As I begin this review, I need to acknowledge that I was a teenager in the evangelical church as so-called “purity culture”—a term that refers to the emphasis on sexual purity for Christian teens and young adults—gained momentum in the evangelical church. Due to a number of circumstances I was not fully immersed in purity culture (I never wore a purity ring or signed a purity pledge), but along with my peers I read Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity. I was certainly familiar with and influenced by the notion that I must avoid sexual sin for myself and help my brothers in Christ avoid sexual sin. While I was not as negatively affected as the women interviewed in Pure (or even some of my own friends), I have dealt with shame around my own sexuality within my marriage. I have especially wrestled with the pervasive message within purity culture that women are responsible for men’s sexual health; responsible for preventing men from lusting before marriage by squashing our sexuality and hiding our bodies, and then preventing husbands from straying by always sexually satisfying them. All of which to say, I am not an unbiased reviewer. I came to Linda Kay Klein’s Pure with some personal experience of the negative impact of purity culture, and so I read her interviews with a sense of sympathy and kinship. I need little convincing that purity culture has harmed people.
What I hoped to gain from Pure was a way to frame the problems of purity culture while acknowledging the good intentions of most parents, pastors, and youth pastors who taught evangelical teens about sex. I found Klein’s framing helpful: She argues that the problem of purity culture is a problem of shame around sexuality, shame that causes long-lasting and outward-rippling effects.
Pure focuses on the stories of a small group of primarily white, middle-class women who grew up in the evangelical church. Klein acknowledges that she can’t generalize her observations to a wider audience since she does not consider the effects of purity culture on men, communities of color, or people outside evangelical churches. Klein’s exploration of the topic does, however, reveal the pervasive shame imparted by purity culture, shame that may manifest differently in other groups but that likely remains in different guises. Thus, despite the very real limitations of her approach, her comprehensive exploration of the effects of shame on a few women effectively displays the depth of the problems caused by purity culture.
The book is divided into four sections. Her opening section describes the messages of purity culture, and the second section follows women who have struggled with these messages while remaining within Christian communities. Section three looks at women who have left the church, and section four looks at some emerging alternatives to purity culture.
For CBE’s audience, sections one and two will likely be the most helpful. Section one explains in detail the ways in which purity culture cooperates with patriarchy and harms women, especially by expecting women to adhere to gender norms and by shaming women who have been sexually abused and assaulted. Klein convincingly argues that deep shame emerges when the expectation of total sexual purity is combined with the ideas that women must guard against tempting men through their bodies (breasts and hips) – bodies that women can do little to change. When these messages connect with the idea that women ought to be submissive, with a calm and gentle spirit, the stage is set for the gross mishandling of sexual abuse that we see in so many churches.
In section two, Klein looks at the difficulties women faced as they grew older. One woman describes her inability to have sex with her husband and the shame that kept her and her husband both from admitting to anyone that they had problems. Sex was, they thought, supposed to be easy, natural and fulfilling because they followed the dictates of purity culture and never even kissed until their wedding, and it took fifteen years of marriage for them to achieve a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship.
Section three turns to the stories of women who left the church, unable to remain in their faith communities. One left when she transitioned from a man to a woman. Another left after she was raped by her brother and her family blamed her, believing that the sin of premarital sex was just as bad as rape; that her brother was acting on natural impulses, and she permitted his assault.
The stories in each of these sections should be sobering. The impact of shame and trauma in these lives should lead those of us in the church to reevaluate our approach to teaching about sexuality. In these three sections, the stories are raw and honest, and deal extensively with sex and sexuality. Klein offers no judgment on the choices made by the interviewed women and seldom filters their language. This approach may be uncomfortable for some readers, as the women discuss everything from masturbation to lesbianism to the sexual violence they experienced.
In section four, Klein turns to the positive by looking at how some people are reimaging the church’s approach to sexuality and sexual ethics. Although Klein is not constructing a theology of sexuality, or even a sexual ethic, she does clearly believe that a healthy Christian sexual ethic can include extra-marital sex and LGBTQ relationships. For the purposes of this review it’s important to note that these beliefs do not align with CBE’s core values.
Even readers who disagree with Klein’s sketched-out sexual ethic, however, can and should still be challenged by her conclusions. If shame-based purity culture damages people and drives them away from the church, what might be an alternative? And how can we build healthy alternatives that still affirm traditional Christian sexual ethics? Pure does not answer those questions, but its thorough indictment of purity culture should push us to think deeply and carefully about how we teach about sex and sexuality in our families and in our churches.