Do we ever take off our purity rings?
"True Love Waits" and the lasting effects of purity culture in my life
I turned 13 the year the Southern Baptist Convention debuted the “True Love Waits” program. While getting ready for church on Mother’s Day of that year, I discovered brownish-red spots inside my floral cotton Jockeys for the very first time. For my birthday that year, I was given one of the most costly pieces of jewelry I’ve ever received—my purity ring.
Recently, a New York Times article and Retro Report video came out about abstinence pledges in the ‘90s, and I’ve spent the past few days excavating my own experience with purity culture. Searching my jewelry drawer for my old purity ring, I found it tangled up with other relics of my teenage years—the silver, heart-shaped necklace engraved with “Princess Becky” I got at homecoming and a tiny, tarnished megaphone dangling from a knotted charm chain.Searching my jewelry drawer for my old purity ring, I found it tangled up with other relics of my teenage years—the necklace I got as a homecoming princess and my senior year charm necklace.
We weren’t poor growing up, but we certainly weren’t wealthy. Sunday mornings were for church and Sunday afternoons were for helping mom clip coupons for the week’s grocery shop—15 cents off Yoplait yogurt, 40 cents off Kix cereal.
When it came time for me to pledge my newly fertile body to God, mom felt it was important that the ring reflect the value of what it signified—my virginity. To make it extra personal, she wanted my purity ring to incorporate my birthstone—sapphires. When I opened the little blue velvet box and saw diamond flecks, too, I was truly in awe. I don’t know how much the ring cost, but I remember mom having to lobby dad pretty hard to get me (a child!) something so fancy.
On my thirteenth birthday, it seemed like an easy trade—promise not to have sex until I got married (“GROSS, that’s where pee comes out! I am NEVER doing that!”) in exchange for the most magnificent piece of jewelry I’d ever dreamed of. Done.
Purity rings were a uniquely feminine commitment meant to be replaced by your wedding band once you transferred ownership of your body from God to your husband. Women’s bodies were full of danger and their management could not be entrusted to the feeble, corruptible, inferior minds attached to them. (Just look at Eve! She ruined everything for all humans by being too easily tempted and then tempting Adam!)
Our bodies also should not be displayed too openly on account of the impure thoughts they stirred up like dust devils in the minds of boys and men. I was once sent home from seventh grade after kneeling in the principal’s office as he measured the distance between the floor and the hem of my skirt. I was showing half an inch too much thigh.
Pure thoughts were a whole thing, which is why they were specifically included in the “True Love Waits” purity pledge:
“I am making a commitment to myself, my family and my Creator that I will abstain from sexual activity of any kind before marriage. I will keep my body and my thoughts pure as I trust in God’s perfect plan for my life.” (emphasis mine)
In my coming-of-age years, there was a book in our house that warned of having a vivid sex life in my mind. If you imagined having sex with another human, that was THE SAME as committing adultery with that person in real life, at least in God’s eyes. (And God watches you all the time, even when you masturbate.)
The basis for this absurd claim is Matthew 5:28, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Reader, I truly feared that having an imaginary orgy with the entire cast of Cruel Intentions was the same as doing it in real life.
So not only did I have to avoid having actual sex, I had to not think about having sex, AND I had to be careful not to dress in a way that might make boys think about having sex with me.
This led to narrow-yet-creative sexual fantasies that allowed me to dance with the masturbation devil without setting off hellfire tripwires.
Usually my ladyparts lawyering involved imagining myself in a fantastical or historical scenario, such as a member of a harem in a grand, far-off palace. This avoided any possibility that my imaginary sex might be mistaken for a flesh-and-blood act by a peeping God. To further avoid any culpability, all my sexual fantasies happened without my imaginary consent. It wasn’t my choice to have sex, it was demanded of me by the king who had forced me into his harem!
Of course, I had no idea about the concept of consent at the time.
Proponents of purity culture fight hard to keep consent from being taught, as I witnessed this past year when the Texas State Board of Education heard public testimony about proposed updates to sex ed curriculum. After adding my own two minutes to the hours of stories from women who’d been grabbed, groped, pressured and penetrated under cover of a nebulous interpretation of “no,” I watched the board vote to exclude any mention of consent from state sex ed lessons, despite clear evidence that teaching consent reduces instances of sexual assault.
Run a search for the word “church” on the Texas State Board of Education website and you will find that nearly every one of the majority-conservative board members lists involvement in a Baptist or Pentecostal church as one of their qualifications for setting public school policy.
While on one hand women are told that our bodies don’t belong to us, on the other hand we’re told that our bodies are dangerous and we MUST control them because men can’t control their bodies around our bodies. Even now, I get a knot in my stomach watching that Retro Report video where the author of the 1997 book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Joshua Harris, addresses the women in the audience, telling them they “have no idea… NO. IDEA.” how difficult it is for men to control themselves around women who are dressed “immodestly.”
What a chilling message.
Purity culture teaches women that our bodies never belong to us—they only ever belong to our father or God or our husband. (And of course non-heterosexual relationships and non-binary genders are non-starters.) We have no agency of our own and yet we are somehow responsible for the actions of the men around us.
Purity culture tells men, “it is not your fault that you want to possess a woman’s body, it’s simply your sexual, male nature and it’s her responsibility not to tempt you.”
I asked my Instagram followers whether they had signed abstinence pledges growing up. Across the board, those who did only had negative things to say.
One woman had placed her painted handprint on the “purity wall” in her church’s youth group room. She says, “As soon as the new youth pastor came in and redid that room, I was like ‘peace out virginity,’ and I went wild. I probably would have had a lot less unprotected/unsafe premarital sex if I had never felt obligated to make that stupid public commitment. So, the ‘purity wall’ kinda backfired.”
Another woman wrote, “A church in town had a ‘True Love Waits’ retreat. My small group leader brought her wedding dress. Another counselor was engaged and had not ever kissed her fiance. We had abstinence pledges that were nailed to a cross. We were supposed to call the youth pastor to tell him to take our pledge off the cross if we broke it. I was really messed up about it for years, especially because of a boyfriend who basically sexually assaulted me.”
Purity culture and rape culture are consummate bedfellows.
Purity culture sends you home for a skirt half an inch too short. Rape culture asks “what was she wearing?”
Purity culture says women “have no idea… NO IDEA” how difficult it is for boys to control themselves around us. Rape culture says “boys will be boys.”
Purity culture tells women our bodies don’t belong to us. Rape culture tells men, “Grab ‘em by they pussy. You can do anything.”
Keep traveling down this path, and it gets even darker.
Uber-conservative Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is under federal investigation for possibly sex trafficking a minor. This came as little surprise to his colleagues in Congress, who say Gaetz is fond of showing them naked photos of women he supposedly slept with.
Curious about Gaetz’s upbringing, I tracked down the American Family Association voter guide from his 2016 campaign, where he said, “I was saved in a Baptist church during my teenage years.” Gaetz is just 2 years younger than me, and I would bet my purity ring he was swept up in the “True Love Waits” craze as a teen.
Wait, it gets darker.
The Atlanta shooter who targeted women working in Asian massage parlors was raised Baptist, too. So when I read that he had murdered those women to “eliminate his temptations,” I was not surprised in the least. (Of course that’s another essay in itself, with many more layers to unpack.)
What if all of us had been taught that women’s bodies belong only to them? That men are responsible for their own actions? What if we had been taught that we could have any kind of consensual sex we wanted and were given the tools to do it safely? What if we could say “no” and be certain our “no” would be respected?
While my Baptist pastor taught that God would forgive any sin if we asked him, there was something not even the all-powerful God could grant us—our virginity back.
God can keep my virginity, but you know what I am taking back? My body.
At 40, my new hobby is posing in pasties for a boudoir photographer and then publishing the images alongside my reflections on feminine power, sex, politics, and culture. Finally in my fourth decade I’m learning to fully possess my own body and express my own mind. It’s been a bigger challenge than I imagined.
With my finger hovering above the Instagram “post” button on an image of me in a plunging red-sequined one-piece just a whisper shy of showing nipple, I turned to my husband and asked, “Is it okay with you if I post this photo?” As soon as the question was out of my mouth, it left an aftertaste like grapefruit rind.
“EW, NEVERMIND!” I shouted before he had a chance to respond. “It’s my body, I don’t care what you think!”
Having himself been raised by feminist hippies, he stared back at me, befuddled: “Uh, yeah, do whatever you want; it’s not up to me.”
It’s been hard to cut the lingering threads of patriarchal purity puppetry. I’ve wondered if part of the reason I feel emboldened to share revealing photos now is because I’m relying on a sense of security, real or imagined, that having a cis male partner gives me.
Purity/rape culture tells us that a woman who reveals her body is issuing an invitation to men. It also tells us that a wife’s body is property of her husband. Those falsehoods are embedded in me like splinters that have worked themselves so far under my skin I keep finding new pieces even when I thought I’d dug them out.
I can’t shake the feeling that if I weren’t married to a guy I would be too scared to show my body. That other men would believe I was giving them tacit access and I wouldn’t have a bodyguard husband standing between them and me.
I may have buried my purity ring in a drawer at 19. But purity culture is still buried in me.