Sexy Talk 3 -- Purity & Modesty Movements & How They Have Mislead Us

“We are all born sexual creatures,thank God, but it's a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.” 

Confession: I am a curvaceous woman who loves fashion and who is committed to excellence in leadership and doing good for our society.  

What part of that confession made you feel uncomfortable?  Chances are it was the "curvaceous" comment.  I don't normally go around talking about my body that way to total strangers but I think it might be helpful to start the conversation as we explore how we view women's bodies and the affect that it has on how we view women as people.  

My story is a bit unusual compared to the average girl.  At the age of six I was diagnosed with "precocious puberty" which basically meant that I started developing breasts and other pubescent signs at a much earlier age than normal.  At six it kinda washed over me and I didn't pay much attention to it cuz I needed to go outside and ride my bike.  But by 3rd grade it was one of the main-stage issues of my life.  I was the only girl in my class who needed a bra.  By 8th grade I was often mistaken for an adult.  

I was also raised in a pretty conservative Christian home and influenced heavily by the Christian leaders and pastors in my life.  I cannot count how many times in my adolescent life I was pulled aside by a female leader and told I needed to dress more modestly and to consider my "brothers in Christ" when I got dressed in the morning.  

Unfortunately for my fragile self-esteem, I didn't ever actually dress immodestly.  The clothes I chose were rather chaste, they just fit me differently than most girls my age.  My hips and thighs and bust were things that became objects of my shame as I could never seem to get them out of sight like my leaders and mentors required.  You can read a similar story about growing up Curvy In A Christian Home.  

I was told by many unwitting offenders, mostly as passive aggressive jokes, that I looked like a porn star or a hooker.  I was taught to hate my body for the way it made other people feel.  I was taught that a real lady, a genuine woman of God would not flaunt herself and that if men oogled at me it was my fault.  My friend's mother pulled me aside when I was attending a pool party at her house and said that even though the other girls were wearing a two piece, mine was causing the boys to sin, especially her son.  

The messages were clear :: Get your body out of our sight because it makes us feel uncomfortable. 

I believed that my body was a thing that caused more harm than good and as a result I hated it.  I, like so many other young girls, was viewed as an object instead of for the person I was trying to become.

Coinciding with this message of Body Hatred was the pervasive teaching that my virginity was a thing that I should protect with my whole life.  Like a fine piece of jewelry I should lock it away in a treasure chest and bury it where no one could find it. That is until my wedding night, when I would magically know how to be that intimate and know just what to do.

This teaching was deeply rooted in a desire to teach young people about sexual purity.  As we experienced the heady power of being sexually attractive to our peers, our leaders were quick to try to stem the tide and tell us that in order to please God and our spouses we should not arouse our desires in order to not damage our treasured virginity. 

Unfortunately, this teaching backfired over and over again. By the time I was in 8th grade more peers than not were sexually active, not using protection or even understanding what that meant.  There were no adults in our lives to help us understand our sexuality and so my peers were forced to go into hiding, often rebelliously throwing caution to the wind.  My private Christian school had an alarming rate of teen pregnancy, rape and sexual assault.  

In her article for the LA Times, entitled The False Modesty Movement, Anne K. Ream writes,
"The faith-based website, which encourages teen girls to "live the virtues of modesty and purity," instructs young women to be "helpful at home . . . obedient and happy." What's troubling about this language is how neatly it anticipates the findings of a Yale University study showing that men who get angry in the workplace are admired, while women who express displeasure are seen as "out of control." So much for the idea that well-behaved women rarely make history. Apparently, it's far more important for girls to make nice." Read the whole article here.
So now let's talk about virginity.  

My Christian teachers lauded virginity like it was something to be worshipped.  We talked about it at Christian camps, youth group and all of my mission trips.  Of course we separated from the boys so that we wouldn't have to blush and squirm.  As we got older it was always reported back that the boys spent their whole sessions talking about how to not masturbate because it was rooted in lust and displeasing to God.

Not once did I ever experience a safe, open environment of communication about my sexuality.  It was always centered around my virginity and how it belonged to my husband.  I was never taught to feel ownership or respect for my body and sexual desires.  Many friends of mine who did stay virgins until their wedding night would call from their honeymoon, crying and frustrated, reporting fear and confusion and disillusionment about their sexual experience.  "THIS is what I have waited my whole life for?!", one friend sobbed on the phone as she honeymooned in California. The let down was more than just frustrating. It was heart-breaking and terrifying.  

So the teachings of modesty and purity went hand in hand and sunk deep into my psyche along with all my church-going peers.  I personally bought it hook, line and sinker and spent an inordinate amount of time fretting over whether I was pleasing God and my future spouse by staying chaste and pure.  

As a result of all this talk about modesty and purity we kissed dating goodbye because dating boys might give us girls cervical cancer (I kid you not, I was told this!) or other horrible diseases.  My solution to tame my desires was to just pretend that I didn't have any.  I simply couldn't be bothered to get into relationships and the whole point of dating anyways was to get married.  I tried for most of my teenage years to convince myself that the only thing I really wanted in life was one day to find the person that God wanted me to marry and then join him in his ministry to change the world!  [This was disasterously confusing when at 16 years old I met the love of my life and the one who would be my husband...but that is a story for another post on another day.]

If you have the stomach for it you can watch a documentary called The Virgin Daughters, which is rooted in a deep love for daughters but inadvertently communicates that our worth is based on our sexuality.  I forced myself to watch the whole thing and I can tell you, it is tough to watch such loving parents objectify their daughters in such insidiously abusive ways. One father says, "There is an intrinsic question bound up in the heart of a girl that must be answered and that question is,'Am I beautiful?"...Cue nausea. 

I recently heard a pastor say, "God gave all of us a sex drive & it's our job to manage it." This infers sexuality is inherently burdensome.

The "purity" movement distracts from the opportunity to help young people understand & enjoy their sexuality in healthy, age appropriate ways.

For example, not shaming young children for exploring their bodies but having conversations about privacy and who's aloud to touch them etc.  Talking about body parts and how they feel will not cause them to be masturbating fiends.  Instead it will normalize the fact that our kids have sexual body parts that feel differently than other body parts.  That is good and normal and we should celebrate their bodies with them so they do not feel shame in this incredible part of life.

Or talking to adolescent boys about how amazing it is that they are becoming so attracted to girls [or other boys...this is also possible and worthy of addressing with honesty!] and not making them feel that it is bad or shameful that it is all they can think about!  This is such an overwhelming time for young boys and helping them see the adventure in the tension of surging hormones and self-control seems a better route then just telling them, "NO!"

Or how to discuss the topic of how it feels as an adolescent girl to realize how powerful it makes her feel to know she arouses boys.  This is such a beautiful power that can turn ugly when a young girl uses it as a way to manipulate others to gratify her good desire to be desired.  However, when acknowledged and even celebrated and taught to exercise the power appropriately, it can be an incredible gift to herself and others.  

I love the concept of purity but the movement (True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and other more contemporary versions) has made purity all about sex and not about a holistic lifestyle; all about saving your virginity and not about understanding your sexual identity and potential.  

This has backfired by creating a culture of girls feeling shame for their feminine sexuality and boys having no option but to suppress and hide thier normal (and GOOD) sexual desires.  Fast forward and you have guys who act out aggressively because of the exhaustion of stuffing their desires and girls blaming themselves for the behaviors of aggressive sex-shamed guys or girls wielding their sexual power over guys with no way of understanding the consequences.  This, in a very basic way, is a very simplistic definition of what is called Rape Culture.  If you want to know more about Rape Culture you can watch this video by Laci Green (complete with lots of swears) on the rape case in Steubenville.  Or you can read my friend Ruchira Gupta's commentary on CNN as she describes the environment that produces and contributes to Rape Culture.  

I have heard my whole life that boys/men are more visual than women.  This does not bode well for me then, because I learn by watching.  I danced ballet for 20 years and the quickest route for me to understand a new move or to learn the countless steps of a new dance was to watch some one do it.  I am overwhelmed with awe when I look at the bodies of my tiny new born babies.  Just last week, I stood, stunned in spiritual silence as I overlooked the San Francisco bay with its Golden Gates, mountains and fog.  These visuals stun me, inspire me, cause me to want to behave in certain ways.  I am a very visual person and I know many, many women who would say the same things. 

But no matter how much I wanted to take a running leap off the cliff into the San Francisco Bay, I didn't.  I felt as though it was a natural response to want to get closer to it, to experience it more intensely.  But I knew that it would be foolish to act on my impulse.

So why then, do we continue to teach young boys and girls that it is the girls' fault for the negative attention she receives?  Girls need to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, behave a certain way because boys are so visual and they are receiving a message that says, "Come touch me!"  This documentary called The Naked Truth About Modesty is not unlike most of the teaching that I grew up with.  Should we be alarmed that it's put out by a ministry called THE CHURCH MILITANT?! Watch at the high risk of losing your cool; the first seven minutes will blow your mind!

I call bullshit.  Boys are in charge of their impulses and thoughts.  Boys are no different than girls in their ability to learn self-control .  While the mind of a boy is filled with overwhelming sexual desires it is something that can be taught to understand, harness and enjoy.  

Which brings me back to the beginning.  We as a society and even as a Christian culture have been guilty of objectifying girls and women and dehumanizing boys and men.  Our sexuality is a powerful thing and we can chose to live in fear and shame of that power or embrace it and let it teach us more about the image that we are created in.  

In his six-session workshop called Redeeming Sexuality, Dr. Dan Allender talks about the sensuality of God.  That God is inherantly sensual, experiencing the depth and breadth of emotions and sensations.  We are made to mirror that and live in the incredible, human aspect of our sexuality.  

My hope is that this series has given us a space to pause and think about our belief systems, our own hopes and fears, the language we use and the way we interact with each other in terms of our sexuality.  I also hope that the links and resources I've provided will allow you to continue this process.  

I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions and hopefully together we can engage in healthier, more life-giving ways.  


Click here for comments
September 30, 2013 at 7:54 AM ×

You have hit at the very core of so much shame, fear and ultimately a lack of worthiness for many women. That we can be desired and desirable, yet not feel like a slut for it!?! That women can have intelligence, leadership, original thoughts, still be sexy and not a harlot!?! That women can be a successful business AND/OR family CEO, be attractive and not a tart! That we are WORTHY of love, understanding, joy, feelings because God made us worthy, not because society deems us worthy. As Christians we are worthy because of Christ. Any hint of unworthiness is evil stepping in to tell the lies. I am being led to speak about fear and shame and it’s relationship to our self worth and ultimately our “why” for self love and care. THANK YOU! Kris

September 30, 2013 at 4:33 PM ×

Kris! Thank you for your words of honesty and kindness. I am so encouraged to know that you too are speaking out against fear and shame! Speak on, Sister! Speak on!

October 5, 2013 at 1:04 AM ×

Preach, woman. There aren't enough words in the English language to celebrate what you are saying out loud. Write a book. Good land, write a book.

October 5, 2013 at 1:15 PM ×

Thanks for a very well spoken article. As the parents of a young daughter, I am worried about the culture my daughter will embrace. I hope I'm able to express it this well.

October 6, 2013 at 9:53 PM ×

And thank you for your encouragement!

Thanks for your comment