Teaching Religious Abstinence Instills Shame And Doesn't Work

by Mary Katherine
Originally Published: 
A girl sitting in the last pew in a church who has been taught religious abstinence which has instil...
Getty images / MRS

I was raised in a quintessential, small town.

And the truth is I loved (almost) everything about that life: farms, football, and churches on every single corner. A small town gets in your blood, in a way. So even after I left, went to college, and met the love of my life — I wanted to return to my hometown for the wedding I’d always dreamed of.

Walking down the aisle of that Southern Baptist Church, everything was perfect. Me, in my beautiful white dress. My husband, smiling ahead of me. But in that moment of pure bliss, a brief flash of unexpected emotion found it’s way into my brain. I felt...ashamed?

I was in my old church. I wearing a white dress.

But I wasn’t perfectly pure.

You see, I grew up in that church during the peak of what is now referred to (in evangelical circles) as the Purity Movement. Youth group girls attended True Love Waits rallies when we were barely old enough to have our periods. And I attended one such rally in that very church where I was wed.

I will never forget the speaker holding up a single pink rose. It was so beautiful, so fragrant, so pure, he told us. Then he passed it around the church for all of us to admire. After the rose passed through 100 or more hands, the speaker brought it back on stage and held it up for everyone to see. It had wilted. He also claimed it was less fragrant. The rose had been through so many people’s hands, it was forever and irreversibly tainted.

The girls sat in uncomfortable silence as the weight of this message sunk in.

Holy crap, we are that rose. And who the heck wants a wilted, stinky flower? Nobody.

The point of this experiment was crystal clear: Our purity made us matter. And it was a prize to be saved for our future husbands, and nobody else.

The whole thing culminated in the creepiest ceremony ever, involving something called a purity ring. These were given to us by our father figures, as some sort of promise to remain pure until marriage. It’s exactly as awful as it sounds and recounting the whole thing actually makes me want to vomit now.

While I walked away from that toxic religiosity a long time ago, I still consider myself a Christian. I believe there is a spiritual element to sexuality, and that sex is an experience that physically bonds two people in a very deep, meaningful way.


I also believe the purity movement is a disgusting, damaging, moralistic sham. It is a toxic ideology that still screws with my mind. And you better believe I will not be passing these lessons of religious abstinence down to my children.

I have a few reasons why, and I hope you’ll hear me out.

Religious abstinence is a shamed-based ideology.

By teaching children that all sexuality is intended for the confines of marriage, you are setting them up to experience shame and confusion when their bodies betray those rigid rules. Teenagers will inevitably feel things “they aren’t supposed to” and desire things “they shouldn’t” and as our moralistic standards no longer line up with their physical desires, they will be forced to reconcile the disconnect. That results in feelings of self-loathing and shame. Young adults cannot edit how their bodies respond to other people. Hormones are a powerful thing and sex is nothing to be ashamed of. By placing shame on a natural desire, you are teaching children to hate themselves and the way their bodies work.

It affirms toxic patriarchal double standards.

It probably goes without saying, but that whole rose analogy wasn’t targeted at the young men in the room. The Purity Movement (I gag every time I type that) is inconsistent in the standards it sets for girls and boys. If a woman’s purity was a gift to be given to her husband, there was no discussion of what gift the man might offer in return. Listen to any religious dialogue on modesty, and you will quickly realize that there is one set of rules for women (one piece bathing suits at the retreat, ladies!) and another for the men (wear whatever you want; we don’t care). It seemed to me that sexual experimentation for men was a forgivable sin, but the youth group floozy might as well be a battered pink rose. And nobody has use for a wilted flower, now do they?

It shames victims of assault and molestation.

I’m going to be extremely vulnerable here and share something painful. The man who took me to that conference and later gifted me with a “purity ring” was a family member who had sexually abused me since childhood. The amount of shame and confusion I felt in that church can’t be understated. When we place a premium on sexual legalism, we are teaching our children that their value is determined by their purity. And in religious abstinence, it doesn’t really matter how purity is spoiled — it only matters that it’s gone. That leaves an incredible burden of shame on the shoulders of victims who experience assault and molestation.

It doesn’t freaking work.

Ultimately, teaching your children religious abstinence doesn’t work. A non-biased, federally-funded evaluation of sex education programs proved that children who participated in abstinence-only programs were NOT more likely to delay sexual initiation, have fewer sexual partners, or to abstain entirely from sex.

In short, religious abstinence does nothing to curb high risk behavior, teach our children sexual agency, or give them emotional confidence. But what it does do is brainwash developing minds into feeling shame when their physical desires do not adhere to external moral standards.

It also leaves teenagers ill-equipped to seek out resources, support, and contraception. Not good.

So what do I recommend people of faith do? I wish there was an easy answer.

I intend to have open, non-judgmental conversations with both of my children (one boy, one girl) about why their bodies respond the way they do in sexually charged situations. I’m going to talk to them about the importance of clear, mutual consent. I’m going to explain the emotional impacts, positive and negative, of having sex with someone who may or may not stay forever. I’m going to talk about protection, because I want my children to be empowered with that knowledge — not caught off guard with some preventable, life-altering event.

And I’m going to make sure my daughter understands that she’s nobody’s freaking rose. That her beauty and worth will never be lessened by a sexual decision. That I’m going to be here to love her through her coming of age.

While my faith influences me as a person, and I hope it does the same for my children — conversations about sexuality will be had in the context of honesty and love.

Never judgment. Never shame. And, definitely no purity ring ceremonies.

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