Commentary Religion

Purity Culture’s Racism Robs Women of Color of Their Reproductive Agency

Dianna Anderson

One of the most popular and prevalent examples of purity culture's racism is the critique of the pop singer Beyoncé’s life and work by conservative white politicians and pundits, who have gone so far as to wonder aloud if Jay Z had not crossed the line from husband to exploiting “pimp,” thus reducing Beyoncé’s talent and ambition to a sexuality that is not under her control.

The purity movement of the evangelical church is frequently focused on preserving the virginity of women. Modesty teachings, in particular, maintain that women must cover their bodies in order to prevent lust and potential “consequences.” These teachings do not apply to all women equally, however—those speaking on purity and gaining popularity in evangelical circles are consistently white, heterosexual, thin, able-bodied women like Elisabeth Elliot, Leslie Ludy, and Stasi Eldredge. Even the bloggers who go viral for writing on the subject are all cut from the same cloth. By contrast, those entrenched in white evangelical culture frequently imply that women of color are innately impure—particularly Black women, whose perceived sexuality is seen as both worthy of punishment and pity. This is a bigoted, racist stereotype that robs women of color of their agency and emerges on a number of fronts, including with regard to politically powerful white conservative approaches to reproductive rights.

In conducting interviews for my upcoming book, many women of color told me they felt ashamed and burdened by modesty teachings, too often on the receiving end of “jokes” or stigma about their alleged promiscuity. One of the most popular and prevalent examples of this kind of racism is the critique of the pop singer Beyoncé’s life and work by conservative white politicians and pundits. The evangelical Mike Huckabee, for example, recently wondered aloud if Jay Z had not crossed the line from husband to exploiting “pimp,” thus reducing Beyoncé’s talent and ambition to a sexuality that is not under her control. The idea that she could have her own motivations didn’t come into the picture for Huckabee—instead, he likened Beyoncé to a trafficked woman, a role that he clearly sees as deserving of condescension and derision.

And when it comes to the battle for reproductive rights, this sexualization of Black women lends itself both to victim-blaming and white savior narratives. A couple of years ago, a white-led, conservative Christian, anti-choice organization hung a billboard reading, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Such a statement at once demonizes Black women who choose to get abortions—who, by extension, have taken control of their own sexualities—and suggests that there is a need for a white organization to come in and “help.” Overall, the message of these campaigns is clear: Agency and decision-making must be taken out of the hands of Black women and placed instead in (white, conservative) legislators’ hands.

In the minds of many evangelical Christians, people who “deserve” abortion access, if any, are those whose purity was forcibly taken from them—in other words, through rape. Of course, those same groups continuously support maneuvers to deny abortion access to poor women of color, implicitly suggesting that their purity (and safety, health, and well-being) matters less. This sentiment has real-world ramifications: Abortion restrictions, such as Texas’ infamous HB 2, frequently manifest in the shutdown of clinics that serve these communities.

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Furthermore, the ongoing birth control coverage fight—federally in discussions over Hobby Lobby and the Affordable Care Act and statewide in places like Texas and Missouri—disproportionately restricts birth control access to people of color with lower income. While the right has framed the debate about religious liberty, the underlying stereotypes about women of color as sexualized and immodest have aided in the battle. Because women of color are “innately” sexual, evangelicals or conservative Christians see it as more important that they’re abstinent rather than they have access to things that will keep them safe and healthy when engaging in sexual activity because access would encourage sinfulness. Additionally, with the “bootstraps” politics that pervade the white American conservative party and church, women of color are often portrayed as lazy and relying on government help, somehow “unworthy” of taking control of their own bodies.

At the same time, these stereotypes also work to undermine women of color’s agency from a “benevolent” perspective. Even as they deny them birth control or abortion access, evangelicals uphold the sexualized stereotype of women of color as an example of brokenness, a need for white suburban ministries to “set them right.” The mostly white women’s purity ministry, Secret Keeper Girl, for example, spent much of 2013 raising money to take their Secret Keeper Girl tour into “the inner city of the Bronx” to spread the gospel of modesty there and a woman’s worth there.

The thought is this: If Black women are naturally promiscuous, then sexual fidelity and modesty will not come easily to them. They will need to be taught. And that is where the benevolent racism of white evangelicalism takes its greatest toll. By treating the Black community as an object to be acted upon, as opposed to a community with its own leaders and its own methods of confronting issues, white evangelicalism sets itself up as the savior of the Black woman. Learning sexual purity and modesty—what these leaders see as white values—become vital parts of the white gospel as told to communities of color. Secret Keeper Girl wrote on their site of the ways in which Black churches in poorer communities of color are theologically bereft, portraying pastors as having given up on the sexual health of their congregants. In their view, the Black church community had to be taught, from the outside, by white suburban women. (Thus far, the Black church in the area targeted by the modesty campaign appears not to have responded.)

And this narrative is self-perpetuating. Because the underlying stereotypes are never challenged, young Christians go into “inner cities” to minister there, and return to their cozy white existences without having challenged their institutionally enforced bias against people of color. And the cycle repeats—the solution to the perceived problems of communities of color continues to be teaching them evangelicals’ ideas of what whiteness means, including sexual purity and modesty.

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention leaders called for more integration in traditionally white SBC churches—which is something of a progression. But until the paternalistic theologies around race change, such integration in the churches will be next to impossible; people of color will continue to be silenced, ignored, or outright attacked on matters of sexual health. There needs to be a groundswell of change from both the political and theological right in order to completely challenge and change the racism that permeates white evangelical churches today.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.