Commentary Religion

Don’t Just ‘Reframe’ Purity Culture—Rethink the Whole Concept

T.F. Charlton

Despite numerous popular critiques of purity culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

When I was in eighth grade, the tiny Pentecostal church school I attended announced it was closing. My family was about to move two counties and an hour’s drive away. My classmates, all seven of them, would still be able to see each other at church, but I was leaving for good.

In the absence of the real thing, we used our class photos as makeshift yearbooks, scrawling poignant and juvenile final messages for each other in the narrow borders of the cheap paper frame our photos came in, or on the backing underneath.

As I got my picture back, I noticed a classmate, a white girl, behaving in a nervous, almost embarrassed fashion around me. She’d made some effort to cross out some of what she’d originally written to me. I could still make out the words, though: “Don’t come back pregnant.”

This may have been an ignorant attempt at humor; I had quite a reputation as the class prude. Or maybe that’s just what she expected of me.

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Between being a recent immigrant and attending a predominantly white church actively invested in racism denial, I rarely recognized racist behavior. But in that moment, it was crystal clear to me that she’d written this because I was Black. We both knew it.

There was more to her original note—some more pleasant sentiments of which I have no memory. The one sentence she hoped I wouldn’t see, I remember.

I also remember our white pastor announcing before the entire church his suspicions that another Black girl in our congregation was having sex. I remember how church folks presented “godly” and “natural” femininity as chaste, quiet, and submissive, in the same breaths that they stereotyped Black girls and women as hypersexual, domineering, belligerent.

These are my recollections of growing up in white Christian purity culture. But, despite numerous popular critiques of this culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

I find, instead, frustratingly predictable laser focus on women who are white, cisgender, straight, middle-class, able-bodied—and an unwillingness to truly question assumptions shaped by these experiences, and often even assumptions of the very purity culture critics are trying to change.

Emerging Evangelical Critiques of Purity Culture

Abigail Rine explores these tensions in purity culture critique in a May 2013 piece for The Atlantic on how women are creating a “revisionist evangelical view of sexuality.” Leading voices in this conversation hold a range of “post-purity perspectives”: some center consent, health, and pleasure, while others “seem reluctant to relinquish the abstinence ideal entirely—which creates an interesting tension.”

That a sustained evangelical critique of purity culture exists at all is remarkable. Evangelical women online have single-handedly created this conversation, breaking powerful taboos against discussing sexual histories, sexual violence, and the harm done by fetishization of female modesty and virginity. Healing, productive conversations about misogynist teachings and how to counter them are taking place between women who often disagree sharply on sexual ethics. This welcome development shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as Rine observes, these differences of opinion also pose obstacles to creating “fleshed-out alternative[s]” to abstinence and marriage-focused sexual ethics. I would go further: A critique of purity culture that doesn’t explicitly reject the premise that sex outside of marriage is de facto sinful can ultimately only contradict and undermine itself.

“Single Stories” of Homosexuality?

Take a recent blog post by author Rachel Held Evans, one of the women Rine profiles, on “Homosexuality, Evangelicalism, and the Danger of the Single Story.”

Evans is a prominent critic of marginalization of women in evangelicalism. She’s drawn the ire of conservative leaders for this, and for supporting marriage equality and LGBT inclusion in the church. Yet in her blog post, Evans challenges stereotypes of hypersexual and “drug-fueled” gay people, not by examining how they objectify and dehumanize, but with examples of gay people who are upstanding Christians saving sex for monogamous marriage: her lesbian friend whose “gay agenda” consists of mundane routines of nuclear family life, and Justin Lee, head of the Gay Christian Network, whose distaste for people in “[p]ride parades … dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all” led him to deny for some time that he could be gay, because he was so unlike that. (He expresses similar sentiments in a 2011 Q&A on Evans’ blog.)

Evans contrasts stories of gender conforming and married monogamous gay Christians to unfavorable portrayals of “promiscuous,” flamboyant queers. When she says, “Not all ‘gay lifestyles’ are the same,” it comes off as, “Not all gay people are like that. Some of them are just like you.” Gay folks, too, can be uncomfortable with gender nonconformity and apparently excessive displays of queerness. They too “[form] faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians.”

This isn’t the defense of queer humanity and diversity Evans probably intends. Nonjudgmental recognition of different ways of embodying queer sexualities would be more in keeping with the “single story” concept, which Evans appropriated from a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. In the talk, Adichie discusses how stereotypes of people and places (specifically Africans and Africa) are created by the repeated telling of the same, monolithic stories about them—for instance, Africans are “poor” and listen to “tribal music.” She notes that sweeping generalizations of groups usually happen along lines of power, so being able to tell “single stories” about a group is about who has power and how it is exercised.

But Evans implies a moral hierarchy of queerness. Her offhand conclusion that “progressives” shouldn’t “dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in [rare] cases”—referring to “ex-gay” testimonies—only reinforces this impression.

Beyond “Reframing” Purity

Evans is far from alone among evangelicals in implicitly shaming people for their sexual behaviors while simultaneously indicting purity theology for inculcating shame. In June, blogger Jamie Wright touched off a firestorm when she argued that churches, rather than emphasizing virginity, should teach that waiting until marriage to have sex “empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.” Her conclusion (emphasis hers): “Why wait? … Because you need to learn some freaking self-control. That’s why.”

Wright’s sentiments reflect commonplace “post-purity” disapproval of “promiscuity,” “commitment-free sex,” and lack of self-control. “Inclusion” in this discourse means shoehorning LGBT people and people of color into a “reframing” of still harmful theology created by and for white, straight, cis people. (And look how well it’s worked for them!)

The most visible evangelical critiques of purity culture themselves tell “single stories” about what purity culture means, and how to counter it. Lola, a Black woman whose family attended white evangelical churches between stints abroad as missionaries, observes, “Many evangelicals lamenting purity culture are still enforcing it. They’ve reframed abstinence as a ‘choice,’ but there’s only one right choice.” Some “recovering conservative Christians” feel frustration over being “shamed for sexual desires” by evangelicals who denounce shame-based theology.

Lola (not her full name) has channeled this frustration into the No Shame Movement (NSM), a “platform for people to share stories of ‘unlearning’ purity culture without judgment or condemnation.” What began in June as the #NoShameMov hashtag has grown into a Twitter and Tumblr community. Lola envisions it creating space for people to “relearn” alternatives to purity theology, “get to know their bodies and be comfortable with themselves,” and share “practical information” on “contraception, reproductive health,” and more. An added bonus: “When another ‘well-meaning’ blogger says, ‘Gosh, purity culture is awful, but shouldn’t you want to keep your legs closed for Jesus?,’ I have a feed full of personal stories about how this mentality is harmful.”

NSM illustrates how this conversation has broader scope and impact when critics radically rethink, not just repackage, purity culture.

Similarly, centering the voices of women who are trans, queer, and/or of color highlights the limitations of popular critiques that reduce purity culture to images of girls and women as naturally chaste, delicate, and in need of patriarchal protection. Many white evangelical women, Lola says, “assume all women are held up to the same virginal ideal,” though women of color, Black women especially, “have historically been left out of it.” Jennie Kermode, a Scottish trans and intersex activist who grew up evangelical, writes that purity culture casts trans and intersex people as incapable of modesty or chastity. Their mere existence is “immodest,” she says, and their bodies are viewed as indecent.

Nor does white purity culture universally insist that “women” are inherently nurturing and maternal, created to be “keepers of the home.” Queer and transgender women, mothers included, are cast as deviants, predators—deadly stereotypes, especially for trans women of color. Black women are demonized as perpetrators of “Black genocide,” the greatest danger in existence to Black children. Black mothers are government leeches who need to be put to work—preferably the sort that requires endless labor for minimal pay. We are, as writer and activist Monica Roberts puts it, threatening “unwomen.” So much so that white people scramble for reasons to explain why white, 54-year-old Theodore Wafer was justified in shooting Black, 19-year-old Renisha McBride—“bleeding and disoriented” after a car accident—in the face, through a locked screen door, in supposed “fear for his life.” Protection is the last thing we are seen as worthy of.

To present purity culture as monolithic expectations of quiet, submissive virginity universalizes patriarchal ideals of white, hetero, and cis femininity into the story of all women. Can such a narrow understanding of purity culture really succeed in pushing back on it? Women of color, queer women, and trans women are already creating our own critiques of purity culture in which our experiences are centered. Rather than looking to make purity theology gentler and kinder, mainstream evangelicals who truly wish to see an end to the violence this theology does would do better to listen to and engage with our stories.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

Culture & Conversation Family

Dating Up, Settling Down: Moira Weigel’s Book Details Shifts in Courtship

Eleanor J. Bader

How Americans find partners has changed according to economic prospects, women's changing roles, and social movements.

For decades, the New York Times wedding section has been offering accounts of so-called good matches: pairings that connect people of similar class backgrounds and educational levels, with compatible values, interests, and tastes. While the narratives have become more diverse over the years—the paper now acknowledges same-sex nuptials, for examplethe newspaper’s accounts of how folks met and fell head-over-heels continue to provide an entertaining window into the coupling of America’s lovebirds.

Moira Weigel’s first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) enters this territory, delving into U.S. social mores about dating and marriage. It explores how capitalism has influenced attitudes about women and family, and addresses how economic shifts affect domestic life and intimate relations. Although much of the historical information has been written about before (notably by writers including Elizabeth Abbott, Stephanie Coontz, Kathy Peiss, and Ruth Rosen), Weigel’s easy-to-read overview ties past to present and brings the material into the 21st century. The end result is a fascinating but limited look at trends among mostly white, middle-to-upper class cisgender heterosexuals.

“All human societies, and many animal ones, have always had courtship rituals,” Weigel writes in the book’s introduction. “They have not all had dating. The male, blue-footed booby does a mean mating dance, but he does not date. Neither did Americans until around 1900. Since then, experts have constantly declared that dating was dead or dying. The reason is simple. The ways people date change with the economy.”

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To wit: In the 1890s, a serious economic downturn pushed many young, single women off the family farm and into city-based jobs. By 1900, Weigel reports, more than half of all U.S. women were working outside the home—most commonly in laundries, textile plants, and in domestic service. Because they were paid much less than men, they relied on male suitors to take them out, whether to restaurants, saloons, dance halls, amusement parks, or nickelodeons.

This sometimes caught the attention of the police. Weigel notes that “in the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.”

The class politics of these encounters were particularly glaring since the upper crust was slow to incorporate dating into its social rites. In fact, “calling” remained in vogue for ladies of leisure until World War I. This required a young woman to decide whether to allow male visitors to see her in the family parlor, albeit with an adult chaperone. After the suitor presented his card, the girl decided whether she wanted to fraternize. If she did, he entered. If not, he was sent away; both scenarios reinforced the idea that men were the seekers and women the sought.

Meanwhile, “charity girls” made it clear that if they accepted a date, the man was responsible for buying them whatever they wanted, from a pack of cigarettes to a meal. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, this practice had not only lost the taint of disapproval, but was consistently described as romantic in novels, short stories, and popular magazines. After all, “nice girls” had shrugged off concerns about the practice and were openly appreciative of the perks that came their way.

By the “Roaring Twenties,” Weigel writes, many working-class women felt free to express an overt interest in dating or marrying “up.” As opportunities to work in department stores, restaurants, and offices expanded, clerks, secretaries, and waitresses could potentially marry the boss or catch a wealthy patron’s eye.

The growing cosmetics industry took advantage of this ideological shift, giving women a way to telegraph “that she valued her femininity and was willing to spend time and money on her appearance.” Alongside frequent magazine articles that described the feminine “beauty duty,” women were told how to market themselves, as if they were products to be consumed by male shoppers.

Any other alternative to heterosexual romance seemed near-impossible, even scorn-worthy, and while a small LGBTQ community was coming into its own in several big cities, homophobia kept the vast majority of individuals from publicly coming out.

Weigel’s nod to queer culture—including bars and clubs catering to gay men, lesbians, and “drag” performances—is brief; nonetheless, the book includes several vivid descriptions of “the secret theater” that allowed LGBTQ folks to be themselves in a few urban settings.

Still, it was World War II that allowed a crack in the closet door. As Weigel writes: “During the war, the armed forces had been eager to enlist recruits, and many young gays and lesbians who felt isolated in their hometowns saw military service as a chance to escape.”

The book says nothing, however, about the many “Rosies” who took to riveting and left me wondering how—or if—their employment affected dating and sexual behavior. Despite this gap, Weigel writes that by the end of the war, straight shop girls, secretaries, and waitresses were sharpening their flirtation skills in order to find a man, leave the workforce, and pursue domesticity.

In addition, college girls followed an equally well-honed script to earn an “M.R.S.” degree. College, as Weigel explains it, gave those with the resources for postsecondary schooling a chance to mingle freely, date openly, and “pet” before marriage. Going “all the way,” however, was explicitly verboten. As popular culture presented it in the early 20th century, female virginity was a woman’s most cherished asset. According to Weigel, “as soon as she married, America about-faced. Not only should a young wife have sex, she should have lots of sex, and she should like it. If you do not like sex as much as your husband, your marriage will not be well-adjusted,” the media warned.

Betty Freidan pinpointed the contradictory messages about sex, marriage, monogamy, work, and love that bombarded middle class stay-at-home wives and mothers decades later when she published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The critique resonated. But Friedan also had critics. “Because African American women had always worked outside their homes,” Weigel points out, “ever since their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, they did not mistake the ‘opportunity’ to work as an adequate solution to all the problems that women had to deal with. … [Black and working-class women] knew that earning a wage was not a fix-all. In fact, many black feminists attested that in their homes was the only place that they felt respite from a racist world.”

A few years later, when the Free Love movement elbowed its way into popular consciousness, many male adherents seemed to forget that women could not legally abort unwanted pregnancies. Needless to say, Free Love did little to change gender roles or equalize gender dynamics. By the end of the 1960s, Weigel notes that hippies began to realize that creating a new world was going to be a lot harder than they had initially anticipated. “They had not clearly established who would do the things that still needed to be done,” she writes. “In the absence of a plan, they often fell back into highly stereotyped gender roles.”

Yuppies eventually replaced hippies and rejected the indiscriminate coupling of the previous generation. What’s more, the advent of AIDS in the 1980s coincided with workforce changes that encouraged telecommuting and longer hours on site. Taken together, these changes have had a marked impact on how we date, whether we date, and how we partner.

In fact, by the 1980s, Weigel reports that many highly educated heterosexual women were pushing to marry their intellectual and social equals. Perhaps more startling, not only did yuppies want to marry other yuppies, they began to see dating as similar to other work. New businesses popped up to accommodate them: speed dating, virtual dating assistants to “manage” their social engagements, and a wide array of dating apps and online services to connect them with a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.

But despite the assistance, all was still not well in Dating Land. Many considered going out with a stranger to be a chore, “less like a pleasurable diversion and more like one more thing to fit in.” Then, as messages about one’s biological clock start to tick, the market in assisted reproductive technologies increased the disquiet. Add in bestselling books like The Rules, Ignore the Guy, Get the Guy, and It’s Not Him, It’s You, and the retro message that every 30-something needs to settle down started to blare. If one listens closely enough, the declaration is unmistakable: No heartbreak can compare to turning 40 and being unmarried and childless.

To her credit, Weigel challenges this absurdity, but Labor of Love never deconstructs the equally damaging idea that every person has a soulmate and needs to find this person in order to be complete. Where this notion comes from remains a mystery. Nonetheless, as the linchpin for most romantic mythology, it deserves an attentive and complete undressing. Likewise, the dating games of nonwhite, working-class and low-income individuals, and religious immigrants need the same attention and scrutiny that Weigel gives to rich professionals.

Furthermore, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that finding a potential mate is merely the starting point. The real labor of love comes long after the initial attraction and centers on the daily work of keeping the relationship going. At the end of the day, dating may have been an invented form of social engagement, but the chase is meaningless if the parties never hunker down in the muck of everyday life.