Interlude: Surviving Purity Culture and Sexual Assault

On April 12, 2005, a classmate repeatedly fondled my breasts after I asked him to stop. My friend’s mother was only a few feet away from us the entire time. Months later, she asked me why I didn’t tell her right then. Until that moment, the thought of telling her had never occurred to me.

Journal Entry: So today I went to the track meet and Corey was there. At first, we were just talking and it was fun. But then, dude, he touched my boobs. My small size A boobs feel so big.

September of 2005—my church is holding our first annual Purity Seminar. The second week of classes, the teacher stands in front of the youth group room, in the basement, and declares The Bible doesn’t say anything about rape.

Can I see your Bible? Lauren asks. I wordlessly hand it to her, knowing what will happen next. She flips right to Deuteronomy 22:25-27.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

She hmphhs and hands the book back to me. I know this passage—the one I turned to in the middle of the night, trying to believe what happened to me wasn’t my fault.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.

As I got older, I kept finding myself finding more and more references of sexual violence in the Bible. And feeling more and more frustrated that this man who had spent years training to be a preacher could not think of a single one of them. Probably because he never had to.

10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, that I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the cakes she had made and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. 11 But when she had brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” 12 She answered him, “No, my brother, do not violate1 me, for bsuch a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this coutrageous thing. 13 As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of dthe outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.” 14 But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her.

It’s possible we have people in this room who have been raped. Lauren came forward and asked for prayers from her rape two months ago. And she’s sitting right next to me.

Re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts

If someone molests you and says it’s an accident—I climb over a chair to get out of the room.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. The symptoms can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms.

Journal Entry: Time seems to slow down. Like when I was checking the mail today. It doesn’t even feel real.

Two weeks later, we are given two name tags. We write our name on the first one and stick the tag to our left hands. We pass the second one to our neighbor every five minutes and are supposed to stick the new one on our right hands. After the third rotation, the tag won’t stick anymore. That’s what it’s like when you have sex, he says at the end of the class. The first tag is still stuck to my hand, like the bonding chemicals that are released when you have sex. But sex with multiple people means the bonding chemicals don’t work anymore.

I’m seventeen years old at church camp, and I’m crying because I’m terrified. I’m terrified my future husband will feel robbed because my first sexual experience won’t be with him—because I had been assaulted four years earlier.

The trauma of the sexual violence that Elizabeth [Smart] endured was made even worse, she says, by the fact that she was raised in a deeply religious household that prioritized abstinence.

“I was raised that way,” says Elizabeth, who will be 29 this November, referring to her Mormon upbringing. “I did make that promise to myself that I was going to wait until marriage before I had sex… Well, then I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I’m worthless, I’m filthy, I’m dirty. I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compounded on top—it was almost crippling.”

One of the other girls comforts me: “The fact that you’re crying over this right now proves that you’re pure.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before? Ah, yes, you would have told me, in a way—but I hindered you, I remember!”

These and other of his words were nothing but the perfunctory babble of the surface while the depths remained paralyzed. He turned away, and bent over a chair. Tess followed him to the middle of the room, where he was, and stood there staring at him with eyes that did not weep. Presently she slid down upon her knees beside his foot, and from this position she crouched in a heap.
“In the name of our love, forgive me!” she whispered with a dry mouth. “I have forgiven you for the same!”

And, as he did not answer, she said again—
“Forgive me as you are forgiven! I forgive you, Angel.”
“You—yes, you do.”
“But you do not forgive me?”
“O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case! You were one person; now you are another. My God—how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque—prestidigitation as that!”

I read Tess of the D’urbervilles at twenty-one and am outraged at Angel’s hypocrisy.

At 17, my gynecologist recommends I get the Gardasil vaccine. My mom tells her I don’t need one, because I won’t be having sex until I get married. When we go out to the car, she says the only way I could possibly be in danger of getting HPV is if I were raped. She doesn’t acknowledge the assault that had already happened.

Minimizing and forgetting are the only tools my mother had to deal with what happened to me. They were the only tools she handed on to me.

“How We Teach Purity Culture isn’t the Problem—Purity Culture Itself Is the Problem”
I am 22 when I stumble across articles pointing out the harm of purity culture. I spend five days on the bed of a hotel room, surprised I’m not the only one who feels this way.


Works Cited

Field, Samantha. “How We Teach Purity Culture Isn’t the Problem—Purity Culture Itself Is the Problem.” Rewire News Group. 24 Oct. 2016.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2001. Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Penguin Classics, 2012.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health. May 2019.

Oswacks, Molly. “Standing Up for Rape Victims—And Tearing Down Purity Culture.” 1 Sept. 2016.

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