In God we can do all things, including having tough conversations. On today’s episode of the podcast, Alicia sits down with author Sheila Wray Gregoire to discuss the impact purity culture has had on Christian women’s self esteem and confidence, the inner lies it may have caused us to believe, and how we can be a part of a positive shift in Christian culture while staying true to God’s word.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
- [03:51] What prompted Sheila’s research into Christian purity culture
- [06:08] Sheila’s biggest discoveries during her research
- [08:12] How are Christian women’s voices discounted in Church culture according to the research?
- [12:59] Views on male and female leadership in Christian culture
- [14:06] How has the purity culture affected different generations of women?
- [16:44] Why did Christian culture shift in 1995?
- [19:01] What’s a healthier response to Christian women about sexuality?
- [23:33] But isn’t the world also sexualizing women in an unhealthy way?
- [24:25] Advice on how to talk about sexuality in a non-toxic way with girls
- [30:22] How should we talk to boys in the Church about sexuality in a healthy way?
- [31:45] “I grew up with purity culture teachings. What now?”
- [34:31] Alicia’s reflection of her conversation with Sheila and the impact of reading her book
[03:51] What prompted Sheila’s research into Christian purity culture
Several years ago, Sheila read the book Love and Respect. Finding herself appalled by the horrendous sex advice given inside the book, Sheila realized that these teachings and others needed to be completely uprooted. Sheila was inspired to write her book The Great Sex Rescue, surveying over 20,000 women with her team to determine which teachings in the evangelical world had hurt the view Christian women held on sex and marriage and how they could get back to what Jesus intended. The book was a major hit. After publishing, Sheila and her team realized that though women felt validated after reading the book, they didn’t know what to do or how to process through the inner lies they now believed because of years of exposure to toxic purity culture. This inspired Sheila’s next book, She Deserves Better.
[06:08] Sheila’s biggest discoveries during her research
During the team’s research for She Deserves Better, they surveyed 7,000 women about their experiences as teens in church and how it impacted them. One of the biggest discoveries they made regarding negative long term effects of certain theologies was the impact of the “boys can’t help themselves” narrative. Growing up in purity culture, girls were told that because boys can’t help themselves, girls were responsible for keeping them in check, making them responsible for bearing the weight of any poor behavior. If boys or men were angry or crossed a line, girls and women were taught that it was somehow their fault. Girls who believed this message were shown to have lower self esteem, even being more likely to marry abusers, among other things.
Another theology that women were led to believe could be found in books like For Young Women Only by Shaunti Feldhahn. Books like this were popular during the rise of purity culture between 1995 and 2015, Sheila notes, teaching girls that boys have a really hard time expressing their emotions and suppressing their sexual drive but still need unconditional respect from girls. This narrative continued to promote the idea that girls were required to give all boys respect, no matter the situation.
[08:12] How are Christian women’s voices discounted in Church culture according to the research?
Historically, in the evangelical church, girls' voices just aren't that important, Sheila says. We tend to prioritize men's voices. Girls are told that they talk too much so they need to be quiet. This is one of the questions Sheila and her team asked within the survey, and her findings were that more than half of women believed that girls talk too much.
This is what was taught in For Young Women Only and plenty of other popular purity culture books, Sheila says. People like James Dobson were also constantly telling women not to talk too much, she notes. He said women physically speak 25,000 words and mentally speak 12,000 words per day. Evangelical literature was sharing this as fact when there are no scientific studies that prove this to be true. When researchers looked into it, they found that men and women statistically say the same number of words a day but since it was what was constantly taught, we believe girls talk more and that girls' voices are a problem.
Sheila says because we don't value women's voices, we feel like every time a woman talks, she is taking over the conversation. For example, if a woman speaks 30% of the words, and if we poll men afterwards about how many words the woman spoke, surveys have found that men will tend to estimate the women spoke over 50% of the time. In the evangelical church, we discount women's perspectives and make women feel like everything they do is a problem, especially their thoughts and their bodies, Sheila says. Instead of men being able to control themselves, women feel like they need to cover up their body and censor their thoughts so that they don’t do any harm to the men who just can’t help it.
Sheila notes that the church is the only place in modern Western society where it is okay to be sexist. For example, in the secular workplace, a man couldn’t say he couldn’t be alone with someone just because they are a woman as that would be sexual harassment. Another example is if someone said that they wouldn’t work for a woman, that person would be fired because that is sexism. In the secular world, you cannot discriminate against people based on their sex but it is still allowed in the church world. In fact, most of the women that participated in Sheila’s focus groups said that they felt less objectified in the world than they do in the church.
[12:59] Views on male and female leadership in Christian culture
Although Sheila has her own opinions on male and female church leadership, she states that she is not a biblical scholar and encourages listeners to check out books like The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood by Philip Barton Payne or The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. Based on the data collected for her books, Sheila has found that when girls are told that they are responsible for keeping boys from sinning, it has long term negative repercussions.
[14:06] How has the purity culture affected different generations of women?
One of the big things that Sheila’s survey showed is the difference in generations between Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. Gen X and Boomers were all allowed to date and kiss before marriage, but then a shift happened in the church and many Millennials experienced a more strict upbringing, many of them not being permitted to date or even kiss before marriage.
While society as a whole is becoming more liberal, the church has gotten much more conservative in the last 30 years, Sheila notes. Her research found that Millennials were most likely to believe these toxic teachings as teenagers, but the least likely to believe them today. Gen X and Boomers tend to believe them more today because they weren’t hurt by them as much as kids. Among Gen Z, women are less religious than men. This is something that has never happened before for an entire demographic group to have less religious affiliated women than men.
[16:44] Why did Christian culture shift in 1995?
During the 80s, teen sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and drug and alcohol use among teens had skyrocketed. School officials, pastors, and public health professionals all gathered together to figure out what the best course of action to take would be. Schools then decided to introduce comprehensive sexual education programs and the church responded by pulling back even more.
At the same time, women were entering the workforce in huge numbers and there had been a big movement within the church to allow women to assume leadership roles. As the church began to pull back in response to sex education and the aftermath of the 80s, they began to backtrack and stop allowing women to do things they once were able to, pulling women from leadership positions and even from missionary status. This led to a huge conservative resurgence.
[19:01] What’s a healthier response to Christian women about sexuality?
Sheila wants girls to understand that they matter and that they are allowed to have opinions and aren’t responsible for boys’ sins. She wants them to be taught how to stand up for themselves and learn how to say no and what to say yes to. Sheila also wants girls to learn how to figure out what their calling is and to understand that they have the right to have their own relationship with God.
Studies have shown that church as a whole is good for people, Sheila says. It gives us better marriage satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and self esteem, but as soon as girls internalize these toxic teachings about consent, modesty, and taking up too much space, the benefits of attending church disappear.
It’s important to note that while there are some churches that are really harmful, there are also churches that aren’t, Sheila adds. As Christians, we have the ability to be the change inside of our churches, to leave these toxic theologies behind while also still living in God’s word. Let's do what we can to change the churches that we are in so they don't keep perpetuating harm on ourselves and younger generations, she says.
Sheila encourages us to live our lives following Jesus, even though that’s often not what we tell young girls. In Matthew 7:17, Jesus said that when you're looking at false teaching, you judge by the fruit, because a bad tree cannot bear good fruit and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit.
The surveys Sheila’s team completed for both books showed the outcome of these toxic teachings. When you teach girls that they need to be small and that they are responsible for the actions and thoughts of men, then there is a negative ripple effect that opens the door for emotional and physical pain. Studies show that evangelical women have 2.5 times the rate of sexual pain than the general population. In addition, 23% of evangelical women suffer from vaginismus, a sexual pain disorder, where the muscles in the vaginal walls contract and become very tight so penetration becomes difficult if not impossible. This is largely an evangelical problem that is rooted in what girls are taught about their bodies. When girls are taught that boys can’t help but lust, they are 52% more likely to develop sexual pain.
[23:33] But isn’t the world also sexualizing women in an unhealthy way?
While Christian and secular culture have some similarities, Sheila points out that there is a major difference in giving something God’s seal of approval even when it’s not biblically based, which is what is happening when these beliefs are taught in the church. Sheila says that is not to say that the world isn’t sexualing women as a whole because it still very much is, but secular culture seems to be making strides to improve this, while issues like sexism seem to be more widely accepted or tolerated in the church.
[24:25] Advice on how to talk about sexuality in a non-toxic way with girls
Rest assured, Sheila’s studies found that telling your daughter that God designed sex for marriage to be a sacred thing had no negative outcomes. On the other hand, telling your daughter that having sex with someone before marriage would form a soul tie that would keep them from being able to become emotionally intimate with their future spouse had very adverse effects. If you are going to tell your daughter to wait for marriage, you should deeply understand the real reasons behind why you are telling her to wait.
A lot of people believe that they need to scare their children into thinking that they need to wait for marriage, but that fear-based thinking can be incredibly harmful. At the height of purity culture, common narratives were leading girls to believe that having sex before marriage would cause STDS, infertility, and even death. The problem with basing the root of “abstinence before marriage” in fear is that girls are going to have friends who are having sex and they're not dead or rendered infertile. We can’t lie to our children about this. What we can do instead is tell them that God intended for sex to be sacred and that sex brings a lot of complications. Share with your children the benefits of waiting instead of scaring them into waiting, she says.
The conversation should also change depending on your children’s ages, which is something that didn’t happen during purity culture. Twenty-three year olds were given the same talk as 13 year olds, and not adapting the conversation based on maturity levels proved to be very harmful.
When you have sex at a young age, it can cause you to ignore any red flags because sex makes you feel really close to someone, so it’s really important to work on your emotional relationship with someone first. These are the types of conversations that are important to have with our children, rather than relying on scare tactics.
[30:22] How should we talk to boys in the Church about sexuality in a healthy way?
Sheila shares that her message to teen boys and girls would be very similar in nature. It is very normal for teens to want to have sex. They have raging hormones and if you are with someone you really like, you are probably going to want to have sex. There is nothing wrong with that. What is really important is to figure out your boundaries and make a plan to stick to them, she says. It is also important to honor the boundaries of the person that you are with. If you’re with someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries, then that is a red flag.
Sexual feelings are not something that our children should be ashamed of but they need to learn how to navigate them in a healthy way, she adds.
[31:45] “I grew up with purity culture teachings. What now?”
Sheila would want women who grew up in purity culture to know that they didn’t do anything wrong. Many women think that God is punishing them with poor sex lives or poor marriages, especially if they had sex before marriage, but that really isn’t the case. We may just need to work on things instead of giving up. God will extend grace to us and allow us to live an abundant life as long as we’re in a happy marriage.
[34:27] Alicia’s reflection of her conversation with Sheila and the impact of reading her book
The best piece to takeaway from this podcast episode is simply the ability to be willing and able to wrestle with some of the teachings that may be ingrained in us that aren’t necessarily biblically based. It's also important to mention that this may be triggering for you, and to give yourself grace as you listen and process for yourself.
This conversation was a little challenging as Sheila is speaking against some of the teachings in the church that we may have been brought up to believe are the gospel truth; teachings about how to live as women and how to teach your kids about sex. Alicia opens up about her experience reading Sheila’s book, and how it really messed with her in a good way. It prompted her to think about some of those things that she learned as a teenage woman being introduced to church culture in the 90s, and how that has impacted the way she views herself.
Sheila mentioned several times during the interview that the church, whether obviously or subliminally, has made women small, diminished their voices, and discounted their emotions. Some of the messages that we've been taught about our emotions as women, like how we're only supposed to have positive emotions instead of negative emotions, are incredibly damaging and can have lifelong effects if not processed through appropriately.
Alicia shares that she loves that Sheila’s books are founded on research. The work that went into creating them included very comprehensive graphs and details that are shared within the pages. They discuss the results of this experiment, noting how Christian culture within the church has changed in the last 25 years and the results of that in terms of the number of people who are leaving the church or feel disconnected from it.
A large theme of this conversation and in Sheila’s books is finding the biblical truth in what we’ve been taught about sex and just being women in general. It’s important in this process of evaluating theologies and church norms to always take it back to Scripture.
This conversation felt necessary but also a bit difficult. If you would like to discuss your thoughts about this episode further, how it impacted or maybe even triggered you, reach out to Alicia on Instagram to keep the conversation going.
Quote for reflection:
“If your daughter is systematically taught that negative emotions mean that she's done something wrong, how is she supposed to recognize when her emotions are warning her that something around her is toxic? The problem has already been identified, and it's all within her. So, instead of trying to fix the situation or fix the danger, she retreats into herself, and blames herself.”
The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire
She Deserves Better by Sheila Wray Gregoire
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr
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