The “purity industry” was one of the hallmarks of 1990 Christian Evangelical culture — and one of its creepier elements, in which young women were encouraged to stigmatize their sexual urges and promise the preservation of their virginity to others. Purity rings were worn, purity balls were thrown (and documented), and the rest of us looked on in bafflement… until now.
In her new book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (out now from Touchstone), Linda Kay Klein shares the story of how her strict Evangelical upbringing taught her to be submissive, repressive, and “pure,” and how she came to reject that approach and seek out other young women who wondered why their faith and sexuality could not co-exist. We’re pleased to share this excerpt from Klein’s book.
The need I felt to prove that I was good despite my developing body was never quite so strong as when the cast list for a play was released. I would run eagerly up to the list in hopes that maybe this time I had been cast as the romantic lead only to see my name, yet again, next to the role of a demon or a Jezebel. And it didn’t just happen in church plays either. Even in school and community plays, I somehow always seemed to be cast as the same kind of character. Once, in a mime I performed for a church mission trip, I was even cast as sex itself. My role was to silently seduce Christian with my body. Christian would refuse me and then slam a Bible in my face, after which I would jump back and wither onto the floor as Christian moved on to his next temptation: money.
After one performance, one of the actors, a pastor’s son, pulled me aside.
“You’re good at that part,” he told me.
“Thanks,” I replied. I had actually worked really hard at it, practicing my seductive moves and dramatic wilting until it was just right. This was what I wanted to do when I grew up after all! Find a beautiful, evangelical, actor husband and start a Christian theater troupe that would travel around the world changing hearts and minds for Jesus Christ through missionary mimes…sigh.
The guy smiled. “Maybe too good at it,” he raised his eyebrows.
“What do you mean?” I asked him, my face burning.
“Nothing,” he said. Then he turned away, repeating in a singsong, “Nothing at all.”
But I knew exactly what he meant. I wanted to make my leaders, my friends, myself believe I was good, but my stupid, floppy, breasty body was always getting in the way.
Later on the same mission trip, one of the girls handed me a piece of notebook paper. “Rob [the guy I’d had the conversation with] drew this,” she said. “He told some of the other boys it’s you.”
“What’s it supposed to be?” I asked, studying the long, thin pencil drawn line with jagged teeth at the bottom of it.
“He said it’s a hoe,” she answered, scrunching her face up in sympathy. My eyes hardened. A hoe? I had been around the public school block enough to know exactly what that meant.
I found Rob and gave him a lecture about why it was wrong to call me, or anybody, a whore that was so long and passionate he almost cried. But the lecture itself, that wasn’t what mattered. Not to me anyway. What has always mattered to me is what happened next.
Our reward for suffering “with joy” — smiling and not complaining — is being told we are “good.”
Minutes after Rob limped away, a group of other guys on the mission trip formed a circle around me.
Finally, one stepped forward.
“That. Was. Amazing,” he said.
“I thought he was going to cry!” another hollered, laughing.
“Oh man! He will never do that again!”
“Don’t mess with Linda, y’all. She willdestroy you!” said Dean, the boy who would later become my boyfriend. (Until, of course, I broke up with him for God.)
It was one of those moments, those rare moments in which you learn something about yourself by seeing yourself through others’ eyes. That day, I learned that I was tough. And that that was cool. But I would’ve given anything to be the kind of good girl that the pastor’s son never would have said those things about in the first place.
And so I prayed: “Don’t just give me the milk, Lord. Give me the meat.”
I was referring to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2: “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Even now, you are still not ready.”
I had heard a sermon in which the milk was interpreted as easy living, and meat was interpreted as suffering. The message that suffering is somehow “good for us” is repeated often among some Christians, particularly Christian women. Our reward for suffering “with joy” — smiling and not complaining — is being told we are “good.”
Even outside of the church, everyone loves the good suffering woman: the pretty spinster who never admits her unending love for her sister’s husband (who secretly loves her too, of course); the single mother who gives up her dream so she can make enough money for her kids to pursue theirs; the pregnant woman who forgoes treatment for her terminal illness because she fears it could endanger her unborn baby and dies in childbirth. In books, movies, and just about everywhere else, girls get the message that the more selflessly and painfully a woman suffers, the more we love her. But nowhere is this message quite so clear as it is in religion.
As an example, in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master,” progressive evangelical author Rachel Held Evans highlights a subcategory of female martyrs that we especially love — suffering virgins “like Agatha (scourged, burnt, torn with meat hooks for refusing to marry the pagan governor of Sicily), Agnes (beheaded for refusing suitors and consecrating herself to Christ alone), Lucy (executed for distributing her wealth among the poor rather than marrying), and Blandina (a young slave thrown to wild beasts in the arena for professing Christianity).”
Having been raised on stories like these, I lay across my daybed praying for the opportunity to prove that I was not a “woman of the flesh.” To prove that I too could be an Agatha, an Agnes, a Lucy, or a Blandina. If I was just given the chance.
…My critics will say, “You turned out alright. You’re happily married with a great family. You’re a strong Christian (even if you’re not an evangelical). Whether or not you liked the purity message, it appears to have been good for you.” Though evangelicalism offered me many gifts — a deep spiritual life, mentors I could rely on, leadership opportunities that boosted my confidence, and more — the purity message was not one of them. Intended to make more “pure,” all this message did was make me more ashamed of my inevitable “impurities.”
Copyright © 2018 by Linda Kay Klein. From PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein available now from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.