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Growing up as a minister’s daughter, I was regularly taught to cover my body as a mark of spiritual integrity. At camps, conferences, youth groups and bible studies, I was taught about the inherent sinfulness of my flesh. I learned that my bare shoulders could spark ‘‘impure thoughts’’ in boys and men. Purity culture taught me that it was my responsibility to dress modestly, to hide my body. When a friend’s father cornered me on a school trip to the aquarium and told me he couldn’t keep his eyes off me, I immediately blamed myself. I shouldn’t have been wearing sparkly skinny jeans that hugged my 12-year-old figure. I donated those jeans to the Salvation Army and prayed to God for forgiveness.
What’s wrong with teaching modesty? Well, this particular approach to modesty is rooted in shame. Instead of placing the responsibility for sexual thoughts or actions on the man or boy who enacts them, purity culture blames the woman or girl being lusted after. After too many incidents of sexual assault, we hear the indignant cries of: ‘‘Well, did you see what she was wearing? She was asking for it.’’ It’s sickening. Sexual assault is a crime, and survivors should be supported and comforted, not judged.
The dehumanisation that purity culture peddles extends to sex education. One summer, I learned that I was like a sticking plaster. ‘‘Imagine you’re a Band-Aid,’’ said the camp speaker’s wife, her bright teeth glinting at us in the firelight. ‘‘When you have sex, you lose your stickiness, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old, useless un-sticky sticking-plaster. Who’s going to want you after that?’’ Even though I was only 11, I felt indignant and hurt. No woman or girl is ever a Band-Aid or a chewed up piece of gum. No woman is a plucked rose, or a licked cupcake, or a dirty rag or any other obscenely dehumanising metaphor.
My brothers were never warned about the dangers of exposing too much skin. My brothers were never taught their worth lay in their virginity. Men who have sex aren’t unsticky Band-Aids or flavourless pieces of gum — they’re players. Purity culture teaches young women that they need to control the brakes of sexual responsibility. Male agency is ignored, and men and boys are characterised as aggressive and brutish. Both genders are denied their humanity. Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am a lizard in my natural state. Purity culture is also coupled with homophobia, silencing many boys and men who are assaulted by other men. And for men assaulted by women, the broader cultural assumption that men always want sex discourages these men from reporting and dealing with this abuse.
Ironically, abstinence-only programmes have never been proven to delay or reduce youth sexual activity. Virginity pledge programmes, like the one my friend signed at her Catholic school, have failure rates as high as 80%. Conversely, various studies have indicated that students subject to comprehensive sex education programmes are more likely to delay their first sexual encounters, to have sex less frequently and to have fewer sexual partners than those in abstinence-only programmes. Surely the inaccuracies and omissions that accompany purity culture’s abstinence-only programmes cause more harm than good.
Purity culture teaches young girls that they don’t own their bodies and that virginity is far more important than intelligence, self-confidence, humour and kindness. If you tell a girl her body is inherently shameful, she’ll grow into a woman who hates herself and feels supremely uncomfortable in her own skin. Limiting sex education to a series of platitudes from ‘‘guard your heart’’ to ‘‘don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods’’ cheats ourselves out of mature discussions about the human body’s extraordinary capabilities, the nuances of consent, and proper sex hygiene.
The irony is that purity culture is anything but pure. It is inextricably intertwined with oppression, lies, fear and mistrust. It breeds shame, sexual dysfunction and pain.
Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.