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Purity culture mirrors sexual abuse

  • By Joe West
  • March 18, 2015

The modesty and purity movements within the evangelical church stunted a generation’s ability to face and understand their sexuality without shame. | Photo illustration by Melanie Kim/THE CHIMES


“Can you kneel before the King and say I’m clean?” Marcus of indie folk band Mumford & Sons mournfully croons in their song "White Blank Page."

Can you?

If you're an evangelical, chances are you cannot. And it is not your fault. Let us name it for what it is — systemic, psychoemotional sexual abuse.

Our pastors emphasized purity so pervasively that we internalized the metaphor: If I have sex, it affects my being, my essence.

Neither Mumford nor us kids feel like we can kneel before the King and say, “I’m clean,” even if we wait til our wedding night.

Modesty culture told us that our bodies and our clothes were responsible for other people’s sins. So the girls wore tank tops over their swimsuits and men were left with nagging fears about their shirtless bodies.

And it was thick and painful and fierce. A tragedy.

Tina Schermer, director of the Medical Family Therapy Program and instructor of marriage and family therapy at Seattle Pacific University did research after noticing “more and more amounts of sexual shame, of religious sexual shame … horrendous amounts.” She discovered something beyond shocking.

“The self-loathing that people were feeling and describing about themselves really paralleled the kind of self-loathing that you often see with somebody who’s experienced childhood sexual assault,” said Sellers at the The Sexuality and Spirituality Forum at the The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in April 2012.

Most likely if you are an evangelical, you are recovering from the amount of sexual trauma of someone who was sexually abused as a child.

And beneath it all, you loathe yourself to the core.

If you go to the Biola Counseling Center and you do not know why, I am here to tell you, you are not alone. You were abused as a child by a religious system that inflicted deep harm.

I went on the horrific journey of healing, the seven months of counseling, the literal constant panic attacks when I saw a beautiful woman, the OCD diagnosis, the mild depression diagnosis. I have taken the Xanax, the Zoloft. I have had the long, arduous conversations with my baffled missionary parents.

Finally, as a 23-year-old man, I’m stepping into freedom.

I’ve kissed a couple girls on dates, been unafraid of extended intimate hugs, given myself space and time to get to know godly women with no rush.

And, let me tell you, the questions will come — What about sex before marriage? Can you use tongue when kissing? Are bikinis the root of all evil?

We need to ask these questions as a community and discover God’s answers through the narratives in scripture, instead from a place of shame.

Seek to understand the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Take the time to do research. Find a friend or counselor to speak with as you come to terms with your experiences. While certainly some differences exist between psychoemotional abuse and physical abuse, the evidence suggests that the aftermath is analogous.

I hope that you will be able to see your sexual self as beautiful, fierce, and in need. Cry with the few friends your heart trusts. And maybe just ask that person out that has been catching your eye. I imagine Jesus watching us as we struggle through this all, saddened for his deeply sexually abused bride.

Meet us, Jesus. Give us friends who care. We need you. Amen.

Your Turn.  Post a Comment

  1. jerry lewis

    Joe does his real homework. March 18, 2015

  2. Amy Parks

    Well done, Joe. Let's put to death the notion that self-loathing = holiness. Holy God: awake, alive, honest, and unmired by shame. March 19, 2015

  3. Melissa

    This is the best thing a Biola publication has ever published March 20, 2015

  4. Matthew Norman

    "Most likely if you are an evangelical, you are recovering from the amount of sexual trauma of someone who was sexually abused as a child."

    I find this statement to be an unfair exaggeration at best and an absurd and offensive statement at worst. The quotation it is based on says the self-loathing "parallels" those with a history of abuse; that does not mean that the two situations are identical or even closely related. There are certainly problems with evangelical "purity culture" that most could agree on, but this accusation Mr. West makes goes too far. We're talking about a misguided desire to protect peoples' souls, not the insidious perversions of true sexual abusers. March 20, 2015

  5. Chad Hardin

    Hey Joe,

    Thanks for posting this article. I posted it on my Facebook page and had a very good discussion with some female friends of mine about this. Some women have experienced pain in thinking that by dressing immodestly, they were causing their brothers to sin against God. Men are solely responsible for their lust, not women.

    My Facebook has the feed in case you were curious about what people said. It's at the top.

    I completely read your article and the articles that you reference and it was very helpful to realize the pain caused by forcing modesty on women. I hope you would follow up with another article about if/why a woman ought to be conscious of her dress, not for men, but as an act of worship to God (see my Facebook page for the full response).

    From reading some scripture, it seems to me that Paul in I Timothy 2:8-10 likens both "men holding up hands in prayer" and "women to adorn themselves in respectful apparel" as the same, both as acts of worship to God. This is the main point for women to heed in dressing, not because of men's additions.

    If you do not plan on writing a follow-up article, do you guys allow guest writers? I would be interested. Blessings! :) March 21, 2015

  6. Megan Beatty

    Joe, I respect you and your love for Scripture, but I must voice a few deep concerns with your assertions & conclusions in this article. Let me say first - my heart breaks for your horrific journey with this, and I am so thankful that you have been able to walk in freedom and healing. Praise God for that.

    "Let us name it for what it is — systemic, psychoemotional sexual abuse. Most likely if you are an evangelical, you are recovering from the amount of sexual trauma of someone who was sexually abused as a child... You were abused as a child by a religious system that inflicted deep harm."

    It is not fair to speak such blanket assertions over the Church, the impacts and repercussions of purity culture, and every evangelical ever. Your language villainizes the Church beyond her faults and validates a victim mindset where it may not be appropriate. Your experience speaks to one reality, but it does not give license to speak the existence of that same reality over every one of your brothers and sisters that experienced purity culture.

    As someone who grew up in purity and modesty culture and has worked with youth for years - many of them sexually abused, some of them Christian, some of them not - I can't sit by passively and accept the way 'abuse' is used in this piece. Purity culture is a broken system, but it's not a systemically sexually abusive system - I have seen the effects of both, and they are not the same thing. Brothels in Cambodia are systemically sexually abusive. Sex trafficking rings in Eastern Europe are. The prevalence of female genital mutilation, underage brides, and female infanticide - those are systemically abusive systems. Can people suffer abuse within the Church? Did the rhetoric of the purity/modesty movement affect some to the point of psychoemotional abuse? Tragically, yes. I grieve that. But it is not a system born out of abusive or malicious desires, and it is not something that 100% of the time leaves its consumers broken and traumatized. I have seen hurt come out of it, but I have also seen beauty, truth, and goodness. I have seen people love each other better, I have seen people fall in love with the freedom found in obeying Christ, I have seen people fix their eyes on the cross and chase holiness.

    The desire to stay pure, to chase holiness, to find the line of appropriate dress, to be mindful of our brothers and sisters in the faith and love them well - none of these things are inherently bad. Just the opposite - they're beautiful things that I pray I always strive for. Yes, the 'purity movement' and 'modesty culture' that many of us grew up in took it a step too far sometimes - but I can still see and appreciate the heart with which it started, and I can love the intent of the Church to pursue holiness even though her actions may have gone awry.

    Language is powerful. Brazenly denouncing the evangelical church as a systemically sexually abusive system is not a responsible use of that tool. March 21, 2015

  7. Catherine Streng - Opinions Staff Writer


    Just wanted to pop in and answer Chad's question.

    Yes! We do accept guest writers! For any section.

    chimes.[insert section] is all the editor's emails.

    So if you want to write for opinions (and we accept ALL opinions) then just email!

    Looking forward to reading new perspectives!!

    Catherine March 22, 2015

  8. Student

    Megan Beatty +100000

    Thank you March 22, 2015

  9. Sarah Shepard

    Just wanted to let you and everyone else who reads this article know that the "quote" that you put in this article: "The self-loathing that people were feeling and describing about themselves really paralleled the kind of self-loathing that you often see with somebody who’s experienced childhood sexual assault" was NOT something that was said by the Tina Schermer Sellers. In the post that this article is referencing, I read that it was her STUDENTS that actually said it and she quoted her students. This is not something she even claims to have said. Please check the hyperlinks in the paper before you submit extremely opinionated articles and put them on the front page of our newspaper. Make sure they are the correct hyperlinks you want to link. I'm embarrassed to say the least.
    Thanks. March 23, 2015

  10. John

    I also highly agree with Megan Beatty's comment. This article projects blanket statements with no real backing other than the author's own firsthand statements. I'm pretty shocked this was posted at all.

    Another comment: Tina Schermer Sellers obtained her "phD" from an unaccredited, for-profit institution. Just to point that out. March 25, 2015

  11. Josh Ibanez

    I think Joe is a really smart guy and his piece on this issue is really well written even though he's totally wrong. My question is can you give us your most compelling reason for why staying away from purity and modesty is the only way for the Church to step into freedom? Because if I understand your view correctly you believe purity and modesty today are simply sexual abuse. So are you asking us to do away with these notions entirely or to rethink them under a different light? If its the latter I wonder what for you that would entail? And would it still be an accurate representation of biblical purity and modesty? March 25, 2015

  12. Chimes Reader #652

    Sarah Shepard's comment is inaccurate. The quotation is from Sellers' book explaining her experiences assessing her students' biographies. I can see how its function in the sentence could be misunderstood because the sentence mentions those biographies right before the quotation, but its purpose is fairly easy to assess in context. March 26, 2015

  13. Joe West

    Thank you all SO MUCH for your thoughtful responses.

    Tina wrote an in-depth response after my article was written, explaining her research:

    Feel free to add me on Facebook and message me for further discussion. We discuss this and similar topic regularly.

    Shalom to you all!

    Joe March 27, 2015

  14. Dave W

    Good post. While I have read a lot of stuff (both good and bad) on the " purity culture" of those coming of age in the last couple of decades, esp. as popularized by Joshua Harris, l can tell you from experience it has been around a lot longer than that. I was a sophomore in college when he was born. He was 3 years old when my wife and I got married. We had many of those struggles (and still do to some degree) you list.

    I began to see how evil it was when I read a book by the Penners mid 1980s where they told a story about an 11 year old girl who committed suicide because of the guilt associated with masturbating. She could not understand why God would give her such strong feelings and then condemn her for responding to them.

    In my opinion, this pure self righteousness which is filthy rags according to Isaiah 64. January 18, 2016

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