Refugees from the “purity industry,” which had a heavy influence on evangelical youth in the latter years of the 20th century, may recognize themselves in Pure, Linda Kay Klein’s eye-opening study of what went wrong when strict interpretations of biblical Scripture became cultural touchstones.
In the evangelical community, sexual shaming and a focus on purity were used to promote strict sexual abstinence before marriage, especially for girls. Girls raised within this culture knew little about their own sexualities and were discouraged by parents and pastors from questioning the biases of their gender roles. If boys were tempted by a girl, or even if she was raped, it was her fault: She became a “stumbling block,” and her body became a shameful inspiration toward sin. If a woman managed to save herself for marriage, she was expected to know how to fulfill her husband’s desires, and if she could not and he left or committed adultery, this was also her fault; she had failed to satisfy him in her wifely duties.
Klein experienced all of this firsthand, and she bears the scars. She was raised in this culture but began to question its focus on female sexual purity when a youth pastor in her church was convicted of sexual enticement of a child. Klein has since spent years interviewing many women about their church experiences, and their accounts are strikingly similar, graphic and disturbing. The “nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia” they suffered amounted to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: “We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies, and our own sexual natures, all under the strict commandment of the church.” For many, the results were, and continue to be, devastating.
Klein’s research supporting the need for reform is compelling, and she makes it clear that sexism and sexual shame directed toward women and young girls are endemic in our society. Today, more enlightened and inclusive church communities are led by youth pastors who are comfortable exploring the larger issue of sexual ethics and decision-making. For those who seek spiritual community without gender bias, Klein offers empathy and new choices.