As a society, we are not very good at talking about sex and sexuality. Unfortunately, this results in many people growing up with negative ideas about this part of themselves, even though sexuality is a natural and normal part of the human experience.
This is particularly true for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up in the heyday of the purity culture movement. Often associated with conservative evangelical Christian denominations, purity culture is a set of beliefs and practices that emphasize the importance of sexual abstinence before marriage, strict gender roles for men and women, and the avoidance of any behavior or sexual expression that may be considered “immodest”. Purity culture is closely associated with the movement to replace comprehensive sexual education in schools with abstinence-only teachings. In areas where this was adopted, negative public health outcomes followed, including increases in STD rates and unplanned teen pregnancies.
Purity culture has been shown to have a negative impact on mental health as well. If you grew up impacted by purity culture, read on to find out if the effects below resonate with you.
Shame and guilt
Purity culture often teaches that sexual thoughts and feelings are inherently sinful. This can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, especially for people who have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Girls and women are typically given the impression that their value is tied to their lack of sexual contact with men and then paradoxically, are expected to open up to their husbands sexually after marriage. Boys and men are taught that their sexual urges are dangerous and difficult (or even impossible) to control, creating difficulty in enjoying sexual activity even when it is clearly consensual. This pervasive sense of shame and guilt puts people at high risk for anxiety and depression.
Internalized homophobia and transphobia
Because purity culture defines gender as inherently connected to your sex at birth and considers sexuality to only be permissible within the context of heterosexual marriage, it leaves no room for queer and trans lives and experiences. Many queer and trans people who grow up in purity culture internalize the idea that they are especially sinful or broken, because they are not given any path for experiencing identity and sexuality in a healthy way. In addition to anxiety and depression, queer and trans people struggling with the impacts of purity culture may even struggle with suicidal thoughts.
Disconnection from your body
To make adhering to the norms of purity culture possible, people typically need to disconnect significantly from their body’s feelings and desires. This can impact not only learning about your sexuality, but also your understanding of your emotions, and your experiences with pain. The combination of sexual shame and body disconnection can increase the chance of a person developing compulsive sexual behaviors. For example, ignoring and disavowing one’s sexual feelings most of the time, except for occasional, usually secretive, intense bursts of risky sexual activity. Disconnecting from the body is also closely linked with eating disorders, particularly for women, who are frequently subject to diet culture alongside purity culture.
Even people who chose to move away from purity culture may continue to struggle with polarized thinking. Purity culture operates on a foundation of rigid categories and extreme opposites — men are like this and women are like that, you are either pure or you are unclean — no grey areas, no in betweens. That framework may carry over to other areas of life. Examples include pressuring oneself to achieve high career success or else consider yourself a “failure”, or worry that a little frustrating conflict with your loving, committed significant other must mean that they must now “hate” you.
If you’re trying to find your way post-purity culture, please know that you are not alone. There are many people who have been through similar experiences and who have found healing. You can start your journey through journaling honestly about your thoughts and experiences, educating yourself about sex and sexuality using reputable resources, and connecting to support groups or online forums for others who have been harmed by purity culture.
Therapy can also help you process the painful parts of having experienced purity culture, and navigate deciding how you want sex and sexuality to be part of your life now. At Salt River Therapy, our therapists are available to guide you on that journey. Click the button below to schedule a free phone consultation. You are not defined by your past experiences with healing culture. You can heal and move on to build a healthy and fulfilling life.