Purity doctrine says sexual assault makes you worthless

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Damaged goods

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!

Female oppression

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.

Update:

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.

Purity culture teaches women to put up with abuse.

It’s not okay to say no to sex with your husband, because his needs are all that matter. 

You will be like a cup of everyone’s spit if you are not a virgin when you get married. 

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.

15 thoughts on “Purity doctrine says sexual assault makes you worthless

  1. Your entire premise seems to rest on something you call The Purity Doctrine.

    First of all “Purity Doctrine” is something you have made up so you can act as if the church has codified misogynistic behaviors into some kind of canonical teaching. I can find no reference to anything called a purity doctrine, ESPECIALLY a teaching that says some of the silly statements quoted here as if some group actually has as a statement of faith:

    “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”

    You know very well you have constructed this doctrine to condemn the Christian church with a straw man of your own hyperbolic invention.

    I have no evidence that you have written this with malice, so I am trying to address your writing with respect to what you say you have experienced. I don’t discount your experiences, nor am I trying to demean them, but you are painting the Christian Church with FAR too broad a brush.

    You wrote “Christian women are told that they must service their husbands every time he has a “need.” This statement alone is so easliy refuted as to be worthless except as a symptom of your own prejudice. It is just not true, and it causes everyone who reads it to question your motive for saying it.’

    You also said: “No matter how much the fundamentalists who subscribe to this way of thinking protest and say they do not think that way; they do.” Do you not know this is a gratuitous assertion? Who are the fundamentalists? On what authority do you assert that people believe a thing when they say they do not? This isn’t even anecdotal, much less empirical!

    Your case of abuse is extraordinary to say the least. So extreme perhaps, that you have practically no experience with healthy relationships, sexual and otherwise. No experience with healthy leadership or churches and I would submit you cannot possibly speak to what these normal churches, leaders, parents, husbands, etc believe about women or sexuality.

    I guess what I am saying is that your bitterness over your own experience is poisoning your writing and may poison the very well people look to in a dry place. OR you are a not very clever “agent provacateur” against the church of Christ. In either case, this post is decidedly unhelpful to anyone.

    • Terry, your words are cruel and arrogant. I hope you can find a way to pray for people and care for them instead of hurling accusations at the oppressed. Your behavior here is anti-Christ. Please reconsider your actions toward God’s precious sheep.

    • Terry, are you smoking crack? Your first paragraph is a bald faced lie. Whether through ignorance or malice, it is still false. The term and ideas have been around since the mid 80s, and in use by numerous people. If you think you have something to add to this discussion, please do some research (google is a good start), and then please put some charity into the mix before commenting. As it stands, you come across as both ignorant and an uncaring jerk. Sorry for the harshness, but you kind of asked for it.

      • Dr. Fundystan, THANK YOU so much for coming out to support JR!! You are one of my favorite “Wartburgers,” if that’s a term, & it made me so happy to see you here. Would you mind spreading the word, now that you’ve seen how bad it was? JA is going to help too. ;).

    • Dear Terry,

      JR has already responded to you, in her addendum above. I hope you’ll take advantage of the links she provided and educate yourself. The term “purity doctrine” is most certainly NOT something she made up.

      More than anything, I want to address your accusation of JR trying to discredit the whole church of Christ with her article. On the face of it, that’s simply false. She notes early on that not all churches subscribe to “purity doctrine” teachings. Her criticisms are directed at a subset of Christendom in the U.S. (one that I hope is still fringe). She is plainly not trying to “condemn the Christian church”, and is in no danger of doing so.

      I hope that you will apologize to JR for your thoughtless behaviour towards her, and to Taylor Joy, who has (on another blog) spoken well of you and been perplexed by what you have written here. Taylor Joy seems to believe in you, Terry. Please don’t let that be for nothing.

  2. Many years ago, when I was hanging out with some teens, one of the girls confided that she had been raped while drunk at a party, “so I am not a virgin.” (This was a discussion of experience, not worth). One of the young men, a God-fearing boy of 17, gave her a gentle hug, said he was sorry that happened, and, “you ARE a virgin, to me.” I was proud of him then, and still am. He got it right.

    • I’m glad he was gentle and kind to her, and that you were able to witness it and share that here. May God bless him for trying to make her feel better.

  3. I wish you would remove Terry’s comment as it adds nothing to the topic and it is one of the most cruel responses I have heard when someone shares part of their story.

    I cannot imagine how you survived your childhood, I am sick at heart for what you experienced at the hands of your family. However, I love that you are able to name what you suffered, and I love that you have gotten good counseling & have worked on that excruciating shame that comes with sexual abuse. Bravo to you for speaking out.

    And for what is worth, I grew up in a violent, abusive, non church going family, I was a wild hellion till I had a encounter with Jesus when I was twenty-eight yrs old. You can probably guess how the virgin loving crowd responded to my story. Funny, how Jesus doesn’t throw stones & hung around with a redeemed whore, reminds me of the story of the woman who said, O, I love Jesus, its his kids that I can’t stand.

    • Gail, you can blame me for that one: I asked JR to approve Terry’s comment, because it’s a hard-hitting example of the OTHER type of abuse that happens to survivors–> they speak out, & then people don’t believe them. Or worse, the survivor is blamed for the abuse. JR is probably my best “blogging friend,” and has such a valuable story to tell. I hope others see her boldness, & are encouraged to share their own stories. <3

    • Gail, thank you. Supportive comments like yours are helpful to survivors. I hope others read most of the comments on this post and draw what they need from them. God can and does use even the “worst” things for good.

      As for how I survived, it really was a “God thing,” even though I didn’t see that while it was happening. It felt like He had abandoned me to a life of hell. It was only later that I recognized all the life lines and angels He had sent my way. I never had a problem telling people what was happening/had happened to me (and no, nothing was done about it, even with all the people I told), and by the grace of God I never bought the lie that it was my fault, so it was easier than it would have been otherwise—though it was still extremely hard. I lived with depression, anxiety, dissociation, PTSD, etc. for several years. I was always able to talk about it, but it did take me a long time before I was ready to write and speak out publicly about it. Even now, I blog semi-anonymously and publish under a pen name, mostly due to the threats my abusers have made. It won’t be long, though, before I have my first speaking engagement about it. Lord have mercy on me and grant me a little more strength.

      • Thanks for sharing, I hear you! I’m 60 now, it has been a long difficult process.
        I pray that the Lord will pour liquid grace into the hearts of those who will hear you speak. May He cloak you in His presence during your first speaking engagement. You are remarkable!

  4. My heart weeps for the betrayal, abuse and torture that you have suffered. Staggers my sensibilities and my mind can’t even respond. Evil is hideous.

    Thank you for your words. Truth is the strongest weapon against the exceedingly ugly lies that you expose.. Living out the truth that abusers’ actions cannot make you, or anyone else, worthless, especially, definitely not in God’s eyes, is a powerful message to others enmeshed in the “purity” deceit.

    Your noticeable lack of bitterness in the face of all you have suffered from abusers and from “church people” is amazing. Your post is extremely relevant, helpful, informative, compassionate, and inspiring. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Ardiak. That was my hope: to speak the twin truths that abusers’ actions don’t make people worthless and that the focus is on the wrong thing. Bitterness doesn’t help, but sometimes boldness and even anger about the injustice can.

  5. Terry, you need an attitude adjustment. And I would be delighted to give it to you. ( Amazing how many trolls there are in this world).

    JR, you are an amazing person. You have not only survived, you are now blessing the world with your words. Other victims are, I am certain, comforted to read this blog. God bless you, both now, and forever.

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