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How Not to Talk About Purity

How Not to Talk About Purity

A chewed stick of gum. Tape that’s lost its stickiness. A torn up piece of paper. Unwrapped gifts. Dirty chocolate.

All of these analogies have been used to describe girls who had sex before getting married. And all of them equate to the same message: Your worth is inextricably tied to your sexual purity.

The chewed stick of gum analogy is one kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart remembered hearing.

“For me, I thought ‘I’m that chewed-up piece of gum,’” she told a panel. “Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”

When I read Smart’s remarks last spring, I wasn’t surprised. I grew up in the Church, I was raised in what many now term “purity culture.” I signed the “purity pledge,” and for years, I wore a True Love Waits ring on my ring finger. I believed that I would not be valuable in the eyes of my future husband if I engaged in premarital sexual activity. I bought into the metaphors my peers and I were fed in our high school youth group, metaphors that were not too far off from the gum example, metaphors that equated sexual purity with worth.

And this isn’t just an ultra-conservative Christian phenomenon. It’s everywhere—in churches, schools, homes. In red and blue, Northern and Southern states.
I wanted to see if there were others like myself who had grown up hearing object lessons related to purity education. I created the Twitter hashtag #NotYourObjectLesson. I began with discussing the tape object lesson, and then asked others to share object lessons or metaphors used to objectify the bodies of girls and women. 
Below is a small sample of the tweets using #NotYourObjectLesson, shared here with permission:

The examples are devastating and heartbreaking. Writers and activists on Twitter and the blogosphere have been active in pushing back against these harmful lessons. Dianna E. Anderson, author of the upcoming Damaged Goods due out in February 2015, has extensively written about the ways purity culture objectifies women. Twitter user @seelolago founded and manages No Shame Movement, a space to discuss the damaging rhetoric of purity culture.

In Romans 12:2, Paul writes, “Be no longer conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.” Of course, teaching about abstinence and the sanctity of sex is important, and viewing sex as a sacred gift from God is a way to be transformed. But if we, as the Church, sit back and let these damaging metaphors and lessons continue to be taught and encouraged in our congregations, youth groups, and schools, we are actually conforming to the “patterns of this world.”
By using metaphors that objectify women and girls, we are following the example set by our larger society. While we may not be plastering up images of Victoria’s Secret models, we are placing the bodies of girls, and with that, the value of their virginity, onto a pedestal. We are reducing women to objects, which may be used and disposed of when their “value” declines.

By a youth pastor telling a group of girls that their value is less because of sex, much like a “chewed up piece of gum,” that individual is guilty of objectifying women, and following in the steps of this world. As others before me have noted, this model of objectification feeds into rape culture.

Please, let that sink in.
When we reduce women to disposable objects (or objects of any kind), we are diminishing their humanity. We are taking away their autonomy, their individual will by comparing them to inanimate objects without power. It’s easier for a perpetrator to exert force over a victim if the victim’s body has been objectified. When we, as members of the Church, use these reductive object lessons, we are participating and enabling a destructive culture against the bodies of girls and women. 
“Purity culture” needs to be redeemed, and this begins with the Church. This begins by examining our language and prayerfully considering the ways we can constructively discuss sexuality and the body. If we are to truly conform to a godly and Jesus-like pattern, we need to humbly listen to voices of girls—like Elizabeth Smart and countless others—who have been hurt by these metaphors. We need to have difficult, but critical, conversations about sexuality. We need to answer questions with integrity, not simply giving a moralizing lesson. We need grace to mourn our past mistakes, to hold each other up and to move forward. 

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