Poolside Purity: A Hand Me Down Tale
I stood outside the Snack Shack looking over the schedule for the day. It was my first trip to camp and I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss any of the action. My small group of friends bounced with excitement as we perused the itinerary. First up was chapel followed by small group discussion – the girl’s group for my age would be meeting in the dorm lobby – followed by “Girls Swim Time” at 10:30 am. Several squeals of delight flowed from members of my group as we made our way to breakfast.
As I was getting ready for our swim time that day, I asked my counselor why only the girls were swimming at 10:30, did the boys have a special activity we were missing out on?
“Oh, no,” she replied, “you’ll all be doing the same activities, just at different times this morning.”
Being the curious and stubborn girl I was, I had to know the reason. So, I asked, “Why?”
“Well, we can’t have mixed swimming!” she announced as if I had suggested she dye her hair green.
“Mixed swimming?” what in the world was this lady talking about, I thought.
“You know, mixed swimming. We can’t have you, girls, swimming with the boys! It’s just not decent,” came her curt reply, “You may be wearing a full piece bathing suit, but boys will be boys!”
I was eight years old, at church camp. And so began my immersion into the cruel waters of purity culture and the ever-present confusion of tempting my brother to sin with the wicked ways of my body and being.
This week, the underbelly of Purity Culture was exposed, yet again, as a Southern Baptist kid justified his murdering of eight Asian women with the excuse of ‘sinful temptation.’ Having been raised in a fundamentalist evangelical faith tradition, I know first hand the trauma and harm that has been and continues to be done, by purity culture and the churches that espouse it.
The confusing mix of messages to girls and women, like those I received at church camp, tell us we are the object of temptation and held responsible for the lustful and sinful actions of males reaches deep into our psyche warping our sense of identity and value. It is deeply harmful and traumatizing to be told repeatedly, and thus come to believe, that you alone could be responsible for sending a young male friend, “into the eternal lake of fire” simply for wearing a shirt that is too revealing, a skirt that is too short, or walking in a “suggestive” way.
As a teenager, having pastors and parents constantly apprising my worthiness to date a boy based upon innocuous things such as my clothes and hair left my head spinning and my heart broken. Who was I supposed to be? What did I have to do to pass the test and be approved? How could I be worthy of God’s love and grace if I was the source of sin? Would I ever be able to live a life without sinful thoughts or desires? I mean, they may think I’m wanting to tempt and tease boys, but I had other thoughts running through my head that I knew made me an abomination. If wearing a skimpy dress was sin, I was pretty sure me dreaming about one day kissing a girl was definitely on the lake of fire list!
To those who have not experienced purity culture, it is hard to explain how deeply ingrained this theology becomes. It reaches deep into our psyche inviting a host of trauma and battles that might not otherwise occur. The confusing mix of messages becomes overwhelming and left me, and many others I know raised in purity culture, feeling confused at best and hopeless at worst.
Purity culture espoused by evangelical and conservative churches shames women and girls for “tempting” men and boys, as if they have no control over their actions or decisions. Being pure and holy without sinful thoughts or desires is drilled into the head and heart of every child and teenager. Simply thinking about sex on a daily basis is declared a ‘sex addiction’ in purity culture, let alone acting on those thoughts.
Bringing us to this week, and the death of eight Asian women at the hands of a Southern Baptist kid. It seems he couldn’t control his ‘sexual addiction’ and found the only resolution to his problem was murder. Murdering the source of his sexual temptation, Asain women, was better than acting on his desire. Purity culture raised him to believe women are merely objects of desire, not human, sources of temptation that could lead to eternal death. His acts expose the underside of purity culture and a Church that too easily stokes and cloaks racism, sexism, and misogyny right within the pews under the guise of the will of God and scripture. Purity culture is sin. Purity culture must be called out.
The sin of purity culture and the harm it has done and continues to do in our society grieves the heart of God and should drive us to action. The sin of the Church that continues to perpetuate racism, misogyny, oppression, and sexism must be brought to the surface and laid bare for all to see. I pray you can see it. I pray you can see the sin of purity culture, the pain, the harm, and the abuse of the Church. I pray that we, especially us white Christians, will finally gain the courage to not only see, weep and pray, but also act. I pray we finally begin to listen intently, call out the sin of the Church, and act for justice.