The Ms. Q&A: How Linda Kay Klein Broke Free from Purity Culture

Linda Kay Klein grew up in “purity culture,” a movement that emphasized abstinence outside traditional heterosexual marriage and focused on the dangers of girls’ and women’s sexuality. Through its explicit teachings and related industry of books, purity rings, purity pledges and purity balls, the movement taught a generation of girls that any expression of sexuality could be a stumbling block for young men.

The result for many of these girls was shame, fear, guilt and anxiety. Klein’s recently published book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free documents her journey through purity culture and into healing, freedom and feminism.

Klein talked to Ms. scholar Susan Shaw about her journey—from one former evangelical to another.

I guess I’m about 20 years older than you, and so I came of age before the purity movement. In my fundamentalist Southern Baptist church, the message was clear: “Don’t have sex before marriage,” but it was for both boys and girls, and sex was defined as one thing: intercourse. Holding hands, kissing, hugging—those things weren’t a big deal in the church, and, while we probably weren’t supposed to do anything beyond that, we all thought that we could pretty well do anything up to intercourse without technically breaking the rule.

What changed between the 1970s and the 1990s?

The big thing that happened was the AIDS crisis. We as a country were in a state of crisis and really scared and looking at sex as a potentially life-threatening activity. A lot of different potential solutions were being developed, and one of the solutions given was this abstinence-only-before-marriage messaging, which started to be federally funded at some pretty big dollars.

Since the late 1980s, over two billion federal dollars have gone toward abstinence only before marriage messaging. A primary creator of abstinence-only-before-marriage content at the time was the white American evangelical Christian community, and a lot of them were talking about purity.

The purity movement emboldened the voices of people who had previously been fringe. It gave those voices a megaphone. However, the purity ethic that the movement was based on was around for a very long time before the purity movement arose. Many of our grandparents were raised in it.

I’ve heard some suggest that the purity movement was a way for evangelical Christianity to remain politically relevant. They had a potential solution to a national problem. As a nation we were afraid, and they had been teaching something locally that they brought forth as a solution to a national problem.

Within the purity movement, purity meant different things to different people. Some feel you are pure as long as you don’t have sex outside of marriage, by which they mean penis-in-vagina sex. For others, maintaining your purity requires something much more dramatic.

When I was growing up, some even argued that you can lose your purity if you have a friendship with an individual of the opposite sex that is considered too emotionally intimate, because you would be emotionally cheating on your future husband. Others said: “Don’t hold hands, that might make you lose your purity;” or “Anything is ok as long as you’re not lying down together, that’s where your purity gets lost.”

I think it’s so interesting that purity becomes the primary marker for Christian identity within this movement, rather than, say, love or even theological fidelity to evangelical beliefs about salvation or evangelism. What do you think it means for evangelicals when purity becomes the defining characteristic of evangelical faith?

To be clear, nobody would ever say this is the marker of your faith, but it’s a message people pick up, particularly single Christians—adolescents, young adults, older adults who are not married. The purity movement developed a purity industry that targeted single people, particularly adolescents and young adults.

So you were surrounded by purity products—by purity rings, by purity curricula, by purity pledges, by purity events, by purity music—though I think the product that most clearly implies that being “pure” is the most important way you can demonstrate your faith, even if it’s not said outright, is the purity Bible. It’s hard, as a young person growing up in the purity movement and being part of the purity industry, not to get the idea your purity is the most important marker of your faith.

Then, once you get married, you’re supposed to be safe. As a woman, your body is not as much of a threat to men in the community. It comes now under a man’s headship, so more of your energy can be put on other markers of faith.

I find purity rings given by fathers to their daughters and daddy-daughter dances to be creepy. What does the movement say to girls who are victims and survivors of incest when they tie girls’ sexuality to their fathers?

It’s definitely not talked about. Consensual sex is hyper-focused on, and non-consensual sex is silenced—not only in terms of how it is treated, but it’s literally not part of the conversation.

The purity ethic is one man and one woman in marriage forever. There’s no mention of consent or power dynamics. Within this ethic, any sexual expression—and unfortunately sexual violence is often categorized as sexual expression, not violence, in this community—that doesn’t match that framework is not only itself impure but makes the parties engaging in it impure.

The fact that we don’t talk about these things creates really problematic responses to them when they show up, because we’re assessing them by the same rules that we’re assessing consensual sex, since the ethic doesn’t stipulate not to, and implying in many cases that perhaps what happened was consensual or that the girl inspired it in some way.

I saw that, during the Kavanaugh hearings, 48 percent of evangelicals would have supported him even if they believed he had assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. You write about the purity movement’s general refusal to acknowledge sexual violence. Why do you think this is so?

The purity ethic teachers that men and boys are sexually weak when faced with female flesh, and that isn’t necessarily taught as a bad thing. The purity ethic requires one man and one woman, but it’s not just any old man and any old woman—it’s a hyper-masculine man and a hyper-feminine woman. Men being tempted by the female flesh is proof of their hyper-masculinity.

Because the purity ethic teaches women and girls aren’t very sexual, they are held responsible for protecting everyone in the culture from men’s sexual weakness. So it’s the girl’s and the woman’s responsibility to walk, talk, dress, do everything exactly right, not drink, not create any conditions for any possibility that the male weakness could be triggered and that men essentially could be made victims of the female flesh. The idea is that if women and girls would just be 100 percent totally non-sexual and never inspire a sexual thought in anyone else, if women and girls would just do everything right, then we don’t have to talk about consent because there will be no sexual expression, including no sexual violence, which causes a knee-jerk villianization of survivors.

As I read your book, I was struck by the centrality of shame and the impossibility of ever actually meeting the expectations of purity culture. It seems to me that shame then becomes a powerful tool for controlling women. Do you think shame controlled you and the women you talked to?

Shame was absolutely a controlling force over my life and over the lives of many of my interviewees. You can really see it in our adult lives.

In my early twenties, I ended up leaving evangelicalism in large part because of the sexual shame and my rejection of the notion I should be experiencing it. I thought that I would now be free of the sexual shame and fear and anxiety that had haunted me up until that point in my life, but that’s when I realized just how much I had really internalized the shame. It didn’t go away. It was still controlling me, controlling me now from the inside more than from the outside.

That was the time I was most afraid. I thought I was broken and would never be healthy or have a healthy relationship. Then I started talking to the girls I had grown up with in my evangelical church youth group. I started hearing about their experiences of sexual fear and shame and anxiety and realized I wasn’t alone.

There was a theme of anxiety—a number of people, myself included, were experiencing nightmares. The anxiety for some people was a quiet murmur that was always with them, whereas other people were having panic attacks and going to the hospital. Some lived with a quiet fear that we didn’t talk about, whereas for others the fear was impossible to hide or ignore. But the thing that is most problematic is this feeling of worthlessness that so many of us felt.

I remember a seminary professor of mine once telling us former fundamentalist students that no matter how far we’d come from our fundamentalist upbringings, some part of us still always worried about the possibility that the fundamentalists were right. Do you think you ever completely get yourself free of it?

I’m constantly thinking that I’m free, and then I find the next layer of shame. The latest layer was around this idea of telling these stories publicly and knowing that would elicit a public shaming. And it did. Certainly, the majority of responses I’ve gotten about the book are from people who are saying, ‘this is my story and thank you for making me feel not alone anymore,’ but there have also been people who are shaming me, and they’re saying exactly the same things that they said when I was growing up.

For a lot of years, when I knew I was going to tell this story publicly—and I was steadfast in that dedication—I faced a tremendous amount of fear of the attacks that would come when I did. The reality is that we do live in a world where it’s risky to tell your story.

The best thing that happened is eventually ,the shamings did come, and then they went from being very intense to trickling. And now the number of people being helped by the story far outweigh the number of people shaming me. I feel like I broke through this latest layer of shame, and I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt before.

Klein’s book explores the devastating effects evangelical Christianity’s purity culture has had on a generation of young women.

I had a student in the 1990s tell me that every time she had a sexual thought, she prayed for forgiveness. I tried to tell her that sexual thoughts were normal and not sinful, but she wouldn’t hear it. That seems an awfully high bar, to negate every sexual thought, but that seems to reflect the impossibility of purity.

I imagine that means putting a lot—if not most—of one’s time into trying to be pure. I imagine that also means there’s not a lot of time left for questioning, resistance or rebellion. I mean, if you’re spending all of your time and energy trying not to have sexual thoughts, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for asking deep theological questions or challenging how purity culture is actually controlling you.

What did your experience and your interviews tell you about the energy women put into trying to fulfill the expectations of purity and how they finally found the energy and determination to break away?

The purity expectations, and how ultimately unachievable they are, keeps your attention focused inward on your piety and purity in a way that prevent you from looking outward and considering what you were taught and whether or not it was healthy, how it’s impacting you, how it’s impacting others—in other words, the teaching creates a reaction in a person that can make it very difficult for the teaching to be questioned.

There are two ways I’ve seen people break free, and they are connected. One is through questions. Remember, this is a culture where you’re told the answers, how you’re supposed to think, how you’re supposed to believe, how you’re supposed to feel. And the other is through stories. Stories create the opportunity to question because often people’s real life stories challenge the myths about, say, how non-sexuality before marriage will lead to blissful sexuality after marriage.

You and your interviewees make the lasting pain and challenge of the purity movement clear in the book. What’s the payoff, though, for the women who stay? What do they get out of staying that’s so powerful it keeps them in this culture that devalues women, blames women and controls women?

There’s certainly the payoff of receiving the rewards of being a “good girl.” You get the respect of the community. You get told you’re one of the good ones, not like one of those bad women. You get put on a kind of pedestal. And you get all the rewards of being in the right religion, and if you leave, you lose these rewards of being in the right religion including the assurance of your salvation and the assurance of your personal relationship with God; you lose your purpose in life; you lose your community that’s supposed to stand by you when the going gets tough.

It’s spiritually, religiously and socially a really big deal to challenge these teachings—because you might lose your “Christian” label, which has potentially eternal effects.

You write about complementarianism as a companion to the purity movement. That idea really developed in the early 1990s, and when I was growing up as a young Southern Baptist girl, I was given the explicit message: “You can be anything God calls you to be.” When I interviewed other former Southern Baptist women in ministry, that’s the message they told me over and over that gave them the strength to challenge gender norms among Baptists and claim their call, even to ordained ministry. I’m guessing that message—“you can be anything God calls you to be”—had evaporated in evangelical churches in concert with the rise of complementarianism. What messages did little girls receive instead?

Complementarianism would teach us: you can be anything God calls you to be as long as you remain under the headship of men, particularly in the American church and family.

In the family, the husband or father gets the last call. That’s one reason I think single women are perceived as so dangerous in the community, because they’re not under the headship of a husband or father. In the church you can teach children, youth or other women. You can “teach,” but you can’t “preach,” ever—which is one of the ways we get the subtle message that you don’t have a direct line to God, that you need to go through a man to get to God. You can’t preach because you’re not receiving direct revelation.

The reason I said the “American” church and family is because if you’re a missionary these rules might change, because an American woman in another culture is not always subject to the same limitations, which illustrates the nationalism embedded into this culture.

As you mention in the book, the purity movement is an artifact of white evangelical culture, even when it’s imported into communities of color. What’s the connection for you? Why do you think white evangelicals have created and embraced purity culture?

There’s something about the way we see sex as so dirty, so bad, so disgusting that it debases women who engage in it—which is rooted, in part, in Greco-Roman teachings about the mind/body split that were very influential on early Christian thinkers, but they also believed we had to procreate, so we needed a loophole. Something that allowed some women to be “pure” despite having sex, so they could be held up as good wives and mothers.

I think these theologies are related to the production of the “pure white woman,” a concept present in this country long before the purity movement or industry of the 1990s. The pure white woman is a desexualized woman, whereas people who have been deemed impure for various reasons are hyper-sexualized. Think of how we’ve historically hyper-sexualized African Americans or queer people, for example. This is something I heard Rev Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak about recently.

Then, in the 1990s, the purity industry exported purity products developed by the white evangelical world, bringing them to American communities of color and to communities around the world. That’s complicated. I remember when I realized how many people of color in this country, and abroad, were reading the same books I had read growing up, like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and interacting with the same curricula, like True Love Waits. There is a lot to unpack there.

How do you think purity culture reinforces heteronormativity?

This is another thing, like rape and abuse, that I never heard talked about growing up in purity culture. I think the idea of even talking about someone being attracted to someone not of the opposite sex seemed threatening, because it made it seem real or legitimate. But at the end of the day, anything that didn’t fit into the purity ethic we talked about earlier wasn’t considered pure, and the people engaging in it weren’t either.

The response to queerness was: “There’s something wrong with you. Something happened to you. So we have to do some psychological work to identify the trauma that is making you this way, or some spiritual work to figure out why you’re not accepting God’s will for your life. You’re broken and need to be fixed.”

How is feminism depicted within purity culture? Do you identify as a feminist? Did many of your respondents come to identify as feminist?

I do identify as a feminist, and many of those I interviewed do as well. Feminism is depicted very negatively within purity culture—truly the “F-word.” I think one of the reasons so many of the people I’ve interviewed identify as feminist all the same, or at the very least would align with the definition of feminism—of all people being equal—is because in order for a woman to break free from someone else having control over her life, she has to be empowered. She has to decide the people who told her to stay in her place are wrong, which is something you’re told you should not do as a woman. When you ultimately are able to feel autonomous and like your true self, it’s only after you’ve gone through an internal process that readies you to claim a very different relationship to your own gender than you were taught to have.

I’d like to add that it isn’t just evangelicals who are experiencing the kinds of things I write about in the book. The book focuses on how purity teachings impact white American evangelical girls as they grow up, but the themes I discuss—sexual shame, fear and anxiety—are experienced by men and individuals across the gender spectrum, people of color, people who were raised in other forms of Christianity, in other religions and in no religion. It really is a bigger conversation.

I’ve started to think about this book as a window into how this messaging impacts us when we are doused in it, when it saturates our lives, this toxic messaging. By looking at how being doused in this messaging affects one particular population, we can begin to wrestle with how this toxic messaging which is common throughout our society is impacting a far greater number of people who might be taking it in various doses and various ways.

This is not really a story about these people over here who are doing something totally different from everybody else. It’s a story about a population of people experiencing an intensified, deified form of something that has touched almost all of our lives.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.