Very briefly I would like to let readers who may need to know that this story is about purity culture (evident from the title) and contains discussions of victim blaming and mentions of sexual assault and abuse. This is part of this as it is, unfortunately, woven deeply into purity culture. If this is not for you, that’s completely fine! Take care of yourself first. With that, let’s begin.
When I was about five years old, my grandparents took me and a few of my cousins to see the new Pixar feature, A Bug’s Life. It was a fun little movie and I enjoyed it a lot. Afterwards, my cousins and I talked about bugs vs insects and if they were synonymous, if they were two separate things, or if none of it mattered because they were exactly the same. When you’re young these kinds of is-that-also-this-but-not questions can be very exciting. The conclusion we came to — or were told, I don’t completely remember — was that bugs were insects that bit you, and insects could be bugs, but weren’t always. Therefore, all bugs were insects, but not all insects were bugs.
According to Dictionary.com the difference between an insect and a bug is actually a lot more nuanced and has to do with the order that a small creature with an exoskeleton might be in as well as their body types and how they are segmented. This means that there are insects and bugs that might bite you, which is unfortunate for five year old me, who told everyone in school that that’s what the difference between them was.
I brought up this example because there are many things that this kind of is-that-also-this-but-not questioning can apply to. Today I want to talk about one some what similar example in particular — virgins and asexuals. These words are not synonyms, but a person can be both. While some asexuals may be virgins, not all virgins are asexuals.
I want to talk about what the difference between these words are, why it matters, and why virginity itself is a harmful social construct and doesn’t reflect a person’s goodness or badness — it is is a thing that is.
So first, let’s talk about asexuality.
What is Asexuality?
Asexuality is defined as a sexual orientation in which a person does not experience sexual attraction. An asexual person may or may not experience romantic attraction, meaning they may or may not be aromantic as well. Asexuality is a spectrum orientation in that there are orientations housed under it — it can both be a label in itself, and an umbrella term housing multiple labels. For example, I am demisexual/gray ace. I am not asexual, not completely — but I exist within the spectrum of asexuality.
There are many misconceptions about asexuality. Some of the most common are that it is something we naturally grow out of as we hit puberty, or the assumption that we are asexual (or acespec, meaning someone within the umbrella) because we have some kind of diffiency in our hormones. While there are medications and medical conditions that may lower a person’s libido, asexuality itself is not a medical condition — it is not something that a doctor needs to correct with medication or hormone therapy, or more accurately, asexuals do not need conversion therapy.
Another is that an asexual person has no interest in the pleasure of sex. This one is a bit confusing because for so many allos (those who are not asexual or acespec, in this case) the two are intertwined — after all, why would you seek sex itself if you did not experience sexual attraction? There are many reasons why a person who does not experience sexual attraction may have sex, however — closeness with a partner, the pleasure of sex itself, not knowing that they are asexual and wanting to do what they believe is expected, or perhaps just out of curiousity. If you want to read more about asexuality, please click here to visit the Asexuality and Visibility Education Network’s website.
While I could talk at length about the misconceptions surrounding asexuality — and there are many that I plan to address as I continue writing — the misconception I want to focus on today is that we never have sex, or that asexuality and virginity are one in the same. As I stated above, while some asexuals may be virgins, not all virgins are asexuals.
So with that, let’s take a minute to talk about virginity.
What is Virginity?
A virgin is simply a person who has not had sex. That’s all that it means. A virgin is simply someone who has not had sex with another person. This isn’t limited to penis-in-vagina sex, either, depending on who’s having it or who you’re talking to. After all, not everyone has a penis, and not everyone has a vagina, and not all sex involves one person with a penis and another with a vagina. There are many different kinds of sex and there are many sex acts a person can partake in in their life time with a consenting partner; it doesn’t necessarily look one way or another.
Virginity itself is the idea that if you have not had sex, you have something to give another person or something that sets you apart — as if not having sex is some kind of tangible purity meter. We’ll talk more about that later.
The words asexual and virgin are not synonyms because virginity is not tied to any one sexual orientation. Anyone of any sexual orientation or gender may or may not be a virgin. This includes asexuals, meaning that yes, some asexuals do have sex, and others don’t. Everyone, including asexual people, go about sex in their own way. Some may have sex young and lose interest later, and others may not have sex at all until later in their life. Some may become sexually active as teenagers, others in college. Some may never be sexually active at all and won’t ever feel like they’ve missed a thing, because to them, it wasn’t a need they had. There is no one right time to decide that you’re ready to have sex, and there is nothing that says that you absolutely have to have sex at any point, either; everyone is different.
Virginity is not something you give to another person, or something that someone can take away from you. It is not a tangible thing. No longer being a virgin does not make you a bad person, just as being a virgin does not make you more pure than your friends who have had sex. It is a state of being that simply denotes that you have not had sex yet.
We don’t live in a world that sees it in a neutral way, though. Often instead, the world we live in shames young people, particularly AFABs and women, if they have had sex. So with that, I would like to talk about virginity and abstinence only sex education.
Abstinence Only Sex Education
Abstinence-Only Sex Education is exactly what it sounds like — it is sex education that preaches that there is no better way to go about your life than to be abstinent until marriage. Classes like this teach sex in a mechanical way and separate boys from girls often, meaning that girls get classes on menstruation, which often down play how bad cramps may be and do not discuss other parts of puberty, such as growing breasts, and boys are put into classes about changing voices, body hair, and what an erection is.
This can result in wildly variable levels of proper education on sex. Sometimes this is quite funny, such as when author John Updike wrote in The Witches of Eastwick about urine getting ‘lost’ in a woman’s body because, and I quote, “Everything about them was more direct, their insides weren’t the maze women’s were, for the pee to find its way through.”
Most of the time, however, varying levels of education about sex is far more serious and harmful. If two people have different levels of education about how condoms work, for example, you run the risk of pregnancy and STIs. If two people have differing levels of education on what is and isn’t consent, which is incredibly common as shown in a survey from the Washington Post Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015, one of them is going to leave that situation with serious trauma.
Sex Ed also is only legally required to be medically accurate in 13 states, which is absolute appalling. That misinformation doesn’t just cause consequences for young people, either. Many adults do not take the time to find out if what they were taught was incorrect, which can lead to them teaching and passing on incorrect information to their kids if they do have “the talk”.
One thing that all of these classes seem to have in common, though, is that virginity — particularly the virginity of a young woman/AFAB — is a precious thing that, once given away, fundamentally changes your worth.
And so with that, I would like to now talk about purity culture and the emphasis it places on virginity.
Purity Culture and Virginity
Purity culture is, very simply, the idea that a person can be pure and good if they do everything right in the eyes of God. Often it is taught by Evangelical churches, and because America is loosely a Christian nation — we have no official national religion, but Evangelical Christianity is a very strong presence throughout the United States — and it trickles down into just about every part of American life. Purity culture is all about being perfect not just for God, but for your fellow church goers and your family. Or, at least, appearing perfect. If you do sin, or worse, get sick, then God, who is all knowing and always judging you, will punish you.
Of course, this is very simplified. There is a lot more to purity culture than I have time to give true understanding to here, or at least give the time it would really deserve. Suffice it to say that if you know someone who was raised in Evangelicalism and turned away, they probably have a few choice words they could tell you about it; it is very much a topic I recommend you research on your own.
My own experience put me between two worlds. I was raised in between purity culture and secular culture, meaning that I went to church every Sunday but went to public school during the week. This let me have a foot in both worlds — the secular world, where my friends were, and many of my interests, and the world of the church, which whispered in my ear that the secular world would cause me to sin and that would, in turn, lead to an eternity of punishment. As a teenager filled with anxiety and longing for acceptance, that’s a scary place to be, and the messages I was given about sex and sexuality and how they conflicted did not help.
That is to say that throughout my life I was met with two very conflicting messages about sexuality. The first was that I was not supposed to have any sexuality whatsoever, to be pure and good in the eyes of God, completely asexual — a word I didn’t even know yet that would describe what the church would have liked for my sexuality to become until marriage, and that sex is something that could only be reserved for one person in my life.
The second was that in order for boys to like me, I would need to start wearing makeup, a bra, and parading around just enough skin to show that I was sexually available — that in order to be worthy, I had to be pretty, and in order to be pretty, I had to be sexy, and in order to be sexy, I had to be willing to have advertise and have sex. I wanted both to be good and holy and to be wanted and liked, rather than made fun of and teased. Over time, I read more and more magazines with fashion tips and spent longer on my makeup and fitness. It was never something I did for myself — it was always out of a fundamental desire to be desirable to another person.
Like many teenage girls my age I had conflated sex with love, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be having it, which put me in a spirtually precarious position. If a boy had sex with me, that would surely mean he loved me. If he loved me, then I would be desirable. My worries and preoccupations were not with if I wanted to feel good in my own skin, or if I even liked the boys who did like me — I was preoccupied with being just the right amount of consumable to be wanted at all by another person. And surely God, a loving God, couldn’t completely frown on someone wanting to be loved, right? Could that be a forgivable sin?
I wasn’t the only person who was made to go to church every Sunday that I knew growing up, either. Many of the young teenage girls who went with me or who talked about it also talked about wanting to be wanted, to be worthy, with a sort of pain that is hard to explain. If he wants me, then surely I’m not worthless, we thought as we put on our lipstick and passed notes in class. If I get thin enough and dress well enough, and that boy wants me, that will mean he also loves me — and then if he does I can pray for forgiveness for wanting to be wanted.
I knew other girls who talked about what they liked about boys in hushed tones and then bragged about what their purity rings meant to anyone passing by. (A purity ring, if you are unfamiliar, is a ring that acts as a symbol meaning that a young woman has pledged that she will not have sex before she is married. While young men can also wear these, I have never met one who did.) A purity ring wasn’t just a promise between a young woman and God — it was a public declaration that she was counter-cultural and wouldn’t be partaking in that dirty sex stuff, thank you very much, until she was married. I never had a purity ring of my own, which is something I’m thankful for. There’s something about a tangible symbol of a promise like that that makes it much heavier than it would be otherwise which is, I think, the point of the whole thing. If you don’t constantly have the public reminder on your hand, you might not feel guilty for breaking the covenant you made with God before you were even ready to process what pledging your life to a savior might mean.
There were also promise rings, which were sort of pre-engagement rings. Essentially a promise ring is something a young boy would give his girlfriend that asked if she would marry him someday, even though the two of them hadn’t even graduated high school and couldn’t possibly know enough about each other for such an important decision. This is different from just being high school sweethearts — it’s a pledge that yes, you will marry that young man, even if you’re probably too young to make such a decision at 14. At that point, you’re locked in — you have a tangible reminder that you are expected at all times to marry him and only him, even if you are interested in someone else. Like a promise ring, it is a declaration that your body and what’s between your legs is reserved for one person only — a declaration that you are holy, saving yourself, and that you know there are dire consequences if you break that promise.
The problem with these kinds of things isn’t that young people can’t or shouldn’t choose abstinence if that’s what they want. Plenty of young people will make the choice to remain abstinent until marriage on their own, or just won’t find they have any interest in sex itself. This is actually how a lot of young people find out that they are asexual — they don’t find that they have any interest in sex itself, which leads to them researching asexuality. The problem is that many young people, particularly young women and survivors of sexual assault, are taught that if they have had sex, consensual or otherwise, that they are bad people and that they deserve anything bad that may come to them.
Many abstinence only sex ed courses emphasize this focus on the construct of virginity. Some even use examples such as comparing having sex to being like used tape or chewed gum, an example that Elizabeth Smart remembers hearing after she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted at 14. She talked about this in a speech concerning sex education, stating, “I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, she said, ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that?”
The implication is clear: if you have sex, whether you consent or not, you are impure, dirty, and unwanted.
Purity culture judges survivors of sexual assault, and it judges harshly. It looks down on divorce even in instances of domestic violence and often even encourages people to stay with partners that may be abusive, gaslighting them about their experiences. In my own case, I stayed with my first serious boyfriend for two years because I was convinced that I had to after we had had sex, and that the abuse that came after was my own fault for consenting to giving him my virginity. I stayed up at night crying, and cried often with him, about the guilt I felt for having had sex at all. I tried to find loopholes and see if there was something I could do to marry him young so that I could stop feeling so guilty about it. I even said yes when he proposed to me and kept the engagement a secret from my family because I thought that I had to say yes, even in the midst of the red flags I was trying to ignore. After all, we had had sex, and you only got one person to do that with if you wanted to be pure. I had just chosen wrong, and now I had to be punished.
Purity culture didn’t just judge me, though, for having sex before marriage. It shames people in secular spaces too. If you’ve ever seen a young teenager pregnant, trying to raise a baby on her own and being judged if her mother helps her, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever had a friend tell you that she didn’t really believe that her best friend was assaulted at that party because after all, she’d had too much to drink and they had had sex before, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever seen another teenage girl walk down the hallway with her two best friends and cry loudly that she wish her now ex boyfriend wasn’t the first person she had ever had sex with, only to then hear from other people details about the sex that they shouldn’t be spreading, you know what I’m talking about. In fact if you’ve ever been in a space where a young woman has had sex and you heard about it through a third party, you know what I’m talking about.
This doesn’t even touch on how this view can also result in a world where men are expected to be the deciders and initiators of sex, even if that’s not what they want, or how this kind of culture similarly marginalizes men and AMABs who are survivors of sexual assault. This is something that I do not feel qualified to speak on, as I am not AMAB or a man. What I do know is that the pressure and shame of secrecy surrounding sexual assault in a world that won’t listen to you is a terrible, painful thing, and no one should have to go through that pain, especially alone.
The idea that we can be perfect, pure, holy beings if we just don’t uncross our legs is something that bleeds into every area of our lives, and often effects our self esteem long after we begin to regain control over how we view our bodies and participation in sex and sexuality.
And with that, let’s finally talk about how this all fits together.
Asexuality, Purity Culture, and Virginity
In my experience talking with other acespecs about their experience in Evangelical spaces, most of the time what is expressed is that they liked that they didn’t feel the pressure to have sex. Maybe it was the effect of being further on the side of Evangelicalism than I was, or maybe they were raised in stricter households, both feet and spirit planted firmly in the world of their faith. I’m not sure. In discussing these experiences with other people raised in the Evangelical church, particularly those who have left it, there are undoubtedly a variety of outcomes in regards to how a person grows up to view their sex and sexuality, and many acespecs who like that they didn’t desire sex during a time when others around them did.
This makes sense. In a belief system that tells you that your value is your purity and that your purity is your virginity, there is less stress if you don’t desire sex. I imagine that it may even feel empowering and that, if I had not conflated sex with the idea of being loved, that I would have felt a slight sense of spiritual superiority over my peers, followed quickly by intense shame that I had taken pride in it. A few people I know personally have spoken about their asexuality being talked about as a spiritual gift when they discussed this with their youth pastors, letting them walk away feeling hopeful for their eternal futures with Christ. While this is not a view of asexuality as a sexual orientation but rather a view of asexual as in a person without sexuality and bodily autonomy, it is reflective of the reductive view of sexuality that young women and AFABs are expected to emulate — holy, pure, and most importantly, interested in keeping their virginity.
However, the expectation to remain pure and holy still causes untold emotional damage. This line of thinking that asexuality is holy and a gift doesn’t so much uplift asexuality as it removes the bodily autonomy of sexuality entirely from women and AFABs. It is not a view of asexuality as a sexual orientation, but instead as a sort of pageantry of purity. If a person is not interested in having sex and also has the choice removed from them, they are also being directed away from self discovery and acceptance. This is not a gift of bodily autonomy; it is, instead, a stripping away of personhood in favor of pursuit and expectation of the pure virgin ideal.
This view also poses confusion for people with desire for sexual pleasure and closeness who may also happen to be acespec. After all, purity culture does not recognize any difference between the reasons someone may desire sex. Carnal pleasure and emotional and physical closeness are viewed as being equally sinful. There is no wiggle room for sex purely for love, sex because you like sex, or even nonconsensual sex — in the eyes of purity culture, if it has happened, you have become desirable and therefore have done something wrong.
Purity culture also places all expectation of being desired, and therefore all the weight of the sin of it, on women and AFABs, without ever taking into account that we can have sexual attraction of our own. We are not viewed as having attraction, or even having the ability to have it. We are viewed as objects of desire and temptation who must cover up, dress carefully, and behave nicely, lest we create the sin of lust in the men and AMABs around us. This makes blaming things like sexual assault and violence on us quite easy — after all, if it happened, surely we did something to invite sexual desire. Similarly it dismisses and marginalizes men and AMABs who are survivors of assault, as they are expected to be in endless and animalistic pursuit of sex and would, therefore, always be consenting.
But people are not stripped of sexuality simply because they are young Christian women and AFABs raised in the church, nor are we chewed or used gum if we have had and enjoyed sex. We are not the cause of violence when it is perpetuated against us, and neither are men and AMABs when it is perpetuated against them. Regardless of sexual orientation, we are still deserving of bodily autonomy and the recognition of our personhood regarding sex and sexuality, and are deserving of some room to make mistakes and decide on our own if we want to choose abstinence or if we want to have a sexual relationship before marriage. The mixture of purity culture, abstinence only sex education, victim blaming, and removal of sexual autonomy does not leave room for a difference of opinion or decisions regarding our bodies; instead, it traps us into a mold no person can never fit.
The expectation of purity, of the perfect, pure virgin, of the asexual woman or AFAB whose sexuality is removed from her whether or not she feels she has sexuality of her own to speak of rather than letting her consider asexuality as an orientation, as the default to not be sinful would naturally be heterosexuality, does not do good in the long run. Instead it creates an environment in which young people are severely penalized for mistakes regarding their bodies both by their social circles and by the faith of their households and are thereby held to a completely unrealistic standard for human behavior.
In conclusion, and reflection, I would ask that more people think critically about what taking away our bodily autonomy regarding sex actually does and looking at the intense, lasting harm it causes. I would ask that more people have hard conversations about what is going on in the minds of young people particularly and where the blame for crimes against a person’s body are so often placed, and what we can do as individuals to lift that blame. I would ask that instead of conflating asexuality with a removal of sexual autonomy and personhood and therefore with holiness, that more recognize it as a sexual orientation with a variety of different ways in which someone might present themselves and their sexuality. When you place intense societal and spiritual pressure on someone and insist that they cannot make a mistake of any kind, you create an environment where when what you view as mistakes are made, there is nowhere for that person to go for support. And no one, absolutely no one, should be made to confront these things alone.
Elle Rose, also known online as secretladyspider, is a freelance writer and demisexuality advocate specializing in LGBTQIAP+ education and issues. She also creates YouTube videos about the intersection between pop culture and mental health. Contact her at email@example.com to see how she can work to advocate for you, or help her advocate by becoming a patron today.