The Purity Culture And Its Mental Health Effect

The repercussions of growing up in “purity culture,” as it has come to be known, can be harmful mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Repercussions of purity culture include sexual shame and dysfunction that can last long into adulthood. Although the effects of purity culture are harmful, there are ways to heal and move forward. In this article, we shall look at the purity culture and its mental health effects.

Purity culture encompasses the way society and popular culture reinforce the idea of sexual purity as a measure of a person’s worth. It started as a largely Christian religious phenomenon but has grown beyond that, especially in the US, and has far-ranging mental health impacts on those it affects.

What Does ‘Purity’ Really Mean?

In the context of certain forms of Christianity, purity culture refers to sexual purity and chastity. Purity culture connects back to biblical connotations of purity and its value, saying extramarital sex and other unapproved forms of sex are sinful. Purity culture impacts how people see themselves and creates systems of internalized and externalized oppression, shame, and judgment that can restrict sexual agency and exacerbate rape culture, racism, and misogyny

Historian Emma Cieslik describes purity culture as “…a systemic set of ideologies enforced by religious communities through educational programming and events that place the brunt of sexual responsibility on young men and women.”.

Where Did Purity Culture Come From?

Purity culture gained popularity with the public in the 1990s. It is heavily connected to the rise of evangelical Christianity. While it is mostly discussed as being in the context of American evangelicalism, researchers like the University of Leeds’ Elle Thwaites have to follow purity culture’s international influence as well.

However, purity is not only connected to Christianity. Purity can be connected and/or confused with a culture of modesty that is prevalent in many other religions. Dr. Sahar Wertheimer (MD) is a fertility expert and orthodox Jew who works to inform especially religious people about reproductive health. She says she sees these values of purity and modesty become problematic when they become weaponized, particularly against women.

“The hesitancy to speak about certain aspects of women’s health, because of modesty reasons, because of privacy reasons, has hindered some of the basic knowledge that I think all women need to have to be better self-advocates, to take care of themselves, to take care of their loved ones, and to make people feel less alone,” Dr. Wertheimer says.

How Do People Ensure They Remain ‘Pure’?

In the past, items like purity rings or events like purity balls have symbolized purity culture in some Christian communities. However, these formalities have fallen out of favor, and purity culture now operates at a much more subcultural level. Purity culture is now less about making highly visible choices about one’s own intimacy, and more about the teaching or, for some, indoctrination of foundational beliefs about purity culture.

Hannah Mayderry (LMHC), a licensed mental health counselor, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and community and now works with those trying to unpack and heal from their religious trauma. She says that purity culture affects most facets of daily living for those who subscribe (or are pressured to subscribe) to it.

Women are often taught their sexuality is something that should be bottled up and shoved down. That encompasses everything from the way that they dress, the way that they interact with men, the way that they speak, the way that they view their own bodies and their own sex drive.


She also says that where women are socialized to feel at fault if someone shows romantic interest in them, men are taught another extreme.

“Men are taught that their sexuality is something that cannot be tamed and that they need to do everything in their power to try to not look at women because God forbid they look at a woman or they’re left alone with a woman then their sex drive is going to become out of control.”

Because of the link between sex and sin in the evangelical understanding of Christianity, straying away from purity culture is often seen as a defiance of God or a violation of a person’s faith. This perpetuates the harm that can be done when purity culture is weaponized against people of all genders and sexualities. For example, if you’re conditioned to believe that you are having impure sexual thoughts, it will immediately make you feel like an outsider.

                                                                              PURITY CULTURE

What Is the Toxicity of Purity Culture?

There are serious mental health implications for people impacted by purity culture, including but not limited to religious trauma syndrome, feeling ashamed of your body, sexuality, or gender identity, feeling controlled or pressured to behave in rigid ways with limiting rules, and a warping of one’s worldview that can reduce autonomy and increase shame and stress. Mayberry says these sorts of issues stem from “perpetuating cycles of shame” that exist within purity culture.

“[They are taught] in a way that allows them to not explore their sexuality, to shame themselves when they have thoughts and feelings that are completely natural, but they believe to be inherently sinful because [of] what they have been taught,” Mayberry says. “It can negatively impact relationships and it can negatively impact their own understanding of themselves and their bodies.”

Wertheimer says that the underlying fear that can grow alongside both the concepts of purity and modesty is not unique to one ideology, but can still be the root cause of this type of harm. She sees this manifest in societal taboos around topics of sex.

“There is a hesitancy or a fear that if we speak about certain things, we’re going to speak it into existence. And I’m sure that is pervasive amongst all cultures … I think that we need to shift away from that and realize that our kids are going to do what they’re going to do because of how we parent them, because of their exposures in society, not because we had a talk with them,” she says.

How Purity Culture Affects Women and Girls

The word often used in the research surrounding purity culture and women and girls is that they are simultaneously “policed” and expected to “shoulder the task” of their community’s expectations when it comes to purity.2

Mayberry says that one downstream impact on people raised in evangelical households is how purity culture changes the education they receive when it comes to sexual health.

“There is no sex education. It doesn’t exist, there’s just slut shaming.”

Mayberry says that these teachings early in life have long-lasting effects when it comes to women’s mental health.

“Women are often taught in purity culture that they are supposed to be responsible for averting the male gaze, and if they receive unsolicited attention from that, that it is their fault. And it is a very harmful, vicious cycle of shame that can take a very long time to undo.”

Additionally, Twitter hashtags like #ChurchToo contain stories linking purity culture to abuse within the church. These experiences have their own lasting effects.

How Purity Culture Affects Men and Boys

While toxic masculinity is deeply embedded into many cultures and traditions, evangelical purity culture, with its heavy focus on the policing of women’s bodies and actions, can lead men to problematic behaviors. Mayberry says that, in her experience, this type of upbringing can develop into abusive behavior.

“I think that can lead to aggression, a lack of impulse control, and making excuses for behavior that is not at all acceptable … I think toxic masculinity is kind of a larger cultural narrative, but I think a lack of accountability and normalization of acting on impulse [is part of purity culture].

Who Is Excluded By Purity Culture

Historically, faith-based communities that align with evangelical understandings of purity culture have not been affirming to 2SLGBTQ+ members. They are been actively hostile and harmful. This is because, from an evangelical point of view, having a sexual/gender identity outside of being straight and cisgender is also considered a sin. Purity culture has also negatively affected those in the disability community, including autistic people who have written about this experience.

Wertheimer says that, regardless of your religious affiliation or how you understand the concept of purity, it’s important to hold space for those outside of the traditional binary who want to explore and understand their identity without being weighed down by the expectations of purity culture.

Healing the Traumatic Effects of Purity Culture

Mayderry, who centers her practice around being 2SLGBTQ+ affirming while helping clients unpack religious trauma, says that even framing what a person has experienced as religious trauma can be a difficult first step. She says it is often difficult and confusing for people to question any set of beliefs they have been exposed to that may have harmed them,

“There’s no immediate consequence of asking questions, and exploring your mental health, exploring how things have harmed you, that can only lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and your personal values.”

As for the shame that comes part and parcel with purity culture, Mayderry likens it to a common household object.

“If you think about a thermometer, in which there are only five degrees. Guilt is healthy when it is functional and that is maybe degrees zero to three, that tells us something is wrong, we’ve done something that doesn’t function well for us and we would like to make a change in the future. Three and above is a shame. And shame is completely dysfunctional, and tells us that there’s something inherently wrong with us.”

That spiral, she says, is often where the work to unravel this trauma happens initially.

While mostly everyone is somewhat impacted by purity culture given the way it is baked into society, there are people who are more impacted than others. Mayberry recommends people who are looking to recover from the trauma caused by purity culture look for a practitioner who does not work from a faith-based framework.

I hope you find this article helpful.

About the Author

A Public Speaker and Freelancer who is Interested in Writing articles relating to Personal Development, Love and Marriage.

error: Alert: Content selection is disabled!!