Purity Culture and Sexual Assault

Caperton covered the Elizabeth Smart speech about abstinence already, and my Guardian column this week is on a similar topic: How an emphasis on purity is bad for women, bad for men and bad for rape survivors:

Where does a woman’s value lie? In her brain? Her heart? Her spirit?

According to right-wing culture warriors, “between her legs”. That’s what underlies the emphasis on virginity as “purity”, and the push for abstinence-only education. And it has very real consequences, most recently articulated by Elizabeth Smart.

Smart, who was kidnapped and held for months while her captor repeatedly raped her, recently discussed how her religious background made her feel worthless after the first rape – how she understands why others wouldn’t even try to escape, if, like her, they were taught that a sexually “impure” woman had nothing to offer.

Smart’s speech is largely being interpreted as a critique of abstinence-only education, but she’s pointing to an entire culture that fetishizes purity. The more extreme versions of our collective obsession are seen in conservative Christian churches, which offer purity rings, purity balls and sermons that insist wives give their virginity as a “gift” to husbands. But purity culture is mainstream, even in a country where sexualized images of women are on every magazine rack and “Girls Gone Wild” series thrive.

Abstinence-only education is just one example of our bizarre relationship with sex, which can be seen most clearly in the way we treat women. Women and girls being sexy for someone else is more or less OK, as long as no actual sex occurs, and as long as the version of “sexy” has appropriate markers of being middle- or upper-class. Women who exhibit a degree of sexual agency by acting – rather than only appearing attractive – or women perceived as inappropriately powerful or aggressive inevitably face being branded sluts and whores.

The full piece is here.

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8 comments for “Purity Culture and Sexual Assault

  1. TomSims
    May 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    “Christian churches, which offer purity rings, purity balls and sermons that insist wives give their virginity as a “gift” to husbands. But purity culture is mainstream, even in a country where sexualized images of women are on every magazine rack and “Girls Gone Wild” series thrive.”

    I’ve had people tell me the shrinks call that the Madonna – Whore Complex.


  2. May 10, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    I usually don’t carry water for Freudian psych, but this theory makes a depressing amount of sense.

    • May 10, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      Meant as a reply to TomSims.

  3. Tyris
    May 11, 2013 at 6:33 am

    When told purity is strength, pull out the metallurgical analogies.

    Pure iron is brittle as all get-out.

    • Angie unduplicated
      May 11, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Tyris, let me add that pure bullshit isn’t even good fertilizer. The purity cult apparently has eaten one too many bullshit-fed hallucinogenic mushrooms and it’s warped their value systems and damaged their brains. This brings up the point that purity cultist men want their own brains as unused as the objects of their desires’ vaginas. QED.

  4. Kyra
    May 11, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Smart’s speech is largely being interpreted as a critique of abstinence-only education

    What’s interesting to me is that the term “abstinence-only” is taken to mean an absence of teaching on safe sex and birth control (the “if you don’t abstain” stuff), but passing mostly un-remarked-upon (perhaps because both sides give a poor showing of it), there’s also a lack of teaching about consent, about what it is and isn’t, and about what it means to respect it.

    There’s a lot to be said about purity culture and its denigration of sexual activity and its demonization of women who don’t possess the lauded virginity, but I think the heart of the issue here is the extent to which the expectations of maintaining purity are assessed without care for whether the “impure” woman actually consented to the sexual activity in question, and are often done so by deliberately mischaracterizing her as having given consent in some way. Even to the victim herself.

    Elizabeth Smart’s conditioning was such that she blamed herself for having “gotten” into that situation or having “lost” her virginity. There was no concept of her being innocent, a cleanly-injured victim rather than someone sullied and soiled and just as “worthless” as if she’d deliberately set out to wallow in sin somehow.

    We see something like this happen in rape cases all the time. Anything that could possibly get jumped on to indicate that the victim a) gave encouragement or consent to anything at any point along the way, b) secretly wanted it, or c) doesn’t deserve any standing to issue a complaint in the first place, will get jumped on, like an obscene permutation of Murphy’s Law, to indicate the same.

    Furthermore, this is how rapists tend to justify rape—to society, to each other, to themselves even. “Bitch had it coming.” “She deserves it.” “Serves her right.” Or, by way of undermining, mischaracterizing, or misunderstanding, or misconstruing consent, “Dressed like that, she got what she was after,” or “She stopped saying no,” or “She was just playing hard to get,” or “she was interested earlier”/”she went this far, she can’t change her mind now.”

    The whole works depends on turning consent from an uncoerced indicator of a free choice to engage in specific acts with specific people in specific circumstances, into a waiver of social and legal recourse against one’s partner or attacker—which can be projected onto a person, under the slightest of arbitrary pretexts, by anyone, including the rapists who make hobbies or careers out of creating justification to attack people.

    “Purity culture,” like “abstinence-only,” is very useful as a smokescreen for people to blame women for their own rapes while prioritizing keeping them vulnerable because keeping them weak and uninformed is necessary to keep them from having consensual sexual activity before it’s authorized.

    AKA, it keeps women vulnerable to rapists, and punishes them for being raped, in order to “protect” them from consensual sex.

    Rape culture’s bread and butter.

  5. Alaleh
    May 11, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I grew up in middle east, purity culture is at its best in that region, so much that hymen repair surgeries are incredibly popular (at least I know they are in Iran). It’s not just rape victims who suffer from such mindsets, in the smallest of situation sexuality can turn into a hammer constantly hitting you on the head. I still feel ashamed if somebody makes a lewd comment on the street, I’m unconsciously wondering what I have done . And I was not even raised that way by my parents. But education can really destroy you.
    Remember the women in Tahrir Square in Egypt who were arrested and then when news about sexual harassment came out the defense of the officer in charge was that most of the women were not even virgins? As if non virgin women can not get raped.
    Truth is, promoting the idea of purity is beneficial to these religious nuts, Christian or Muslim or anything else. As long as we are trapped in complications of our bodies and see our value in what we do in bed we are not posing any threats to the patriarchal structure of their societies. Women will have no ambition, because everywhere they go they will be child bearing, provoking sinners whose place is behind closed doors at the service of their master.

  6. May 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    Perfect concise post.

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