Ever wonder what happened to the millions of girls who signed “purity pledges” in the late ’90s and early ’00s? Turns out, they didn’t live happily ever after. And for many of them, the “true love waits” philosophy was deeply damaging
When Jamie A. had sex for the first time, she hoped it would be special. She’d waited until she was 27, and she imagined that her boyfriend—who was 35—would be thrilled when she revealed she was a virgin. She assumed they’d marry and that the relationship would finally bring her the deep fulfillment she’d longed for all through her 20s. But, instead of pleasing him, her inexperience disturbed her boyfriend. Their relationship ended soon after they first had sex, and Jamie’s sense of self-worth was shattered. She’d been raised to believe that any sexual feelings or actions outside heterosexual marriage were sinful, and that her worth lay mainly in her role as a virgin bride. Now that she was no longer a virgin and the man she’d planned to marry was gone, she didn’t know who she was anymore. She needed therapy in order to begin to untangle her sexuality and sense of self from her religious past. Her story might sound extreme—but it’s not unique. Thanks to the internet, thousands of other people like Jamie, whose lives were drastically affected by purity culture, are now connecting with each other, finding help, and making their voices heard.
According to the latest statistics, the average American loses their virginity at around 17. But between 1994 and 2004, as many as 2.5 million American youth signed abstinence pledges, promising to abstain from sex before marriage. The movement swept through conservative circles, with church youth groups passing out purity rings, meant to serve as placeholders for future wedding rings—symbols of chastity to be given to the wearer’s spouse on their wedding day. Girls as young as seven started attending father/daughter purity balls to pledge their abstinence until marriage, their fathers vowing to be the keepers of their daughters’ virginity.
At the height of the abstinence pledge craze, over a million copies of the 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, were snapped up by families who wanted to keep their teens chaste. In it, 21-year-old author Joshua Harris—who’d gotten his start editing a Christian homeschooling magazine—urged young people to opt out of dating and try courtship instead, spending time with each other only in the midst of family or in groups, and saving all physical contact for marriage.
“Looking back on my teenage years, the main focus of youth group and girls’ Bible study was always centered on sexual purity,” says Annie P., who, as a Presbyterian pastor’s daughter, grew up in the church. “As a teenager, I saw a certain appeal to Harris’ model of courtship, because it seemed to be a formula to prevent all risk and guarantee a happy ending: Don’t date, plus have strict physical boundaries, equals find true love forever. So I signed my ‘True Love Waits’ pledge card, and fully intended to save sex for marriage—which, incidentally, I assumed would happen around 22 or 23.”
Contrary to her assumptions about the way her life would go, Annie was not married by age 23. And when she finally decided she was ready to have sex, married or not, it still wasn’t a straightforward proposition. Dating in her late 20s and early 30s, she met men for whom her virginity was a dealbreaker—even if she was willing to have sex with them. “Several men in a row wouldn’t do it just because they didn’t want the responsibility—their word, not mine—of being my first,” she says. “A few rounds of that left me feeling ashamed and broken. Ironically, the very things I was hoping that saving sex for marriage would prevent me from ever feeling were happening to me anyway.”
“I went through years of self-hatred, not only because same-gender attraction was sinful, but sex in general was basically sinful unless it was in heterosexual marriage.”
Many others who signed similar pledge cards or wore purity rings also never had that fairytale virgin wedding. One study, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009, found that young people who pledged their abstinence were just as likely to wind up having premarital sex as those who did not pledge. Clearly, many pledgers never intended to save sex for marriage in the first place. But those who did take the pledge seriously—especially those raised in conservative, religious communities—internalized that ideal deeply. And for them, dealing with the fallout from that promise has been an ongoing process.
For example, in the early 2000s, Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers began noticing an alarming trend. A clinical sex therapist, family therapist, and associate professor at Seattle Pacific University, she would ask the grad students in her human sexuality class—most of them aspiring therapists—to write the stories of their own sexuality. After years of asking the same questions, she suddenly saw a sharp uptick in students describing feelings of humiliation and disgust toward their bodies and sexual identities. These students all seemed to share a sense of general ignorance and naiveté about sex and relationships, as well as a deep discomfort with natural sexual urges. “This dramatic increase in self-loathing was really heartbreaking for me to see,” says Schermer Sellers. When the trend continued into a third year, she decided to investigate what was behind it.
Digging deeper, she found that many of her students had been involved in youth groups that taught them not only to abstain from sex before marriage, but also that they should not feel any sexual desire at all. “They learned that if you feel [desire], you’re compromising your relationship with God or with your future partner,” she explains. She heard story after story of teenagers circled up in youth group meetings. “They would pass around a slice of pizza, and tell everyone to take one bite out of it, explaining that if you give your heart away while you’re growing up, it’s like giving pieces of yourself away,” she says. “The piece of pizza would go around the circle, and all that would be left was the crust—and this is what you’d give your future partner.” She heard similar tales about shiny pieces of foil being crumpled, or flowers with petals ripped off, or a cup everyone was asked to spit into.
But the deep shame and problems with intimacy and attachment Schermer Sellers observed weren’t limited to people with religious backgrounds. “Many of them were getting this from their public education as well,” she says. “By the time the purity movement got started, we’d already been pumping billions of dollars into abstinence-only sex education.” Schermer Sellers explains that, historically, this kind of conservative backlash often comes in response to rapid changes in culture. “We’d just come out of the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “And then we had AIDS and the economic downturn, and a push back against second-wave feminism—the time was ripe for the fear-mongering message of the ’80s.”
It was this kind of fear-mongering education, or lack thereof, that left Jamie—the woman who waited until 27 to have sex, but then broke up with her boyfriend afterward—feeling like a kindergartner when she finally embarked on a new life as a sexually active, single adult. At first, it was a struggle to shake the feeling that if she slept with a man, she should also marry him. Plus, she’d never given thought to using protection during sex—because premarital sex simply had not played into her life plan. She got pregnant in her 30s and had an abortion. “I felt really angry that I was 31 years old and reckless with my birth control,” she says. “It’s a wonder I don’t have an STD.” And she’s not the only one with this experience; the study in Pediatrics found that young people who’d pledged abstinence were actually less likely to use birth control or condoms in general when they did become sexually active.
"I felt that I had broken a sacred promise, like I was filthy and tainted."
“Many of these women don’t know their bodies, because they don’t go anywhere near their vulva or vagina—they never touch themselves, or if they do, they feel horrible about it,” says Schermer Sellers. For many who grew up in communities of faith, any hint of sexuality was seen as a sin. Masturbation, therefore, was also unspeakable. For people like Becky H.—from Fort Worth, TX—the message that sexual feelings themselves were sinful was even more troublesome. As she realized she had feelings for people of the same gender, a double portion of guilt rained down on her. “I went through years of self-hatred and doubt, not only because same-gender attraction was sinful, but sex in general was basically sinful unless it was in heterosexual marriage,” she says.
But the side effects of this movement aren’t purely psychological or sexual. Women raised in purity culture are also at greater risk for entering into abusive relationships or other dangerous situations. According to former fundamentalist Mandy Nicole, a yoga instructor who lives in the Pacific Northwest, “When women are not taught anything about sex—that it should be pleasurable for them, that their partners should listen to them and care about their needs, that they are allowed to say no, that they should never be coerced, guilted, or forced into having sex—women go into the sexual phase of their lives completely unprepared. It leaves them very vulnerable to being used, manipulated, and abused.” Growing up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist church, Mandy received a purity ring from her father when she was around nine years old. “My mom gave my sister and I the ‘sex talk’ when I was around eight and my sister was about six,” she says. “We learned about sperm and eggs but no information about the mechanics of it all. After that, it was a strictly taboo topic.” Her family did not allow her or her siblings to watch any television or movies depicting sex or even heavy kissing. Books that discussed sex were also prohibited. Eventually, by majoring in women’s and gender studies at Eastern Washington University, she began actively studying purity culture—and is now launching an online publication by and for people who’ve left fundamental evangelicalism and are “navigating life on the outside.”
Sheila O.’s story resonates closely with Mandy’s. In a program called Passport2Purity, she committed to abstinence as a teenager. Feeling very strongly that purity was important to God, she stuck to her abstinence through high school—until she began her first and only serious relationship. When her boyfriend told her they were going to get married, she believed him, and had sex with him. “Then he broke up with me and I was devastated,” she says. “At the time, I felt that I had broken a sacred promise—the most important promise I’d ever made. I felt like I was filthy and tainted. We ended up getting back together a year later and I married him, in part, because I believed I needed to marry the first man I slept with.” In the marriage, she was racked with guilt for enjoying sex. “I felt dirty every time, which inhibited me from being intimate on any real level.” The marriage became abusive and unhealthy, she explains. “I finally left after he got physical with me in front of my daughter.”
For survivors of purity culture, even just trying to date is fraught with fear. “I was afraid to like someone, to trust someone, to offer my heart to someone, unless I had some sort of divine ‘knowing’ that this was the person I would be with forever,” says pastor’s daughter Annie. “Because if I gave a part of myself to that person, physical or otherwise, I was convinced I would never be able to get it back, thus becoming a non-whole person for the rest of my life.” Despite these obstacles, Annie says she doesn’t harbor bitterness or resentment toward her upbringing—she says she’s grateful she was raised to value sex as significant and weighty. But, she says, she also wishes she’d known it wasn’t something to fear.
Another common sentiment from women raised this way is a struggle to turn the sexual switch on when the time comes. After a lifetime of viewing any sexual feeling or desire as evil, suddenly trying to embrace sexual feelings can be difficult. For some, that extends even to clothes and makeup. Many grew up hearing that it was a woman’s job to dress modestly to keep men from sinning by thinking sexual thoughts about them. “A lot of the responsibility was on me,” says Sarah Park, who was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “If I had improper clothing on, it could cause a boy to do something bad to me.”
"I couldn't dress up or feel like I looked good—all of that was shameful."
For Jamie, it’s been a journey even to be comfortable wearing clothes that make her feel attractive. She recalls going on a date in a simple halter dress. “At the last minute, I threw a baggy shirt over it because I felt like it was too flaunty,” she says. “I’d been told, starting with the purity movement, that confidence is wrong. I couldn’t dress up or feel like I looked good—all of that was shameful.”
The past two years have seen a growing online backlash against the messaging of the purity movement. The Twitter hashtag #kissshamegoodbye took flight in 2016, in response to stories in The Washington Post, on NPR, and on Slate.com about Joshua Harris. Harris was beginning a public-facing reevaluation of the impact of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. And in November 2017, he released a TEDx Talk, in which he says he realizes he “misguided and even hurt some people.”
For Schermer Sellers—who ultimately shifted gears professionally, focusing on studying the effects of purity culture and writing the book Sex, God, & The Conservative Church: Erasing Shame From Sexual Intimacy, in 2017—Harris’ talk fell flat. In a moment when he could have turned the spotlight to give voice to the people he hurt, she says, he kept the focus squarely on himself—honing in on the concept of admitting to mistakes. “I feel it’s so important that the people who were affected have a voice to say, ‘This affected me,’ and discuss how this happened, and that it needs to stop,” she says.
When she counsels people who’ve been harmed by the purity movement, Schermer Sellers gives three main pieces of advice. First, she says, get educated. Learn about your own body firsthand. Read. She recommends Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. Second, she says, it’s important to tell your story and know you’re not alone. Whether it’s sharing with one person, in therapy, or finding a group, Schermer Sellers explains that it helps to know that you’re not crazy. Finally, she says, reclaim your own body. “We get so many messages about what our body should be like,” she explains, “but those messages are for one thing: to push our economy along. Our bodies don’t belong to corporate America.” No matter how your body’s shaped, it’s good—and you can enjoy it for connection and for pleasure and whatever makes your life meaningful to you, she says
.As people wounded by the purity movement begin to heal and move forward, some find deep joy in the thought of passing on a healthier sexual ethic to their own children. “Learning how to raise a daughter of my own—my girl Molly just turned three—has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it has been a literal delight to teach her bodily autonomy,” says Mandy. “Every parent makes mistakes, but she will grow up with the self-esteem and agency I never had, and that makes me proud.”
By Hilary Oliver
Illustration by Qieer Wang
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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