Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Disclaimer: The following themes might be difficult to read, especially for those who have been harmed by purity culture. Take good care of yourself while reading.
Vaginismus is a condition we don’t talk about enough. Although common, it is often underdiagnosed, affecting 1% to 17% of people with uteri around the world. Since 2021, Bailey Krawczyk has publicly spoken about her experience with vaginismus. As a teenager, she wasn’t able to use tampons without feeling intense pain. Because of that, she worried whether penetrative sex would be more painful than pleasurable for her. In interviews, she shares that her condition originated from having a conservative Christian background. The Daily Star UK writes that “as a child, [Krawczyk] associated sex with sin and subconsciously feared penetration.”
There’ve been cases and scholarly research that connect religious trauma with the shame or discomfort of receiving any sort of pleasure, which can lead to sexual pain like vaginismus. Conservative Christians equate the pursuit of pleasure with addiction and lustful behavior, and therefore condemn such pursuits.
Madison Natarajan and Kerrie G. Wilkins-Yel describe purity culture as “a phenomenon promulgated by evangelical Christianity that teaches strict adherence to sexual abstinence prior to heterosexual marriage.” Christians typically justify the purity culture movement by retracing its origins back to the ’90s, when American churches responded to the AIDS endemic and a spike in teenage pregnancy by doubling down on abstinence as the sensible and, more importantly, biblical solution. What’s left unsaid is Christianity’s participation in and perpetuation of patriarchy, racist sexism, misogyny, and queer- and transphobia. The volume of stories demonstrating the trauma and negative effects of evangelical purity culture is overwhelming.
In Islam, the prudishness around sex and sexuality was said to be a manifestation of a “colonial hangover,” Wardah Abbas writes in The Muslim Women Times. Abbas looked back at the Islamic perspective on sex and sexuality in the 1400s and found a regional receptivity on the matter. Although the Quran shares a number of prohibitions with Christianity, such as that against premarital sex, Abbas notes that “dozens of hadith offer definitive, often honest and comprehensive, prophetic traditions on sex and sexuality.”
For some Muslims, this openness to the subject of sex got distorted, says Abbas, when Western Christendom inflicted the notion of purity and the phenomenon of shame onto a number of Muslim communities when it came to sex and sexual equality, resulting in the aforementioned prudishness and the treating of sex as taboo. As a result, “several attempts to write about sex and intimacy from the Islamic point of view have failed in the face of censorship and criticism,” according to Abbas. We see an example of this in the severe backlash against a medical doctor’s attempt to teach sex education in Pakistan.
Countless members and ex-members of faith communities automatically associate desire and pleasure with shame, guilt, and harmful punishment because of purity culture, and have found it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to receive pleasure freely. How then can we heal and transform our relationship with pleasure from this religious trauma?
The Intersection of Spiritual Healing and Sexual Healing
I was a Protestant church kid when I was young. Back then, I always thought that God had his eye on me whenever I wondered about sex, felt “sexual urges,” or got curious about my body parts. In those moments, I felt like I was under surveillance by not just the church, but by a higher power who, I was told, loved me so much that he sacrificed everything—including his one and only son—just to be with someone as sinful and insignificant as me. Whew. I chuckle sarcastically looking back at it now, and, at the same time, I feel compassion for younger Gabes, who was constantly under pressure to appease this God whom she knew would save her from eternal damnation. The pressure turned into self-punishment over time, because I thought I kept failing God for being curious about my body and desiring to feel good in it.
What’s crucial about the pressure and the eventual trauma from purity culture is that it rests on the intersection of spirituality and sexuality. It has to do with both the rules and restrictions enforcing purity and chastity and the idea of a divine being who sets these rules and restrictions. When we fail to adhere to such rules, we are not only rejected by our church community (which, for some, is the only community they have), but also by God. Because the trauma is rooted in this intersection of spirituality and sexuality, we must consider healing our sexual and spiritual wounds in tandem.
One approach is finding a type of spirituality or spiritual community that celebrates embodiment and pleasure as expressions of love and collective flourishing. Some of us need transcendence to make meaning in our lives, which might be found in astrology, the mystic arts, the spiritualities practiced in one’s ancestral lineage (if accessible), or even a reverence toward the higher self.
This can help change our internal stories about pleasure through community and embodiment, welcoming new experiences and conversations on pleasure and intimacy outside of contempt, shame, divine punishment, and ideas of immorality and even evil.
Christian churches can also be a part of this healing journey, because not all of them uphold puritanical rules and attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Dontá Morrison and Yolo Akili talk about how the Black church has been a “bedrock” for many Black gay and bisexual men. In navigating self-love, and after writing a dissertation on the impact of faith-based sexual exclusion, Morrison shares that “there are a lot of different ways to Christ … and to Church.” Morrison believes that God created him the way he is as a Black gay man. He is who he is because God designed him that way, and to resist this design is to question God.
Lyvonne Briggs hosts a podcast and teaches an online school that centers healing and pleasure from a faith perspective; she also wrote a book called Sensual Faith: The Art of Coming Home to Your Body that touches further on healing the body. Matthias Roberts is a therapist and theologian who writes on healing from sexual shame in his book Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms. Even with its horrific history of hegemony and dogmatic violence, Christianity still inspires hope via a number of life-affirming and sex-positive Christian communities and leaders in North America.
Inch by Inch
Everyone will have a different journey of healing from purity culture. It’s important to go at your own pace and to be mindful of internalized expectations of what sex needs to be.
Coming from purity culture myself, I developed secondary vaginismus. Similar to Krawczyk, vaginal dilators and psychotherapy have helped me in my healing journey, as well as the privilege of having an empowering gynecologist who normalizes the condition for me. She once told me that there are many people who have vaginismus, some of whom have intercourse with their partner only when they decide to have children.
That I have this condition might come as a shock for some people who know me. Many perceive me to be a very sensual person—and yes, this is absolutely true. I can still be sensual, even without penis-centered sex. I have a lot of sex, but not a lot of penetrative sex.
In my personal life, I am fortunate to have a partner with whom I not only feel emotionally and physically feel safe, but who also shares an understanding that sex doesn’t have to be penetrative all the time. Sex can be satisfying without complying with society’s expectations of it—expectations that resemble that of the church’s: Male pleasure is the only priority; orgasms are viewed as the goal of any sexual encounter; procreation is the main purpose of sex.
Inch by inch, we unlearn these expectations, and then relearn that pleasure is also not always found in sex, but in various expressions of love and intimacy. As said in my previous essay, we can feel alive and erotic even outside of sexual intercourse.
Get to Know Your Politicized Body
It is one thing to get to know our bodies in the context of faith and sex, but it is another thing to understand them from a sociopolitical lens.
The post-purity culture movement and the promotion of sexual agency and gender rights have long existed for white women, leaving Black women and women of color by the wayside. Natarajan, Wilkins-Yel, and other researchers have done qualitative studies on purity culture in the context of race and gender. They found that five out of the nine Black women and women of color they interviewed “visualized white women when asked to form a mental image of the ideal pure woman.”
For these interviewees, shame wasn’t just rooted in the ideals of purity (i.e., saving themselves for marriage) but more specifically, the ideals of white purity, where purity is conflated with Eurocentric beauty standards of being white and thin. The study then highlighted the specific struggles of Black women and women of color in the purity culture movement, which involved racialized sexual double standards: to be morally clean from sexual sin in order to be accepted by God, and to appear white in shape and complexion in order to be desirable. In the case of Asian women and femmes, we endure the oppressive standard of docile submission, perceived as sex objects under the white male gaze and our fetishization by media and society.
While I believe every purity culture survivor’s trauma is worth processing, we can still welcome nuance in our collective healing and recovery. Not everyone will have the same nature and degree of wounds from purity culture, and it’s vital to heal with the knowledge that white supremacy and sociopolitical powers have been core to our sexual and spiritual injuries. With this knowledge, we need to address that racialized and other marginalized bodies (trans, disabled, fat, and aging bodies) have suffered greater or more complex harm and violence from purity culture.
Hope for Sexual and Spiritual Healing in Our Time
In a podcast conversation with Keke Palmer, Janelle Monáe looks back at her baptist roots and shares how her church’s judgment still haunts her experience with pleasure and play. Even with this struggle, Monáe points out that her goal is to fight for body autonomy: “We will not play into [the conservative church’s] social norms [and] assimilate.”
Seeing artists like Monáe combine body agency and creativity gives me hope. In the interview, she didn’t sugarcoat the journey nor deny the fact that the judgmental voices of her past still influence her, because, as for many of us, they do. And yet she actively chooses to say no to these voices. Instead, she makes music videos like “Lipstick Lover” and “Water Slide,” and became the narrator for the Sex, Explained documentary series—media serving as beacons for body autonomy and sex education in the entertainment industry.
We live in a time when an album like Monáe’s The Age of Pleasure exists. We live in a time when we can experiment with our bodies and our pleasure more extensively, with the emergence of more accessible sex toys and more platforms that focus on the pleasure and sexuality of women and femmes. We live in a time when we have more resources and social contexts that provide sexual health awareness and advocate for sexual safety in the context of body agency and liberation. If that is not spiritually freeing, then I don’t know what is.
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.