THE BLOG
09/16/2013 11:51 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Vulgar Face of Purity Culture

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Friends recently drew my attention to this piece, written by a mother to her sons' female friends on Facebook. She clearly loves her sons enormously, and wants to see them happy, healthy, and in fulfilling relationships. I applaud her for that.

Growing up, however, I had first-hand experience with the sort of modesty teaching Mrs. Hall doles out in her post. In my community, it was called "purity teaching," but in hindsight, I can only see the flaws in this approach. There was the male camp counselor who aggressively harped on gawky 12-year-old me, because my shorts didn't quite reach my knees and I was "clearly" trying to flaunt my legs. There were my church youth group leaders who coached the class in skits defining women as delicious pieces of candy, which, once unwrapped, became dirty, unsafe, and undesirable. (A nearly identical skit compared us to wrapped -- or unwrapped -- gifts.) There were books, like Joshua Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye, assuring me that any relationship born out of traditional dating scenarios would be sub-par and likely to fail.

I understand the intent behind these teachings. Really, I do. Parents want the best for their kids. They want them safe. They want them happy. They want them to avoid tears and heartbreak and regret.

The thing is: that's just not possible. Tears are part of life; heartbreak is part of love; and regret is part of growing up.

What purity teaching did for me, and for many of the women I know who were raised in similar environments, was distill me down to my body. Sure, leaders paid lip service to concepts like, you know, women having brains and personalities. But the core of purity culture was that my mind didn't matter, my personality didn't matter, my dreams and desires and goals didn't matter -- if my shorts were too short. Or if I wore a bikini, if I kissed a boy, if I kissed a GIRL, if I shook my bootie when I danced, if I ever-ever-ever had sex for any reason whatsoever before I was married. Because my REAL value, my ultimate worth, came from my body. I learned that the assumed, innate "impurity" of my body would overshadow any other valuable trait I may possess; but my intelligence, wit, creativity, kindness... those could never supersede my too-short shorts or bare shoulders.

Certainly, a culture of total permissiveness may create its own problems, but purity culture is so damaging, so harmful, and so dreadfully one-sided. Not once did my teacher tell a guy to wear a tee-shirt in the pool. Not once were the boys lectured on the length of their shorts. Never were the guys the "candy" in the impurity skits -- nope, it was always us ladies.

The result was years of dissatisfaction with my body, discomfort in my relationships, distrust of men, and disconnection from women. Purity teaching drew so much attention to all that was presumed "impure" about me, I lost sight of what truly made me valuable and unique.

I'm grateful to be married now to a feminist man (yes, they exist) who truly values ME as a whole human being. And I'm grateful to the women in my life who demonstrate over and over that our worth isn't determined by our cleavage (or lack thereof), by our weight, by how tight our pants are, or, dammit, by whether some guy thinks we're attractive. You know what? At 32-years-old, I can finally say, with vulgar confidence, that if some creepy dude has to jerk off because he saw me in shorts, well, that's on him.

So, while Mrs. Hall is defining for her sons exactly what "bad" women are, I hope there are parents out there emphasizing for their sons and daughters exactly what "real" women are. We are strong (or not). We are smart (or still learning). We are silly, and we are serious. We are spiritual (perhaps). We are sexual (always, never, sometimes). We are just like her sons.

We are people.

And no amount of bootie-shaking or shoulder-baring can ever change that.