The right's warped "purity" culture: 4 ways evangelical views of sex took over America

Evangelical norms about female sexuality have shaped "secular" America more than you think

Published February 20, 2014 7:44PM (EST)

Rush Limbaugh, Mike Huckabee                                    (Reuters/Micah Walter/AP/Keith Srakocic)
Rush Limbaugh, Mike Huckabee (Reuters/Micah Walter/AP/Keith Srakocic)

Kiera Feldman's recent New Republic report on the convergence of rape culture and evangelical culture at a private Christian university in Virginia is a deeply troubling story. It's also a disturbingly familiar one.

In a series of interviews with female survivors of sexual violence at Patrick Henry College, Feldman uncovered an institutional pattern of victim-blaming and impunity for perpetrators that was grounded in the school's strict adherence to evangelical doctrine, specifically its "gender complementarian" norms and toxic purity culture.

Though generally viewed as a safe haven for young people with an evangelical Christian worldview, Patrick Henry College turned out to be a very dangerous place to be a survivor of sexual assault. It is, in other words, much like everywhere else in this country.

Evangelical Christianity makes visible -- through purity pledges and doctrine assigning women the role of man's "helpmate" -- the norms and expectations about female virginity and subservience that so often remain hidden in the secular world. While it may be tempting to draw a red line around Christian fundamentalist views on gender and sexuality to distinguish them from supposedly evolved "secular" culture, there is considerable, uncomfortable overlap between the two.

Here are four ways "secular" American culture mirrors Christian purity culture.

Republicans are fighting to keep women from accessing birth control. 

Whether it's Rush Limbaugh calling women who take birth control "sluts" or Mike Huckabee mansplaining why it's actually "empowering" to deny women insurance coverage for contraception, one point remains clear: Conservatives want to enshrine religiously defined norms about sexuality into law.

Republicans who oppose the Affordable Care Act have made contraceptive coverage a main point of attack against the policy because ensuring women have affordable and reliable access to birth control means accepting -- and culturally and institutionally sanctioning -- women's ability to control their own fertility and sexuality. (Women, of course, take birth control for reasons other than avoiding pregnancy, but you will notice that these "other" women never factor into conservatives' tirades against the evils of contraception.)

But empowering women to control their sexuality and separate sex from pregnancy and childbearing is a violation of the conservative view of sex -- which is about reproduction and male entitlement.

Enabling women to make these choices also ensures they have equal access to opportunities in education and work, which also goes against conservative views about women's place in the home. As I have previously noted, a recent review of more than 66 studies conducted over three decades reveals that a woman’s ability to control her fertility impacts much more than just if and when she will have a child; contraception plays a significant role in shaping women’s financial, professional and emotional lives.

According to Adam Sonfield, the lead author of the review from the Guttmacher Institute, “The scientific evidence strongly confirms what has long been obvious to women. Contraceptive use, and the ensuing ability to decide whether and when to have children, is linked to a host of benefits for themselves, the quality of their relationships, and the well-being of their children.”

Mainstream news outlets are still running editorials chastising women for having sex before marriage. 

Susan Patton is a joke, but she's not the only person arguing in mainstream publications that women who have sex outside of marriage are setting themselves up for disaster and heartbreak. (Hi, Ross Douthat!)

In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal last week, Patton warned single women, "The grandmotherly message of yesterday is still true today: Men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.”

This is purity culture passed off as "commonsense" wisdom, which was published in a "serious" and secular paper. In 2014.

Patton and others like her are focused on telling women and girls that their value is tied up with their chastity, and that their ultimate worth is defined by the way men view them. If this sounds a lot like a Christian purity pledge, it should.

Abstinence-only education ties girls' worth to their virginity.

In the United States right now, only 22 states require that schools teach comprehensive sex education. Of those states, only 19 have laws in place to ensure that what is being taught under that label is medically accurate. And a total of 35 states allow parents to opt out of sex ed classes on behalf of their children.

Despite significant evidence indicating that such policies are harmful to young people, abstinence-focused education measures continue to circulate in state legislatures and local public school boards. This week, members of the Kansas House of Representatives debated a measure that would prohibit school districts from providing health and sex education to students without explicit consent from a parent or guardian, putting peer-reviewed sex education out of reach for students across the state. (In other Kansas news, some in the state are also looking to legalize hitting your child to the point of bruising.)

As I've noted before, in addition to dismal and uneven access to comprehensive sex ed, some public schools are now inviting religiously affiliated relationship "experts" to dispense purity culture advice about teen girls keeping their "mouths and legs shut" dressed up as generic wisdom about "dating smart."

Denying young people access to medically accurate information about safe sex and reproductive health has real consequences: a recent survey of teenagers reveals that 41 percent know little or nothing about how condoms work, and a staggering 75 percent have almost no understanding of birth control. It's also been documented again and again that access to sex education has been proven to help reduce unplanned pregnancy and unwanted sexual outcomes like STIs.

Police departments and others in the criminal justice system blame victims of sexual assault for the violence committed against them. 

As shocking as the allegations were that the Patrick Henry College dean of student life told a female victim of sexual harassment that she should think about her clothing and "the kinds of ideas it puts in men's minds” in response to this disclosure, victim-blaming happens regularly among law enforcement officials and others in the criminal justice system who have also been entrusted with handling such cases.

Last year, a Louisiana parish argued that it should not be held liable for the rape of a 14-year-old girl in a juvenile detention center because the victim “consented” to be sexually assaulted by a 40-year-old corrections officer at the facility. Court documents alleged that “[former guard Angelo] Vickers could not have engaged in sexual relations within the walls of the detention center with [the victim] without cooperation from her. Vickers did not use force, violence or intimidation when engaging in sexual relations.”

Commenting on the case, an anonymous parish official remarked that the 14-year-old should share the blame for her assault, saying, “These girls in the detention center are not Little Miss Muffin.”

Around that same time, Judge G. Todd Baugh said he believed that a 14-year-old student who was repeatedly raped by her 49-year-old teacher Stacey Dean Rambold "acted older than her age," thus making her complicit in her rape. Baugh further stated that Rambold should not serve time in prison for the rapes, he had “suffered enough” during his trial.

Rambold's teen victim took her own life before the case was concluded; Baugh is currently facing the prospect of being removed from the bench.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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