What is Purity Culture and Why it is Extremely Damaging To Young Girls and Women

Many of us have heard of the Christian YouTube channel GirlDefined, which is run by sisters Bethany Beal and Kristen Clark. Another figure who has recently made her way into YouTube algorithms is a young Jewish woman named Abby Shapiro, also known as Classically Abby. The 27-year-old is the younger sister of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. Both channels have been rising in popularity during the recent years. Despite their different religious backgrounds, both GirlDefined and Classically Abby advocate for young women to stick to the following ideals: abstaining from sex before marriage, dressing modestly and devoting their lives to God. These ideals that they advocate for are typically referred to as “purity culture.” The YouTubers also touch on several social justice phenomenons such as same-sex marriage, rape and sexual assault, and feminism and mental health. Most of their views on these topics are as one would expect: feminists are ungrateful pieces of scum who always play victim, mental illness can be prayed away, same-sex marriage is abnormal, abortion is murder, and birth control use is unnatural. Fear not though, because according to these young women, it is never too late to transform your life, abandon all the things you thought you knew about love and sex and become the best and purest version of yourself. 

Purity culture is most often practiced in conservative religious households. I would personally define purity culture as the notion that a woman’s place and worth in life is defined solely by how she chooses to express her sexuality, thus implying that her sexual “purity” is her only value. Some common tenets of purity culture include pushing young girls to abstain from sex until marriage, as well as teaching them to avoid thinking and talking about sex at all costs. Girls are dissuaded from exploring their bodies, told to stay away from the opposite sex to not tempt themselves and encouraged to dress modestly to avoid appearing scandalous. The entire list of the rules and expectations of purity culture is a lot more complicated than this; the few things that I just listed are merely the tip of the iceberg. The point, however, stands clear: a woman’s virginity status is her only sense of worth. What the people teaching these things to girls do not realize, however, is that they are not only being taught to repress every normal and natural emotion they may have about sex, but that these young girls are subsequently beginning to internalize that their only value as a human being revolves around their decisions regarding the topic. 

The amount of damage that being raised in the midst of this incredible amount of guilt and shame purity culture causes is monumental. More often than not, girls raised within this mindset will begin to experience a series of identity crises because of the immense amount of cognitive dissonance they experience. There is something so natural about simply being curious about sexuality, but when one is constantly being told that these thoughts are “unnatural” and “evil,” a great amount of guilt and shame can arise from within. This is particularly visible in girls who might begin to realize that they are members of the LGBTQ+ community, as these feelings can begin manifesting as severe internalized homophobia. The same shame and guilt can arise in heterosexual girls when developing a crush on a boy or thinking about intimacy. This ultimately turns into a slippery slope of other issues that may begin to arise in the teenage years and young adulthood. Most of these problems revolve around girls not ever being educated about basic boundaries, knowing what the red flags of toxic and abusive relationships are, understanding the importance of safe sex, knowing how to give and receive consent, knowing when and how to stand up for themselves and merely having a stable adult in their lives to confide in. I was one of these girls. Here is my story.

I was raised as an Orthodox Christian by a strict parent. Throughout the last few years, I have learned to understand that her intentions were never malicious, and that she was only ever trying to protect me by doing what she thought was best. The truth is that, just like myself, she was failed by her upbringing. She was only repeating what she knew. From a young age, I was taught my place as a Christian woman, which meant no short shorts, no tank tops, no high heels. Long skirts must be worn to church so as to not distract the men and boys. No dance parties, no romantic movies, no makeup, no bright colored bras so I won’t bring any unnecessary attention to myself. As I started puberty, I was never told about sex or what a period was. I did not know that women shaved their legs or what a condom was. My lack of knowledge on these topics was a result of me being pulled out of public school because of the required sexual education classes. By the time I was in middle school, I resented my female identity. I slept on my chest at night as I begged God not to not let me grow boobs, and when I woke up, I would bind my chest with multiple sports bras to hide the very thing that I was. I dressed in boy’s clothes, befriended only boys and spent the rest of my time envying how simple and carefree their lives appeared. To me, women were disgusting. Everything I was taught about femininity revolved around one concept; we were people who were distractions, who were there to lure innocent men in with our sex appeal and served as temptations to throw people off their path. And as someone who firmly believed in modesty and purity, I was ashamed of what I was. I knew that these stereotypes did not apply to me, yet I never hated myself more. 

By the time I was fourteen, I started to resent my faith and began to realize that Orthodoxy was not for me. As I started silently rebelling against everything I had been taught, I slowly began to fall back in love with myself and did something I had never done before; embrace my femininity. I began to appreciate every curve and imperfection on my body, realizing that nature built me this way so that I could one day nurture and carry a child inside me. I began ditching the surplus of oversized baggy t-shirts and basketball shorts in my closet and replaced them with skinny jeans and crop tops. For the first time in years, I was glowing, confident and happy. I suddenly wasn’t ashamed of showing off my feminine features, or kissing a boy, or wearing makeup. I was finally content with myself. However, I quickly began noticing that there was someone close to me who didn’t appreciate this new transition I had made. They would silently watch me get ready for school in utter disappointment, and make passive aggressive remarks about how the light makeup I was wearing made me look like a whore. This quickly turned into screaming fits, resentment and utter bitterness towards one another. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like seeing me happy, all while she was probably thinking that her beloved child was succumbing to darkness. 

My high school years were the time my upbringing resulted in me losing my innocence. Growing up, I was never taught about how to be confident, how to spot red flags in myself and others or when it was time to leave a toxic situation. I was oblivious to the fact that bad people existed. All I was ever taught was that I was the problem, and as long as I kept my legs closed, nothing bad would ever happen to me. As a result, for most of high school I found myself in several unhealthy friendships that not only damaged my perception of what kind of people I needed to surround myself with, but also negatively affected my mental health. On top of this, I stayed in an emotionally abusive relationship for three years because I did not know how to set boundaries or when to leave. When I attempted to open up about what I had gone through, I was blamed for everything and told that the way I was treated in that relationship was my punishment for having premartial sex. As unfortunate as it is, what happened to me is what happens to people when they are not taught to stand up for themselves. This is what happens when women are not taught about their self-worth, their image and how to let other people treat us. People will naively enter toxic situations which will inevitably strip them of their self-esteem. Young girls who are raised in similar circumstances as myself will begin blaming themselves for what went wrong. After all, it’s what makes the most sense given that they’ve been taught that women are the root of all evil.

The lesson to be learned from all of this is that my story is not unique or special. Millions of other girls were raised in similar circumstances, and another million girls will experience the same upbringing by the time I am a grown woman. Most of these girls will experience issues with confidence, intimacy and understanding their place in life because of the immense guilt and shame they faced growing up. Despite me despising the upbringing I experienced, I am a feminist before everything, which means that I believe in the freedom of choice. If someone were to come up to me and announce that they want to save sex until marriage and then spend the rest of their days being a stay-at-home wife catering to the needs of their husband, I will tell them “good for you.” As long as that choice is made for yourself by YOU, nobody should ever tell you that you are wrong. There is no correct formula for how to live life. 

The GirlDefined sisters and Abby Shapiro could spend hours telling me how their lifestyle was the right choice for them, and I would not say a word to refute it. This is because they used their free will to make that decision for themselves, and it will never be my place to tell them otherwise. What is not okay, however, is drilling these beliefs into the minds of vulnerable young girls by telling them that their worth is only defined by their sexual purity. Because of these bigoted teachings, young girls are internalizing the notion that they are objects who only exist for the pleasure of the opposite sex, and until marriage deems them ready for that, they need to keep their femininity hidden away from the world. If they someday decide to make the choice to staying celibate on their own terms, that is on them and for no one else to decide. However, forcing young girls into these beliefs is not only wrong and disgusting, but also perpetrates a culture of female inferiority. Purity culture is the worst form of misogyny because the second someone gets comfortable with the idea that women are objects and are inferior to men, they will use that as a scapegoat to get away with doing the unthinkable. To help stop this, young girls need to be taught that they are invincible. That they are strong, beautiful and that they are capable of doing anything. That sex can be beautiful and more importantly is something that is strictly personal to them. That they deserve every right to make their own choices about their sexuality when they deem it appropriate. That they don’t need to spend their existence trying to please men and hiding who they are from the world. That there is no shame or anything abnormal about exploring who they are. And that most importantly, they are worthy of nothing less than unconditional love, respect and support from the ones around them. 

Some day, I might become a mother to a little girl. In my heart, I already know that my place as her parent would be to ensure that she grows up to be a kind, caring and genuine human being, not obsessing over whether or not my child thinks about sex. I will always be there to remind her that she is worthy, that she is loved and that she is cared for, not calling her a whore for wearing shorts that aren’t exactly two inches above her knee. I will always remind her to never, under any circumstances, allow anyone to treat her less than the amazing human being that she is, and that her place in life is to not be a married man’s sex toy. I will educate her on the birds and the bees and any “taboo” topics, and trust that she will make the right decisions when the appropriate time comes. I will remind her worth is not calculated based on her sexuality, romantic partners, or what she identifies as. I will emphasize that she should always surround herself with people who respect her and bring out the best in her. I will emphasize that one day, she will grow up to be a strong, beautiful and independent person who will always stay true to herself and stick up for her beliefs. For as long as I am around, I always will remind her that no matter what she chooses to do with her life, I will always be by her side cheering her on. Who she becomes or what she chooses to do with her sex life will not make a difference to me because she will always be my little girl who I will love unconditionally. As long as she is happy, I will be happy too.