The shootings that happened in Atlanta on March 16 were a needless tragedy — the loss of innocent lives at the hands of yet another gunman, where women of color once again were the victims. While lack of gun control and racism both have their ugly place in this story, the influence I want to draw your attention to today is purity culture.
Purity culture is something I know well because I lived and breathed it. Growing up in the epicenter of evangelical Christianity, I was taught young (and firmly believed), that sex was only meant to be shared between a biological male and a biological female (preferably from the same race) within the confines of marriage. There were no acceptable variations. This was the only option.
This meant that same-sex relationships were an abomination, getting pregnant outside of marriage fell just below that on the list of “most-egregious sins,” and sex before marriage was a black mark on both you and your family’s reputation.
I knew all this, and I took it seriously, believing if I served God with my life, one day my knight in shining armor would ride in on a white horse and carry me off to our happily ever after. This belief was so ingrained in my upbringing that my parents arranged a full-on purity ceremony for my 13th birthday, at which I pledged before my parents, friends, neighbors and relatives to keep myself sexually pure until marriage. I signed my name on the dotted line of a vow, and my father placed a purity ring onto my wedding finger that was meant to stay there until it was replaced by a wedding band.
You may be wondering how this directly relates to eight people being murdered in Atlanta this month, so let me connect the dots.
I remember being explicitly taught (in no uncertain terms) that I was responsible for keeping boys from lusting. If I dressed seductively, or in any way remotely outside of extreme modesty (enter spaghetti straps or shorts above the knee), it was my fault if I caused a man to stumble. If I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, I shouldn’t have been out so late because, “nothing good happens after midnight,” my mom would say. And if I had sex before marriage? Well then, no one would ever want me. My virginity was likened to a piece of gum — shiny and new out of the wrapper, but once used, completely undesirable and only worthy of being disposed of in the trash. Nobody wants ABC gum.
“My virginity was likened to a piece of gum — shiny and new out of the wrapper, but once used, completely undesirable and only worthy being disposed of in the trash.”
I remember feeling like that trashy gum. It was the day I realized (after more than 10 years of wearing that purity ring on my wedding finger) that I was in love with a woman. Not only that, but I had slept with a woman. And having lost my virginity outside of marriage, and to a female, was the most abominable act a woman of the evangelical faith could commit.
I was completely convinced at the age of 23 that no man ever would want me now, that God never could use me again, and that I was worthless, disposable, garbage with no goodness or value remaining. I hated myself. I hurt myself. And it led me to the brink of suicide.
This is the same kind of theology that infiltrated the mind of Robert Long. Like me, Long was taught that any sexual desire or activity outside of marriage is lustful and, therefore, considered a sin — something God despises — and something to be harnessed, controlled, fought against.
Like many in the Christian faith, Long tried to fix, heal and be delivered of these demons that plagued him, even to the point of attending an evangelical treatment center called HopeQuest Ministry Group in search of help and freedom.
“Long tried to fix, heal and be delivered of these demons that plagued him.”
But as I can personally attest, the more you try to overcome some of these so-called abominations, the more they control you. Your every waking hour is fixated upon them, trying to force them into submission as the Bible would command (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is such a thing as real sexual addiction and I’m not denying that Long suffered from that. But I am confronting the large part that purity culture and evangelical Christianity plays in shaping our beliefs around healthy sex, relationships, consent and responsibility. Because in Long’s case, he was convinced that the only way to rid himself and others of sexual temptation was to eliminate what he targeted as the source of the “temptations” themselves — real, living, breathing, innocent, human beings.
Purity culture theology is not only outdated, it is downright deadly. We have got to stop teaching women that they are responsible for taming men’s lustful desires, and we have got to stop teaching men that they are migrating sex objects without any control over their impulses.
“Women are worth so much more than their virginity, and men are responsible for their own bodies and actions.”
Women are worth so much more than their virginity, and men are responsible for their own bodies and actions. Men are not predators, and women are not prey. It’s time to teach consent, accountability, responsibility and agency. It’s time to call out bad theology that kills. And it’s time to stop brainwashing people into believing that others are responsible for the “temptations” they face.
Grow up. Own your actions. Control your impulses. And for the love of all things good and holy, be a decent human being.
As someone who is married to a first-generation Asian immigrant, my heart grieves for the part of this shooting that was racially motivated.
As a woman, my heart grieves for the continued misogyny and patriarchy that plagues our nation.
As an exangelical, my heart grieves for the countless people being influenced by the harmful and deadly theology of purity culture that is being cloaked in the name of God and Christianity.
And as a human being, my heart grieves that we continue to have mass murders occur on a regular basis throughout our country without better gun control and more value for human life.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Amber Cantorna grew up in the deeply conservative evangelical culture of Focus on the Family and now lives with her wife in Denver, where she advocates for equality everywhere. She is a national speaker, the author of Refocusing My Family and Unashamed: A Coming Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians, and host of the Unashamed Book Club. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and learn more about her work at AmberCantorna.com.
Don’t let the Atlanta shooter off the hook by claiming women drove him to addiction | Opinion by Kaleb Graves
My journey through purity culture and Christian worship music | Opinion by Rick Pidcock
Naked and ashamed: American Christianity’s purity culture and embodiment in the church | Opinion by Alice Fry