this could have been a conclusion I came to. Now, I’m much more “woke” and I try my best to be informed.
The shelter I was under while at Catholic secondary school left me in a world of purity culture that I never felt right being a part of, and one that left me without the right words that could have helped comfort, my friend.
Purity culture can be damaging, especially to youth who may be easily influenced by it. It is not even something that people are necessarily aware of but due to its prevalence in certain societies (Catholic for example), microaggressions in reference to it can become the norm, and it can be hard to disengage from it and to step back and review it for what it is.
Sex or getting pregnant before marriage does not mean that you are impure or are a bad person. Sometimes people need to know who they are most comfortable with before making such a decision as getting married. Sometimes marriage may even seem like a bigger commitment than having a child after being together for three years already, etc. Whatever decision a person makes, as long as it is there is mutual consent between both parties, that is important.
To end on a personal note, and where I am today. I don’t abstain from sex because I want to stay “pure”, I abstain from sex because I’m asexual and experience no sexual attraction, therefore giving me no desire to have sex.
Whether or not I have sex, or do not have sex, I’m still a valid human being. If I get married, who says I have to consummate it? If I one day do have sex and it is before marriage, who gives a hoot? The most important part of all of this is, it is my body. I should have the right to choose what I do with it, not what is dictated by “purity culture”.
-Anonymous (Story from Ontario, Canada)