Purity ring. Courtesy of H. Armstrong Roberts

The shame of purity culture and abstinence-only sex education

I could feel my heart racing in my chest—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. My heart crashed against my rib cage, wanting to flee this predicament as much I did. My cheeks grew red, and I wanted to sink down into the floor and disappear forever. 


In front of all my friends at my 13th birthday party, my father had gotten down on one knee, his arm outstretched, holding a small silver ring with a tiny cross and an even tinier diamond. Why was my 50-year-old father seemingly proposing to his 13-year-old daughter in a room full of her teenage friends, one might ask? The answer: purity culture.


Purity culture is a creation of conservative and fundamentalist Christianity, and it is used to justify their views on abstinence, homosexuality and a woman’s place in a “godly” home. Purity rings are meant to symbolize the daughter’s commitment to stay pure, and one is often given to her by her father to represent his commitment to “guard” his daughter’s purity. Purity rings are not the only symbols of abstinence touted by this culture. Women are often required to sign abstinence pledges or attend purity balls to solidify and “celebrate” their commitment to purity. 


While a well-informed personal choice to remain abstinent is not, in and of itself, a harmful one, several problems arise when purity culture’s abstinence-only sex education practices become commonplace in our education system. Purity culture has left a lasting impact on youth that grew up with this background, and it has left many young women with feelings of shame and low self-worth. It is vital that we examine purity culture with a critical lens and ultimately recognize the importance of abolishing this outdated practice for the good of all future generations.  


Since 1996, the federal government has spent more than $2 billion promoting abstinence-only sex education in educational programs for young people. These programs were significantly promoted by former President George W. Bush and supported again by former President Donald Trump’s administration, causing them to play an active role in our educational system. A study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation stated out of 50 states, only 24 mandate sex education. Furthermore, 37 states require that sex education, if taught, must include abstinence-only education, and 27 of those states require schools to stress abstinence-only sex education above all other methods. 


Abstinence-only education is far from successful. States that promote abstinence-only sex education have the highest STDs, STIs and teen pregnancy rates. Unfortunately, abstinence-only curricula are widespread in our education system. Abstinence pledges, which are commonplace for supporters of abstinence-only education and purity culture, require that individuals promise not to think sexual thoughts. This essentially makes real sex education morally unacceptable despite its being far more successful at educating youth about their bodies and preventing STDs, STIs and reducing teen pregnancy rates. 


According to other data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s study of abstinence education, only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. This allows abstinence-only educators to teach with little to no accountability; as a result, abstinence-only education is often flawed or downright inaccurate. Moreover, according to research compiled by undergraduate of John Fisher College Amanda Paul, over 80% of abstinence-only educators teach false information. 


While abstinence-only education and purity culture are nearly synonymous in teachings, purity culture often takes things several steps further. It relies on shame and fear to ensure participation, while at the same time promising a fulfilling and prosperous life if only one waits until they are married to have sex—among other outdated mandates. If one waits, according to purity culture, your sex life will be fantastic, and you will be able to share this amazing connection with your partner that you would not have if you did not remain pure. Purity culture is not just about teaching individuals to remain pure, but about shaming them and threatening their future prosperity.


What is even more concerning, from a psychological point of view, is that the teaching of shame becomes a part of one’s identity because of the formalization of these views during adolescence—a pivotal time in a young adult’s development of self-worth. As Donna Coletrane Battle, a chaplain at Meredith College and fellow survivor of purity culture, expressed: “We can overcome trauma. It is a shame that it is so incredibly difficult to overcome. At its core, [shame] exposes what we feel is a deficiency in our dignity. Shame goes directly to the heart of where we feel worth and value, and it tears it; it rips it apart.” 


Unfortunately, this shame is hardwired into the teachings of purity culture. Purity culture teaches youth that their only value is their purity. If that fails, then they are essentially worthless, leaving youth indoctrinated into this culture with an immense hurdle of shame and low self-worth to overcome.


One must recognize that teaching young adults inaccurate information about their bodies and then shaming them when they fail to follow purity culture’s outdated guidelines is not a healthy or helpful form of sex education. It is vital that instead of giving in to archaic rules of purity culture dictated by an outdated, unsuccessful set of standards, we instead advocate for safe sex education in our school system and appropriately encourage sexual freedom. This will help change the effectiveness of purity culture and the shame that it leaves in its wake.