Pure (Linda Kay Klein) -- A Review
PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. New York: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 2018. Viii + 341 pages.
When I finished reading Pure, the U.S. Senate had only hours before concluded its day-long hearing that pitted the memories/claims of a previously obscure woman and the nominee for a life-time appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court that she believed had sexually assaulted her when both were in high school. These two people are both highly educated and at least outwardly successful people. But there may be more to the story than appeared on the surface. The question raised in the hearing was who should be believed. In the past a man’s word would have been taken over that of a woman, unless there was corroborating evidence (see the deuterocanonical story of Susannah). At the heart of such questions is a long-standing belief that a woman should keep herself pure until marriage. In fact, until that point she should be a nonsexual being, lest she begin a slippery slope into sin. The call for purity/virginity is combined with a warning about being a stumbling block to men. And if something untoward happens, like sexual assault, then she must be at fault. Was she drinking? Was she wearing revealing clothing? Was she flirting? If any or all these factors are in play, then she must have been asking for it. That is the line that has bandied about by politicians and from pulpits from time immemorial. In the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo such beliefs are being challenged, and rightly so.
Linda Kay Klein is the author of the important and challenging book before us. She is a Christian woman who grew up in an evangelical subculture that preached to young girls that they should keep themselves pure until marriage. She was taught that to indulge in anything remotely sexual was indecent and shameful. She carried this burden with her as she grew up, worried that she might be transgressing God’s will. It proved to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically damaging to her. She broke free, and part of that process was writing this book in which she tells her own story and that of others whose experiences paralleled her own. The stories told in this book are diverse, for the experiences are different, but the message that led to these experiences were the same. To be a good Christian woman, one should be pure and submissive to men. This is part autobiography, but it is also based on interviews with nearly one hundred women, some of whom she knew as a youth growing up in an evangelical church that promoted Purity. The book is at points graphic, but how can we deal with issues sexuality and not expect to encounter rather graphic stories? Thus, we hear stories of a woman who was raped by her brother, and yet not believed. We hear of a woman led to believe that if she only kept herself pure her wedding night would be wondrous. It turned out to be horrific, because neither she nor her new husband had any clue about how sex worked. All of this proved damaging, and it was rooted in purity teachings that have been prominent in certain parts of the Christian community.
The Purity Movement that Klein describes emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Its message was taught in youth groups and from pulpits. It became the foundation for “abstinence-only” sex education that was embraced not only by the churches but brought into the schools. The central message was that men are animals, so women need to take care that they do not put themselves in a position to become damaged goods. After all, who wants to chew already chewed gum (that is the metaphor often used to instill in women the importance of remaining a virgin until marriage). If you’re not a virgin, no man will want you. But not only should you not be sexually active, but you should not engage in sexual thoughts. These are unbecoming to woman. There was another message given. Young women should beware of being "stumbling blocks" to men. She confesses that this warning, about being a stumbling block, was annoying to her as a junior high student who wanted desperately to please God. The message she heard was that she and her friends "were nothing more than things over which men and boys could trip." (p. 3). That message also led to the belief that there is something evil about a woman’s body.
One thing we discover in the book is that the Purity movement became big business, with purity rings, books, clothing, and more. Among the buyers of these products was the government, as apparently $2 billion dollars of federal money has been expended to support abstinence-only programming. She notes that this money has been distributed to "community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, local and/or state health departments, and schools." Only California did not accept federal funding for abstinence-only education programming. Churches, of course, made use of this material as well. The movement has had a listing influence on the lives of women, for as Klein writes "the purity movement teaches that every sexual activity---from masturbation to kissing if it elicits that special feeling---can make one less pure" (p. 12). In other words, if a woman becomes aroused, that is inappropriate. As for guys, well it's a different story, I guess, except that young men are also told that masturbation was wrong and that they should keep their minds pure. Guilt and shame are part of that story as well, but this book is about how this movement affected women.
The book is composed of four movements. The first three movements have four chapters each, while the final movement has three. The first movement focuses on four purity-culture stumbling blocks: First, if the purity culture doesn't work for you, then you must be the problem, not the movement. Second is that girls and women must conform to gender roles to be acceptable to men (men don’t like assertive women). Third, unmarried girls and women are to "maintain a sexless body, mind, and, and heart to be pure." This becomes difficult once a woman marries, because now she is expected to turn on her sexuality to please her husband. Fourth, there is the "systematic mishandling of sexual abuse cases and survivors (the topic of the current Supreme Court nomination process). These chapters are challenging and unsettling, but those of us who have some experience within the evangelical sub-culture recognize elements of this story to be true to our own experience.
Movements two and three focus on the stories that emerge out of these four stumbling blocks, both inside and outside the church. Klein brings to us stories of women who faced shame and some ultimately leaving the church. She also shows how some broke free of the messaging both inside and outside the church. The fourth section brings some closure, showing how people have moved beyond these stumbling blocks. As she notes, in each section she begins with her own story. In the end she expresses her continued embrace of the Christian faith, but her difficulty finding the right community. The churches that have a theology she can embrace are too formal. She misses the context of the evangelical community, but not its theology of sexuality. I’ve heard this many times, as a mainline Protestant pastor.
Although I came of age within a similar evangelical subculture, what I experienced predates the Purity Movement that emerged in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I resonated with her descriptions because the messaging was similar. We were told to be sexually pure, even as we struggled with that. We were told to keep our minds clean and clear. We were told masturbation was wrong, even though it appears to have been a widespread among my male friends. As for my female friends, that wasn't a topic to which I was privy. I do know that the girls were constantly told to be modest in their dress so as not to be a stumbling block to the boys in the youth group. Apparently, we were weak in mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, the girls in our group needed to take care in their demeanor and their dress, lest we stumble. To give but one example, at camp the girls had to wear t-shirts over their swim suits, even if they were one-piece suits, so as not to be overly sexy. While our experiences might have presaged what came later, it does appear that the messaging became more unbearable and destructive over time, especially when it became big business. We didn’t have purity rings or t-shirts or purity bibles, those would have to wait for the next generation.
By shining a light on this subculture, Klein shines a light on our culture. Women are not stumbling blocks. They need not feel shame about their bodies or their sexuality. It's time we let go of old taboos and have honest conversations about sexuality so that the next generation can grow up without the damage done to earlier generations. The conversations aren’t always easy, but they’re important. I say this as one who has struggled with such conversations. After all, I too was formed by a culture that has elevated sexuality but given us few resources to responsibly respond. The stories that appear in the book offer a pathway toward healing and hope for women, but for men as well. These stories might also bring healing to the Christian community. It’s a difficult conversation, but her purpose is not to destroy faith but to lay out a way forward that holds the church accountable and liberates those who have been caught in a web of shame. For this I give thanks.