Purity Culture: The Cultivation of Dangerous Ignorance
In deconstructing my trauma with having been raised in a cult, I have a habit was watching YouTube videos that react to Christian claims. In one I watched recently, Jimmy Snow (an ex-Mormon atheist) critiqued a video by YouTube creators who called themselves 3 Mormons. In their video, 3 Mormons promised their audience that we would never regret staying pure until marriage. One of them claimed that a married Non-Mormon friend recently told them, that he regretted having sex before marriage, but no one ever regretted purity.
While I was somehow able to discount most of the sexist bull shit the Church (this is how Mormons usually speak of the institution to which they belong, as if it was the only one) taught me as a child, I was completely indoctrinated in its purity culture. When I married my husband, I was a virgin, and so was he. However, proving the 3 Mormons were lying, we both regret this fact. While there are many ways this purity cult harmed me, today I’m only going to talk about one of them.
Purity culture left me dangerously naïve. Let me demonstrate how embarrassingly ignorant I was. When I was in my early teens, I came across the word masturbation in a novel. From context, it was clear that masturbation was sexual in some way, but I didn’t understand exactly what it meant. I knew it would be useless to ask my mother. Whenever sex was brought up, she grew red in the face, and her answer to every sexual question was the same.
Me: What is a prostitute?
Mom: Someone who breaks Heavenly Father’s commandments.
Me: What is adultery?
Mom: It’s breaking Heavenly Father’s commandments.
To prevent my mother from dying of embarrassment, I learned young not to probe for a clearer answer from her. Since I was already pretty certain that masturbation was something that broke Heavenly Father’s commandments, I knew I get nothing further from her. The internet was about 25 years in the future, leaving me with the dictionary and the encyclopedia as resources. But they were about as helpful as my mother would have been. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but it was so vague that I knew no more after reading the definition than I had before. It was certainly something that broke Heavenly Father’s commandments, but just how?
Sex education in public schools was basically non-existent in my childhood, but with as often as my church leaders talked about sex, you’d think it wouldn’t be too hard to learn. In our Sunday Young Women’s lessons, it seemed that every other week we talked about staying pure and modest. Other than don’t do it, the only thing I remember learning was about the manipulative nature of boys. I was warned that they would try to get away with as much as I will let them. It was my job to enforce the purity of the relationship. Every year the Young Women combined with the Young Men for what they called Standards Night, an entire evening devoted to purity culture. But they always used vague language or words I didn’t know. When Church leaders talked about sexuality, they always warned about necking and petting. Even at the time, these were arcane words, and I had no idea what they meant. They taught me to fear sex, not understand it. They taught me to feel ashamed of my sexual nature, not to respect my own body.
To make matters worse, every year the bishop (what Mormons call the leader of the local congregation) interviewed every youth to make sure they were staying pure. The bishop (always a man and usually over 50) would ask if I obeyed the law of chastity, including if I masturbated or participated in necking or petting. While I didn’t know what any of the words meant, I knew I wasn’t necking or petting because they required a partner. But was I masturbating? Since I didn’t know what it was, how could I know? But I certainly wasn’t going to ask a 50-year-old man to explain masturbation to me, so I always answered that I didn’t. But I secretly feared that maybe I did. I think about sex at times, quite a bit actually. I knew having sexual thoughts was against Heavenly Father’s commandments, but was it masturbation? How could I know if I was sinning, if I didn’t know what the words meant?
Through continued novel reading, I did come to understand that masturbation had something to be with stimulating yourself, but I remained even embarrassingly ignorant .To illustrate just how ignorant consider the following conversation from my freshman year at Brigham Young University, the Mormon university. Among my fellow Mormon girls, I was hardly alone in my lack of sexual knowledge. During a conversation between my friends, Lisa and Carey, and I, the subject of masturbation came up. I don’t remember how. Carey, who was even more ignorant than I, asked how women masturbated. I answered that they stuck something in their vagina. (I didn’t understand the clitoris at that the time). Then she asked about male masturbation, and I hate to admit my answer. It was so embarrassing. I said they found a hole to stick their penis in, although I doubt I used such a vulgar term as penis. It was probably something more like they found a hole to sick their thing in. Lisa chimed in, “I think most of them just use their hand.” This thought had never occurred to me.
While in retrospect, this may be amusing. It was dangerous to be this ignorant. No one ever taught me about respect and consent. No one discussed me looking at my own wants and needs or making decisions about sexuality based on my own comfort. The limits were absolute and couldn’t be questioned. Just don’t do it.
While whether or not I was masturbating did concern me, necking or petting wasn’t an issue because I was shy and a nerd, so I didn’t date much in high school. The first time a boy ever expressed significant interest in me was during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. My girlfriends and I (without any adult supervision) went on a two=week camping adventure throughout Southern Utah. While camping at Lake Powell, we met a local boy who had a summer job in the campground. John was a year older than me and not Mormon. He stopped by our campsite a lot, and it became clear that he was interested in me. After being ignored by high school boys, John’s interest in me was heady. I ended up staying over at his house one night. We kissed, and his hands began to roam. When he touched forbidden areas, I said no and removed his hand. As I had been warned about boys, he kept doing it. I never thought to consider if I wanted him to touch me or to assess my own needs or comfort. The only question I considered was whether or not it was sinful. In my mind, he was tempting me to sin. It never occurred to me that I was being sexually assaulted. No one ever told me that touching without consent was sexual assault. It was just something that boys naturally do. Somehow I just accepted that all males were sexual predators.
My ignorance and the terrible sex education I had received caused me to put myself in a vulnerable position. The story could have ended much worse than it did. He didn’t rape me, but he wasn’t the only man I allowed to continue to sexually assault me without my recognizing it as assault.
So yes, I regret how ignorant I was. I regret the lack of opportunity to explore my own sexuality while I was young. I regret that in my encounters with boys and eventually men, I never even asked what I wanted sexually. I regret that I didn’t know enough to recognize sexual assault and protect myself from it.
So you’re wrong, 3 Mormons, many of us do regret waiting until marriage. I’ll address more about purity culture in future blogs. If you have any questions you’d like answered about growing up Mormon, post them in the comments. I’d also like to hear about your own encounters with purity culture or healthy sexual education. Did you have sex before marriage? Either way, do you regret your decision? Why?