Is Purity Culture Trauma?

by | Sep 5, 2023 | Parenting Teens | 14 comments

Is Purity Culture trauma with Dr. Camden Morgante
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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!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

“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:

Unequivocal Yes

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.”

It Depends…

…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.

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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.


She Deserves Better

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).

Is purity culture trauma?

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!

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Camden Morgante

Author at Bare Marriage

Dr. Camden Morgante is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 13 years of experience as a therapist, college professor, and supervisor. She owns a private therapy practice focusing on women’s issues, relationships, sexuality, trauma, and spirituality. She also provides online coaching for purity culture recovery and faith reconstruction. She is currently writing a book on healing from purity culture which will be published in Fall 2024 by Baker Books. Camden lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband and their daughter and son.

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  1. Sequoia

    It’s hard to reckon with the phrase “purity culture is trauma” vs something like “purity culture messages are traumatic.” At the same time, those messages for me caused a lot of shame for things I was that I couldn’t control, namely a female-bodied creature with emotions (read: “not under superhuman self-control”) and attraction to a lot of people. Believing that it was ungodly or unspiritual to not suppress attraction did a number on me. It made me think that God did not want me to be who I naturally was, and only the non-emotional “ideal” version that I was trying to be. (Yes, for the caveat, I recognize God wants me to be like Jesus rather than who I *naturally* am, but that involves becoming more of my personality not less.)

  2. Bernadette

    My sister developed early, which made her a primary target for people who think female bodies are evil. As for me, my body is not very curvy at all, not for a woman, anyway. So I was spared the worst of purity culture.

    If I was less traumatized than my sister was, is that because purity culture isn’t really traumatic, after all? Of course not!

    That would be like being on a battle field. You and your comrade were both getting shot at. But only your comrade got hit. Of course the experience will have a more lasting impact on her!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s a good analogy!

  3. Boone

    I’ve cleaned up several purity culture messes. Most of the time it dealt with promises that were made to these kids that didn’t come through. Promises that if they did everything they were supposed to do they’d have great sex and few if any problems.
    That doesn’t even get into the woes of those that had sex before marriage. Those kids were damaged goods and could never have the same level of happiness as those who abstained. You tell somebody that they are sub standard long enough soon they’ll start believing it.

    • Nessie

      Agreed. If you grew up in purity culture but failed to remain pure, then at least a couple things happened (for females) if you had premarital sex (even though the guy was really pushing you into it): you felt enormous guilt for being a “s!ut,” and then when sex was/is painful, you fully bought into the “I caused this and deserve this because I was/am a s!ut” mentality and figure it’s none but your own fault and you don’t bother trying to do anything about it for decades. You also figured you couldn’t really stop dating this guy because who else would have you now, right? No other decent Christian guy, that’s for sure. You have been told ad nauseum you are “damaged goods.”

      I’m glad some escaped largely unscathed, but some of us that didn’t are really struggling decades later still. I appreciate that some responses shared by Dr. Camden’s readers graciously acknowledged that it could hurt others even if they were ok.

  4. Jo R

    Well, let’s see. Men and boys get a complete pass on, um, basically everything, simply because they’re male, while females are reduced to the condition of their hymens.

    Why would either of those mindsets cause problems? 🙄 🤮

    • Suzanne

      It truly is gross how a girls virginity status is all she is worth, having sex prior to marriage does not make anyone damaged goods, female or male. Hymens often stretch or tear doing activities that are not sexual activities. Placing such value on the state of some tissue is idiotic.

      • Emmy

        Yes indeed, gross is the right word. I did not grow up in Purity Culture exactly, I mean, I was not right in the middle of it. I was already married when I started to hear these purity messaged to be preached in my church. It made me feel uncomfortable, though, and I was thinking how horrible it must be to be a young girl and constantly hear these reflections about the status of your hymen. I would feel stripped naked as a young girl if I had to listen to that. Bah! I don’t think Purity Culture is pure at all. On the contrary, like you said, it is gross. I doubt if some of those preachers who preached those “hymen sermons” had such pure minds at all. I’m rather inclined to believe that they were engaged in some kind of voyeuristic mind games that were quite unclean. And yes, I definitely believe one can be traumatized by being around people like that and hearing their stuff.

  5. Perfect Number

    This is so real. Yeah for me, purity culture was trauma.

  6. Lisa Johns

    It was purity culture attitudes that led me into a marriage I would NEVER have entered if *I* had been the one doing the thinking, and purity culture attitudes that kept me there as said marriage slowly destroyed me. If it’s not a trauma in and of itself, it sure does lead to it.

  7. Marcy

    I thought, because of purity training, that if I did everything right, I’d have a “fairytale life.” That it was the equation for stability and godliness. This led to nearly 20 years trying to please an unpleasable man… and being obligated to have sex whenever he wanted it, regardless of how he treated me. My faith was called into question anytime I was tired or sad.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Marcy. I hope you’re safe now.

  8. Emmy

    I did not exactly grow up in purity culture. When purity culture became a “thing” I had already been married for about 10 years.

    Yes, before we got married we were taught at church to be careful and we were taught sex before marriage was not OK. Saving sex for marriage was considered as a matter of obedience to God. It was a simple thing, actually. As Christians, we were supposed to obey God’s instructions, and not just obey them but also do it willingly and from our hearts, because we loved God and we knew that His instructions were for the best.

    Little by little, Purity Culture became a movement, and it began to spread all over the world. We lived on the other side of the Globe, but we heard about Joshua Harris and his book Kissing Dating Goodbye, and churches in our city organized True Love Waits campaigns and attracted many young people. I believe our corner of the Earth was spared from the worst and weirdest stuff, such as purity rings or purity balls or “courting” in Joshua Harris style. I still do not know about a church in my country that would have practiced those things. When I first heard the word “purity ball” I mistook it for some round object, and I wondered ¨how on earth such a thing was used. A purity ring, – yes, that was weird, but I could understand the idea. You put it on your finger as a pledge or as a reminder to stay pure. But what on earth did they do with “purity balls”? Did they perhaps give a ring to a girls and a ball to a guy? And how would such a thing look like? Was it made of glass, or metal, or some other stuff…

    You may laugh at me, but I really did not know. When I finally find out it was a dance party, I had to laugh myself! 😀

    We did hear some Purity Culture preaching, though, occasionally even in our own church. We were not deeply touched nor damaged by it, because it was something occasional. It was not a part of our daily diet, so to speak. It was a big thing in America, and we heard some echoes of it in our churches. In hindsight, however, they certainly were most unhealthy teachings. If I had been exposed to them more regularly, I would have been traumatized by them.

    “The virtue of a woman is her virginity.”

    Yes, when you hear that, or something similar, once or twice or so now and then, you may let it pass as a weird American thing, something out of balance. You shake it off and you try to listen to the rest of the sermon, at least, if you are grown up and if you have some experience in life. On the other hand, if you are very young and you get exposed regularly to PC teaching in your church, by your pastor whom you trust, or even in your own home by your very own parents, there seems to me no escape: it will have a damaging effect on you.

    The worst thing about this PC teaching is that it is not pure! I don’t believe it is possible for a preacher or a youth worker to keep his (or her) heart and mind pure if he (or she!) constantly speaks about or concentrates on the “virginity” of young girls. No, this PC teaching is creepy. As parents, we should not expose our sons or daughter to it.

  9. Chelsea

    I knew I would have some struggle with “flipping the switch” from sex being a bad thing before marriage to it being a good thing afterwards. I had heard about women who struggled with this and knew it would be a challenge for me. It wasn’t until I started looking into the messages I received as a young girl that I realized it goes so much deeper than that. I’ve been working with a therapist to deconstruct these negative ideas that affect the way I think and act and can connect with my partner. Comments made by Pastors or others up front seem harmless or a funny joke are not harmless. They get under our skin and unless you are aware enough to recognize those comments, they can easily become part of your believe system and cause all these affects of trauma that were mentioned. It takes intentional work to break these ideas and reconstruct a healthy view of sex. I’m glad I found this blog and podcast before I got married so I can do this work now.


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