Christian Purity Culture Inflicts Ignorance and Trauma on Children

girl looking out window

Never having been an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian, there are plenty of things I have never understood about them. For example, I have never experienced the compulsion to inject Jesus into every conversation. I am sure this has something to do with the fact that nobody ever encouraged me to do so. But one thing rises to the top of the long list of things I cannot comprehend about fundamentalist Christians: purity culture. Specifically, I am thinking about the belief of many fundamentalist Christian fathers that they own their daughters' sexuality and are responsible for controlling it until she marries a Christian man who earns their approval (at which point, this responsibility passes to him).

It is easy to understand why parents would not want their young daughters (or sons) to be sexually active. This does not require any Christianity whatsoever. Few atheists parents are likely to encourage their 13-year-old children to be sexually active. The puzzle here is not that they would seek to discourage it but the way so many of these fundamentalist Christians go about doing so. The entire purity culture thing strikes me as unusually creepy. It stands out even within the broad context of Christianity where there are plenty of creepy things. The rings, warped father-daughter relationships, intrusive questions, surveillance, and other aspects of purity culture often make me feel like I am watching a child sex offender grooming a victim. I cannot help viewing the girls who undergo this as victims of something sick that needs more critical attention than it has received. We should not be any more tolerant of child abuse merely because it is cloaked in fundamentalist Christianity.

I knew a girl when I was in 8th grade who had been a victim of this stuff, which was not at all surprising considering that her father was a fundamentalist Christian pastor. And like seems to be the case so many other girls, the whole thing backfired miserably. By the time we were in 8th grade at the public school we attended, she was unusually promiscuous and far more reckless than most. She still considered herself a Christian, but it was clear that she was not going to let this hold her back from doing whatever she wanted to do. Her father's response, as soon as he learned what she had been up to, was to pull her from public school and place her in a Christian school. Aside from their successfully forcing her to wear a school uniform and depriving her of a reality-based education, this changed little initially. She started drinking and sneaking away to hang out with various "bad influences" at every opportunity. Whatever restraint she may have previously exercised was gone now. It did not take her long to get pregnant, and that was when she disappeared.

When I saw her briefly a few years later, I did not have much of an opportunity to talk to her; however, it did not take more than a few minutes to realize that she was broken. I'm not sure what he put her through (aside from some homeschooling), and I suppose I probably wasn't eager to know at the time. The gleam in her eyes was gone, and there were scars on her wrists. She spoke so quietly it was hard to understand her, and there was no emotion in her voice. She wouldn't make eye-contact, averting her gaze and keeping her head slightly bowed. It seems like her father finally got what he wanted. His daughter was now timid and subservient young woman who seemed to be scared of her own shadow. I suppose she was now the Christian he'd wanted all along.

I don't know how we protect children from this stuff, but it seems like we need to try. None of us benefit from having more broken children growing up as damaged adults. If we can't do a better job of preventing this from happening, we need to do a much better job of making effective mental health services available to those who have survived these experiences at the hands of their fundamentalist Christian parents. Religious trauma is real, and far too many victims continue to suffer in silence.