Illustration by Diana Nguyen
We practiced saying no in class. If a boy wants to have sex with you before you are married, you must be ready to steer the ship away from troubled waters.
If you loved me, you’d have sex with me. If you loved me, you’d know I was waiting. Why? We’re just having fun. I really like you. I like you too, enough to have respect for myself and my boundaries. This feels too good to stop. Well, we must.
Leave room for Jesus. I practiced in the mirror until my room went dark.
I grew up attending private evangelical Christian school, in Calgary, from Grades 1 through 12, on the basis that my education there would be more well-rounded. When your kid has ADHD and profound anxiety at an early age, sending them to the Christians just makes sense. My parents came from that early aughts holistic spirituality point of view—the Oprah way—and their faith was utterly distinct to themselves and certainly not in alignment with the militaristic and authoritative evangelical teachings of my youth. As the years passed, they struggled with me being in the school they’d once deemed the best fit, but once I had drunk the Kool-Aid, I couldn’t bring myself to leave, even though I was struggling too.
At evangelical Christian school, questions are not tolerated. Why would God allow suffering? Because. Why can’t science and faith coexist? Because. Why would God create gay people if it’s a sin? Because. Stop asking. By the time I graduated in 2014, I felt like my faith was radically different from that of the people around me, and I could not call myself a Christian anymore. But I couldn’t say I was agnostic or an atheist either. So what was I?
All that felt certain was the shame that had been drilled into me throughout my school years, right into my marrow. You are not worthy. You are disgusting. You are unholy. You are sinful. You are disruptive. You are disappointing. You are not your own.
They taught us that sex is for marriage, to have children. No exceptions. I didn’t even know what a condom looked like until I was well into adulthood. Pregnancy loomed its swelled shadow on my psyche from the time I learned what a period was: the body purging the unused eggs, each cell a soul. Tick, tick. Another egg wasted. Another soul wasted. Time is running out. Have a baby to experience what God designed you to do. This is your purpose on this earth.
They taught us women are cursed with pain because of Eve’s trespass. A shiny red apple, a ripe, plump, juicy pomegranate. All the blessings of God and man and she threw it away to know? For some fruit? Thus, pain in childbirth. Thus, pain from lack of child to birth. Thus, pain. She deserved it. You deserve it.
From the time I first felt that pain that defies all language in my abdomen, pain was with me wherever I went. Each month, I would keel over, stopping whatever I was doing to grit my teeth and wait until the stabbing—or radiating, or sharp, or throbbing—pain was over. I learned to accommodate this pain, let it dictate how much or how little I did. This was a practice well established at school, at church—the rare times I would go—to become one with your pain. The burden, the cross, to bear as a woman. Eve’s sin, your fall.
When I was older, I realized that outside my evangelical bubble, people didn’t respond to pain like it was a tool to sharpen belief. They didn’t use their pain as a badge of honour, or as a form of sacrament as I was taught to do. Pain was just a puzzle to solve—something that could be fixed, cured with a couple pills or a visit to a doctor. University exposed me to the reality of my pain, a chronic illness wrapped in the cloak of women’s penance, and gave me absolution. I take little white pills now, and my pain is manageable. It was the first time I realized that I had a body I could control. It was the first time I realized I had a body at all; not just a collection of parts that made me ashamed, lesser, worse. It was mine, and I should never have been taught that it wasn’t.
There is a concept in Christianity, born in the early 1990s—although some would argue that it gets its structure from the Bible itself—which has shaped contemporary evangelical Christian doctrine since. “Purity culture” refers to an ideology that “attempts to promote a biblical view of purity [following the example in] (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage,” states Joe Carter, an associate pastor who writes about modern faith. According to Linda Kay Klein, an author and self-proclaimed “purity culture recovery coach,” central to this ideology is a belief in rigid gender roles, heteronormativity, nationalism and white supremacy, and the inherent sinfulness of women.
In 1992, the slogan “True Love Waits” was coined by Richard Ross, a youth minister consultant at LifeWay Christian Resources, a publishing conglomerate that prints Christian educational content. “True Love Waits” refers to the concept that waiting until marriage for sexual activity of any kind is the best choice for both parties, male and female, and is God’s design for sex.
“Waiting” can take on a variety of meanings, including abstinence from sex, but also kissing, hugging, and dating. The extremity of purity culture is exemplified in the television show 19 Kids and Counting in which the Quiverfull Duggar family didn’t allow their children to date without being accompanied by a parental chaperone. As a result, most of the kids married their first crush very young and all had their first kiss on their wedding day.
A few notes on the Duggars and how their commitment to purity culture played out: one, Quiverfull refers to the theological position of viewing large families as blessings from God and therefore actively denying and abstaining from all forms of birth control and instead encouraging procreation. Your family stops growing when God decides it stops growing. Two, while the Duggars are known for their religiosity, they became more famous still when it got out that their pedophile son, Josh Duggar, not only molested his younger siblings but also has been found guilty on charges of possession of child pornography. Furthermore, he was involved in the Ashley Madison infidelity dating website scandal of 2015, the same year the show went off the air after these allegations surfaced.
By 1997, the seminal text on purity culture was released, Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris proposed that dating should not be pursued by Christian teenagers. Instead, Harris proposes “courting,” which in his view, means utilizing group settings for getting to know someone. There is no room for experimentation or dating a variety of people or seeing what you like. You develop feelings for someone, and you get to know them in group settings until you decide to get married. You are not alone until your wedding night.
The success of I Kissed Dating Goodbye allowed purity culture to enter the mainstream. Now, thousands of teens were taking pledges to remain pure and going to purity balls and buying purity rings. They signed documents, conducted rituals, cried as they made a promise to God—and crucially, their earthly fathers—to remain “pure” until marriage. When Disney became privy to the growing purity industry, the network’s teen stars started wearing purity rings too. Stories about how cool the Jonas Brothers were for wearing their rings, or how Selena Gomez was also totally down to be celibate, permeated the culture. If Selena could do it, why couldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I?
Of course, pledging purity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The message’s central conceit, that it will lead to less sexual activity in teenagers and lower the rate of STIs in young people, turned out to be a fallacy.
In a national study conducted between 1995 and 2002—twenty years ago—in the U.S., 20,000 young people were asked to share details regarding their sexual health. The study found that 20 percent of those surveyed had taken a virginity pledge; some of those were consistent in their pledge, and others were labelled inconsistent due to their changing answers over the years. Crucially, 61 percent of consistent pledgers reported having sex before marriage or before their final interview in 2002. For the inconsistent pledgers, that number was 79 percent. When it came to STIs, almost 7 percent who didn’t make a pledge got diagnosed with one. For the inconsistent pledgers, the figure was 6.4 percent. For the consistent plegers, it was 4.6 percent. The authors of the study found the difference in those numbers to be statistically insignificant, and so do I.
The religious fervour in which an entire generation of young people vowed to remain celibate had virtually no real world benefits. In the U.S., this fervour was well-documented, with countless TV specials, balls, televangelist support, and mainstream media coverage. Here in Canada, however, it was more interior, private. We don’t have nearly the same pull the evangelicals have on mainstream American life, with their bombastic television personalities and church celebrities. Instead, Canadian evangelicals are more guarded, exclusive. Vague.
The trend in reframing purity culture as “pro-women” is almost unique to Canada. Take the Harper government’s handling of sex work, following the so-called “Nordic model,” which targets buyers over sellers under the guise of “protecting women”—even though the law still stigmatizes the sex worker. Or, how some Canadian evangelicals are reframing the abortion debate as one of sex-selective discrimination against girls. This frames anti-choice rhetoric as guarding women’s rights while reinforcing evangelical purity culture, through the lens of political engagement.
This engagement is in reality no more than political dog-whistles designed to strip away rights from women and queer Canadians, by presenting the former as vulnerable and in need of male protection and the latter as sinners making poor “lifestyle choices.” With the recent overturning of a supposed mainstay of American politics, Roe v. Wade, Canadians should do well to be reminded how tenuous our own rights are. As these evangelicals continue to spread their message under the guise of support for women, while peddling the very ideology that devalues women over men, the threat of puritanical politics becomes more accepted and expected in Canadian politics.
Purity culture relies on the understanding that to engage in sexual activity makes you less than. Sex takes something away from you, every time, that you cannot get back. I’ll explain it to you like it was explained to me: a glass of clean water has spoonfuls of dirt added to it; who wants to drink muddy water over a cold glass of pure, undiluted water? A piece of blue paper is glued to a piece of red paper. The papers are then ripped apart, leaving the residue of red on blue, blue on the red. Who the hell will want you when you are leaving traces of yourself on another person? A rose is passed around, crinkled, crunched, crumpled. When it makes its way back to the front of the classroom the teacher holds it out, proud to be making a point so clearly. Who wants this rose now?
This rose is worthless.
Purity culture creates a sense of specialness that isn’t there. A girl needs to be harnessed, possessed, dominated. She is dangerous. Should she know what she wants or come into her sexual power, she would be fearsome indeed. So, instead, make it clear to her: you have no value outside of what you can offer to a man. You are not your own. You do not belong to yourself. You belong to three men, and three men only. God, your father, and your husband, in that order.
The onus is placed on the girls to put the brakes on any and all potential sexual activity. And that’s the key right there—potential. Sexual activity doesn’t even need to be happening, just a chance that it might and therefore you need to be ready. When I was in the sixth grade, I had to sign a covenant with God and my school. Firstly, I committed to being covered up at all times; modesty is important. No leggings, no tank tops, no spaghetti straps, no low cut t-shirts, no skirts shorter than one inch above the knee, no bare legs, no dyed hair, no visible underwear lines, no visible bra lines, no jewellery, no tattoos, no heeled shoes. Although not strictly enforced, there was an understanding about cosmetics too: no lipstick, no eyeshadow, no foundation, no glitter, no eyeliner, no, no, no, no. Secondly, never be alone with a boy. Never sit next to a boy on a bus, never be alone in a room talking, never walk alone, never eat alone, never, never, never.
The result is a total and complete fetishization of yourself, your friendships, your relationships. The result is a total and complete disregard for same-sex attraction, for those who live outside the gender binary, for those who are attracted to all genders. The result, ironically, is creating an idol out of sex and sexual activity.
The hashtag #exvangelical started to gain traction in 2016, after the Trump election. All of a sudden, the floodgates were open and people started to tell their truths about growing up in this environment, and what it does to you.
As Chrissy Stroop, an #exvangelical activist stated to Bradley Onishi, a fellow exvangelical writer, “those who associate with #exvangelical on Twitter are going to be in the vast majority of cases liberal to left. People who were harmed by patriarchal politics because we were queer, women, people of colour.” Indeed, by 2016 it became clear the Church wasn’t protecting their flock of all nations; they were pruning and protecting those who fit the image they wanted to project, one born of whiteness. The anti LGBTQ2S+, racist and sexist belief systems touted by Trump were quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) endorsed by evangelical Canadians too. Indeed, after Trump was actually elected, chosen by the very people who preach love and acceptance, there became a stark Before and After
in my life and the life of my friends.
I saw people I used to know in school, and once respected, pledging their support for conversion therapy, anti-immigration policies, and white supremacy. My former principal sent out an email appealing for parents to contact their representatives in order to block the proposed conversion therapy ban in Calgary. In the U.S., white evangelicals prayed for Trump to be re-elected, and held fundraisers and pray-a-thons all for him. I no longer wanted anything to do with any of it. I stopped calling myself a Christian. I dropped the phrase “spiritual, but not religious” from my vocabulary. What used to be vaguely annoying now felt sinister to me.
In the eight years since I graduated, I’ve run into old classmates and realized they have been prompted into leaving as well. “I just couldn’t stand by anymore,” is the constant refrain. Friends I open up to refer me to therapists that specialize in religious trauma syndrome. Friends have stays in mental hospitals. Friends divorce their spouses when they discover they’ve actually been repressing their sexuality, their gender, or their politics. The more evangelical Christians become synonymous with republicanism, conservatism, fascism, the less we can stomach it. As Stroop tells Bradley Onishi in their interview, “being an ex-evangelical is inherently a political position.” It becomes one for me.
Last year, a friend and former schoolmate said something to me, as the leaves were just starting to turn ochre, that I have been turning over in my mind ever since.
“When you silence a girl’s agency, sexually, when you say that you have to say no—” she pauses here. Blinks. “Not even that you have to say no. I would frame it as you cannot say yes. That’s saying you cannot consent. Because your decision is made for you. And when that decision is made for you, that you cannot say yes? It makes it that much harder to say no.”
This is what purity culture took from me. I have trouble saying yes, making decisions on my own. I need input, to think for a while, to measure out every angle to make a decision. I rarely know how I feel. When people try to get to know me, I find it easy to throw up barriers, to stomp out any potential connection. I have trouble saying no. If someone is persistent, eager, controlling, and perseverant in their quest to make me do something, I will stop saying no around the third time. I will take the hurt. And every time I talk to the others, the other women just like me, the more I see the recognition in their eyes, and the pain in their voices, and I realize I am not alone.
Faith may be the prison of belief, but it can also be a way forward. Having faith in each other’s stories and experiences, having faith that we can and will heal from this, has saved me a thousand times over.
I am born again.