Welcome to Impurity Culture: Emily Joy and Hannah Boning on Sex and Relationships Education for Evangelicals and Exvangelicals

Over at @impurityculture on Twitter, Emily Joy and Hannah Boning have started using the medium to provide bite-sized remedial sex and relationships education for evangelicals, exvangelicals and others whose understanding of both has been poisoned by purity culture. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of work with many users struggling from the same place, so we were excited to see what Hannah and Emily were doing.

We’ve invited them to come over to Scarleteen and work with us, and are thrilled to be rolling out a bi-weekly column from them starting next month. I thought I’d get this started by giving our readers a chance to get to know them and the work they want to do in the world.

Let’s start at the beginning: how do you define purity culture? And what kind of personal impact has it had on each of you?

Hannah: Purity culture is a set of beliefs that places an emphasis on sexual purity and teaches that sex is allowed only within a monogamous marriage. It’s usually based in evangelical or fundamental Christian beliefs and emcompasses a whole range of restrictions and rules on sex and sexuality. It’s mostly a list of what isn’t acceptable — instead of what is — and it puts the threatening language and concept of “sin” on anything considered unacceptable. This results in a lot of sexual shame and pain for a lot of people, such as deeply internalized guilt for being queer, being unable to enjoy sex and thinking you’re broken or a million other things.

Emily: My super-short definition for purity culture is as follows: abstinence until heterosexual, monogamous marriage — or else. Your mileage will vary on what exactly constitutes the “or else,” depending on the particulars of your faith community. Sometimes it’s “or else God will be mad at you” or “or else no one will ever want to marry you” or “or else you’ll have a terrible sex life” or even “or else you’ll go to hell!” But there’s always an “or else.” There’s always some kind of threat. Secondary characteristics of purity culture often include an emphasis on male leadership, modesty in clothing for women, and eschewing common ways of dating. Combined, these things and more coalesce to create an environment ripe for sexual dysfunction, shame, and abuse.

Hannah: Emily and I both grew up in purity culture, and both have had to deal with the challenges of discovering our queerness and learning how to be sex positive when we’ve been taught to essentially distrust and hate our sexual desires.

Emily: When I was 13 years old my parents sat me down, gave me a purity ring, and pressured my impressionable adolescent self into promising that I wouldn’t even kiss until I got married (to a man, of course). This along with the rest of the church’s teachings on sexuality set me up for years of heartbreak, repression, and dysfunctional relationships that I’m still recovering from now as an adult, even though I’ve been married for three and a half years and have had very positive sexual experiences. I’ve seen my family fall apart, my friends’ relationships and marriages end in shambles — hell, I didn’t even know I was queer until after I got married — all because of consequences that can be traced directly back to purity culture. This is work that matters to me at a deep soul level, and I am trying to excavate my own trauma and chase my own healing as I help others do the same.

Purity culture does so much harm to so many people. Who do you think purity culture hurts the most, or who has the toughest challenges getting out from under it?

Emily: I don’t know if you can objectively say who purity culture hurts “the most,” especially given the severity of it can vary so greatly by family and by faith community. I think it’s possible to identify compounding factors that can increase trauma, though — such as growing up in purity culture as a woman, a queer person, a person of color, a person with a disability, etc. For example, the reality is that purity culture was created to protect white womanhood and white reproductivity, so especially when it comes to instances of sexual abuse, women of color are abused at a higher rate, but believed less often. They’re also often sexualized in a way that white women are not. Purity culture compounds and validates these inequities. Queer people, men and women and non-binary individuals, are often completely erased from the purity culture narrative, relegated to an appendix about changing your sexuality at the end of the most popular dating books if mentioned at all.

People often ask about whether purity culture hurts men, too. I believe it does. I have a lot of male friends who grew up in purity culture and have struggled to have healthy relationships because the ways that they were taught men were “supposed to be” in romantic relationships with women were so dysfunctional and unnatural. They also believed they were monsters for having normal sexual urges or looking at porn, which is really sad. I think different people are hurt differently, but unlearning the negative messages you received, whatever they happen to be, is extremely important work no matter what.

What do you think surviving and recovering from purity culture, and relearning basic ideas about sexuality and intimacy, asks of people? What do you think people working through impacts of this need?

Emily: I like the language of rehabilitation because I think it allows us to think of the journey out of purity culture as one of healing. Purity culture is a disease most of us inherited by no choice of our own, and that some of us “chose” — but I deeply question what it means to freely “choose” something in a context that says everything else is sin and will send you to hell.

I think we need to first and foremost be gentle with ourselves. The head, the heart and the body operate separately in this process, because we’ve been taught to parse them all out and compartmentalize them. I think the journey out of purity culture is the journey of bringing those three aspects of the self into greater coherence, and that’s a process. At first, you might mentally understand that having sex before marriage won’t send you to hell, but being actually able to have sex, or have sex without feeling guilty about it after, might be elusive. That’s okay. Give yourself time and understand that brainwashing on the level of the American purity industrial complex doesn’t go away overnight. Also, we need to compare notes. We need community! We need others who are on this journey so that we know we’re not alone and so that we have a safe space to ask questions and get feedback from people who aren’t going to look at us like we’re recently-arrived Martians. I also think for those who can afford it, a quality therapist is an invaluable resource here. The reality is that the teachings about relationships found in purity culture are, by and large, the exact opposite of healthy relationship advice. So having professional help to untangle that can give you a great head start.

Hannah: I love Emily’s language of being gentle with yourself. Purity culture is a form of trauma, and it has a physical impact. As Emily said, the physical healing from purity culture can be harder than the mental healing. There’s a lot of vulnerability and risk in learning how to trust your body, and it takes time. You have to be patient with yourself in that process, and having a community around you who can remind you to be patient and gentle with yourself is so important.

What do you think can be done to heal our culture from all this? And how can quality sex ed help?

Hannah: Sex ed usually doesn’t even exist within evangelical or fundamental religious environments. I went to public school, so I took sex ed in school and I got the basics. A lot of people don’t even get that. You aren’t taught things like language about body parts or how to have safe sex or how to have queer sex or what sex should feel like. If you don’t have that knowledge, it’s pretty impossible to take ownership of your body and your sexual experiences. I’ve heard so many stories from friends who have dutifully waited until marriage to have sex, and then endure painful sex because they don’t know that sex shouldn’t be painful. Emily and I both had to teach ourselves sex ed — we both had to google what the clitoris was in our twenties. How do we have good sex and know what we want if we don’t even have the terminology to talk about our bodies? Sex education is a first step towards being able to take control of your sexuality.

Emily: Every single study out there proves that abstinence-only sex education does not work. It doesn’t stop people from having sex outside of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage (as if that were somehow a healthy goal), and it often leads to young people having riskier and less-protected sex when they do become sexually active than they would have been without having been exposed to abstinence ideas or ideals. The states with the highest emphasis on abstinence-only sex education have the highest teen birth rates. And that’s if you get any sex ed at all, which if you were homeschooled like me, you didn’t.

One of the main answers is to do away with purity culture in general, and abstinence-only education in particular. Take the whole thing and dump it all in the trash. Don’t even keep a little bit. Replace abstinence-only with mandatory, comprehensive, age-appropriate, sex-positive, consent-based, LGBTQIA+-affirming sex education for all. Is that going to happen? Not in most of our schools, and certainly not in very many of our religious communities. So right now, it’s up to individuals and organizations that care to do the work, and it’s up to people to take control of their bodies and their sexualities as they can. Empowerment starts with education. The more of us that do this work publicly, openly and without shame, the better. I hope that leads to a culture shift, but that’s the work of generations, not of one lifetime.

Who else is doing some of this work?

Hannah and Emily: @seelolago who tweets at @noshamemov and her website No Shame Movement is an absolutely invaluable resource (and gives the important perspective of a woman of color) when it comes to undoing the shame of purity culture. Jamie Lee Finch (@jamieleefinch and http://www.jamieleefinch.com/) is also doing great work at the intersection of purity culture and embodiment, and explains her work as being “a relationship coach between people and their bodies,” which I love. As Impurity Culture we think of ourselves as specializing specifically in the sex ed department of purity culture recovery — actively empowering people with the real-life knowledge to replace the false facts about sex and sexuality that are such an integral part of purity culture.

Who else isn't doing the work but you should or could be?

Hannah: In general, I feel like churches aren’t doing this work. Sex is still a bit of a taboo topic in religious contexts, but even the “progressive” churches aren’t always talking about sex. There’s a lot of people who have deep trauma from the purity culture teachings they received in the church. A lot of these people leave the church entirely, and a lot stay, and churches need to learn how to help the people who stay and develop better ways to talk about sexuality for future generations.

Emily: Yeah, I think “progressive” and “liberal” churches could be doing a lot better job. If you’re styling yourself as a community for spiritual formation guess what? That includes talking about sexuality in a healthy and sex-positive way. It’s not enough to just not actively traumatize people (and sometimes “progressive” churches don’t even manage that). I do want to give a shoutout to the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ and their Our Whole Lives (OWL) sex ed curriculum, which is nothing short of amazing. I was just perusing their textbook for 18-35 year-olds this weekend and I was floored at how comprehensive, affirming, and sex-positive it was.

Can you also talk about this a little bit as specifically feminist work?

Emily: It seems in a lot of cases, even so-called “secular” or non-religious news media outlets, that this foundational idea of purity culture, abstinence until heterosexual marriage, is sort of sacrosanct. It feels like objecting to it, even from a feminist standpoint, isn’t something you do in polite company, because it’s viewed as an untouchable religious belief and an integral part of so many of the various religious institutions that make up what we collectively call The Church in the United States. This is intensely feminist work. As much as we might wish optimistically that all girls and children of all genders are growing up in households and communities that affirm their sexualities and provide a supportive structure from which they can make their own age-appropriate sexual decisions, that is simply not the case. And until that is the case, this must be part of the agenda of feminism. When you explain purity culture plainly, it does feel antiquated and outdated — like it should be obsolete in the year 2018. But it’s not. And we can’t forget that there are still new victims of purity culture being created every day.

Hannah: This feels like such important feminist work. To me, feminism is about advocating for equality and autonomy for all folks of all genders, and your feminism should also be working against inequality in any form. As Emily mentioned earlier, purity culture has roots in protecting whiteness and has a deep investment in heterosexuality, so any work that’s attempting to dismantle purity culture needs to be working against racism and homophobia as well. Emily and I are both white, able-bodied, cisgender women, so we both have a lot of privilege and also can only speak to certain experiences of purity culture. We tend to focus mostly on how purity culture affects women, because that’s our experience. Purity culture is all about patriarchy and sexism, and so we see the work of Impurity Culture as attempting to dismantle patriarchal ideas about sex and sexuality. Purity culture teaches that a woman’s body doesn’t belong to her, that it’s the property of her husband and she should keep it pure for him until marriage. We hope to empower women with this work, to help them claim autonomy and ownership over their own bodies, and to allow women to make their own choices about their sexual lives.


Emily Joy Allison-Hearn is a bisexual married polyamorous poet and yoga teacher who also happens to have a degree in theology and apologetics from Moody Bible Institute. Emily works and writes at the intersection of faith, sexuality and religious trauma, and her passion is to help people break free from purity culture and empower them to embrace sex-positivity in their everyday lives. She tweets too much at @emilyjoypoetry and her other work can be found at www.emilyjoypoetry.com.

Hannah Boning is a queer theologian-poet, cat mom, and recent graduate of Duke Divinity School. She is passionate about making space for shame-free discussion about healthy sexuality for people who were raised in faith-based sex-negative communities. You can find her on Twitter yelling about social justice and the church at @hannahboning and yelling about sex and the church with Emily Joy at @impurityculture.

More like This