New Book Details Harms of Evangelical ‘Purity’ Movement and the Obstacle to Change

When Linda Kay Klein was a teenager growing up in the Midwest, she dreamed of being cast as a virtuous woman or pious martyr in church plays. Instead, because of her sexually developed body and feminine curves, she was often cast as a demon or Jezebel figure; and once, she writes, she even played sex itself, miming the role in a skit about a Christian resisting temptations. It wasn’t until she was physically emaciated and weak, recovering from surgery due to untreated Crohn’s disease that she was offered the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the church Nativity play. It was only when both her body and spirit had been whittled down to size that she was deemed appropriate to represent the pious mother. She turned the role down.

Klein, a New York-based writer and sexuality educator, shares this memory and other striking stories of her experience growing up in the purity movement in Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (Touchstone, 2018). She combines memoir with survivor interviews and research on shame, sexuality, and religion to effectively argue that the evangelical sexual purity movement has done lasting harm to many of the women who embraced its message as teens in the ‘90s and early 2000s.

The movement itself, which encourages sexual abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage via purity pledges, parachurch organizations, and abstinence-only sex education in schools and churches, has been well documented in recent work examining the intersection of sexuality and evangelical Christianity in the US. Pure complements the recent work examining the history and rhetoric of the movement, as Klein dives deeply into the stories of women for whom the purity culture has been a force that haunts them, putting them “at war” with their own bodies and their desires, much like the illness that threatened the author’s own health as a young woman.

In Pure, Klein draws from her own experience as well as interviews she conducted over the span of a decade to paint a troubling pictureyears after they have aged out of youth groups and purity-campaign messaging, she finds women wrestling with anxiety, sexual dysfunction, crises of religious identity, and even a kind of religious-based PTSD. Klein argues that many therapists, wary of seeming antireligious or of bridging the “long-standing divide between religion and psychology,” are ill-equipped to guide Christian clients wrestling with sexual shame. In order to bring the two perspectives together, Klein examines the experiences of her interview participants through the lens of social science research findings on shame, sexuality, and human development. This analysis promises to offer insight for mental health professionals and for those dealing with the fallout of purity teachings. 

A second valuable contribution of Pure is Klein’s emphasis on the connection between sexual- and gender-based shame in evangelical purity culture. This focus, combined with the demographics of her home church from which she drew most her interview participants, does mean her analysis is limited mostly (although not exclusively) to the experiences of white women, though she does touch briefly on purity culture from young men’s perspective, a topic which other researchers have recently begun to examine. Continued work on this topic, and research focused more exclusively on the experiences of women of color and queer Christian youth would add to the literature that critically examines evangelical sexual purity campaigns in the United States.

Those familiar with purity culture will immediately recognize Klein’s use of the phrase “stumbling block” as an excerpt from Romans 14 that’s frequently used for shorthand to indicate girls or women whose “immodest” dress allegedly makes them objects of temptation for their Christian brothers. Klein turns this phrase on its head, and instead uses the metaphor of the stumbling block to identify several ways that purity culture serves as an obstacle for Christian girls’ development.

One of these stumbling blocks, she argues, is “the requirement that all girls and women must perform a stereotypical gender role to be acceptable.” Connecting the dots between sex and gender policing helps to explain why Klein, and other young women who grew up in the sexual purity movement, have felt compelled to mask their physical and emotional pain under a veil of appropriate, “nice,” Christian femininity or to shrink their voices down to a size that better fits evangelical ideals of gender complementarianism. Unraveling these threads could go a long way toward offering healing to evangelical women recovering from the wounds inflicted by their religious pasts.

But as Klein suggests, gender complementarianism and a conservative stance on women’s issues has long served as a litmus test for belonging in evangelical circles. What happens when these threads come apart? As one progressive Christian pastor quoted in Pure reminds us, “‘As soon as you become inclusive, you have to face all kinds of things.’”

One of the questions the evangelical church is now facing, as Klein notes, is how it will move forward with sexual ethics and teachings that better serve young adults. Klein and others cite research that establishes that abstinence-only sex education fails to delay sexual behavior in young adults, discourages contraceptive use, and increases shame around sexual behavior.

In Pure, Klein cites pastors who agree that the purity message doesn’t work, though most simply don’t know what to replace it with. Klein also traces online resistance sites like No Shame Movement, a website on which people share stories about breaking up with purity culture, and #LifeAfterIKDG, which tracks critiques of the hallmark purity how-to text, I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Harris himself suggests he’s rethinking his message, and will do so in a film with an anticipated release date in the fall. 

As Pure demonstrates, the interconnected messages about sexual abstinence before marriage and gender complementarianism within heterosexual marriage, have longed formed the core of evangelical culture and politics. Departing from these long-held patterns to embrace a more nuanced, personal sexual ethicas some of the interviewees in Pure have donewill be a stretch for many, even as the #MeToo movement knocks on the church’s door.