You Are Valuable, No Exceptions: A Guest Post on Purity Culture

We always appreciate when people respond to our blog and tell us their stories, and we are especially honored when readers agree to write a guest post for our blog, writing about their own experiences with evangelical culture.

Today’s guest blogger is Heather Brown Griggs, who is a registered nurse, wife, daughter, sister, and soon-to-be auntie! She’s a proud feminist who seeks to love God and others in a mostly Quaker way. She recently began blogging about faith, feminism, and culture at Caught Between Bettys. Please feel free to join her conversation there.

Thanks for your story, Heather!

I remember asking my parents where babies came from when I was in kindergarten. Mom said “When two people love each other very much, after they are married, it takes a little part of a man and a little part of a woman, and it grows inside a woman’s tummy for a few months, and then a baby is born!” I reasoned that these mysterious “parts” must be re-usable (it couldn’t be a leg! People with babies had both legs!), and if it went in the tummy, it must be eaten (how else will it get there?). Ahhh- you just had to bite your husband’s fingernails and your own, and swallow them, and then you had a baby. Plus, you must love someone VERY much to be willing to eat their fingernails!

I was ten when I learned about the actual details about puberty and reproduction. My fifth grade class was learning about it at the time, so Mom pulled me out from school to teach me herself. Mom and Dad took about a week to teach us separately: me with Mom, my nine-year-old brother with Dad. Each evening before bedtime, we spent some quality time snuggling in bed with our respective parent, with the “Facing the Facts” series (find them here). We looked at one book each night, or over two nights. While I applaud this series for being very educational on the entire reproductive system, it was a little awkward having it read to me out loud, literally cuddling with my mother. Of course, I thought sex was disgusting, and secretly wished my kindergarten theory was correct. It seemed more appetizing.

When I was eleven or twelve, we attended (as a family!!!) a short conference called Sex, God, and Me: a abstinence-only series for the whole family. You had a session with your parents, then parents and kids were separated for “breakout sessions,” boys and girls separated. I learned there how my purity belonged to my father, and that the biggest thing I could do to honor him was to protect it. The idea of a purity ring was introduced to us then.

When I was thirteen, we started talking about purity more. It was an expectation, a given, and no other option was presented. It was first and foremost the Christian thing to do, but it was also the smart thing to do: you didn’t want to get an STD or have a baby before you were married, and the only 100% sure way to prevent those devastating outcomes was to be abstinent.

But what was hammered into me more and more was the shame of having to confess your past sins to your husband on your wedding night. You certainly wanted to be a whole person in your marriage, and so the best thing to do was avoid giving parts of yourself away to other boys and men, before you knew you were with someone forever. Marriage was the only way to know for sure it would be forever. You also wanted to avoid the incredible shame and guilt you would feel if you didn’t wait. These messages were reinforced in books, conversations, youth group events, and Sunday school sermons. I was immersed in purity culture.

Later that year, I started my period. In celebration, my mother took me to lunch to celebrate my “womanhood” and told me I’d get a purity ring. I honestly can’t remember if she gave it to me then, or if Dad gave it to me shortly after. I do remember signing a purity certificate with my father, who prayed with me, and signed the certificate too. It was a lot like signing a marriage certificate: he promised to do his part to protect me, and I promised to do my part to protect myself. My ring looked like this, and it was 14k yellow gold–more expensive than any gift I’d ever received (or have ever received to this day)–this was to further tell me how valuable my purity was. I wore it on my left ring finger, to further symbolize it as a “place holder” for marriage.

This story is not very different from any of the other girls my age that I knew. Most of us had small rings, sometimes with or without diamonds; some had certificates they signed too, or a “purity card” they kept in their wallet instead of a condom. We obsessed a lot about what was “too much.” We talked about boundaries, and were encouraged to discuss boundaries very early in the relationship, if one developed. We were to make it very clear we intended to wait, and that anything but “yes dear, me too” was pressure, and unacceptable.

Many of us planned to kiss our significant other on our wedding day for the first time, in an effort to stifle the inevitable urges. Others said they’d kiss, but only on the lips, and never “French” kissing. Some planned to wait until they were engaged. I knew some people who refused to even hug or hold hands until they were married. We all intended to have a courtship, rather than a secular dating relationship.

This meant we wanted our young men to approach our fathers, ask permission to “get to know us better”, then spend lots of time with the family and group activities, then ask our fathers again for permission to “seriously pursue” or “exclusively court”–with the intent of marriage someday. If, a couple months later, we were still in love, he would approach the father again, and ask permission to marry us. That was how we were to best maintain our purity, our virtue, and our value. That was how we knew that our future husband loved and respected us: they would wait for us, respect our boundaries, and seek our father’s approval before our own.

Today, I know what was wrong with what I was taught. I know now that marriages are not forever. I know now that I felt incredible when my now-husband and I shared sex for the first time (a month after we started dating, four years before we got married). I cried that night, and for months after, because I didn’t know why I wasn’t feeling guilty and ashamed about sex. I thought I was so rebellious, my heart had hardened beyond repair.

I tried to confess to several people so that I could feel that shame. But despite the tears, and despite the angst, I never felt shame about sex itself. I never felt broken. I felt exhilarated. The guilt came from the lack of shame…I was so confused why it was so awesome, and why it seemed to bring us together rather than drive us apart. I thought that since I didn’t feel all the things I was promised to feel, I was damaged in a deeper way. I thought a good girl would feel shame and want to change, and since I didn’t, I wasn’t a good girl at all. I declared myself an atheist, and began to question the very existence of God. If this, the most important thing about myself, wasn’t true, maybe it all wasn’t true. I still have these questions.

I think what was most harmful was the absolute contradictory messages of strength, choice, independence, and voice. In purity culture, silent submission to the men in your life is seen as a strong, independent choice, and saying “no” to any sexual impulse is the only way to have a voice. It’s a very backwards idea, which fits nicely into evangelical culture’s declaration to be radical for Christ. I were in the world: we recognized the nature of relationship and intimacy; but we were not of the world: we practiced self-control, while the worldly, secular people slept around promiscuously and caused all kinds of problems.

Purity culture is a two-sided world: the good ones and the bad ones, the whole ones and the broken ones, the pure and the impure, the virgins and the whores. It’s also a very female-centric culture. While purity culture pays lots of lip service to the men being in control, the women are the ones who bear the burden of shame, disappointment, value, and emotions. A boy will be a boy, and can always be forgiven. A girl, though, is damaged goods. No one wants a lollipop that’s already been licked, a piece of tape that’s already been used, a piece of gum that’s already been chewed, or a piece of money that’s been ripped in two. Boys can do the chewing and the using, but a girl better not let that happen to her.

I will not allow my children, if I have them, to hear these messages. Instead, I will say this mantra to them: You are valuable, always and forever, no exceptions.