Purity Culture Effects on Sex

A rosary laying on an open Bible
Published on
May 13, 2024

As a sex therapist, I have a unique insight into the impact that organized religion has on the development of people’s sex/sexuality. It is evident that because religions place such a high importance on virginity and purity until marriage, people often experience a lot of shame, disappointment, and discomfort around sex. Exploring and understanding these impacts can allow one to better connect with one’s sexual self and to shift from a place of fear and shame to a place of openness and curiosity. Deconstructing the messages of purity culture can have a strong impact on one’s perceptions of sex and sexuality that can lead to a life filled with pleasure and connection.

What is purity culture:

"Purity culture" refers to a set of beliefs and practices within certain religious communities that emphasize sexual purity, typically centered around the idea of abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage. It is often associated with conservative or evangelical Christian groups, although similar concepts can be found in other religious traditions as well.

Key aspects of purity culture include:

  1. Emphasis on virginity: Purity culture places a high value on virginity, particularly for vulva owners, before marriage. Virginity is often equated with purity, and individuals who have engaged in sexual activity may be seen as "impure" or "damaged."
  2. Modesty: Purity culture often emphasizes modesty in dress and behavior, especially for women, to avoid arousing sexual desires in others and to maintain one's own purity.
  3. Abstinence education: Purity culture promotes abstinence from sexual activity until marriage as the ideal and sometimes the only acceptable option. This may be taught through formal education programs, youth groups, or church teachings.
  4. Shame and guilt: Individuals who do not adhere to the standards of purity culture may experience shame, guilt, or ostracism from their religious community. Sexual desires and experiences outside of marriage may be viewed as sinful and damaging to one's spiritual well-being.
  5. Hierarchy of sexuality: Purity culture often promotes a hierarchical view of sexuality, where certain expressions of sexuality (such as heterosexual, monogamous marriage) are seen as morally superior to others.

All of these messages can have harmful effects on individuals, including promoting unhealthy attitudes towards sex, contributing to feelings of shame and guilt, and perpetuating gender inequality by placing a disproportionate burden on women to uphold purity standards. Additionally, purity culture ignores and stigmatizes individuals who do not fit traditional norms of sexuality, such as LGBTQIA+ individuals or those who identify as non-monogamous.

Messages that people get from purity culture:

When I first meet with clients, I conduct a sexual history assessment. It’s a comprehensive overview of the impact of culture, religion, family, peers, and other social entities on one’s sexual development, including perception of self and others as sexual beings.

What I often find through conducting this assessment is that many people that grew up in purity culture get either no messages about sex at home (and therefore get most of the negative messaging from church/youth groups) or get an abundance of sex negative messages at home as well. Often folx are encouraged to get purity rings as a way to commit their virginity to God and to be a symbol to others of this commitment. Women may also have had experiences where they were told that it was their fault if men lusted after them, as they must’ve been dressing too provocatively and therefore “invited it”. Girls often were told to wear t-shirts and shorts over their bathing suits as a way to prevent “causing boys to stumble/sin”. Boys were told their penises would fall off or their hands would burn if they masturbated. Girls either weren’t taught about masturbation or were also told how “slutty” and “whorish” it is to do so.

Personally, one message I was told was that I couldn’t be in a one-on-one text conversation with a married man or be alone with a married man at all. The implication being that someone just “wouldn’t be able to help themselves” and that sex would inevitably occur. People were often told to “leave room for Jesus” or “the Holy Spirit” when dancing and the only appropriate way to hug was with a side hug. Some people were told anything more than hand-holding is a sin and getting aroused by one’s dating partner was “wrong.”

There are countless other examples of messages that purity culture puts on people and to be fair, some of these messages show up in other religions outside of purity culture as well and many people suffer because of them. All in all, most of the messages are control based and create a hypersensitivity around one’s thoughts and behaviors around sex that creates lasting negative impacts.

The impact of these messages on sex, as seen in the therapeutic setting:

What many people fail to realize is that our body carries the echos of negative messages like these, far beyond the years of being told them. Emily Nagoski in Come As You Are uses the garden metaphor. The notion is that our sexual development is like a garden. When we grow up, we don’t choose what gets planted in the garden - our churches, families, education systems, and other authority figures do the initial planting for us. As a result, especially for folx experiencing purity culture, that can mean a lot of weeds get planted in the garden, at least until we become an adult and can start tending to the garden ourselves - choosing what plants we want to plant instead and what weeds we want to pull.

Therefore, many people walk around with weeds still in their garden they aren’t conscious of, or are unsure how to uproot. The roots go very deep since they were planted when they were so young. These messages get carried into adulthood and can even unconsciously attribute to shame and discomfort around sex.

I often see this showing up in the form of sexual disappointment. Either the penis isn’t working the way one wants it to, the sex isn’t lasting long enough, the vulva owner isn’t experiencing orgasm, the vulva owner is experiencing extreme sexual pain, touch doesn’t feel comfortable, talking about sex still feels taboo, and so much more.

I have worked with so many vulva owners who come in reporting sexual pain and disappointment after marriage. They talk about sex being their “wifely duty” and so they will push through the pain, sometimes without their partner’s knowledge (and worse is sometimes WITH their partner’s knowledge). The struggle is that for SO LONG they were told sex is bad/wrong/dirty because of purity culture, and their body carried that knowledge. Putting a ring on someone’s finger and signing a piece of paper isn’t enough to dispel all of those messages the body is still carrying. It makes sense that sex feels so awful and foreign, even long after the wedding night. You can’t flip a switch and all of a sudden believe sex good and wonderful when the message has been reinforced for years to say otherwise.

I have clients who can’t even be naked in front of their spouse for fear of arousing them. Oftentimes, (in a cisgender, heterosexual relationship), I will hear women talk about their partner randomly grabbing their boob or slapping their ass as they walk by, or staring at them as they’re getting undressed, and it reinforces the message they got growing up that their body is not their own. “Men can’t help themselves” is the underlying message and therefore it’s the woman’s job to prevent temptation. So all they know to do is hide their bodies - through gaining weight, wearing baggy clothes, or avoiding sex however they can - just to feel some semblance of safety and control over their bodies.

Penis-owners will often struggle with understanding their sexuality as a result of purity culture. Men think that they are supposed to be in charge of sex and if their penis can’t get erect or if they’re less interested in sex than their partner, there’s something wrong with them. Oftentimes the male clients I work with who have experienced purity culture have an unhealthy relationship with porn. They’re taught to believe that the temptation of porn is “addicting” and that the only way to be saved by it is from complete abstinence from porn and masturbation. This reinforces the message that their body is not theirs to be responsible for since they can’t control their sexual urges. So they often get caught in a cycle of stopping masturbation/porn for a time and then feeling helpless to re-engage and like a slave to their body's urges. Naturally, the message that they cannot control their urges, especially if a woman is dressing in a way that is sexually appealing and hence "invites it on themselves" plays a big impact on rape culture as well.

The impact of purity culture is especially prevalent for all of the people for whom cis-gender, heterosexual, monogamous sex simply doesn’t align with who they are. Purity culture correlates with gay people marrying straight people because they think that marriage will somehow save them. And this is NOT a knock on someone making that choice - purity culture makes it feel like the ONLY choice - otherwise they’ll be ostracized from their community and go to Hell. People who are nonbinary or trans feel they had to hide this part of themselves for so long in order to stay safe and feel accepted and loved not only by God, but their church and community as well. Hence, many LGBTQIA+ youth in purity culture will die by suicide or engage in self-harm because life doesn’t feel worth living when they feel they are broken and unacceptable by their community's standards.

I have numerous clients who grapple with bisexuality and worrying about what that means for their life and their relationship. People aren’t taught that sexuality falls on a spectrum and they can desire multiple genders and it doesn’t have to mean their marriage is over. This results in a lot of internalized shame and suppression of sexual exploration which can be very damaging to one's own personal development.

There are countless ways that purity culture messaging carries over into the subconscious into adulthood and creates a great deal of challenge for individuals and relationships. It can be confusing and painful to try and unravel. These are just a few of the multitude of examples of the ways that purity culture impacts sex.

Recovering from the Impacts of Purity Culture

Deconstructing messages that have long been set in stone can feel very difficult to unpack. Thankfully, therapy offers a wide variety of approaches to help recover from all of the shame messages.

One of the initial approaches is to identify what the messages are that you received in your past, and which ones are still present for you today. This can take some time because you want to look at all the different sources of messaging (think parents, church, youth group, peers, community members, other family members, school, etc.) and see what messages you got from each of those sources. Then revisit what any of those sources are still telling you today about sex/sexuality. Once you’ve cultivated those lists, explore what values you feel still align with you and which you’d like to get rid of. Create your own “sexual values” list that outlines what you believe is authentically true about you and others when it comes to sex. The hope is that this has a lot less sex negative messaging and more sex positivity.

Take these new values that align with who you are and who you want to be and repeat them you to yourself daily. Explore ways you’d like to embody those messages (i.e. if you were told self-pleasure is bad, start practicing self-pleasure. That doesn’t even have to start with genital touch! You can start exploring what parts of your body feel open and receptive to touch and expand from there). If sex has felt obligatory for many years, take sex off the table and explore pleasurable sensations instead. Remind yourself that sex is for YOU and that you can now determine when/what/how you engage with it.

When you notice yourself responding to a trigger that’s related to purity culture messaging, pause and check in with yourself. “How would purity culture tell me I should respond to this?” and then “How do I ACTUALLY want to respond in this moment? What feels right for me/more accepting/sex positive?” Try to take that action step as a way to help your body learn to trust this new way of being.

You can also follow sex positive content creators on social media. Exposing yourself to sex positive messaging can reinforce the new values you’re trying to embrace and remind you that not everyone thinks sex is awful/negative.

Re-educate yourself about sex/sexuality. Read sex positive books that teach you about pleasure enhancement and normalize that sex doesn’t have to follow a certain script (if the book’s sole focus is on intercourse, it’s not the book for you).

Find spiritual communities that embrace sex positivity. If you find that spirituality is still something you’re very much connected to, explore groups in your community that are sex positive and accepting of all genders/sexuality types.

Lastly, seek therapy. Therapy can be a great space to deconstruct negative messages that may have been reinforced over time for you around sex. You can do a much deeper dive and may even do some trauma work to unpack the long-term negative effects purity culture could still be having on you.

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