By Alison Bowen
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In her new book “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” Linda Kay Klein shares the confusing messages she received growing up about sex and talks to other women who were also filled with shame because of a lack of sexual education.
As a young adult, Linda Kay Klein had not had sex, but she was convinced there was a possibility she was pregnant.
So much of what she had been taught about sex was focused on staying pure. What if, even as a virgin, there was a chance she failed by not following the never-quite-explained rules of her evangelical youth?
Klein describes how a culture focused on sexual purity surrounded her when she was a teenager in the 1990s, and how that haunted a generation of girls like her through adulthood in her new book “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.”
While her church youth group, she writes, often discussed the importance of sexual purity, there was uncertainty about what exactly purity meant. Should you wait until marriage to have sex? Even wait to kiss your partner until the wedding day? Nonetheless, the importance of being sexually pure couldn’t be more clear: To be pure was to be good; to be impure was to be bad and put a future relationship or your soul in jeopardy. Staying pure was directly connected to self-worth and being a Christian, Klein said.
And this wasn’t just a conversation in her Midwestern youth group. At this time, celebrities like Jessica Simpson were lauded for waiting until marriage to have sex, the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings to symbolize a commitment to abstinence before marriage.
The messages around sex were heavily bent on not becoming a woman who tempted men. “Stumbling block” was a term that described women and girls who were deemed seductresses, who would trip men and boys on their pathways to God, she said. “I have never personally heard boys and men referred to as stumbling blocks for women and girls and certainly not for their sexual temptation,” Klein said.
Klein’s own experience with sex created nightmares and anxiety, rooted in teachings she grew up with that she felt drowned her in shame.
“I was sure that I was the only one that was experiencing this extreme sexual shame and fear and anxiety that for me was manifesting in ways that mimic (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she said.
But by interviewing other people she grew up with and hearing similar stories, and then talking to people across the country who echoed the same phrases and experiences, she realized it was a much larger issue. “It moved from being about me to being about us,” she said.
Some women she interviewed said they saved sex until marriage, expecting the experience to be a fairy tale, but instead found it was not easy. “And they’re oftentimes ashamed to bring that information to anyone, because in marriage you’re supposed to have a blissful perfect sexual life, and if you don’t have a blissful perfect sexual life, oftentimes you’re told it’s because you were impure before marriage,” she said.
Others, men and women, had physical reactions that made them unable to engage in sex. “People get married and start to be physical for the first time in the marriage bed and struggle for months and report that things get better,” she said. “Other people struggle for decades, and it never gets better.”
Klein explained that the lack of sexual education had lasting impacts. “We never learned anything about how sex works or talked about sex itself,” she said. “All we talked about was us and whether we would be good people or bad people, pure or impure, loved or lucky to find anyone who would ever love us, based on our sexual purity or lack thereof.”
Instead, she said, it would have been useful to learn values and ethics around sex, more of a holistic toolbox with which to make decisions.
“When I was growing up, I was really given one tool to make every relationship and sexual decision, which was this ruler that had a line on it somewhere, that was a line that if I crossed it, I would be impure. It was really ambiguous where the line was,” she said. “What I wish I had gotten growing up was a Swiss Army knife of all kinds of different tools that were at the ready.”
In thinking about how to approach a discussion of sex with their children, Klein suggests that parents should first work through what they have been taught about sex and how it has impacted them.
“If we don’t do that deconstruction, we are going to inadvertently end up teaching what we were taught,” she said.
“We might not teach it in words, we might teach it in how our face reacts, or we teach it in what we don’t say, or we might teach it in a story that we tell about someone else.”
Healing for her came through speaking about her experience with others and realizing she wasn’t alone, that she wasn’t the problem.
“The more of us who tell the truth about our own lives, the more healing is possible for us on an individual level, and the more that change is possible on a societal level,” she said.