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The Dark Side of Purity Culture

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I wanted to post this blog last week. For some reason, though, I just couldn’t get all my thoughts together into a cohesive form. I know where I’m driving with this topic. (Hint: it’s pretty much where I go with all topics.)

During the course of the work week, I read an essay that helped me see what I was struggling with.
“Purity” culture, I know, is another way of creating oppression. It creates oppression of the body, particularly around sex. That functions to marginalize a lot of people. But the virtue signaling of purity culture is very strong. At its core, it seems like it has a valid point. That’s what makes it so sinister—it becomes very difficult to dismantle it. The essay I read (which I can’t link to yet) illuminated a potential way forward.

A glass angel ornament, wearing a teal dress and holding a gold-painted star. Angels are associated with purity.
Ah, innocence itself. What could be wrong with something so pure? (Magda Ehlers / Pexels.com)

What Is Purity Culture?

Purity culture is a conservative-aligned way of thinking about culture. It’s what’s behind arguments about keeping kink out of Pride parades and analysis around “problematic” pairings in fandom ships.

On the surface, the idea of “purity” seems pretty enticing. It’s innocent and wholesome, full of feel-good vibes. It’s safe for all sorts of people to enjoy. Purity culture is not “problematic”; it doesn’t glorify bad things like abuse. Some people even argue it keeps kids “safe.”

This is what makes “purity” arguments difficult to dismantle. It’s hard to argue that we should expose children to something overtly sexual in nature. We know that children can be and are damaged by that sort of thing. So it makes sense to shield them from that kind of content before they’re ready for it.

Purity culture can then expand and extend to censor almost anything. Breastfeeding in public, for example, might become a “think of the children!” moment because the parent must expose the breast, which is “sexualized” by culture at large. Some people thus see the (innocent) act of feeding a baby as being indecent.

What we can see in this example is that purity culture arises from a lot of (Christian) anxiety around sex, sexualization, and sexuality. That in and of itself is also damaging in its extreme forms. We then weaponize it to oppress marginalized people.

“Think of the Children!”

As noted, this is the common rhetoric used by those who support purity culture; initiates are often won over by the focus on protecting children. And to be fair, it is quite a convincing argument. Children do need protection from harmful content or adults who might cause them harm.

Unfortunately, purity culture takes this logic to the nth degree. And because this is such a strong argument, it becomes almost impossible to argue against. If you argue against purity culture, then the logical conclusion is that you support hurting kids. What are you, some kind of pedophile? Do you support the idea that women should just run around topless all the time? If women can be topless, why can’t men run around without pants on?

This is the first clue that purity culture isn’t as nice as it would like to present itself.

It’s a Tool to Oppress and Suppress

Let’s take a look at the no-kink-at-Pride argument that made the rounds last summer. Some people argued that kink—such as leather families—are inappropriate to have at Pride because they aren’t “family friendly.”

This rests on a few logical leaps. The first is that kink is inherently sexual. There is a significant difference between someone dressing in leather gear and performing a sexual act in public. If you automatically assume that someone in leather is performing in a sexual way, that’s your problem.

This becomes obvious when we follow it to the logical extreme. Someone with a shoe fetish might see any and all shoes as inherently sexual objects. Thus someone wearing shoes is engaged in public sexual behavior.

A close-up shot of a woman sitting on a low wall above a stone patio, near a body of water. We see only her legs. She is wearing blue skinny jeans and black stiletto heels.
Someone is getting their kicks from this photo. (Apostolos Vamvouras / Pexels.com)

Should we thus ban all people from wearing shoes because some in the population find shoes to be sexual objects?

We Cannot Remove All Sexualized Stimuli

Again: there’s a wide gulf here between wearing the shoe and doing something inherently sexual with the shoe. Someone licking a dominatrix’s feet, for example, is something closer to sexualized behavior.

What about kissing or holding hands in public or hugging? We could consider these acts intimate or sexual, especially when they occur between cishet partners. Why is this overtly intimate behavior more acceptable than some people dressing in fetish gear?

We can see the objection isn’t so much about keeping kids away from sexualized behaviors. The objection is actually about demonizing some sexual practices and making them taboo.

That in turn forces those behaviors underground; it pathologizes and marginalizes them. Kink practitioners can thus be construed as weirdos. Often, we shame them and associate them with deviance—and from there, connected to mental illness and finally construed as “dangerous.”

Who Does Purity Culture Actually Serve?

The ultimate question here is why anyone is concerned about anyone else’s sex life. The answer, of course, lies in patriarchal control of reproduction.

Kink is often non-reproductive sexual behavior. Queer identities may result in non-reproductive partnerships.
In an effort to preserve heteronormative patriarchal dominance, we demonize every sexual act that does not lead directly to reproduction. That’s, historically, why culture demonizes gay men, says lesbians “just need to meet the right dick,” and labels queerness “a phase.”

It’s why trans people are still met with such hatred, why trans identities are still medicalized and pathologized. They’re not “normative.” They challenge the heteronormative narrative which, in turn, challenges patriarchy.
In some ways, then, yes, “the children” are the concern. But they’re the concern insofar as patriarchy worries about not being able to “properly” indoctrinate children into heteronormativity.

Demonizing Some and Legitimating Others

Think about the backlash against queerness in children’s books or programs. The simple act of being queer—of a girl kissing a girl or a boy kissing a boy—is considered inappropriate for children to see. Yet heterosexual kisses pass with flying colors.

Why do we think of queerness as inherently sexual, while heterosexual activity is not? Because queerness is “deviant” and “abnormal.”

A woman, standing out the frame, holds a black whip against a red background.
Oooh, so deviant. (Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

This allows people to argue that any kind of LGBTQ+ content exposes children to inherently sexualized content—even if the characters only hold hands. People use the same logic to argue that kink at Pride isn’t “family friendly”—even if our kink enthusiasts are simply wearing leather.

As noted, kink can be difficult to disentangle. Someone with a leather fetish may indeed connect either the visual or the wearing of the leather to inherent sexuality. But so might someone with a shoe fetish, and we’re not out here banning shoes.

Cleaving the Sexual from the Emotional

Now, the essay I was reading discussed the notion of “protecting children” a great deal. And this is something I myself have wondered about. Having been a quasi-student of anthropology, I’ve read several times that there are cultures that, pre-colonization, expected parents to assist young children with masturbation.

Immediately, everyone steeped in Western colonial culture’s back just went up. They did what to the kids?! They’re the adults! That’s an abuse of power! It’s incest! It’s pedophilia!

And that’s where this essay made a brilliant point. Within the Western paradigm, we cut “sex” off from the emotional. In doing so, we create a great deal of the (problematic) power dynamics around it.

Understanding the Nuance of Power Imbalances

Now, I’m not going to say that simply because a parent loves their child, that makes doing whatever okay. If a parent were hitting a child while saying “I love you,” that doesn’t make the violence okay.

The nuance here is that, in those pre-colonial cultures, the sexual act was also an act of love and care. Parents attended to their child’s needs. The parents were to assist in teaching the child how to care for their body, how to care for this need and respect it when it arose. Parents did not engage the child before the need presented itself.

The key here is that the parents are not engaging in this for their own gratification. It is not an abuse of power, but an act of parenting–one that addresses sexual behavior in a way that makes those acts acceptable to the child. It doesn’t teach Christian-like denial, shame, and rejection.

So when we start arguing against it, we have to keep in mind the paradigm we’re arguing from.

Pearl-Clutching Promotes Shames and Ignorance

When we create such enormous barricades around sexuality in childhood, under the guise of “protecting the children,” we tend to silo love and sex in two different places. By separating them so, we allow problematic power dynamics around sex to prevail.

Moreover, we don’t allow children to positively engage with their own bodies and sexual needs. Children are learning—everything. Parents are often aghast to learn children have engaged in “sexual” play with each other—such as doctor and patient—or that children will explore each other’s genitals. A child masturbating is cause for concern, yet we know they do it. (It caused a huge fuss for Victorian parents, who invented all kinds of things to make kids stop “ringing the devil’s doorbell.”)

As such, we never allow kids to engage with “sexual” material and “sexuality” in a positive way. Instead, we teach them shame around it, which leads to all kinds of pathologies around sex and sexuality.

It also increases the chances the child will engage in risk-taking behaviors. They’ll seek out sketchier sources to learn about sex and sexuality. That, in turn, leads to the increased chance that they’ll become tangled up in problematic power dynamics around sex.

Ignorance Allows for Coercion and Control

This “innocence” makes the young person more vulnerable, in the sense that they’re likely to not have healthy models for sexual relations. They may not learn about consent or even how the act is performed.

Teenagers often seek out “older” partners, in part because those partners have more experience. That experience is precisely what then leads to control and coercion. And often, the young person does not realize they are being coerced or controlled. Instead, they feel it is a mark of merit or proof of how “mature” they are that an older person has taken such keen interest in them.

This is where we run into issues of power and abuse. And this is why purity culture arguments seem so strong: people want to take advantage of these poor, innocent children! We must protect them and keep them safe.

It sounds very, very convincing. Yet merely shielding children actually sets them up to be taken advantage of later. Without positive models and understanding, they imbibe “bad” models from TV and from strangers on the internet.

The Uninformed Don’t Know There’s Anything to Complain About

In short, purity culture actually acts as a front for the continuation of ignorance. That then allows for control, coercion, and abuse.

This is particularly true for people with uteruses. Those with XX-phenotypes are “feminine”—and femininity inherently links to innocence and naivete. “Women” are often constructed as parallels to children; the popular imagination sees them as naive and innocent, pure. (Why do you think we’re so concerned with virginity?) And “women” are often considered almost childlike in terms of their ability to rationalize or reason.

Thus: our culture conceives of femininity as an extended childhood. Innocence remains until motherhood is achieved.

And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people routinely think “women” don’t have sexual urges (or shouldn’t have them). Sexuality in the female is considered, even now, somewhat pathological. So we reason that children, and XX-phenotype children in particular, need protection. Female children need that protection even longer, in order to maintain purity.

That allows for control and coercion. Female children are often kept in the dark about their own bodies, their own pleasure, and other facets such as consent. We often present to them very poor models for relationships. The “dickhead alpha” and the abuse he perpetrates on the heroine is often considered “hyper romantic.”

The lack of knowledge effectually leaves people with uteruses at the mercy of others. That is, ultimately, the goal of “purity culture.”

What Can We Do Instead?

The knee-jerk reaction to reading some of this is absolutely to think the suggested solution might be to expose children to overtly sexual materials.

That is not what I’m saying here. Kids should not be watching hardcore porn or engaging in sexual acts with adults initiated by the adult to satisfy the adult’s needs. That’s abuse of power; that’s coercion and control; and all of that is psychologically, emotionally, and physically harmful to the child.

What I am arguing here is that the focus on “purity” is much more sinister than it presents itself. In arguing to “shield and protect,” it fails to properly equip anyone to deal with a fundamental part of human life—sex, sexual behavior, and sexuality—in a healthy and positive way. It treats sex as something that is always harmful and dangerous, that we must be kept well away from until we’re “old enough.”

And that is precisely what makes it harmful and dangerous, by and large! We’re not taught how to engage with it. Then we’re thrown into the deep end without any sense of what’s good, what’s healthy, and what’s bad and harmful.

Blame, Shame, and Ignore Is a Poor Strategy

Again, that’s not to say children should be exposed to hardcore porn or something. But teaching people to engage with sexuality—particularly their own bodies, their own sexual needs—is actually better protection against manipulation, coercion, abuse, and control later in life.

It’s the old saying: knowledge is power. And learning in a safe environment, with positive role models and people you trust, is much better than learning it later from sketchy strangers on the internet.

So the argument that kink at Pride or LGBTQ+ representation in children’s books is inherently sexualized and needs to be locked away from children until they hit some arbitrary age is just setting them up for problems. Instead, we should boot purity culture’s pearl-clutching and seek positive ways to help people—including children—engage with what they might see in the world. If you take your child to Pride, you need to be prepared to explain some things to them. If you take them to a beach where a heterosexual couple is making out, you’ll need to be prepared to explain that too.

“Purity” culture asks us to make the outside world “safe”—but that is, by and large, impossible. What we can do, instead, is offer ourselves as guides to navigating a difficult, harmful, and often terrifying and confusing world in a safer, more positive way. Purity culture does not offer that; it instills fear and shame, marginalizes and oppresses, and ultimately creates the very shadows that allow harmful behaviors to multiply.

Shining a light on the shadows—instead of offering a blindfold—is a much wiser way forward.

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By Cherry

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