'Pure' Sheds Light On Sexual Shaming In Evangelical Purity Movement

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"Pure," by Linda Kay Klein. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Pure," by Linda Kay Klein. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Linda Kay Klein grew up a devout Evangelical Christian in the Midwest. She broke up with her high school boyfriend after being convinced the joy and excitement she felt around him made her impure and dirty. She and her friends were taught that girls were not only responsible for maintaining their own purity, but also that of the boys and men they interacted with.

As an adult, Klein interviewed hundreds of women who had similar experiences — some still suffering from anxiety, depression and an inability to have normal romantic and sexual relationships.

Here & Now's Robin Young talks with Klein (@LindaKayKlein) about her book "Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free," which shares those interviews and explores research around sexual shaming.

"The message that girls get, that if you are impure or deemed impure by the community — because ultimately it's the community that decides whether you're pure or impure — [is] that there's really no place for you in the community," Klein says.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Pure"

Interview Highlights

On growing up in the purity movement, and the industry that formed around it with programs like Silver Ring Thing

"The purity movement, which is what these organizations were a part of, very quickly turned into a purity industry, which these organizations were also a part of. So that's when you started to see things like purity rings and purity pledges and purity curricula, even purity-themed Bibles. So, try not to associate your sexuality and your salvation when a sixth of your Bible is about the importance of purity."

On her experience kissing a young man, and being so traumatized that she broke up with him for fear that it would ruin her for life

"When I say 'shame,' I'm not talking about bashfulness, I'm not talking about shyness. I'm talking about feelings of worthlessness. So feeling that you are fundamentally and in your totality bad because of how people perceive your sexual purity is no small thing. Shame can make people feel desperate, feel hopeless, it can lead to suicidal tendencies, and certainly one thing that I saw in many of my interviewees — and that I have experienced myself — is that the extreme shame and fear and anxiety for many people started to manifest in ways that mimicked classic [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

"When I say 'shame,' I'm not talking about bashfulness, I'm not talking about shyness. I'm talking about feelings of worthlessness."

Linda Kay Klein

On purity thinking being so pervasive in one woman's home that when she was raped by her own brother, her parents blamed her

"Because she had not fought back, they said that they would never know who was really to blame, and so ultimately they blamed the two of them. The ethic is, 'One man and one woman in marriage, forever.' There's no mention in there about violence, there's no mention in there about abuse. So when violence and abuse does happen, it still is subconsciously assessed by that same sexual ethic. Did it happen between one man and one woman in marriage, forever? Yes? OK, then it couldn't possibly have been rape, even if somebody describes a deeply violent experience. Did it happen outside of one woman, one man in marriage, forever? Yes? Then both parties are impure and both parties are in some way at fault, and particularly women and girls, who within purity culture are taught that it's their job to maintain the sexual purity of everyone, because they hold the threat. So when women and girls are violated, oftentimes we go back and we say, 'OK, what did she do wrong?' "

On how this thinking is taught

"One of the most overt ways that the purity message is taught is via object lessons, and many object lessons are about food. So you're shown a stick of gum, and the stick of gum represents the sexually untouched woman or girl. And then you chew that stick of gum, it's forever changed, and then you invite others: 'Who wants to stick this stick of gum in your mouth now? It's already been in someone else's mouth, it's full of saliva. Nobody wants to have that stick of gum anymore.' Just imagine how that would feel to somebody who's in the room, who has already had any sexual experience, because in the purity movement, it's not just sex that makes you impure. It could potentially be sexual thoughts, sexual feelings, other people's sexual thoughts or feelings or behaviors toward you that you're said to elicit."

On anti-purity movements that have emerged

"I really love the No Shame Movement. This is a website, first and foremost, that is a place for people to go to share their stories of having grown up within the purity movement and how it's impacted their lives. And it also aggregates a lot of the stories that are out there already in the media. There is something bigger happening right now, and I think the core of it is around people rising up and beginning to tell their stories and beginning to come into voice. We are told that if our experience isn't blissful and perfect, that it's because of our sin, or because of our psychosis, because we are doing something wrong. More and more people are coming to the realization that, 'No, something wrong was done to me, and we can stand up together and create change.' "

Book Excerpt: 'Pure'

by Linda Kay Klein

Growing up, my mom and I were an evangelical Christian community of two. Though we were technically Episcopalian, everything Mom learned about evangelical Christianity from her friends or the Christian radio station, she shared with her fellow congregant: me. When she told me about “praying your way through the day” (being in a constant state of prayer), I did my best to master the art of studying for a grade school spelling test and praying at the same time. And when she told me that demons were always lurking around me trying to lure me away from God, and that to get rid of them I had to command them to leave in Jesus’s name, I spent whole nights sitting up in my bed repeating the phrase: Be gone all evil by the blood of Jesus Christ; be gone all evil by the blood of Jesus Christ. In the process, I formed a very real, albeit roughly made, relationship with God, and a deep love for the Christian faith.

Then one day I was crying, gulping in air, my head spinning, my heart on fire. I was 13 years old, responding to a flashy altar call that, in a moment, altered the course of my life. That day, I left my intimate church of two and joined what I would soon come to recognize as a powerful religious network.

My brother had also been born again as a teenager, though he and my sister — who are much older than me — now lived across the country. So when I was also born again, it tipped the familial scale and my parents and I started attending a nondenominational evangelical church. My parents watched proudly as I joined a titanic community of teens from around the country dedicated to advancing our faith. Teeming with youthful energy and abandon, my new friends and I craved depth. We craved profundity. We craved intensity. We craved the truth of Jesus Christ in our lives at every moment, without exception.

The eight years I spent as an evangelical didn’t seem like a phase, like adolescent experimentation, or an outlet for teenage passions or emotions. They seemed like a beginning, the beginning. Being a Christian became my life’s purpose, the embodiment of my entire identity.

I began to eye even my own parents’ teachings with increasing suspicion, putting my total trust in what a new set of teachers had to say — Christian pop stars, authors, pastors, and my peers’ more church-involved parents who, despite what I can only imagine must have been a multiplicity of perspectives among them, presented what is in retrospect an astoundingly consistent set of messages. I went to church, Sunday school, and youth group weekly; to Bible studies, retreats, mission trips, conferences, trainings, and concerts regularly; and to youth group-organized parties, movie nights, sleepovers, concerts of prayer, and church lock-ins whenever they were offered (and they were offered a lot). I sang and played guitar in the youth group praise band; started and led a very well-attended Bible study at my public junior high school; launched a girls’ Bible study for anyone in the city, which I led out of my parents’ basement; and made it a habit to talk to everyone I could about how they could ask Christ into their hearts and experience the spiritual awakening I had experienced. I got up early every morning to do daily devotionals before school, read the Bible before bed each night so its wisdom would settle into my subconscious as I slept, and continued my childhood practice of trying to pray my way through each day.

And it may have stayed that way.

Had I not been a girl.

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 will destroy 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 the forthcoming book PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

This article was originally published on September 12, 2018.

This segment aired on September 12, 2018.



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