This week, on What We Think About When We talk about Love, I’m thinking about the idealization of purity as it relates to women’s sexual behavior. Or in this case, the lack thereof. For most of the history of humanity, there has been an emphasize and idealization of a virginal, ‘untouched’ girl or woman. This idea is very closely related to the idea that woman is an object for men to possess.
This is an old idea, but it remains remarkably prominent in modern American culture. If you watch or read thrillers think about how many stories had missing women. Now think of how many similar stories you’ve read where the missing/kidnapped/dead person was a man or boy. In these thrillers, how often are women (cops/detectives/etc.) doing the rescuing? For more on our cultural obsession with dead girls, which is directly related to our ideas about purity and women’s value as untouched objects, check out, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving An American Obsession.
My personal experience with messages about my innate purity came from the white Evangelical church. I grew up in what is now called ‘purity culture’ or the ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ generation. It can generally be understood as a cultural structure for controlling the gender and sexual behavior of people within the church. It is certainly not limited to Evangelicals, but in the 90’s, when I was a kid, purity culture was a BIG thing and it was a commercial thing. Before I started high school, I’d read at least three books about waiting for marriage, the evils of dating, and how my body was a dangerous temptation to men.
I went to charm school at my church where I learned how to be the right kind of feminine. How to match my hair style and clothes to my body type. How long the slits in my skirts could be. We read Bible verses from Song of Songs (scandalous), and had serious conversations about the valuable role women have in supporting men’s lives. I was in fifth grade.
Around that same time, I got all dressed up and went to a father-daughter purity banquet at my church. In my Instagram post matching the same title of this essay, you can see a picture of little Jaye in a jumper and a corsage. Dad and I posed for formal pictures at the church. I remember the food was good. I have no idea what I was told about my role in the world as a woman, but I know I believed it. I’m an eldest child and a driven perfectionist to boot. I liked following rules. I thought the rules would keep me safe.
Perhaps one of the reasons, the rules and gender-based norms of purity culture were so easy for me to take on as my own, was because I had been inculcated into another kind of purity relationship when I was even younger. At four, I sat on the steps of my entryway and prayed the prayer to invite Jesus to come and live in my heart. It was Valentine’s Day. I would have open heart surgery later that year for a ventricle wall hole that hadn’t closed over when I’d been born. I was a child in desperate need of a higher power. And because I’d prayed the prayer on Valentine’s Day, Jesus became my own personal boyfriend. We celebrated my ‘spiritual’ birthday every Val’s Day until I went to college.
In this environment, the Jesus boyfriend became a dependable safe confidant. The sexual awakening I would have in high school was never strong enough for me to consider breaking up with Boyfriend Jesus. It was almost too easy to transfer the rules of purity culture onto that relationship and see him as a safe choice where I could pour out my temptations, fears, and anxieties during adolescence.
I was so dedicated to this relationship that I insisted my father buy me a promise ring, also known as a purity ring. For most girls I knew, these were cheap twenty-dollar bands from the Christian bookstore marked with a Bible verse or crosses. But I wanted something special. Both my mother and grandmother had birthstone rings. So I decided that real women had birthstone rings, and here, I could call it my promise ring, which would convince my dad to buy me a real sapphire from JCPenny’s for several hundred dollars. I was sixteen. I almost lost this ring during gym class my junior year.
It is supposed to mean I promised my father I would save sexual purity for marriage. (Yes, that sort of happened, but mostly because my body is complicated medically, and it takes the right kind of guy to trust with that kind of uncertainty.) But I’m ten years married and I still wear this ring. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. It reminds me that one, my father loved me despite teaching me some really terrible things about the roles of women in the world. Two, that even as I was fully engaged in the rules of purity culture, I found a way to manipulate the system to get what I wanted. I’m quite proud of that.