My experience with purity culture can be summed up in a silver dress.
I was in high school, preparing to attend my boyfriend’s senior prom. My parents had agreed to let the two of us go out shopping alone together for my dress. We had browsed through several dresses when I found it: a gorgeous silver A-line gown with a balloon hem and tiny rhinestone flowers across the top. At just $79, it was perfect. I came out of the dressing room with it on, and my boyfriend said something to the effect of, “You look breathtaking.”
But…it had spaghetti straps.
We agonized for close to an hour. Would my parents approve of this dress? Was the neckline too low? Were my shoulders too bare? I couldn’t stand the thought of bringing it home only to have to return it…or worse, endure another round of nit-picking. It had happened so many times before: my parents standing over me while carefully eyeing a pair of shorts or a dress I had on, and my dad sucking his teeth and muttering, “I don’t know. I don’t like how it looks.”
More than anything, I didn’t want that.
I had been steeped in purity culture from the womb, but I didn’t really notice it until I began approaching puberty. My first experience was learning that my fellow preacher’s daughters weren’t allowed to wear shorts. “We wear culottes,” they explained, “because they’re longer. Dad says shorts are a sin.”
Despite living in sweltering Florida summers with beaches five minutes from anywhere, we rarely went. Mom said it was because of the sand. But it was also because “boys might be there,” and swimming with boys was “mixed bathing.”
It got worse when I started summer camp. The camp pool was in an open field surrounded by a privacy fence. Girls and boys had separate swim times, and everyone walked to and from the pool fully clothed. The counselors would even distract us to keep us from looking at the swim groups that were coming and going. Yet there existed no bathing suit modest enough for me to wear in front of other girls. I swam in shorts and a t-shirt. At least I wasn’t alone. My aunt, who was a camp coordinator, swam in a full skirt and socks.
My body was constantly sexualized and strictly policed.
Shopping for clothes caused me outright anxiety for years—and sometimes still does. I learned to be uncomfortable in makeup. I got my ears pierced at age 12, and my cousin informed me that my grandmother was rolling in her grave. Having grown, middle-aged men evaluate and comment on my clothing was considered normal. By the time I entered high school, I was hiding my body underneath men’s jeans and XL t-shirts.
All of this was done, supposedly, to protect me from boys who only had one thing on their minds. From the boys, perhaps. But from the men, no.
The father who hawed about my hemlines molested me when I was 8 years old. He never did it again, but I never escaped his gaze, either. He preached modesty and propriety, then walked in on me countless times while I was changing (For years, I wasn’t allowed to lock my bedroom door). He’d mutter disapprovingly at “under-dressed” women in public, then—unbeknownst to the family—solicit a prostitute for the evening. I shuddered every time I heard him speak adoringly of a preschool girl in a pretty dress.
When I was 11, a missionary staying in our home assaulted me by pulling me into a bear hug and stroking my breast. The preacher who called shorts “a sin” didn’t believe me when I came forward.
When I got to high school youth group, I learned that I was a rose who gave away her petals every time she did anything sexual with a male. I still wanted to make it to the marital altar with something to offer my future husband. The question was, how much could be given (or taken by force) before all my petals were gone? My sexual feelings had been awakened for so long, they were beginning to burn out of control.
All I really wanted was some safe affection. But in purity culture, there was either no touch or sexual touch. And I couldn’t live without touch.
I fell in love with a boy at school. Someone I knew would treat me with respect. But I didn’t know that I already had a reputation for getting too physical. He told me about a white box that his youth group had passed around. They had first dipped their fingers in ink, so the box gathered many fingerprints. He asked me if I wanted to be like that box.
I knew then that he would never date me.
I went to my boyfriend’s prom in a plain purple dress with a higher neckline and wider straps. My parents were happy. I rode home with my boyfriend’s hand in my pantyhose.
I still think about that silver dress. I remember the way the fabric felt in my hand, the way it moved when I walked, the way it glittered and caught the light. I think about how my life might have been different if I had been raised with a different sort of message—that my entire value as a wife and as a person isn’t determined by the length of my dress or by how many men have touched me. That my purity is in Christ alone.
Maybe it wouldn’t have taken me three years to initiate sex with my husband.
Maybe I would have had more success in landing a job after college.
Maybe I could have shopped for clothes or worn makeup without my stomach tying itself into knots.
Maybe I could have gone to the beach without looking over my shoulder.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been abused and assaulted by “men of God.”
Maybe I would have been the belle of the ball.
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