When I consider the impact of church purity culture on my friendships with other women, there is one painful memory like a ragged scab I cannot leave alone. In my third year of university I lived in a flat, with Eva, Tess, Alice, and William. We were a close-knit group. Despite having a relatively spacious flat, we would all pile into one bedroom and study, draw, laugh, or read the Bible together.
One summer evening, William suggested a dinner party. We wore floral dresses, strung fairy lights, and played Taylor Swift via someone’s I-Pod. Several of our other friends from university or church came over, and William invited a couple he was friendly with at the time, Elena and Owen. She, like the rest of us, was a Christian and a churchgoer. He identified only as a philosopher, and laboriously lugged around books on Nietzsche as if to physicalize the existential burden of nihilism.
Owen was openly flirtatious. His romantic gestures and notions were almost parodical, all eyebrow wiggles and double entendres. He flounced around offering compliments and planting kisses on cheeks, not entirely unlike an overexcited toddler. Elena was elegant and restrained. She was clever too, weaving her broad knowledge of authors, politics, philosophers into the whirlpool of dinner conversation. But it was Owen who had us all laughing and jolly. During dessert, he was offering shoulder massages. At the time, I thought nothing of my bare shoulders being theatrically pummeled in plain sight. I should have sensed Elena’s discomfort, but I was enjoying the fuzzy glow of the evening.
I don’t recall what made Elena snap, but I do remember her calling me a “slut.” So angry she was that the word came out covered in spit, the force of the single syllable wetting my face.
You heard me.
I, I haven’t done anything, I didn’t mean-
That dress. All that flirting! You’re a slut.
Again, that word. I was incredulous, sure that one of my friends would react. Their silence left me humiliated. I excused myself. I never raised it with my friends lest they vocalize my fear that this was how they really saw me. See me.
This word, spoken aloud, confirmed something I had long suspected about myself. That there was something inherently wrong with me, with my femininity, with who I was as a person. It was the name for the things I felt, the things I had experienced, and the things that were wrong with my body. And now, it seemed that everybody else knew this about me too. I had never meant to behave inappropriately, I didn’t feel like I was, and yet something about me had offended Elena with so much intensity, I was almost afraid of myself.
We agreed you wouldn’t do that.
I find solace in the company of close female friendships, it is a joy I am so thankful for. To me their significance cannot be surpassed by that of romantic relationships. Two people dedicated to a shared understanding of finding joy in each other’s company, a relationship not constrained by offspring or houses or vows. What a blessing.
As a child and as a teenager, I was prone to obsessive friendships, perhaps I still am. Feverish. Anne of Green Gables and Diana, Lila and Elena, The Group, The March Sisters, Ron and Harry. In high school, I was blessed to find such a friend in Jude, who I cherish to this day. Our shrieks of laughter, tears, secret jokes ricocheted off of every dimension of my teenage life. I have few memories without Jude. I first encountered God at church with her, and her family demonstrated the most authentic kind of Christian love I have ever experienced.
I grew up on the coast, an hour away from the town where I went to school. The beaches were gorgeous – white sand with twisted pohutukawa trees like giant bonsai trees. Our local school was across the road from an estuary. We regularly saw dolphins and swam or kayaked at lunchtime. But the town itself had a reputation for drugs, gangs, STIs, and teen pregnancies. Being sensitive, I found this daunting and oppressive; my teenage years were a struggle.
Life in this small town was much more bearable with Jude, and our friendship seemed robust enough to weather any issue. However, when the topic of sex first surfaced, I felt confronted; it was an intruder in our friendship. My experiences and feelings clashed with what I had learned about our church’s view on sex. I felt ignorant and awkward when discussing it. It came up regularly in conversations at youth group, in discussions about books we were reading, in movies we watched. My response was to shut down. I didn’t know what to say, so I wouldn’t say anything. I could not engage with this topic and I felt a void begin to cleave our idyllic friendship.
At the Christian bookshop the two of us discovered such gems as I Kissed Dating Goodbye! and The Bride Wore White, filled with advice and tips for maintaining physical boundaries with all the boys we were (not) dating. I recall one of these books suggesting the creation of an ‘intimacy ladder.’ The idea was to label the rungs with hand holding at the bottom, and the rungs progressing in intensity until the highest point – sex.
The book advised that girls establish what we were comfortable with doing and then make our boundary a rung below that (because we were likely to slip up). These books did not endow us with a sense of our own sexuality, or confidence in our ability to enjoy a relationship, but rather a sense that doing anything, with anyone, created distance between us and God. Although I recall lots of giggling, without any robust discussion with Christian women about this, we wholeheartedly adopted these views.
Having experienced (like many women) unwanted sexual advances of men, the ‘guidelines’ as stipulated by these authors, appealed to me in some way. I liked rules; they made me feel grounded and safe. Being new to the Christian faith, I often felt out of my depth. The clarity of expectations was a sort of relief. In taking on these opinions of adults who seemed to know what not to do, we papered over the crack in our friendship with talk of staying pure. Inevitably, this did not last.
Jude, my brilliant friend, admitted to crossing some invisible boundary with a boy she had been seeing. I behaved badly, furious that she had not maintained the standard. Notes, phone calls, tears ensued.
We agreed you wouldn’t do that.
Yeah, well, I didn’t plan it! Anyway it’s kind of funny what happened –
It’s not funny, it’s serious. You know better.
It won’t happen again, anyway.
Well it’s too late, isn’t it.
Oh yes, we made up, but there blossomed a reluctance to enter that conversational landscape again. She was wrong, or the books were wrong, or I was wrong, and the clarity I thought I had achieved suddenly dissolved. This event is now over a decade in the past and I still cringe with the discomfort of that topic. I suppose I had thought that those rules would keep us both safe, but also keep our friendship safe. In agreeing on the ‘rules’ for each other, we shared the responsibility. I didn’t want to be wrong about this, not when the message I had received from the church was: what was done could not be undone.
It’s not a big deal, it’s just a group of us were talking and… it’s just your tops are a bit low, and maybe you show a bit more skin than you realise?
Our boyfriends brought it up.
I lived in a flat with several other Christian girls and it was as wonderful as it was disastrous. As each friend waited on the dock of engagement, their sex-lives (or attempts to resist thereof) became fodder for accountability discussions, prayers, and gossip sessions disguised as interventions. I suspect most of us lived in fear that our friends might discover our interest in sex.
We had learnt from the books, from the youth group retreats, from the sermons that men were the sexual beings, and women being less affected by lust were to do their best to ensure that their actions enabled male purity as much as their own. Our friendships involved keeping each other in check- whilst I suspect also hiding any sexual transgressions. We all participated in our own purity subculture. It was suggested by the church that we keep each other accountable, it gave us license to police each other. Vigils outside flatmates bedrooms, late night texts: are you coming home? Strategically highlighted Bible verses.
If there was a recipe for conflict, frustration, and dishonesty in a friendship, this was it. We valued each other’s opinions so highly in every other area of our lives, that the fear of being found out was immense.
The boys have said they don’t want to see you like that, they want to respect you.
One of the many issues with purity culture is that it is based on opinion rather than objective Biblical guidelines. This results in females keeping each other accountable for things they never agreed to. Tops too low, skirts too short, nothing good happens after midnight. These are secret rules you won’t find in the bible, but are more likely to encounter from a shame inducing conversation or lecture.
These ‘conversations’ are not dialogic, but rather, one-sided attempts at enforcing contrived rules that serve to protect the outward appearance of purity. As a leader for many years in church youth ministry I have led too many of these ‘conversations’, and I think the single thing that achieved was the dissolution of those young women’s trust in me. This became clear to me after I led such a talk at a youth camp. Following the talk, the girls who I had previously had a positive relationship with, shut down and began to avoid me. I am ashamed to say how long it took for me to recognize that I was at fault for the end of these relationships.
If we are not open to authentic, honest dialogue with girls and women we are not giving them a chance to think critically. Creating any kind of boundaries or establishing bodily autonomy needs to happen in the context of support and self-knowledge.
Every man we have walked past has looked at your breasts.
On a sunny Wellington morning, after visiting the market, I shared a piece of olive bread with my friend and flatmate, Eva. We laughed and chatted and basked in the miracle of a windless Wellington day. Whilst waiting at a pedestrian crossing, my friend became suddenly furious, turned to me, and said scathingly, “every man we have walked past has looked at your breasts.” I walked home under a cloud of shame.
My biggest qualm with purity culture is that it manipulates us into looking at each other through the male gaze. It forces us to objectify each other, surely the opposite of purity? We suppress each other’s sexuality out of fear. You don’t want to cause someone to stumble, we were told. The implication being that a man’s lustful thought is a direct result of a woman’s impure actions or attire. The conversations that we have about purity are dehumanizing. They imbue our friendships with a sense of entitlement, as though we should have some say over each other’s bodies. As if our bodies are not home to a soul, a mind, a life of experiences. How can we support each other, let alone love each other properly, if this is the perspective we take?
You will have to tell your future husband about that in case… in case he’s not okay with it.
Even those choices we did not make ourselves are not exempt from the judgement of others. One of the dangers of forcing each other to uphold standards not set for ourselves is that we lose perspective on the need for empathy. A message that should come loud and clear from church culture is that women are not responsible for the choices men make. A woman’s purity is not left in tatters when she is touched by a man.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” – Matthew 5:8
Once I got married, it seemed that the need for friends to police my body fizzled out. No one offered to be my accountability partner, no one checked in to see if I was lusting over anyone, no one told me what not to wear. This was a relief. The whole topic of purity seemed to disappear from our conversations entirely, but I discovered that in marriage it is just as important to seek purity as outside it, just a different kind of purity.
In an attempt to share my whole life and self with another person my heart was laid bare, sins transparent. I desired discussions, dialogue with friends about life and marriage and sin and joy and purity. And yet these were not conversations I had with my friends.
Over time, my friends and I have forged our own pathways through the tricky landscape of post-purity culture scars. Conversation flows more easily now, and we trip occasionally, checking ourselves as we check in with one another. We apologize, recognizing the hurts we inflicted on each other in the name of keeping each other pure, letting go of the role of female as purity gatekeeper.
When we read, discuss, pray, and invest in time together without judgement or expectation of behavioral perfection we create space for women to read their own hearts. The need to set boundaries for physical comfort, personal safety, or spiritual purity is surely dependent on individual needs. How much more powerful are the boundaries we set for ourselves when they come from a genuine understanding. How much better can we support and love each other when we recognize the unique manifestation of purity in each other’s lives. When I think of my friends I feel joy for the compassion, empathy, wisdom, and hope that I see in them. These are the things that help me to imagine the nature of God.
I find the term purity culture somewhat ironic. The persistent focus on sexual restraint limits the depth of our understanding of what purity is. To be pure of heart is to have a heart that is loving, generous, truthful, merciful, open. Our insistence on policing each other’s bodies and actions surely does not come from a pure heart but from seeds of jealousy, competition, judgement. Developing and maintaining friendships and relationships in which we love each other like Jesus creates an environment in which the search for authentic purity can take place.