I am excited to introduce my blog readers to the author of this article, Elizabeth Ross. Elizabeth was an early follower of my blog and then later we connected through social media over our shared interest and research on purity culture. I invited her to write this article about the connection between purity culture and religious trauma here on my website while she invited me to share an article on purity culture and shame on her website.
While religion can be a source of healing and support for many people, it can also be a source of trauma and disconnection for others. Elizabeth helps us understand how the unhealthy black and white thinking that some religions promote can lead to damaging purity culture trauma.
Elizabeth has a Masters of Religion and wrote her final Masters project on purity culture. She is currently training to become a spiritual director. I love Elizabeth’s intellectually curious and humble approach in her writing. She is warm and humble while also challenging readers to consider new spiritual perspectives. (Plus, she has a beautiful Instagram!)
Enjoy Elizabeth’s article on purity culture and religious trauma below. And be sure to check out her website, Elizabeth Ross Writes, where you can find my article on purity culture and shame.
Exploring the Connection Between Purity Culture and Religious Trauma by Elizabeth Ross
Faith and trauma have at least one thing in common: they’re rarely one-size-fits-all. Many people value religious beliefs on their healing journey, and many others find religious spaces to be sources of severe pain.1 Because both emerge and interact with each other in different ways, it is important to explore the connection between religious trauma and purity culture.
If you are unfamiliar with purity culture, it can be briefly summarized as a subculture within Christian Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, as well as other conservative groups like Mormonism, that can mirror rape culture in order to enforce sexual abstinence. While at seminary, I was able to spend time researching purity culture as well as Evangelicals’ response to sexual violence in depth and analyze the impact they had on Christian theology and liturgy. Those findings can be accessed here.
What is Religious Trauma?
Religious trauma, according to Marlene Winell, Ph.D. is “the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle.”2 Religious trauma may also be known as “moral injury” or “spiritual wounding,” which you can explore more in this post.
Dr. Winell observes various cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural symptoms of religious trauma.3 All of these may manifest themselves through the body, whether one is aware or not. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. reminds us that “long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists.”4 The combination of these symptoms and signals can be as unique as the person who carries them.
Black and White Thinking
Unpacking religious trauma can be a hefty task, so I would like to focus on just one of the symptoms Dr. Winell notes, black and white thinking. In my own experience and research, it is fairly common in testimonies of purity culture. Black and white thinking is an approach that offers overgeneralized responses to life’s big questions and complexities. Many times it is known as all-or-nothing thinking. Something (or someone) is either all good or all bad, loved or hated, safe or dangerous.5 From this perspective, middle ground may not exist or may be perceived as a threat. Church teachings that reflect this approach may be hyper-focused on absolute truths, God’s judgement, or going to extreme lengths to avoid sin or hell.
These concepts are not inherently abusive, but if they are enforced with fear, shame, or polarization, then they are problematic. Sadly, “thus sayeth the Lord” can be common cover for manipulation. If abusive teachings or behavior come from a church leader or “mouthpiece” of God, it may be hard to separate what the individual is saying versus what God is saying.
Allow me to share three examples of black and white thinking from purity culture. Each of these examples have bigger implications than I have time or space to explain here. I highly recommend the observations of Dr. Celeste Holbrook if you are interested in looking at these on a deeper level.6
1) Safe or Dangerous?
“I can only explore my sexuality in marriage, otherwise I’ll be ruined forever.”
“If I have sex before marriage, I won’t go to Heaven.”
“If I’m a survivor of sexual assault before marriage, I’ll never be lovable again.”
Purity culture demonizes all forms of intimacy and sexual activity that takes place before marriage. These beliefs can be incredibly frightening, especially when inappropriately linked to personhood or salvation. Experiences of sexual assault and abuse may intensify these fears. This approach may cause significant anxiety and difficulty expressing one’s physical or emotional needs for both single and married folks.
Sexual activity certainly has physical and emotional risks associated with it, even in marriage to some degree. It is important to replace common examples of chewed gum or disheveled roses with medically accurate and theologically balanced resources so individuals can make informed choices and compassionately discuss sexual histories and preferences with others.
2) Good or Bad?
“If you wait, sex will always be good in marriage.”
“If I don’t get married, my sexuality goes to waste.”
“If I’m a survivor of sexual assault before marriage, I’ll never be lovable again.”
While marriage is not a reality for everyone, purity culture assumes that heterosexual marriage and penetrative, procreative sex is the goal for everyone. Other sexual activities in marriage, such as masturbation, oral sex, and outercourse, are often debated or given less serious consideration. Singles, couples struggling with infertility or intimacy, and those who do not wish to have children may feel excluded.
Sex is a good gift from God, but there is no guarantee it will happen perfectly every time. This doesn’t make anyone a bad spouse, it simply emphasizes the human element of sex. A narrowly defined understanding of sex limits playful, honest, and consensual exploration of pleasure independent from orgasm or procreation. It may also perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.
3) Protected or Promiscuous?
“She wasn’t wearing a sweater. She was asking for it.”
“If I wear shorts, I’ll always be labelled a slut.”
“I was wearing a tank top. It was all my fault.”
The trouble is modesty can be wildly subjective. Standards for modest dress vary from community to community. This binary sets the stage for victim blaming, where sexual abuse victims are held responsible for their own mistreatment. This also does not allow men the space to take responsibility for their own sexualities.
A Theology of Purity
These examples demonstrate the deceptive pendulum that purity culture often hangs on. Whether it’s been ten minutes or ten years since you left purity culture, black and white thinking has serious implications for how we approach intimacy and sexual expression. It also impacts how we think of and learn about ourselves, others, and our individual and communal relationship with God.
Purity, or holiness, as I like to think of it, is theologically both now and not yet. It is an immediate gift of grace given by Christ, which some may call justification (Romans 3:23-24; 5:1). Even as it is fully present in our lives today, we are continually purified and transformed through the presence and teachings of the Holy Spirit. As we mature and learn, sanctification occurs over our lifetime and may not be fully embodied until we reach Heaven (Romans 12:1-2; 1 Peter 1:2).
Theologies of all good or all bad, safe or dangerous, clean or dirty, do not capture the complexity and nuance of being human or even being a follower of Christ. Extremes and overgeneralized answers are rarely helpful and it is important to approach these issues with humility and respect, both for yourself and scripture. Take courage in the knowledge you are both fully loved and still growing.
Elizabeth Ross is perpetually curious about why people believe and behave they way they do, which inspired her studies for her Master’s of Religion degree focused on Social Ethics and Spiritual Formation. She enjoys a good afternoon behind her sewing machine or walking on the beach with her charming husband, Aaron. Elizabeth writes about Christian spirituality, ethics, and ordinary life at elizabethrosswrites.com. You can also find her on Instagram @elzross.
- Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: BasicBooks, 1997.)
- Bessel van der Kolk M.D, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (London: Penguin Books, 2015.)