By Linda Kay Klein
Hardcover, 352 pages
Reviewed by Janene Cates Putman
Linda Kay Klein’s book debut, PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shattered a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, is a wake-up call to evangelicals, a bold call to healing, and a clarion call for change.
Over a period of twelve years, Ms. Klein talked with hundreds of people raised as girls in evangelical churches, informing the development of PURE. For this book, she specifically conducted over 80 interviews. Her conclusions are heartbreaking, soul-stirring, and full of hope. Set in the context of American evangelical Christianity, Ms. Klein remembers, “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies, and our own sexual natures, all under the strict commandment of the church.” PURE not only demonstrates the harm of what has come to be known as the “purity culture”; it illuminates a pathway to healing and offers a values-based sexual ethic with which to move forward.
The Purity Culture and the Purity Industry
I was a teenager in the early 1980s, so I missed the purity industry. I did not, however, miss the purity culture. For those unfamiliar with it, purity culture purports to encourage Christian young people to save sex for marriage. Yet according to many women raised in it, this was only one of many messages the culture relays. There are also these:
- The most important thing about a girl/woman is her virginity
- Girls/women are responsible for the thoughts and actions of boys/men
- Girls/women are relegated to submissive roles
- Girls/women are a threat against whom boys/men must guard themselves
It doesn’t take much insight to realize this teaching can be harmful to females and also to males, especially during the tender time of adolescence.
PURE is a wake-up call through the author’s telling the real-life stories of real-life women who have been harmed by the teachings of Christian purity culture. “The purity message is not about sex. Rather, it is about us: who we are, who we are expected to be, and who it is said we will become if we fail to meet those expectations. This is the language of shame.”
These teachings became an industry in the early 1990s with organizations like True Love Waits and The Silver Ring Thing. The best illustration of its reach is the production of purity-themed Bibles, which “gave many adolescents the impression that sexual abstinence before marriage was the way for them to live out their faith.” Some events gave teens the opportunity to “sign a purity pledge and give their life to Christ at essentially the same time, again connecting the concepts of salvation and sexual purity.” With this sort of backdrop, women can and do suffer sexual issues throughout their lifetimes.
Male headship theology runs rampant in purity culture. It is the father who is tasked with guarding the daughter’s virginity until he will “give her away” in marriage. The female is made responsible for sexual behavior and thoughts of males in the community. Women are relegated to submissive roles. Females become little more than a threat from which males must constantly and vigilantly guard themselves. Clearly, this is not a stable foundation upon which to build lasting relationships between the sexes.
Just when I thought my head would explode with all the misogyny, the book boldly calls us toward healing. Once we recognize the harm that the purity industry has done and, indeed, continues to do, we have a choice. We can remain the same (that is, damaged and damaging) or we can walk into a better future.
Religious Trauma Syndrome
Ms. Klein and other researchers have identified a series of behaviors, reactions, and feelings as Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). Often RTS mimics other psychological issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Dissociative Personality Disorder, among others. Some women report having panic attacks, anxiety disorders, and depression. For many women, learning about RTS can be the light that shines toward healing. The first step, as always, is admitting there is a problem and naming its source. For too many women, the problem and its source are the teachings of purity culture.
Change and Healing
Change happens in community as we tell our stories. For some of us, talking about sex is frightening; it can be made more so by the addition of religious teachings. Many of us may have had little to no opportunity to share our stories, particularly when shame is wrapped around them. Knowing you are not alone can be life-changing. That is one of the results of Ms. Klein’s book. Through listening to her tell women’s stories openly and honestly, we can be assured that we’re not alone. I am grateful to each woman who courageously shared her story and agreed to be a catalyst for a movement of change.
For some women in the book, their healing took them away from the church as they had always known it. Some have remained out of organized religion altogether, while others have found their way back to a spirituality that is comforting and freeing. Others are still in the evangelical tradition while others have moved toward mainline denominations. The stories in the book demonstrate great diversity and empower the reader to envision different paths to healing.
A Better Way
PURE issues a clarion call for change. The data point to the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sexual education; not only does it tend to leave girls and women with a sense of real shame, it doesn’t meaningfully delay sex nor lower the number of sexual partners. Surely there is a better way. That better way is values-based sexuality education.
The author points out that when asked which of the laws is the greatest, Jesus’s answer “was devastatingly simple: love God, love neighbor, love self. Simple. Not easy. But in that instruction, we have a touchstone for our sexuality…Does our sexual expression show love for God? …love for our neighbor? …love toward self?” We teach our young people to engage with other subjects through their values; why not sex?
One reason may be an insistence on the binary—the idea that everything can be divided into two (and only two) possibilities: everything is good or bad; black or white; wrong or right. Another reason could lie with parents who are reluctant to make sexual information available to their kids and for whom the sexual autonomy of their teenagers is frightening. When faith communities and parents partner together to give young people information and to impart healthy values and boundaries, kids can learn to think for themselves with their values in mind. Values-based sexuality education empowers our young people to have internalized motivation (“I do/don’t do this because of my personal value system”) rather than outward motivation (“I do/don’t do this because of what my parents/church/teacher says”).
Life-changing. Freeing. Healing. Empowering. These are just a few of my takeaways from Linda Kay Klein’s work. There is a way to break free, and this book is a roadmap to that freedom. With bold frankness in sharing her personal story as well as the experiences of others, Ms. Klein invites us along in her journey as friends and co-travelers. For people struggling with the residual damaging effects of purity culture; for parents searching for a better way; for ministers, counselors, and therapists; and for any reader who wants to know more about a troubling movement affecting many young people today, I highly recommend PURE.
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Have you been harmed by purity culture? If so, how? Sharing our stories is the beginning of our healing – let’s start that in the Comments below!