My Copy: 9781501124815 (image from bn.com)
I spent all yesterday finishing this book and thinking about it. It’s not the best non-fiction book I’ve read, but it had so much that made me think, and made me want to research more.
Pure… is self-explanatory. The author uses much of her own experiences to talk about the purity culture and evangelism she grew up with and how that made things difficult when it was time for her to have a relationship. But it’s not all about her; she’s interviewed dozens of women and men (mostly white, admittedly) about their upbringing in purity culture. The chapters are divided by subject more than the personal stories, with some research and remarks from experts and Ms. Klein’s own experiences thrown in.
You also might remember Ms. Klein if you’re a fan of TED Talks. This video has some of basically the introduction to this particular book, starting around the 5 minute mark (the audio could use some improvement).
While the writing bounces with little warning between Ms. Klein’s history, research statistics, and interview testimonies, I like that it’s not a clinical, dry text. Some of this is incredibly dark and hurtful, and Ms. Klein’s own experiences with her very evangelical parents (and their reaction to her writing this book) are as thought provoking as they are uncomfortable.
There are a few other books about purity culture out there, and probably more being written as we speak (I’ve reviewed one, The Purity Myth, last year). This gets into the personal stories of women who had a hard time opening up to their spouses once marriage happened. The idea that they had to stay sexually pure and never even let thoughts in that were lustful, to not be attention-seeking or so loud about what they know because their smarts or popularity might intimidate a suitor, or in some cases not even kiss a boy because it might lead him on, or that men can’t control themselves so it’s up to the women to keep them from stumbling (and that phrase “stumbling block” comes up a lot)…yeah.
Many of the women in these pages who did wait for their wedding nights, they opened up years later to Ms. Klein, wondering what was wrong with them sexually. Considering how most of them spent the first 20 years of their lives being told that to be a woman was to be sexual and therefore sinful and they had to stamp it down until marriage, how the hell were they supposed to suddenly flip the switch to “I’m married now and I’m a sexual being and can get it on with my husband.”?
Yeah, human beings don’t work like that, and that’s Ms. Klein’s point. Shame is the key word with the purity movement, and it is one of the most powerful, dissuasive forces in the human world. It’s why it’s still useful after thousands of years. The purity movement was full of this word, even when not spoken aloud.
Now, I’ve seen lots of videos and posts about how “many wait til marriage to have sex and they turned out okay,” but not everybody has the same churches, the same rules on what purity is and isn’t for women and men. Most of the women remembered different analogies directed at them as pre-teens and teens, such as the “chewed gum” that is discarded analogy, or the piece of tape that’s been stuck to too many surfaces analogy. Clearly these interviewees who only had this abstinence indoctrination suffered the most, fearful they’d be “damaged goods” for a potential husband.
I was amazed at how little information these women (and men) were given regarding sex before their marriage by parents and church leaders. Many had to wait weeks or years to actually consummate, because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing (kinda hard to have “sex-sex” if the man can’t figure out where the vagina is).
This surprised me that so many men in these churches with these women waited, though the social damage of a man who had sex before marriage was little more than a slap on the wrist.
These young people weren’t allowed to know, as if “hey, you’re with Mr./Mrs. Right, so your body will know what to do.”
I was startled by a lot of what I’d read in this book, but had a pretty good grasp of other issues. “Solange”‘s story was dismaying: the mother of two young women who went through purity culture teachings at youth church meetings and such. Her story chilled me the most because she wanted her daughters to be good and have good role models, but at the same time she wasn’t allowed to peek into the inner sanctum and actually learn what her daughters were being taught.
Some people don’t care for Ms. Klein’s writing style, and I admit there were moments where jumping between things could get distracting, but it’s the overall message that’s worth it. I do wish she’d gone more into the history of the evangelical purity culture and how, when, and why it’s reach was so vast (there is a little, but I wanted more).
Anyway, if you want to understand evangelical indoctrination, institutions that end up perpetuating rape culture to a degree, the role of church in the bedroom, the trials and thoughts of women from adolescence to full adulthood…then I definitely recommend this book. It’s worth a shot at least, especially if you know that person who might have an issue with intimacy or sex that they can’t quite explain. There may be a few things in here to point one in a direction to get help or open up to someone who cares.