Evangelical Purity Culture Taught Me to Rationalize My Sexual Assault

Then I discovered #ChurchToo.

Illustration by Katarzyna Bogdańska

It didn’t hit me right away what had happened. It was an upsetting moment, but it was, in many ways, an upsetting relationship. After losing someone close to me, I was questioning my place in the world and what had previously been a steadfast devotion to Christian beliefs. He was battling his own demons.

One February afternoon, we were arguing in his college-boy room, with dirty clothes strewn across the beige carpet and a big computer rig perched atop a beat-up desk, exhaling heat. I was tired of the on-again, off-again, and just a few months stood between me and graduation and dreams of a faraway move and a fresh start. I turned to leave, and he blurted out, “I love you.” It was the first time he’d said it. We got caught up, one thing led to another, and then both our clothes were on the floor. I stopped him at one point, looking into his eyes: “Don’t.”

Shock ripped through me when he did anyway.

I think he may have apologized, something about not meaning to, but the next thing I remember clearly is staring at my hazy reflection in a mirror flecked with old toothpaste in his dimly lit bathroom—mascara smudged, hair tangled, choking back bile. I was shaking. Whatever had just happened felt wrong. I washed my face over and over with the coldest water the tap would produce, rinsed my mouth out a few times, and went back into his room, where I found him asleep.

In the years since, I’ve replayed that afternoon in my head even when I would prefer to leave it behind and let time fade it into something I can no longer conjure. I knew it was significant. I registered that something had been taken from me, but I couldn’t identify it—maybe I didn’t want to.

That finally changed last November, when I started tracking #ChurchToo on Twitter for an article about the burgeoning movement to address an epidemic of sexual abuse in evangelical churches. Many Christian women, particularly white evangelicals, are taught from an early age the importance of remaining “pure”—for God, their future husbands, and their families. To do otherwise would be to invite paralyzing shame and a sense of failure. For evangelicals, all sin is bad, but sexual sin carries a special weight, as though it’s a harder thing for God to forgive. Only in recent decades did that preoccupation become a moral panic, brought on by the sexual revolution, the AIDS epidemic, and an uptick in certain sexually transmitted infections.

That’s when “purity culture” began to congeal into a lucrative industry. Encouraged by evangelicals, the administration of President Ronald Reagan funneled millions of tax dollars into school abstinence programs. Faith-based organizations developed purity curricula and devised ways to reach teens and young adults outside the church’s grasp. Groups like Silver Ring Thing and True Love Waits launched an empire of rallies, concerts, and events—complete with merch—to attract impressionable adolescents, many of whom went home wearing silver “purity rings.”

But something unexpected happened this past year. Even as large swaths of evangelicals were starting to question their religious instruction on sex and gender, the #MeToo movement threw the wheels off and #ChurchToo was born: Powerful, male evangelical leaders began to fall as women who had historically recoiled from the “feminist” label began writing about assaults they had suffered within their church communities, and how the abusers had masked their guilt under a shroud of piety. Reading those stories and talking to their authors brought into focus what had lingered around the edges of my memory, and I realized my own past was deeply intertwined with this evangelical reckoning.

I met the boy through Cru—formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ—­a college ministry in which I was heavily involved for three-plus years at a Tennessee university. The bulk of my experience with purity culture came through Cru. I was raised Methodist, in a tiny rural church about as Southern as they come. (We joked that any hymn composed after the Civil War was “contemporary” music.) I don’t recall much talk of virginity or sexuality there, although between my evangelical upbringing and my abstinence education in a public school that featured pretty flagrant Christian overtones, I knew from a young age how “good Christian women” behaved.

For a taste of purity culture, consider the opening scene from one of its most seminal texts, Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A bride and a groom stand at the altar, ready to exchange vows, when suddenly a line of women holding hands forms behind them. The closest woman reaches for the groom’s hand. The bride is outraged—“Is this some kind of joke?”—but there’s a reasonable explanation: Because he had previously dated other women, they’d all had a piece of him, and so they would be present in the marriage. This parable introduces Harris’ core argument, that “courtship” is the godliest way to find a spouse. The gist is that modern dating is shallow and haphazard. But courtship focuses on the intent of marriage, signified by rituals such as the man first asking for the parents’ permission to date their daughter and then chastely “pursuing” her. Couples truly dedicated to courtship don’t even kiss before they tie the knot. One of my friends got married at 21, still in college, in part because he and his fiancée (now his ex-wife) felt the temptation to have sex was too great. If they were that attracted to each other, marriage was the logical move. God would take things from there. Marriage—heterosexual, of course—was the ultimate aspiration.

As a Cru woman, I understood my role: I was a sexual gatekeeper. Men, we were taught, are burdened by God with insatiable lust. Women, of course, are not, so it makes sense that we are expected to create the boundaries. We are responsible for what we wear, but more broadly, we are tasked with defining consent, as thorny as that may seem. It’s been several years since I last talked to the boy who assaulted me, but I think the church’s failure to give us guidance on what constitutes a “yes” hurt him, too.

The stakes are high in purity culture. Every slipup is a strike against any hope of a successful marriage. My body was not my own, not really. It belonged to God and to some featureless specter of a future husband. My Cru mentor, the woman “discipling” me and a few other newbies, made it clear that if we failed in finding a godly husband, we should simply “date Jesus.” On the organization’s website, meanwhile, an unnamed blogger declared that “the core need of a woman is to be wanted and pursued, as opposed to men, whose core need is for respect.” Steeped in this atmosphere, is it any wonder I didn’t register what happened to me as an assault?

Jamie Lee Finch, a Nashville-based holistic health coach who specializes in helping people recover from purity culture, was sympathetic but not surprised when I told her about my experience. Sex always comes up with her clients—many cannot connect sexually with themselves or a partner, or they struggle to get aroused. “That sexual dysfunction piece is very significant, and I think it might be one of the most tragic, because the ethic within evangelical Christianity is this lie that you’re supposed to not engage with or know yourself at all sexually,” she says. “And then the moment you get married, the whole world is open to you and it’s supposed to be perfect and wonderful and great.”

Making matters worse, Finch points out, are the passivity and submission that church doctrine ingrains deeply in evangelical women. The culture teaches us not to speak up and say, “I like that,” or “I don’t like that”—or to confront a man who crosses a serious line.

This dynamic is finally starting to shift. Women who have long been told to keep quiet are shouting for reform and creating an open online community under the #ChurchToo hashtag. Evangelicals and exvangelicals—those who no longer identify with their religious pasts—are organizing to expose the ways purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault. Even the culture’s strongest advocates are having doubts: In an upcoming documentary, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris grapples with the realization that his ideas are hurting people. In the same film, prominent evangelical Dannah Gresh—whose philos­ophy about modesty begot an empire of speaking engagements, books, and “truth or bare” quizzes—says she is reconsidering her use of the word “pure” and henceforth will only deploy it to describe a state of mind, as opposed to a physical state of being that, once tarnished, can never be restored. While neither revelation is particularly profound or even close to progressive, both would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

But now that I am outside the church and no longer embrace its beliefs on sex and marriage, these mea culpas feel like too little, too late. It’s progress of sorts, but I am skeptical it will halt the cycle of confusion and shame. It certainly does nothing to erase or ameliorate what happened to me and others like me. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to finally contribute my personal narrative to this ongoing story. I cannot count on the culture that enabled my assault to change in a way that satisfies me, but maybe if I scream loud enough I can use my pain to protect others.

Several months ago, after a long day at work, I left the office with two colleagues. We began swapping tales of dumb things we did in relationships when we were younger and less aware of our power and our identities. As we laughed at our foolish former selves, I retold the rest of the story of that day at the boy’s apartment—how, after I composed myself, roused him, and got dressed, his roommates came home and knocked on the door to see if he wanted to go to dinner. “Now, you won’t believe this one,” I said. He literally asked me to hide under his bed, wait five minutes, and sneak out after they all left, and “don’t forget to lock the door behind you.” Then I delivered the punchline—“and I did it!”—and waited for the laughter. My friends were silent. “I can’t imagine a version of you that wouldn’t tell him to go to hell,” one finally said.

I couldn’t shake her reaction. It tugged at me, nagging me that something had gone horribly wrong, that this was more than a silly anecdote that would elicit laughter and eye rolls from my female friends. This exchange took place not long after the #MeToo stories had begun to circulate, and it was an early hint that I had been working to rationalize—and minimize—what had happened to me.

Part of me was embarrassed to have let myself be treated like a secret that had to remain hidden, not a person who deserved to be heard and respected. But more than anything, I reveled in the realization that I had become a woman known for her power, for her ability to take up space, rather than for her willingness to make herself small.

This story was supported by DisHonorRoll, which is made possible through a grant from the Media Consortium.