A friend shared with me a statement by Elizabeth Smart. When Elizabeth says that we’re taught that our life is worthless and has no value once we’ve been used sexually, she nails it. She was talking about abstinence education, but it applies to the entire “purity doctrine” message females receive. Purity doctrine says sexual assault makes you worthless.
Just to be clear: I fully support parents teaching their children that waiting until marriage is the right thing to do. I fully support young people making that decision to wait. This is NOT to say that abstaining from sex until marriage is a bad thing. I teach my own children that God designed sex to be for a married couple, that it is a way to grow their family and to grow closer to each other and to Him. Also, some churches get it right. They are not the problem.
Sexual abuse ruins everything
Sexual abuse strips you of all dignity, all control. It harms you all by itself. Hearing abstinence/purity doctrines makes it worse because it teaches you that sexual abuse strips you of your value as a woman. I have never heard male victims be told this (though I am aware of their feelings of deep shame associated with being abused), but I’m not saying it’s not possible for them to be given the same message. If you’re a male victim and did get that message, please let me know.
Purity doctrine says sexual assault makes you worthless. People who hold to purity doctrine teach that a female’s value resides between her legs, and there are only three possibilities.
- If she’s unmarried and not a virgin—whether she voluntarily had sex or was raped—she is worthless and no one will ever want her.
- If she’s unmarried and still a virgin, she still has her “value.” As if she’s a piece of property that could rise or fall in worth.
- If she’s married, her sexual purity belongs to her husband (again, as if she’s a piece of property) and all she’s good for is giving her husband sex, babies, and home-cooked meals in the house she cleans.
No matter how much the fundamentalists who subscribe to this way of thinking protest and say they do not think that assault makes a young woman less desirable, it is obvious that they do. I’ve seen proof of it for over 30 years now. It underlies what they say. You’re a chewed piece of gum if you have sex before marriage.
That makes us feel even worse, to be told that we deserve to be thrown away by everyone who loves us, including God, told that we deserve to be rejected by any man we might love and that we are less worthy because we are not virgins.
A young man rejected me as “wife material” because he knew my history, and he had been taught by his church that any woman who wasn’t a virgin when she got married was “damaged goods” and “not worthy” of him. He had played around with innumerable women, several at a time, but he was still technically a virgin, so that made him okay and made me garbage.
Sexual assault and depression
If a girl who is raised in purity culture is assaulted prior to marriage, she will feel even more nugatory than other victims do after being attacked. That feeling alone is enough to lead to suicide, even in someone who was not raised with purity doctrine. How much more depressed and despondent would a person be if they were raised with it? Purity doctrine says sexual assault makes you worthless.
I was molested from the time I was an infant until adulthood. Moreover, my own mother and stepfather held me as a sex slave for years. Different church leaders—in several different denominations—my whole life have told me (some indirectly, some just flat-out) that I was worth nothing, that no one would ever want to marry me, and that I was not allowed to do certain things because I was “not pure.” As if I would infect the other girls! Needless to say, I was depressed!
Some groups teach that a woman is only good for taking care of her husband (sex daily and waiting on him hand and foot), her children, and her home. Christian women in these groups are told that they must service their husbands every time he has a “need.” Entire books have been written on it (see Debbi Pearl for just one example).
For abuse survivors, it’s a miracle if they are ever able to get married or are ever able to stand sex at all. The message, “This is all you’re good for” retraumatizes sex abuse survivors every time they hear it, not to mention that it’s wrong and should not be taught to anyone, even if it is packaged in a pretty bow and labeled “a woman’s highest calling.” Actually, especially if it is packaged that way, because that’s dishonest. At least call it what it is: male domination and female oppression in the name of God. Something tells me He doesn’t like that one bit. And according to every priest and monk I’ve spoken to about it, that is not Orthodoxy.
Abuse survivors need love and acceptance
Anyone who’s been assaulted should have tons of love, acceptance, gentleness, and consideration. They should never be made to feel like they are less than human, that their value depends on their state of virginity, or that God and their family members should love them less now that they have been “defiled.”
All of those things are lies straight from the pit of hell. Stop telling those lies. People say they don’t send that message, that they actually think sexual assault is a horrible thing and that the victims should be helped, and yet they say the victims must have sex with their spouses. They are wrong. They do send that message.
One “leader” even went so far as to tell me that I had to do it at least three times a week, more if my husband wanted it, and preferably multiple times a day, every day.
Make victims feel even worse
Such harm is perpetuated on us by the people who are supposed to love us, because they put emphasis on the wrong thing. When we are used in that way, we are not choosing it. We are not defiled. We are not made dirty. We do not become impure. Our hearts belong to God still.
When we are older, IF we choose to get married, we give our hearts to our spouses. We are faithful. We are pure. The violence perpetrated on us has nothing to do with that. Teach victims that they are STILL PURE, that their assault has nothing whatsoever to do with that, if you value “sexual purity.” I never use that phrase with my kids. I hate that phrase. I teach them that sex is just for their spouse, and that assault has nothing to do with their value or holiness.
Stop degrading women
As a survivor of over 6,000 sexual assaults, at the hands of a number of people, over the course of over 20 years, and as someone who’s had years of counseling and has helped other victims, too, I think it’s pretty safe to say I know what I’m talking about here. I speak out against abuse and those who perpetuate it, especially the ones who don’t know that they are perpetuating it. They can be the most dangerous of all.
Quit telling girls that whether or not they’re a virgin at marriage has anything to do with their worth. Purity is in the heart and it has nothing to do with whether or not we were molested. We honor God with our actions—the only ones we can control: the ones WE take, the ones we take from now on, not the ones someone else takes, ever, and not the ones we took in the past. Our worth has nothing whatsoever to do with sex or sexual abuse. Nothing. Ever.
I have been asked to provide more people’s opinions and experience than just my own 30+ years of experience with it, besides the link to Elizabeth Smart’s statement at the beginning of this post. Here are a few.
Also, someone just told me that I just invented the term “purity doctrine.” Apparently, between the time I published this post and this update (about 8 hours later), I managed to create 7,580,000 Google search results for my new, made-up term. 😉 Sorry, sir, but I didn’t invent it. It’s been around quite a while. Every woman I’ve spoken to who was raised with that teaching who was also molested or raped said that she felt doomed because of that teaching.