My earliest memories are of watching ants crawl across the sidewalk outside our apartment in Austin, Texas. The tiny white sandals I wore when I was two years old. Pulling up bricks from our back patio in Memphis, Tennessee, in search of roly-polies and snails.
But punctuating my memories of simple childhood niceties are memories of abuse.
Ants. Domestic violence. Sandals. Sexual abuse. Roly-polies. Psychological abuse. Snails. Spiritual abuse.
My dad wasn’t the Hollywood stereotype abuser. He wasn’t an alcoholic. He didn’t wear wifebeater shirts. He wasn’t a redneck or a gangster. In fact, he had a PhD, was an upstanding citizen with no criminal record, and a respected teacher in several churches. But he prayed and read theology books with the same hands he used to throw his daughter against a wall. He told me I was a “piece of meat,” and every man viewed me as such. I was taught my body was shameful, like a cancer that infected men with dangerous lust.
I tried to dress modestly. I hid my flat, middle-school chest and gangly legs under high collars and long shorts. But that didn’t stop him from downloading violent porn to my computer and watching me find it. It didn’t silence his inappropriate comments, or keep him from exposing himself and pretending it was an accident. And while he besieged me with his impurity, he made an impossible standard of mine.
Purity Culture By Any Other Name
I’ve come to realize that many of the oddball doctrines I was taught in my youth were tenants of what’s now dubbed “Purity Culture.” Some define Purity Culture as an innocuous 90s-era movement encouraging abstinence before marriage. They had godly parents who employed cutesy rituals, like purity rings, to remind their kids not to mess around.
But if you’d asked Teen Jenn what Purity Culture was, I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. It was never presented to me as a cultural movement. I wasn’t forced to watch Pamela’s Prayer multiple times because it was the hot new trend in Purity Curriculum. Rather, these ideas were taught as biblical truths and scientific facts. To disagree was to contradict God and human biology.
I was told that men had evolved hyper-charged sex drives. That the strap of a twelve-year-old girl’s training-bra could lure even a good man into predation. Women weren’t meant to desire or enjoy sex but to please their husbands. Some of my friends were forbidden to use tampons or see an OBGYN. They were told any contact “where the sun don’t shine” could damage their virginity and render them incapable of satisfying a man. Intercourse was a fearful thing that hurt and made women bleed. Showing too much skin in front of a man was like showing a dog a bone—you couldn’t blame the dog for acting like a dog.
Of course, these ideas aren’t only damaging to females. They’re dehumanizing and insulting to males as well. While females are blamed for male sins and desires, males are reduced to the IQ and integrity of rabbits. Purity Culture at its root is degrading and damaging to both genders.
In the hands of the ignorant, Purity Culture proved dangerous, but in the hands of abusers, it’s devastating. Manipulative parents may leverage it to shame their daughters into abstinence, but abusers may use Purity Culture to excuse their sin. My dad never went so far as to take me to a Purity Ball. I never dedicated a white rose to my future husband or went on dates dressed as a tiny bride with a middle-aged groom. But the underlying philosophy of Purity Culture was present and blended with biblical patriarchy, violence, and lust. The psychological fallout I lived with tainted every part of life. I was disgusted and afraid of men. I suffered suicidal depression during my teens and several times I considered killing myself to spare my dad from temptation and evil.
I was toxic. I was damaged goods. I was shame.
A healthy view of sexuality is important for anyone, but for the sexual abuse survivor, it can mean the difference between recovery and despair. On the one hand, I was pressured to never hold hands with a boy, let alone kiss one. On the other, I was being preyed upon by my own dad. I blamed myself for attracting his attention, and I felt like the filthiest kind of dirt.
Then one Sunday our pastor preached a sermon about sex. He pointed out that God created sex. Through that sermon, God freed my mind from my dad’s twisted interpretations of his word. I learn that when God designed Adam and Eve, he said, “It is very good.” Eve was given to Adam as a gift to protect him from loneliness—to be his companion as they walked together with God. Eve was not a cursed temptress who lured Adam into sin. She was a blessing, and it was Adam’s sin that brought about the fall.
After that, I decided to read Songs of Solomon. My young mind quickly realized that sexuality could be beautiful and holy. It wasn’t defined by the horrors in my dad’s porn. Sex and sexuality were not sin. Lust was sin. Adultery was sin. Promiscuity was sin. But finding men attractive, desiring a healthy marital relationship, being beautiful and desirable myself—this is how God designed me to be.
I worked my way from viewing myself as a tool of Satan to a blessing from God. Since I’d never been given “the talk,” I began researching sex in World Book Encyclopedias. I was an industrious homeschooled student, so by the age of thirteen, I was more literate about sex than most adults who weren’t gynecologists.
Despite my knowledge, I still grappled with the concept of virginity. Some of my friends thought as long as you didn’t do anything that could get you pregnant, you were still a virgin. I emphatically disagreed. A true virgin, I thought, had never been kissed. Although I now viewed sex as good, I still had Pamela’s-Prayer-level standards. Despite having never kissed a boy, I felt I failed nearly all virgin criteria.
I believed that if you wanted to catch and keep a good husband, you had to be the model of purity. Some of my friends and I feared our future husbands would be able to tell we weren’t “intact.” And if we weren’t sexually pleasing, he might cheat or even divorce us. We thought it would be our job as wives to keep our husbands faithful by keeping them satisfied in the bedroom.
Christ’s Purity For Me
Then one verse kickstarted my process of rebuilding my understanding of purity. To the church in Corinth Paul wrote, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”
Like a child in an abusive home, the church of Corinth lived surrounded by carnal pagan activity and she lacked the innocence of a child. Great evil was done to her and great evil was forgiven of her leading Paul to call her a “pure virgin.”
To be sure, abstaining from sex before marriage and maintaining a faithful relationship was godly then—and is now, but there is more to purity than outward actions and experiences. There is forgiveness and there is the righteousness of Christ given to believers.
I read more scripture and saw again and again that purity is given by Christ, not just kept in physical virginity. That’s when I realized that Jesus had sacrificed his life to make me holy. He hadn’t just saved me. He hadn’t only adopted me as God’s daughter. He had made me pure. I may have been molested. I may have had violent images burned into my mind by my dad’s porn. I may have been objectified, sexually harassed, beaten, and falsely accused. Yet my purity was measured by the washing of the Spirit through Jesus my savior. I was presented to my husband, Jason, as a radiant bride, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, because Jesus loves me.
Someday, as members of the bride of Christ, we will all be presented in heaven without a shadow of sin. No matter what this world does to us, no matter how our families view us or abuse us, no matter what lies or stories are told about us, it is God who makes us pure. His righteousness is attributed to us. His purity has become our purity. He gave himself up to redeem us—not only from our own sins—but also from this passing evil age and the trauma and sin of others.