On <em>Preachers Daughters</em> and Purity Culture
I recently marathoned Preachers Daughters, a new Lifetime reality show. Season One follows the lives of three different girls -- Taylor, Olivia and Kolby -- who all have at least one parent who is a preacher. While all girls are subject to purity culture based on their family's beliefs, each reacts to this culture differently. Taylor feels restricted and chooses to rebel; Olivia, who has a baby, is now “on the right path”; Kolby attempts to live up to purity standards and even breaks up with a boyfriend in order to avoid future “temptation”. But while each girl follows a different path, they all show how purity culture can manifest destructively.
Although I was never involved with purity culture to the same extent as these girls, watching Taylor, Olivia and Kolby reminded me of the first 13 years or so of my life. I grew up in a Christian home and (somewhat sporadically) attended church events. I vividly remember one time when I was at youth group and wore a shirt that was apparently too low-cut. An older woman, a self proclaimed "mentor to young girls," came up to me and said I needed to have more self-respect and that, since boys are uncontrollably sex-crazed (see, boys: gender roles affect you, too), it's up to me to keep them from "stumbling" and thinking sexual thoughts.
My own experience, and the experiences of the Preachers' Daughters, show why purity culture is incredibly problematic. Though purity culture does perpetuate insidious victim-blaming and the idea that girls are something to be “owned” by a man (first by their father, then by their husband) there are other, less-discussed ramifications as well.
Purity culture makes it so much harder for all people, but especially young girls, to conceptualize themselves and their sexuality in a healthy way. Girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and to repress all inklings of sexuality. They often feel perpetually guilty for completely normal things, like sexual or romantic feelings or even their developing bodies. Many of my own friends, as well as some of the girls on Preachers Daughters, develop anxiety or a stressful shame complex in their attempts to avoid being seen as impure or "dirty". It's hard to go through adolescence always striving to be "pure" and then feeling copious amounts of guilt and shame when you're inevitably unable to live up to the ridiculous, absurd and unhealthy standards imposed on you.
This pressure to remain pure can actually cause young people to sexualize and objectify themselves far earlier than they would have otherwise. For example, purity culture's emphasis on a lack of sexuality caused Kolby from Preachers Daughters to break up with her boyfriend out of guilt and fear. Purity culture demands that girls conceptualize themselves within the context of how others perceive their sexuality: specifically their lack of sexuality. Their worth is contingent on this purity and they're taught to value their (repressed, controlled) sexuality above all else.
Purity culture can also make it hard to accurately conceptualize healthy relationships with men. Girls are made to feel simultaneously responsible for and scared of boys, which can be overwhelming and incredibly confusing during what should be a time of self discovery. I’ve seen several young Christian couples immersed in purity culture make decisions about their future (like getting married) earlier than they otherwise would have, motivated by a fear of “sinning” or guilt from already “sinning” rather than love or a definitive commitment. And, of course, purity culture hardly allows for the possibility of a homosexual relationship: it's inherently heterosexist.
By perpetuating the notion that sex is wrong, dirty and shameful, purity culture attempts to forbid an inherent aspect of human nature. Through this shame and guilt, purity culture creates the manipulation and control that enables oppressive power structures to exist. Furthermore, because purity culture forbids sex education along with sex itself, it disadvantages those who inevitably will have sex by failing to prepare them, greatly increasing the chance of pregnancy and/or STDs and disempowering individuals to report or even recognize sexual assault or other unhealthy sexual behavior.
Purity culture is just another way that women are objectified, repressed and, ultimately, controlled. But by opening up a dialogues and reframing the dominant narrative about "purity", we can start to change it.
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