Virtue and Sexism in Purity Culture
One Sunday during the years of my adolescence I attended the morning worship service all by my lonesome. I forget the reason why. I sat down in a pew to the left of the altar, awaiting the start of Mass with the other early arrivers. A few minutes before the prayers began, a young very attractive woman sat down in the pew just before me. She had short, cropped strawberry blonde hair and wore the sort of dress Alicia Silverstone wears in the movie Clueless to entice the new student who turns out to be gay. Bare neck and bare arms and a mostly bare back. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her flawless skin. Whether sitting, standing, or kneeling, I was transfixed. Ogle me this, Batman.
After Mass, while on my way through the gathering area, a friend of my mom’s approached me. I didn’t recognize her, but she knew me and introduced herself, telling me how she had seen me during the service. I gulped, figuring she had noticed my not sporadic staring. Instead she complimented me.
“You were so focused and attentive. I’m very impressed. Such a good example for your peers.”
She was sincere. At least, I took her as sincere. She gave no smirk or wink or any other tell of irony. I didn’t have the heart or the courage to correct her.
Many years later, in college, a friend admitted to a group of us that he really struggled at church to avoid gazing at women in the congregation. He preferred to sit in the front row to avoid temptation as best he could. To his credit, he blamed only himself for his weakness, but others at our school were eager to lecture their fellow students, particularly women, on the importance of modesty. Men were instructed on abstaining from ogling and entertaining lustful thoughts and desires, and women were told they must exercise modesty in manner and dress. Women were expected to be virtuous so the men didn’t sin. You’ll note the double standard.
The toxicity of “purity culture” has been under discussion a lot this past week. See Elizabeth Smart, Calah Alexander, and Richard Beck. I want here to emphasis one point in particular. Not being able to handle the sight of skin, or any other erotic sensation, isn’t a sign of virtue. It indicates immaturity and perhaps an unhealthy fear of the body. Obsessive staring and obsessive averting the eyes are, well, obsessive, and not the signs of mature sexuality. You mature sexually by being sexual. Temperance takes practice. We’re sexual beings: we’re supposed to find bodies pleasing and attractive to our senses. No shame or sin there. Goes with being an animal. As rational animals, we have some control over our passions and appetites, but you don’t learn to master your passions and appetites by running from the body or keeping it out of sight, sense, and mind.
On this point, purity culture tends to be irrational. It focuses on abstinence, and not just abstinence from sexual intercourse. Consider this holy advice column by Barbara Kralis: none of her guidance has anything to do with maturing in one’s sexuality. She counsels prayer, being cheerful, wearing holy objects, modest dress for women–writing, “a women’s husband is the only person who should see and receive the joy of her body”(!)–avoiding inappropriate conversations, avoiding entertainment deemed unfit for moral consumption by a religious authority, avoiding occasions of sin, and avoiding useless activities. This is a recipe for disaster. It won’t make you pure or modest or chaste, even if you succeed at each one. You’ll have done nothing to master the sexual passions and appetites because you’ll have done nothing with your sexuality. You don’t learn to look without lechery merely by averting your eyes. You have to practice seeing attractive people in a way that respects them and respects the attraction.* If you want to master your sexuality, then you have to exercise it. This is true whether or not you are waiting until marriage to have sex.
*Added for some clarity.