Until recently, I had never heard the phrase ‘purity culture.’ It never occurred to me that the nearly idolatrous ideal of the virginal, pure, and modest woman could ever play any role in sexual abuse and its subsequent depression. I never imagined that, of the women who ‘cover up,’ many struggle with issues of guilt, shame, and disgust at their bodies. I was more of a tomboy in my youth, and my parents never needed to lecture me about purity or modesty. The only time I was lectured about my clothing was when my mother took one look at an outfit I had picked out and said, “Are you trying to be a boy?” Whenever I heard purity lectures in public – such as in church – I would immediately tune out, thinking that the contents of what was being said did not apply to me. And it didn’t.
That being said, I consider myself an outsider to this conversation. I cannot claim to have any grasp of the horrific experiences that many women have endured, and I certainly cannot claim to have any idea of the big picture of ‘purity culture’ and its effects on women. Yet, the more I read and learn about the topic, I cannot help but find myself struck by the notion that what we are calling “purity culture” is not at all true purity culture. Our ideas of purity are completely off-base, and perhaps this is the reason why so many women find themselves hurt and angry after their encounters with it.
Purity, as we have come to know it, is focused on three intricately connected ideas. The first is that purity is only and entirely for the woman. The biggest complaint I have heard regarding purity culture is that it gives men a free pass to help themselves to our bodies whenever we go somewhere or wear something that is considered to be sexual in nature. One of the more popular incidents demonstrating this sort of logic happened in 2011, when a Toronto police officer told women that they could avoid being sexually assaulted if they did not dress like “sluts.” This implies that men have no control over their actions, and that women who dress a certain way will get what they deserve. This comment rightfully sparked outrage among women on this side of the globe. But true purity is not as one-sided as we have come to believe; it is as much for men as it is for women. In a culture of true purity, a man is fully responsible not only for his actions toward women, but for his intentions toward women. A man of true purity will defend your honor and your chastity – whether you are a virgin or not – by not going any farther than your consent. A man of true purity understands the influence and – let’s face it – the upper hand he has in society, and will not use that advantage to gratify his sexual desires. Instead, he will use his influence to allow you to gain an advantage as well.
Because our misguided ideas about purity are centered only on the woman, we find that many women have started to feel ashamed of their bodies in some way or another and so cover them up. I am not against modest dressing, but I think shame our reason for modest dressing – shame – causes more emotional damage than bodily good. The seemingly more common feelings of shame lie in a woman’s belief that her body is not good enough. We are so indoctrinated with the media’s ideals of beauty that we become blind and oblivious to the inherent beauty that is every woman’s body. The seemingly less common feelings of shame lie in a woman’s belief that her body is something that provokes lust and what some might term ‘sinful desires’ in men. Thus, we have one group of women who cover up because they feel that they are not beautiful enough to entice a man, and another group of women who cover up because they are afraid to entice a man. Both miss out on the fact that true purity has nothing to do with covering up a woman’s ability or inability to entice a man. True purity is about one’s inherent worth. It celebrates the female anatomy for the sake of the female anatomy! The female body is beautifully designed to possess softness and strength, to be both fragile and resilient, to bear the nearly unimaginable pain of reproduction and yet retain its grace and magnificence. The male body, for all its glorious wonder, could never do what the female body does. I don’t like to make blanket statements, but I can’t imagine that a woman who truly loves and respects her body for what it is would be willing to run around half-dressed. We protect what is most valuable to us. No one runs around with one hundred dollar bills and diamonds hanging out of their back pocket. Why? We understand what they are worth. In the same way, a woman who dresses modestly for the sake of men, or because of her feelings of physical inferiority, is not acting out of true purity.
Finally, our ideas of purity seem to center around outward appearance and public opinion. I’m sure we’ve all heard our mothers or older women in our lives say something akin to, ‘You’re going to wear that!? What will people think?” In that same vein, false purity also causes us to judge others. We’re nearly all guilty of seeing a scantily-clad woman pass by and giving our friends a facial expression that says, ‘Do you see what she’s wearing!?’ We can’t ask men to stop thinking of women as sexual objects on the basis of appearance while simultaneously thinking of each other as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ on that same basis. If a woman is comfortable in her clothes – even more so if she’s not – who are we to judge? True purity focuses on the heart’s intentions. In everything we do, there are motives. And pure motives usually have little to do with gaining the approval of others.
The definition of purity implies that one is free from contamination. In order to be truly pure, both men and women must be freed from the contaminated ideals of false purity. We must be freed from the idea that purity is one-sided. We must be freed from the idea that as women, our bodies are somehow shameful or unworthy. We must be freed from the pressures of pleasing others with our appearance and, to aid in that, we must be freed from the judgments we pass on one another. With a purity culture like that, our world would be absolutely revolutionized.