Welcome to a new season on the Bare Marriage blog!
We’re about to begin a new series, starting tomorrow, on obligation sex–how to understand it and get over it.
But before we do that, I received this great article by Dr. Camden Morgante (known as Dr. Camden around the internet!). She sent out some of these thoughts in an email that I subscribe to, and I emailed her back and said–I need to run that! So she elaborated on it for me.
One of the things we found in our research for The Great Sex Rescue is that obligation sex lives as trauma in the body. It matters, and it can have a great effect on us.
The same is true of purity culture. And often when we have trauma from purity culture, we also show up with trauma from the obligation sex message. They go hand in hand.
Before we launch into our obligation sex message series, then, I thought we should revisit what some of that trauma should look like.
So here’s Dr. Camden, a licensed psychologist, explaining it to us!
“We were the poster children for purity culture.”
Megan and Kyle*, a couple I was seeing for therapy, were not the first ones to tell me this. They met in high school youth group and practiced courtship, even waiting to kiss until their wedding day.
They were a model couple in their church, held up as an example for other youth to follow.
Almost two decades into marriage, they still experienced painful sex, low sex drive, lack of sexual pleasure, and disappointment.
They are Purity Culture Survivors.
Are you a purity culture survivor?
Recently, I asked my social media audience two questions: if they consider purity culture to be trauma and if they would identify as a “purity culture survivor”.
Responses tended to fall into three main categories:
I’m a purity culture survivor
- “Surviving purity culture means constantly seeing its impact and having to retrain your brain.”
- “I absolutely am a purity culture survivor. I am still unraveling the harm it did.”
- “I would consider purity culture to be one element of the religion trauma.”
- “Phew. I think purity culture causes trauma around sex for years into my marriage.”
- “I don’t feel like I “survived” it. I feel like it still negatively affects my body image and marriage.”
- “Yes! Purity culture leaves so many trauma symptoms in its wake.”
…on the associations with other trauma
- “I would say it can cause trauma, but not that it is trauma in and of itself, depending on specific circumstances.”
- “As someone who grow up in heavy purity culture, yes I consider it trauma because of the way it inflicted shame and manipulated my emotions, thinking, spirituality while allowing men to prey on me and my peers. Being a sexual assault survivor, I wouldn’t put purity culture on the same level of ‘survivorship’ but can understand how people would use it.”
- “Definitely consider it trauma especially given the lingering effects it can have. Personally have a hard time using the term ‘survivor’ for myself (given my own other history and survivorships) but 100% support when that term feels like it fits for others.”
- “I’m a domestic violence survivor. Purity culture heavily influenced how I came to be in an abusive marriage.”
- “Yes. But I would dig deeper and wonder if the ties there are more along the lines of being a SA survivor in the wake of purity culture…Hard to disentangle.”
- “Yes, when used to perpetuate harm like sexual assault (distinction between harmful and traumatic).”
- “More likely to describe myself as a sexual assault survivor than purity culture, though it’s the theological root.”
(minimizing/denying harm of purity culture or recognizing positive effects)
- “I struggle seeing it as trauma, like nothing too bad come of it, years of untangling, or others had it worse.”
- “I feel profoundly harmed by purity culture, but ‘survivor’ language feels too intense.”
- “Grew up in purity culture. Got a ring from my parents. No harm done. Maybe I’m lucky!”
- “Purity culture as trauma assumes there was a negative impact. Not all of it was- for me.”
I appreciate these responses and want to share my thoughts and experiences as a psychologist, Purity Culture Recovery Coach, and a Christian who grew up in purity culture myself.
As Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna’s research in The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better demonstrates, teachings from purity culture are linked to greater rates of sexual pain, lower rates of orgasm and sexual desire, and lower sexual satisfaction overall. Other research (1) has confirmed that the physiological and emotional effects of purity culture are similar to that of sexual assault survivors.
The long-lasting effects purity culture leaves in our bodies are undeniable.
Purity culture is trauma.
The growing field of traumatology asserts that trauma is subjective—meaning that two people can experience the same stressor but have different reactions to it. One person may integrate the experience into their life in a fairly straightforward way and another person may feel overwhelmed and get “stuck” processing the experience. The latter often leads to trauma symptoms.
Trauma is not the event itself, but our nervous system’s reaction to the event (2). It is the feeling of helplessness, powerlessness, and horror—a complete loss of control—that often leads to post-traumatic stress. In the case of purity culture, the main reactions I see are fear and shame. Purity culture can deeply impact our faith, sexuality, and relationships even decades later. And these effects continue to live on in our bodies long after we no longer believe purity culture in our minds.
My client Megan knew sex was for her too—but her body was still tensing up and her heart still carried shame and anxiety about sex. Her husband Kyle knew sex was a learned skill that doesn’t happen overnight—but he still felt angry at God and disappointed at how their sex life turned out.
The myths of purity culture cannot be “turned off” in the mind because the trauma of those beliefs is stored in the body.
The body keeps the score. In the case of purity culture, even long after my clients stop believing the myths in their minds, their bodies and hearts are still reacting as if the myths were true. Trauma is embodied, meaning that we cannot resolve the effects of purity culture by just changing our beliefs. We have to get our minds, hearts, bodies, and souls aligned.
An example of purity culture and “the body keeps the score”
In She Deserves Better, Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna found that when a teen girl believed that she was at least partially responsible for a boy lusting, she was 52% more likely to experience vaginismus, a sexual dysfunction disorder, as an adult.
The modesty message had physical effects on her body.
She was also 30% more likely to have below average self-esteem as an adult, so the modesty message had long-term emotional effects on her.
When messages that we hear affect our long-term physical, emotional, or sexual health, it’s an example of how our body processes these messages as trauma, and stores them in our physical selves.
You may hesitate to call purity culture trauma because it feels diminishing to other forms of survivorship. But stating that purity culture is trauma does not minimize other forms of trauma, such as sexual assault, childhood abuse, combat trauma, and so on. Purity culture is closely connected to other forms of trauma, especially sexual abuse, so we want to examine the link between purity culture and other toxic Christian cultures to better understand its context and effects.
But ranking traumas as “who had it worst” is called comparative suffering and it leads to shame and invalidating our own emotions and experience.
I prefer to take a “both/and” perspective on purity culture and trauma.
Both my experience is valid and was traumatic to me and others’ experiences of purity culture (or other toxic cultures and forms of trauma) are valid too.
Because I believe that purity culture is trauma, I use the term “purity culture survivor” to describe those who experienced or grew up with purity culture teachings, and experience problems related to those teachings in their faith, sexuality, and relationships.
Using the term “survivor” may make you uncomfortable.
Perhaps it feels too weighty; “survivor” sounds like your life was threatened. Some of my clients have been uncomfortable with identifying as a survivor because they continue to struggle profoundly with the harm of purity culture. They hardly feel like they are “surviving”. Others reject the term because it confronts them with the reality of the trauma they experienced within purity culture; it makes it feel “too real”.
If you do not experience purity culture as trauma or do not identify as a purity culture survivor, that’s ok. You’re welcome to substitute the terms with what feels right for you. Perhaps you agree with a few of my audience that purity culture was positive for you. If so, I am happy for you. But I encourage you not to dismiss the experiences of those who do call it trauma and to remain open to exploring the (possibly suppressed) effects of purity culture in your life.
Let’s validate the harm–and even trauma–that others of us have felt and allow them to use that term if it feels accurate and empowering to them.
We are purity culture survivors.
* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality of clients.
1 See Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (2017, Routledge).
2 To learn more about religious trauma, see Dr. Laura Anderson, When Religion Hurts You (2023, Brazos Press).
What do you think? Are you a purity culture survivor? Did you emerge unscathed? Do you think you have trauma? Let’s talk in the comments!