The Gays and Sexual Purity: How Purity Culture Impacted My Views of Sex and Sexuality

If you’ve been following the Exvangelical movement at all, I’m sure you have noticed a really powerful push to deconstruct purity culture. There is a fight against the beliefs that our sexual worth can be linked to the number of people who we have engaged in sexual activity with, or that our bodies are a source of sin for those who look at them out of lust, and it is our responsibility to prevent others from having those desires, that there is no difference between sexual abuse and sex before marriage, or that our virginity is more important than our inherent value as human beings. In the last few weeks especially, the conversation around purity culture has exploded with the high profile apology of one of its biggest -once-advocates, Joshua Harris. I’d like to keep this conversation going if I can. 

Seeing as much of the dogma surrounding purity culture is inherently related to the concept of women’s virginity and sexual activity, it has often been women who have been involved in the deconstruction of this process, and it has often been women who have shared their stories. This is apt, because they have suffered most at the hands of these beliefs about sexuality. It is predominantly through women’s stories that we have thus far understood how these teachings have complicated and warped the beauty of human sexuality.

Another place, though, where sexuality has been mishandled in the context of purity culture is with the LGBT community. While often my “sins” were often relegated to more general “sinful living,” their ties to sex placed them directly alongside purity culture’s legalisms and in my own experience the two have often been played alongside one another to create a monster of damaged sexuality.

In my own experience, purity culture primarily had to do with “saving” myself for the marriage bed. My body was framed as belonging to someone else (i.e. your future spouse) and any deviation from that was shameful and against God’s plan for our bodies and for sex. This seems to have been aimed most often at the women around me (though not always) and their bodies were often described in dehumanizing metaphors. Some of these compared them to tape, that after each reapplication to a surface slowly loses its stickiness (and therefore its usefulness to the person using the tape), or to gum that has already been chewed and then passed on to another person. 

I have come to understand that these are incredibly common comparisons that have been used over and over again in these kinds of communities.

Not only are these metaphors and the associated teachings incredibly disrespectful to people who have engaged in sex outside of marriage (your worth is NOT linked to the number of people you have slept with regardless of what your youth pastor insinuated) but they create a worldview that begins to equate sex with dirtiness or sexual shame when not done in the right contexts. I know people who have been told that if sex was not done right it would create trauma for them in future relationships, or that sex outside of marriage was somehow equivalent to rape because your body did not belong to you, but to the person you married, and therefore you were violating that person’s right to your body.

These teachings seem to have very often resulted in a sexual culture that has a great deal of trouble rejoicing in sex. Because of its association with shame, carrying those feelings of shame over into healthy sexual relationships, even ones that exist within marriages, can cause a whole lot of dissatisfaction and guilt within those relationships. There are countless different perspectives among exvangelicals who are in the process of unpacking these ideologies but the general consensus among individuals is this: whether God created sex as something for 2 people to engage in exclusively or not, the means that the evangelical community, and to some extent the greater christian community in general, has used to engage with this topic have produced some very bad fruit.

For myself, and many other LGBT people who grew up in the church, sexuality was something that was not only dirty outside of marriage, but also an untouchable facet of my own identity. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that we were not only susceptible to the damage of purity culture of the heterosexual variety, but our sexualities were often described in the extremes of sinfulness. Instead of my attractions being a normal part of my adolescence, we were taught that the sex that I had would be the most heinous of any of these extramarital activities.

Let me explain that a little further. My sexuality was framed in a way that demanded that my sex be dangerous and lecherous. I know so many gay Christians, especially, whose first sexual experiences were with men almost 3 times their age, because they felt that their sexuality wasn’t worth more than that. Instead of trying things out with peers, we feel pushed to extremes, because what is normal for others did not feel accessible to us. In other words, my only options were to engage in unhealthy sexual activities, because my sexuality had never been described to me in healthy ways.

As a result of a lot of these teachings, i believe my own self worth became very closely tied to sexuality. Any sex that I did have meant that I was not living up to a standard that my family, my community, and I had held myself to, and any failure was a failure forever. One sexual experience, and I no longer had any basis to claim sexual value, because my body and my mind had been tainted by the trauma that I was told would accompany these extramarital sexual acts.

This was very closely coupled with the idea that my entire sexuality was flawed. Even as I began the process of engaging with Side A theologies, I could not shake this idea that I was somehow less valuable as a sexual being than someone who engaged in straight sex. The first time I had sex with someone it was therefore not someone I cared for. I did not think I would ever have any kind of healthy close relationship with someone else at that point in my life, and so I ended up making decisions that cause me a great deal of emotional pain.

My pain was not a result of  any kind of truth about sex that I was taught in my adolescence, but rather the result of an inability to see my sexuality as something worth rejoicing in. The concepts of sexual purity alongside my own inability to reconcile my sexuality to faith in any way, led to an exploration of sexuality on my own that was was secret and caused me a great deal of shame.

This was one of the biggest reasons that I did not come back to the Church for years after I had become sexually active. At that time I still believed those standards to be true. The shame I felt as a result of my failure to uphold those standards kept me away from actually processing them. It was too difficult when I could not bring myself to find support, especially not from family or friends who had been crucial in teaching me these cultures. I felt like I was completely alone in the world.

This is the legacy of purity culture in my life: a battle with feelings of self worth and sexual shame that was derived out of some potentially ill advised sexual activities. I made a lot of stupid mistakes when it came to sex, and my purity culture upbringing ensured that I never talked about them with anyone who could genuinely help me find my way out of the hole I had dug. Purity culture’s intentions of creating an environment of sexual purity resulted almost exclusively in the self-exclusion of this gay kid who had no idea how else to talk about sex except through metaphors of virginity loss and scare tactics.

I don’t want this for other people. I want people to be able to see themselves as beautiful in the eyes of God, and of others. I especially want people to see themselves brimming with self worth. I don’t think that purity culture allows for this. I think it is important that we continue in this process of deconstruction. Otherwise, we leave other young gay kids vulnerable to the same feelings of abandonment and shame that I put myself through for years, and that is not okay.

 

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