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How does ‘purity culture’ encourage negative stigmas around female sexuality?

Written by Claudia Birchenough

Purity culture is an idea that stems from religious teaching that a woman should remain a virgin until after marriage. It discourages the idea of dating, encourages women to appear innocent (have complete ignorance about anything to do with sex), promotes female submission to men, and pressures women into ‘modesty’. These teachings are still prevalent in many societies today and are very damaging to the way society views female sexual liberation.

An example that comes to my mind when I think about purity culture is The Jonas Brothers. From quite a young age, all the boys wore purity rings which aided their innocent and sugar-coated image in the public eye. Purity rings are worn as a symbol of a pledge to God that you will abstain from sex until you are married or until you find the right person (this is a more liberal view). Through the years, we saw each brother take off their rings one by one and now they are older they have spoken out about it and explained how growing up in an extremely religious society, they thought this was the right thing to do as it was what everyone did. However, they explained once they got to the age when they began to have desires and thoughts they realised it was an unattainable goal for them. On James Corden’s Late Late Show, Nick even admitted “I took pride in it, until I watched those interviews back years later and was like, I sound like a robot,” This explains how controlling purity culture can be, as Nick insinuates here that he had these thoughts programmed into his brain.

The most damaging aspect of purity culture, however, is the shame that it creates towards women’s bodies; they are taught to hide their bodies to control male lust. Instead of celebrating beautiful women and their unique shapes, women are taught to cover up as their bodies are simply temptations. It claims men’s sexual ‘sins’ are caused by women’s bodies and clothing that incites lust and sexual thoughts, thus placing the responsibility on the women who are being lusted after. It causes a feeling of shame and embarrassment for women towards their bodies which they should not be made to feel. Women’s bodies are amazing. We come in all shapes and sizes and that is something that should be celebrated and embraced by society, not ignored and villainized.

Furthermore, the concept of pre marital sex is thought to be the upmost disgrace in this culture. Women are taught that if they engage in sexual activity before they are married, everything else in their lives will go wrong. This is the utmost sin. Women are scared into the assumption that if they commit any sexual act (even sexual thought in extreme cases) that they will be seen by society as unworthy of love and a life partner because no one would want ‘damaged goods’. Even in societies where purity culture isn’t as prevalent, we see this concept talked about often. I often see all over social media people talking negatively about girls with ‘high body counts’; I regularly see women who have had multiple sexual partners described as things such as ‘used cars’ and this is so damaging for young women seeing this who are starting to have sexual thoughts and experiences. As a society, we should not still be creating a negative stigma around women having sex. If a woman chooses to wait until marriage, that is completely her choice and that is great that she knows what she wants, and it is also great if a woman chooses to have many sexual partners before she gets married, or if she chooses to have many sexual partners and not get married. It’s time to break the stigma and let people live the lives that make them happy.

Women that live in this culture are also made feel like it is wrong for them to have sexual desire or to enjoy sex. It teaches that women are responsible for a man’s sexual pleasure and that they should not have or desire any for themselves: it reduces women to mere tools to give men sexual pleasure. Purity culture cannot simply deny the fact that sex can be enjoyable for both people involved however due to the severe lack of sexual education that is provided in this culture it is very difficult for women to understand their sexual organs and what makes them feel good. Another consequence of the severe lack of sexual education in purity culture is that consent is never talked about. This can lead to women believing that the pain and discomfort they are made to feel by their abusers is their own fault for not maintaining their purity pledges. To improve this, as a society we need to advocate loudly for comprehensive sex education in schools, this should be available for everyone.

We need to stop creating these idealised standards of how men and women should look and act and accept everyone’s quirks and stop these preconceptions of how a person should be all because of their gender. We need to stop shying away from this subject, it is not a taboo topic, it is the most natural part of human existence and we need to normalise talking about sex!

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