Pure, a Book Review and Deconstructing Purity Culture: At the Intersections of Black, Female & Womanist

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Illustration by Katarzyna Bogdańska

A few days ago, I stumbled across the book “Pure” by Linda Kay Klein. I couldn’t put it down. 

Surely, this book would provide both critical insight and compelling testimony into the insidious innerworkings of peak Evangelical purity culture. 

Unfortunately, the 35-page Introduction was the best part of the book.

At once both captivating and tediously exasperating, “Pure” attempts to investigate the interconnectedness of White Evangelical America and the Purity Culture movement of the 1990’s. And yet, the scope feels narrow and the writing stiff.
Reliant on intermittent and awkward verbatim interviews, the book lacks the ability to tell a critical, compelling, coherent story; which is unfortunate at best and irresponsible at worst.
Primarily because it was hard to distinguish between whether this was a memoir or qualitative study, the writing style impedes rather than supports the reader’s ability to connect with the author.
While it remains obvious that the author went to great lengths to provide credible, vulnerable, heartbreaking interviews and testimonies, the overall style of the book felt awkward. If you do read it, I would recommend pairing it with my all time favorite episode of the Liturgist podcast: ’40: Woman.”
Growing up in a relatively conservative Christian home in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, I strongly resonate with the teachings of Purity Doctrine and the overwhelmingly suffocating and toxic celebration of all things virgin.
Maybe you can relate?
At its core, #puritydoctrine teaches that modest, God-fearing, virgin, (white), obedient women are to be celebrated and exalted. Purity culture celebrates sexual pureness and advocates for strict gender stereotypes while teaching a damning ideological doctrine: if you engage in sex outside of marriage, you are beyond redemption.

Purity culture idealizes the Proverbs 31 woman. 

They are long-suffering and patient. They enjoy hard work. They have lots of babies and obey. They are helpmeets and ever-steady soul mates. They are pure and wise.
Or, as a kid growing up in the ‘90’s you could just tell if they were pure if they didn’t wear spaghetti straps, jeans with designs on the butts, crop-tops or v-necks, lip gloss or anything Victoria secret.

Other damnable offenses were being “boy crazy,” engaging with or questioning purity culture or identifying as anything other than cis and straight. 

In my early growing up years, we were a Focus on the Family, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, The Bride Wore White, Every Young Woman’s Battle kind of family. 
I knew names like Joshua Harris, John Eldredge, Dannah Gresh, and Debbie Pearl. 
I knew passages like this, from “Created to Be His Help Meet:”

“If you are a wife, you were created to fill a need, and in that capacity you are a “good thing,” a helper suited to the needs of a man. This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job, and no man is complete without his wife. You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him…”

I faithfully read Karen Kingsbury, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Hinds Feet on High Places.
I went to Bible Study, Youth Group, Girls Club, Small Group, Lock-ins, Retreats, Sunday School and Church. 
I was on various worship teams, danced on the Church Dance team, led Sunday Schools and helped out in the Church Library.
I wore a purity ring, boy shorts, double and triple-layered my shirts and swore not to have sex until marriage. 
I listened to Rebecca St. James and MercyMe.

I dedicated and rededicated my life to Christ.

I didn’t party, drink or do drugs and for the most part I got straight A’s.

In many respects, I was a “good girl.”

And, I really tried.

But it was never enough. I was never enough. 
Boys would say and do sexually explicit things to me, and I was always the one who caused it.
You seem to cause a lot of drama, a youth leader told me once after I sobbingly confided stories of sexual harassment and assault.
Drama causing girls were stumbling blocks. Drama causing girls ‘got what they asked for.’

I never confided in my youth leaders again.

While I never engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, I was told both explicitly and passively that I was beyond redemption.

After all, sexual harrassment and abuse only happened if the girl was a stumbling block. Maybe you were leading them on? Maybe they thought you wanted it? Maybe you were just mistaken? 

In middle school, I told a classmate that a friend of the family was pregnant. The boy told the teacher I was talking about pregnancy
The teacher wrote my name on the board and made me sit in the front of the class for the rest of the day.
We don’t talk about inappropriate topics, she chastised.
In junior youth group, a familiar purity adage was that of a used car. Virgin women were fancy sport cars. But, those who didn’t wait to have sex until marriage were old cars. Nobody wants a used car, I was told in between phrases like “modesty is hottest,” and “true love waits.”
Pool parties during church retreats often had strict regulations. Females were required to wear one-piece bathing suits and cover-ups or be asked to change and/or leave. 
There were no regulations for men. 
Excited to wear my new (quite modes) tankini to the pool, I found myself humiliated when a lifeguard told me that I needed to wear a T-shirt. Your bathing suit is too revealing, he said.
As a 13-year-old, I already knew that my adolescent body was dangerous and damning.

My adolescent body was so tempting that it could lead men away from God.

Mortified, I walked back to my room and sobbed.

A few days later, a family member would joke about my clothes. Look what B is wearing…when I get older, my kids will never be allowed to wear that. 

My body was bad and dangerous. My body was not even worth being a role model for future nephews and nieces.

I was devastated.

Sexually abused and harassed from a young age, I knew that sexual purity would never include me. Purity Culture didn’t distinguish between consensual od non-consensual sex. Sex was sex. Touch was touch. Virgins were pure. I knew that I would “never make the cut.” That I would forever be deemed unworthy, unloveable and unwanted.

Nobody, not even God, could cleanse me.

The revelation that my body damned me forever as unredeemable was horrifying and deeply painful and abusive.

What use did I have for a God that would damn me because of my body?  What use did I have for the Church?

During a youth group discussion about sex, a youth leader advised: Don’t do anything with someone that you wouldn’t do with Jesus.

Told by numerous boys that sexually harassed me that I would never be marriage material, I finally broke down and begged them to tell me what was wrong with me. You are too opinionated and ugly. They told me. You should wear long skirts, another advised. You boss too many boys around, another one confided. My parents told me that people like you can never be a Proverbs 31 woman, another confessed.

In high school, four classmates that were known to date around were featured on the front of a student led, admittedly “illegal” school newspaper. The headline? “FO-FO-FO’S” for Four-Foot Hoes. 

In college, another boy later admitted that he thought I would be more attractive if I would stop being so intimidating. How am I intimidating? I asked. You come across as too confident, he told me. And you are too outgoing. Boys like quiet girls.

At the intersection of black and woman, I internalized not only racist and sexist tropes regarding my body but also theological ones.

Historically and contemporarily, Brown and Black bodies are overwhelming sexualized, demonized and degrated.

Purity culture capitalizes on this.

My butt, breasts, hips damned me. But, my skin verified me as someone whom couldn’t be credible.

I wrestled with the ideology that I would never be pure. And, it wasn’t lost on me the symbolism of purity culture: white virgin girls.

As a black girl, I would never belong.

Afterall, how could God possibly love me if I was a ‘stumbling block?’ 

How could God possibly want me if I wasn’t a Proverbs 31 woman?

How could God want me? 

Often, critiqued by family and community members for my clothing and body, I came to regard my body as both dangerous and evil. 
So, I internalized sexual abuse and harassment.

I was a black girl. A sexualized girl.

It was all my fault, right?

After all, I was just an Eve that was too tempting.

Nice girls didn’t interrupt. Nice girls didn’t speak up. Nice girls didn’t listen to secular music.
You want to be a nice girl, right B?

In 9th grade, I went on a youth group trip to Louisiana. Our youth group was partnering with relief efforts from Hurricane Katrina. One day while working at our assigned site, a secular song came on the radio: ‘Sweetest Girl’ by Wyclef Jean, and all the girls started dancing. I knew almost all the words by heart and started singing along with the radio. 
A female chaperone took her purse and spanked me with it in front of the entire youth group. “This is from your mom,” she said before adding: “You will never marry or be with a nice young man, especially not my son,” she whispered.
I was mortified, humiliated, angry and embarrassed.
No one stood up for me.
Later, I would tell my dad and watch him confront her. I don’t remember what went down but later that evening her son would find me and apologize.
It didn’t make me feel any better.
At the time, I didn’t have the language to name the incident as abuse.

I didn’t have the language to describe how that incident would go on to shape much of my psyche.

I didn’t have the language because these kinds of things were normal.

You know, the spiritual ‘slut shaming.’ The ‘Christian’ gossip mongering. Like, the super innoent prayer requests like: I just want to lift up my friend in prayer because she is currently having sex, and I just want to pray that she would feel convicted that…

I didn’t have the language then.
Now, I do.
See, the thing is, I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I understand why parents believe and teach abstinence. I get it.
But, I also see the Lie and the way Purity Culture has condemned a generation of girls and women into thinking they were unloveable and unwantable.
See, I believe that Jesus is the ultimate breaker of chains.

I also believe that women are more than marriage beings designed for sex. That women are more than sexual experience.

Scared of an “oversexualized” generation, the Churches purity culture created the perfect cover for sexual + spiritual abuse.

Who would believe women that had reputations of being a stumbling block or causing drama?
After all, if you could package sexual purity as the ultimate Christian goal, women wouldn’t even believe their own abuse.
Women are more than virgins waiting for the altar. 
I believe that women are called into the liberating relationship of Jesus Christ. And, that that relationship isn’t a relationship based on shame. That relationship isn’t a relationship based on guilt. It’s a relationship based in liberating, fearless, welcoming, radical safe love..
The church is called to radically exemplify this kind of love.

What happens when it doesn’t?

How do we reconcile that?

Growing up, I knew and still know too many women whom were denied entrance to the Churches version of love because they were too sexual.

I have girlfriends that have fully faced the sort of insidious, passive, Christian abuse for being sexual beings.

I have experienced that.

How do we reconcile that?

I would like to suggest we start by naming the pain, trauma and spiritual and sexual abuse that were committed in our own Churches, homes and communities.

We must listen to stories of survivors and offer spaces to tell our stories. After all, what we resist, persists.

In the wake of #metoo, Evangelical and many persons abused by the church started a new hashtag: #churchtoo

In the wake of #churchtoo, more and more women spoke out. Men spoke out. Persons identifying within the LGBTQIA community spoke out. 

These are the stories that are too often unheard.

These are the stories that are too often demonized.

These stories are also ubiquitous.

As I write this, I am furious and exasperated, exhausted and hopeful.
I fully believe that Jesus welcomes us as our human, gritty, vulnerable, raw, messy, sexual beings into his liberating love. 
There is redemption in that love.

There is no fear in that love.
There is no shame in that love. 
There is no Lie in that love.
We must create space in our church to hold and name the pain and trauma of Purity Culture.

There are many of us hurting. There are many of us in pain.

We must make space to deconstruct.

We must find space to hold space with one another. 

Over the past years, I have had to unlearn my ideas about womanhood and sex. About purity culture and redemption.

Things I know to be true about my experience with purity culture:

1. Purity culture enabled ( and continues to enable) sexual predators

2. Purity culture de-emphasizes truth and centers shame

3. Purity culture often contributes and perpetuates rape culture

4. Purity culture’s core curriculum functions on an ideology which advocates that young females are responsible for others thoughts and how men will treat them.

5. Purity culture reduces women to the state of their marketability vis-à-vis marriage. Ironically, nobody talks about how purity culture reduces “Godly” men to the drive of their penises.

Oof. There is a lot to unpack. Power and privilege. Abuse.

There is a lot to name and deconstruct.

Know if you resonate with this post that you are not alone.

I see you.

Honestly, deconstruction has been a rough, emotional, vulnerable journey. It requires a commitment to stick with the raw, messy, often emotionally exhausting process. It is uncomfortable and often alienating.

But, it is SO worth it.

Beloved One, if you are reading this and this resonates with you, know that your body is valuable, holy and valid. Your experiences matter and your voice is powerful. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You were created in love and your body is a design of love. Beloved one, love your body. Delight in your body. Honor your body. For Your body was declared a good thing.

Shalom always.

**Sidenote** There are many people that I respect whom adhere to conservative ideologies and purity culture doctrine. This is not a post to shame them. Instead, I wish to speak my truth and claim newfound liberation. 

Homegoing: A Review

Reading Time: 3 minutes
I just finished Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, for the second time. And, it still has me shook.

For those who haven’t read it yet – please note the following will contain some spoilers.

Haunting. Emotive. Lyrical. Searing. Critical. Gyasi’s novel is a gripping generational timeless yarn of colonialism, identity, human trafficking and body politics. And, perhaps book ancestrally wise – Homegoing is a direct descendent of Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel,Things Fall Apart.

Homegoing follows the stories of two half-sisters, Essie and Effia – unknown to each other- and the six generations which follow, their lineage broken from colonialism and slavery. 

Each chapter, told from the perspective of a different character, evokes both the fantastical, depraved and the nightmarish while also evoking the nostalgic poetic motif, Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? (where are those whom have gone before?).

And, while the reader is kept to task recalling which character belongs to which family tree, characters emerge and re-emerge in dreams and retellings from their descendants. This combined with a genealogical map located at the beginning of the book and two sturdy symbols: fire and water, help to maintain ancestral clarity between the two lineages.

Centering the enduring narrative of generational trauma, Homegoing’s tale remains unflinchingly searing and critical. And, the attention to nuanced, even controversial, themes (many of which remain almost hidden in dog whistles), of colorism, body politics, identity politics, misogyny and misogynoir, wealth, housing and educational inequities, power and privilege are particularly crucial.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s review of Homegoing on the New York Times, she notes this:
The West African chapters are the heart of the book, a deep channeling of multilayered humanity. Gyasi evokes what was lost to those who were sold away — the sense of individual and collective identity, a wealth of rituals and customs they’d be whipped for trying to retain in America. In the mother country, life’s losses and turning points were a time of communal recognition: The death of an Asante king was mourned for 40 days, weeklong puberty rites celebrated a girl’s first menstrual cycle. Identity and intimacy were bound up in language; a servant girl in mid-20th-century Ghana is shown speaking labored English to her employer, until he tells her to speak their own language. “We hear enough English here,” he says, and she breaks into Twi with relief. Thus begins one of the book’s lovelier courtships. But on a slave plantation in Mississippi, Esi tries to teach her young daughter, Ness, their native tongue and is given five lashes for every Twi word the girl speaks. Later, little Ness is sold off without warning or ceremony or permission to grieve.

Homegoing invites its readers to take a closer look at systemic injustice through its careful generational juxtaposition of the effects of colonialism, both in West Africa and America. 

And, indeed the almost magical realism of the first few chapters encourage a deeper investigation into themes of identity and belonging.

There are far better writers than I whom have offered outstanding reviews of this book, so I wanted to wrap up my review with some of the quotes I will be carrying with me.

  1. “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” 
  2. “The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.” 
  1. “You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, “now I will remove my knife slowly – so let things be easy and clean; let there be no mess.” There will always be blood.” 
  1. “No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”
  1. “They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” 
  1. “…Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth.” 
If you have read the book what are you carrying with you? As always, I welcome discussion.

Shalom always.

Staying Present

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced
– James Baldwin

This past weekend, my news feed was filled with stories of Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann.

Reading the emerging stories, comments and petitions made me sick to my stomach.

Some people wanted the students expelled from their schools. Others started petitions against admission to secondary education. Others blamed The Black Hebrew Israelites. There were rumors of death threats. Someone even created a fake Twitter account of Sandmann’s mom with a particularly nasty racist sentiment. 

Everyone was pointing fingers.

I was angry, disgusted, sad, riveted and triggered.

So, I paused. I stood outside in the sunshine. I started a good book. I watched a silly Netflix show. I went on a walk. I drank a hot cup of tea. And, I breathed.

And then I watched the first video that had emerged. And, I stayed present with the feelings: rage, disgust, sadness and helplessness. I noticed my breath, and I stayed committed to the process. I noticed my own inner trigger warnings.

Suddenly, I was a child again. I was a 9-year-old being called the N-word for the first time. I was a 13-year-old getting her skirt hiked up so that her classmates could see if her butt was ‘big.’ I was a 14-year-old-girl again getting spit on by fellow track mates….I was a 25-year-old being followed by men in a truck with confederate flags. I was a 26-year-old being told by a family member that “…I play the race card.”

For those able to say even a resemblance of ‘let’s talk about this without emotions,’ is a privilege and a testament to ‘objectiveness.’

As I watched the video, I noticed my own rage and anger at not being able to clearly articulate the pain of racism. 

And, how the silencing of that pain amplifies new trauma.

A thought that has resonated with me is this: New voices are being muted while the old pattern of white innocence persists.

What resists persists. 

I stayed present and I listened to my body. I stayed present and I committed to the process. 

It occurs to me that amid all the clamor voices of Indigenous people are still being silenced and replaced by the voices of others. Celebrities have been given air time. Sandmann has been given airtime. Radio hosts have been given airtime.

Everybody cares.

And yet…the government continues to steal indigenous lands.

The film media still largely relies on stereotypes when portraying indigenous and first people.

Christopher Columbus is still a national hero entitled to a national holiday.

Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (#MMIW) remain absent from the national media and conversation about race.

After watching the video, I committed to naming and noticing each of the feelings. And, to holding space for transformation – a practice I have learned from Dr. Amanda Kemp.

After holding space for transformation, I breathed. I prayed. I lit some incense. I cried. I must confess – I wasn’t ready to channel unconditional love and acceptance. But, I reminded myself of my own racial justice vision. I was determined to be kind and to do more.

How are you staying present?

So, I held space. And, let me tell you what I gained:

  1. A renewed determination towards intersectionality.
  2. HopeWait, what?! Hope? Sounds crazy, right? But yes, I am hopeful. 

    I am hopeful that we, as a nation, can lean into the ugly and gritty history of racism and do better and hold space for truths.

    I am hopeful that we can learn how to be interventionists, advocates and allies.

    I am hopeful seeing new white allies processing, some for the first time, race and race relations.

    I am hopeful seeing longtime white allies educating new white allies and interrupting white spaces.

    I am hopeful seeing black and brown allies beginning intersectional conversations.

    I am hopeful seeing new members of congress interrupting historic white spaces by vocalizing dissent and demanding visibility.

    I am hopeful because Nathan Phillips is entirely vocal and dissenting and his voice has become a roar
A few thoughts, practices and resources which have been helpful to me as I discern a sustainable way forward. 

1. Two things in opposition can be true. It can be true that this week’s past incident was a visual symptom of white supremacy and bigotry. It can also be true that a group of Black Hebrew Israelites were problematic. It is also critical and true to note that any version of ‘both sideism’ relies on a problematic framework and a limited, arguably intentionally ignorant, understanding of racism and dimensions of power. 

2. Reassess your educational resources and supports regarding proactive anti-racism education. Often times, white allied responses are reactionary and often limited in sustainable supports and resources regarding further training and long term solutions. Assess your racial/social justice vision. Invest in local anti-oppression training. Interrupt white spaces and educate one another. 

3. White allies – lean in. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Teach one another. As I reflect on how many white allies are condemning Nick Sandmann, I also can’t help but think that white allies should and could be leaning in. Educate him. Educate that one racist uncle. Ask hard questions and remain vigilant. Lean in. 

4. Presumed white innocence… Let’s say it again for the folks in the back…

5. Call Out/In Culture. I’ve been wrestling with this one…it is easy to ally shame. You know the “where were you when…Colombine, Charlottesville, Ferguson…” It’s easy to do that…to point the finger and point out everyone else’s inadequacies and hypocritical allyship. 

If you are struggling with call-out/in culture, or even if you don’t think you are…check out these rock star articles from The Body is Not an Apology and Everyday Feminism

  6 Signs Your Call Out Isn’t Actually About Accountability (note: ads on this page can include photos some viewers may see as risque…).

9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible by Kai Cheng Thom, 

Also, side note (and to borrow from For Harriet’s, Kimberly Foster), I will never be okay staying in a box that white supremacy says I need to live in or calling out black women whom choose not to. Call out culture can be toxic. And, it can also adhere to a certain set of prescribed patriarchal and white supremacist rules. Luckily, it doesn’t have to. 

Additional Resources 
             – 25 Books by Indigenous Authors You Should Be Reading by Kaitlin Curtice. Kaitlin Curtice is a Native American speaker, storyteller, poet and author. Check out her book “Glory Happening.” 

             – Doctrine of Discovery
Ours Is The Land: Check out this 17 minute video outlining the proposal to ban the Rosemont Mine. 

Oak Flat Spiritual Walk: Participate in this sacred spiritual walk hosted by the San Carlos Apache. Check out this video  about the religious,  human rights and creation care concerns. 

What has been your practice this past week? What resources and supports do you use to stay present and engaged? 

Peace & grace always.