I grew up in the most extreme version of evangelical purity culture you can think of. Guaranteed. Not just ‘abstinence only’. We’re talking your-father-should-pick-out-a-husband-for-you, crushes-are-emotional-promiscuity, first-kiss-on-the-wedding-day purity culture. Probably goes without saying, then: no skirts above mid-calf, no trousers, no shorts, no shirts that show the shoulder (lest you tempt The Mens), nothing that supports the idea you might have boobs (to be fair, in my case this last one was pretty easy). My parents made us fast-forward through any kissing scenes that might appear in the few G-rated movies we were allowed to watch.
All that said – this post isn’t about the stuff I lost to that worldview in the past. (That’s for a different post, and one when I’m feeling braver than I am today.) This one’s not about the shit that happened while I was still in the grip of it, or all the multi-varied ways it made evolving into who I am today so difficult. This post is about the way it still fucks me up, now, as a woman in my mid-30s who – externally, at least – probably comes across as reasonably unrepressed (writes smut! is kinky! has multiple partners! is actively looking to try new sexual experiences! masturbates with rampant enthusiasm!).
These aren’t in any order — they’re just representative glimpses of the detritus that purity culture leaves even once you’ve left it, the ways that doesn’t go away. It fades, but it doesn’t go away. Here are five, off the top of my head.
- I can’t wear a dress with a hemline above my knees without feeling constantly aware of it, worrying that too much upper thigh is visible, adjusting it, brushing my hand across my ass to make sure it’s hanging properly. No matter what else I’m doing, I promise my brain is also doing that. If I wear a low-cut top, I’ll glance down compulsively every few seconds to make sure you can’t see even a glimpse of my bra. (This despite the fact I basically don’t have cleavage.) I imagine it looks either like a nervous tic or like I’m weirdly obsessed with my own tits and ass.
- I can’t take a compliment about my looks or clothes and enjoy it, because a) vanity b) looking nice enough for a compliment clearly means I must be trying to seduce or tempt someone with the Desires Of The Flesh.
- If a guy says hello, my first instinct is still (still!) to startle and deflect, to move the conversation to neutral topics (the weather! the state of Southern Rail! etc) instead of anything that might be interpreted as flirting or even just personal. I can usually catch this instinct, now, but it’s still my first reflex, and it leads to me constantly second-guessing my own inclinations and interests. (AM I ACTUALLY NOT INTO HIM OR IS MY PURITY!BRAIN JUST ACTING UP??)
- I feel guilty showing my body off, whether that’s nudes or just a more flattering cut of waistline. I have frequently not bought clothes that looked good on me because they showed too much of my shape (e.g. the curve of my ass). Often I don’t realise that’s why until much later, thinking back – my brain just calculates and rejects without my conscious thought.
- Feelings Are Bad (both emotional and sexual). I find myself referring to crushes as ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ instead of fun things to be enjoyed. Even in relationships, I have a lot of kneejerk anxiety around ideas of ‘excessive’ or unregulated feelings (‘I probably like him too much’ ‘I should get ahold of my emotions’ ‘did I seem Too Into It when he did that thing in bed?’ ‘I need to Get Ahold of myself’).
Leaving evangelical purity culture behind isn’t like – picking up a new menu at a restaurant and putting the old one down: drinks sorted, let’s look at the mains. It’s… trying to unlearn things that are as automatic and unconscious as breathing, fumbling inside your own gut and pulling out vital things that for a long time have been what you thought held you together; it’s second-guessing every impulse of your body and heart because you can’t trust yourself (and then third-guessing it). It’s like being taught all your life that water’s lethal and dangerous, that you can only hydrate through IV and never touch it otherwise, and then suddenly finding out that it’s not, but by then you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding the world of lakes and showers and rain and ice lollies and hot baths — and even once you know water won’t hurt you, isn’t bad, you keep stumbling on new ways that misconception has shaped your larger habits, how it’s warped you: roads you never drove down because cross a river, times you never went outdoors because of the threat of rain, years of thirst and sweat and dusty hands, all the moments of pleasure and self-discovery that you don’t experience for a long time even after you know water’s ok because, well, the thing about shame-based conditioning is how it bleeds into your molecules. You leave, but – you stay afraid, unless you dismantle that fear in yourself in little incremental moments, over and over and over.