On my 12th birthday my parents gave me a purity ring. Propped up in his favourite armchair, I watched as my father got down on one knee and slid the heart-shaped band onto my ring finger like a twisted proposal. I became obsessed with the ring and all it represented: I was pure, I was godly, I was whole.
Before I even knew what sex was, I made a promise to abstain from it. I didn’t realise it at the time but my precious purity ring promoted a dark Christian subculture which declared that my value did not lie in my head or in my heart but between my legs.
Before I even hit puberty, I bought into the 'true love waits' narrative that told me premarital sex was a dangerous act, often with fateful consequences that would leave me with the dignity of a wilted rose, along with an array of other sad metaphors.
Unlike in the US, the conversation surrounding the effects of purity culture has only recently gained momentum in the UK. The purity movement didn’t announce its arrival in this country with abstinence pledges and brash daddy-daughter dances. Rather, it subtly seeped into church teachings.
As it begins to surface, the trauma of purity culture is increasingly a hallmark of contemporary evangelical Christianity, a growing denomination made up of a large number of Christians under the age of 25.
Growing up in a hyper-evangelical church in Britain, my identity was rooted in the twisted teachings of purity culture. I latched on to such 'divine truths' as the idea that waiting until marriage is God’s original design for sex; that my body is God’s temple, not mine at all; and that women are passive, both sexually and socially.
This sense of passivity drained me of every ounce of bodily autonomy. For most of my formative years, I viewed my body as a stumbling block and a gateway to sexual sin. After being sent home from a school dance because my bare shoulders were showing, I was told that my immodest dress may cause my male friends to act upon their natural, God-given desires.
I was reminded of this when I wore a loose-fitting tank top while pouring concrete on a missionary trip in Mexico. I was forced to wear a men’s hoodie in the sweltering heat to cover up a body that didn’t belong to me.
By my early teens I felt trapped in my own skin because of the potentially awful repercussions of unwanted sexual attention. Purity culture implied that if something bad happened to me, it was my fault because I was asking for it. This rape-supportive discourse haunted me for most of my teenage years. From a young age I viewed my male counterparts solely as sexual beings rather than human beings — I believed they were only capable of being sexual aggressors and that it was my responsibility to protect myself from their aggression.
Nothing about me or my identity fundamentally changed when I started having sex, which taught me that my sense of worth exists outside of my supposed sexual 'purity'.
I lived in continual fear of sex and neglected to nurture my changing body. Instead of embracing my sexuality, I silently signed an abstinence pledge shortly after hitting puberty. I was convinced that if I surrendered to my bodily desires instead of surrendering to Christ, I would be disqualified from experiencing true love or connection. My abstinence-only education fuelled my fear — the only gendered 'sex talk' I received in high school didn’t address consent or sexual health, preaching instead that I was only worth something if my hymen remained intact until my wedding night.
When I became sexually active in early adulthood, my sex life was deeply rooted in shame and suppression. My first romantic relationship was tarnished by rigid rules: no alone time together at night, no sleeping in the same bed, nothing more than kissing. My perception of intimacy wasn’t rooted in love; it was rooted in obedience and obligation.
I was an empty shell in relationships because purity culture denied me the tools to navigate healthy conversations about pleasure, pornography and penetration.
For almost a decade I was tricked into thinking that purity culture was the gold standard of Christianity. After leaving the church in my 20s, I finally got the reality check I needed. Purity culture doesn’t stem from conviction, it stems from coercion; sexual expression isn’t sinful, it’s beautiful; my body isn’t an extension of religion, it’s an extension of freedom. Coming to my senses was not a lightbulb moment but a painful realisation upon hearing too many stories similar to mine.
Looking back, I can’t remember what I lost first — my religion or my virginity. Even now, the word 'losing' implies that my untouched body was a commodity that I was tasked to guard, protect and bestow upon someone truly worthy. I’ve since learned that my virginity was not a possession for me to safeguard or surrender, it was simply a state of being. Nothing was 'lost' the first time I had sex because my virginity wasn’t something I 'had' in the first place. Nothing about me or my identity fundamentally changed when I started having sex, which taught me that my sense of worth exists outside of my supposed sexual 'purity'.
Slowly but surely, I’ve started to shed the many layers of my evangelical upbringing. It’s a continual process that’s riddled with equal amounts of guilt and liberation. I still have moments when I revert to purity culture’s default settings but instead of letting my sexual shame have the last word, I give myself grace in the healing. It is a messy process but it has created the space for brave and much-needed conversations with loved ones. Since distancing myself from my hyper-evangelical background, I have found a beautiful middle ground by being vulnerable with people from my past. I hope this expands with time.
I still wore my purity ring long after I defied everything it represented. For years I clung to the 12-year-old version of myself who delighted in the twisted proposal because, deep down, I feared losing her innocence. Yet in letting her go, I experienced a homecoming — to my own body.