Guilty Mind, Guilty Body, Guilty Soul: (Im)Purity Culture in the American Catholic Church
At the age of 10, Jane peered down at a pristine white flower. “Look at the flower in your hand, Jane. Notice how perfect it is,” Alba said, “How pure. Now mija, crumple it up. Now try to make it look new again. Go on. That’s right. You can never go back. And that’s what happens when you lose your virginity.” This scene, simple as it was in the prologue of CW’s Jane the Virgin, was the one of the first examples of purity culture and its damaging impact on female identity and future relationships on television. This lesson, imbued by Jane’s conservative Catholic grandmother Alba, would define Jane’s relationships for the remainder of the show, which was explicitly named after her sexual “status” as a virgin.
This flower is only one example of the lessons and objects that have defined American, specifically Catholic, purity culture. For a generation of young women coming into their own between the 1990s and early 2000s, purity rings, True Love Wait pledges, virginity candles, and white roses embodied their blossoming sexuality. Stacy Henning recalls a similar example with a rose, where “every time you have sex with someone, you pull a petal off the rose.”
Raised in the height of the Purity Movement in the 1990s and early 2000s, Henning is one of many young girls who were given striking visuals about their own virginity: “a piece of sticky tape (the bonding that is intended between spouses isn’t effective if you’ve already stuck the tape somewhere else) and a piece of chewing gum (who wants to chew gum that someone else has already chewed?).” For Henning, girls were taught that their entire value, or at least most of their vested value as a part of a Catholic community, was their virginity.
Although most contemporary reflection on purity culture has focused primarily on evangelical Christianity’s Purity Movement between the 1990s and 2000s, the Catholic catechism, youth bibles, and religious education of many young Catholic women now in their 20s and 30s are beginning to feel the impact of this Movement on their subsequent relationships and sexual identities. It’s about time that the American Catholic community reckon with the impact of this Movement on its young women. As Rhonda Miska for U.S. Catholic notes, “comparing a person who has sex outside of marriage to a rose with all its petals picked off, a piece of tape that is no longer sticky, or a piece of chewed-up gum leads to guilt, shame, and anxiety.”
Typically, many people associate purity culture with evangelical Christianity in the United States. Linda Kay Klein, a woman who joined an evangelical Christian church at the age of 13, wrote about her personal experiences with sexual shaming in Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free. While her book triggered pushback and greater recognition about the harmful effects of purity culture, there are few, if any, forums dedicated to discussing the trauma of this culture in Catholic communities, specifically for young people just now beginning to see the long-term impact on their sexual growth. The importance of connecting purity culture to the Catholic Church lies in how the Church has navigated sexual education for young women and how purity culture is immediately connected to bodily harm, hatred, and sexual abuse.
CatholicMatch+, a central match-making platform for Catholics in the United States, argues that “Catholic teaching holds a healthy, holistic view of sexuality that takes into account the whole person, not just the urge to have an orgasm.” The issue with this argument, leaning heavily on John Paul II’s theology of the body is that CatholicMatch+’s Chris Easterly, “had to find it out on my own, as an adult, be delving into the writings of John Paul II and other Catholic thinkers.” In his own words, “the Catholic sexual ethic may be the Church’s best kept secret.”
The problem with this secret is that many young Catholic girls were not in on it, and many received a very different message. It is only recently, namely in the last five years, that the American public has been grappling with the legacy of female harassment and shame, with the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. The young people of the 1990s-2000s, raised in a resurged purity culture Klein calls the Purity Movement, are just now beginning to realize that the abstinence-only promises of their youth are interfering with their sexual relationships and families. Amid this purity campaign, young Catholic women, alongside their Christian evangelical counterparts, were learning a warped version of female sexuality.
For one example, think of True Beauty: Femininity and Chastity for Young Women, published by YDisciple in January 2018. As Ignatius Press explains, “if young women listen to the world, they’ll believe that sex is a tool to help them get what they want and lead to the love they are looking for.” In response, “this study will help them understand their dignity and become women of true beauty.” YDisciple explains that this four-session study provides the key information, “giving sound and clear-headed arguments for a God-inspired view of the gift of sex as a self-giving act of love and creation reserved for marriage.”
Personally, I remember a similar type of girls-only retreat program, known by the same name, where my middle-school peers and I were asked to pray for our husbands to find us and realize our soul-deep beauty (before a makeover session). These lessons drew heavily on the idea of affirming our bodily purity, or virginity, through physical promises, like placing a white rose on the altar. The timeline of my experience in the early 2000s, along with the experiences of numerous other Catholic women, is not an accident. Sarah Moslener, author of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, specifically ties this surge of purity culture as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 1960s through 1980s as well as white Protestant fear about preserving the white, heterosexual American family.
Sandi Villarreal writing for Sojourners has highlighted how women who grew up or still exist within abstinence-only religious communities are creating and uplifting storytelling opportunities and resources, reshaping the religious contexts in which they raise their children. In particular, the No Shame Movement and Queer Theology community are dedicated to crafting spaces for people struggling with the long-term impact of shame on their sexual identity, sexual education, relationships, and faith. Alongside this push to dismantle purity culture and reckon with its impact on a generation, there is the growing realization that purity culture has also been tied to body dysmorphia among young women and body hatred.
Purity rhetoric colors female beauty and the female body as a threat, a hurdle for men, and in doing so, devalues women, whether or not they are abstinent. In response to the question, “How do you stay pure?,” Jason Evert for the Catholic Education Resource Center advises that “regardless of the time or place, if you wish to make purity easier, avoid the situations that are an occasion of sin. Avoid relationships with girls who will only bring out the worst in you. Instead, date a woman with high standards, someone you can see yourself marrying.” Author of the book Pure Manhood (Chastity Project, 2007), Evert points to the idea of avoiding situations where women can put men at risk of sin, but in doing so, it focuses on avoiding women as well and placing the burden of fault on female bodies.
The shame that women feel for the inherent threat of their sexual bodies, as well as their sexual thoughts, is highly problematic. As Rachel Asproth for CBE International explains, “in some purity circles, desire/bodily feelings of any kind were treated like a moral shortcoming, and girls’ periods/reproductive systems were rarely discussed. As a young evangelical, I didn’t know anything about my body.” At the same time, Asproth notes, “girls also learned to distrust their own bodies, which after purity (and sometimes even before) became obstacles to men’s devotion to God.” This distrust of the female body and lack of sexual education is why purity culture itself is a central enabler for sexual abuse in American church communities, where survivors never learned about consent and were/are often blamed and shamed.
It is no secret that sexual abuse has a long and twisted history in the American Catholic Church. As trauma researcher Hannah Paasch explained, “you have these sexual rules that are very strict and young people who are very uninformed about their bodies or about what it means to make conscious sexual decisions; they’re told to repress, repress, repress. And then someone takes advantage of you, and you don’t even know what consent is; you’ve never been taught.” When a woman reports sexual abuse or assault in a church, the survivor is often blamed, forced to be held accountable for the suggestibility of her sexuality, her lack of modesty. Therefore, it is especially critical to acknowledge and dismantle purity culture in the American Catholic Church because in a religion that is focused a great deal on embodiment of spiritual practice, purity culture can silence survivors from coming forward.
Along with sexual abuse, purity culture also plays a key role perpetuating homophobia in the Catholic Church. Both women and LGBTQIA+ individuals grew up in a church that told them, through religious education lessons and homilies explicitly and implicitly, that their sexual thoughts, experiences, and attractions are impure, unholy, and sinful. While the Catholic Church has held fast against blessing same-sex marriages, Pope Francis recently endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples in the documentary Francesco, released at the Rome Film Festival in October 2020.
While Pope Francis said that queer Catholics have a right to be part of the family and that they are children of God, he has stopped short of endorsing same-sex unions in the Church or affirming non-binary gender identities. In June 2019, the Vatican released, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” which says that trans people do not exist, equating this identity to an “ideology” that seeks to disrupt nature. This targeted pushback against nonbinary identity has been further reinforced by Catholic leadership in the United States. Similarly in December 2021, the Diocese of Marquette compared trans people to those “suffering from anorexia nervosa” and stating that those in same-sex relationships and transgender members were prohibited from being baptized or receiving the Eucharist until they had repented. For queer members of the Catholic Church, purity culture can have an equally damaging impact.
Purity culture in Catholicism is not a new idea, especially for a Church that is known for using guilt and shame to discourage sinfulness. There’s something to be said for the effectiveness of Catholic guilt, but when intertwined with the Purity Movement of the late 1990s and 2000s, Catholic purity culture can have an incredibly damaging effect on the identities and health of young Catholic women. While past and present members of the evangelical Christian community in the United States have developed resources, like ThankGodForSex.org, “a community-build website” led by therapist Tina Schermer Sellers, podcasts, and purity culture recovery coaching, the American Catholic community has remained largely silent on the issue.
It’s time to stop living in silence. American comedian John Mulaney in his monologue for Saturday Night Live in March 2019 even referenced this impact of Catholic guilt on his own marriage, “you know that strange look of shame and unhappiness I have in my eyes at all times, especially after sex.” If the Catholic Church is committed to reckoning with its own history, both of sexual abuse and continued homophobia and transphobia, explicitly acknowledging the impact of purity culture on young women is an essential step to heal. Not only do women need mental health resources to work through the trauma of this culture, but they also need broader recognition of the problem. Jane and Alba’s lesson was just the beginning—it’s time to start a longer, much more complicated and uncomfortable conversation.
Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a museum professional and religious ethnographer based in Washington, D.C. She is interested in the curation and care of material religious objects in museum settings as a way to promote interreligious discussion, discovery, and healing, particularly related to the intersections of gender, sexuality and religion.