Ryan Clark and Nathan Novero grew up in evangelical purity culture and even preached it as youth ministers. Now they are trying to address the sexual dysfunction and trauma inflicted on themselves and others by what seemed at the time to be a biblical approach to sexual ethics.
Clark and Novero met in college in Russellville, Ark., and both worked with Southern Baptist youth camps before going their separate ways — Novero to film school and Clark into ministry as a missionary and educator.
They each were in the other’s wedding, but it was only some years later that they understood they shared another bond rooted in shame. Both men, now in their 40s, had to confront sexual dysfunction in their marriages that they traced to their upbringing in purity culture.
Both men, now in their 40s, had to confront sexual dysfunction in their marriages that they traced to their upbringing in purity culture.
Purity culture has its roots in the 1990s through movements such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s True Love Waits campaign that encouraged youth to pledge sexual chastity until marriage — complete with pledge cards, True Love Waits rings, curriculum and an event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Thirty years later, numerous studies and personal testimonies are emerging of the unintended consequences of this purity culture. The drive to get youth to commit to abstinence produced a hidden culture of shame and an avoidance of the real-life sexual topics teens needed to hear.
‘We were promised something different’
Novero, who was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Arkansas, somehow avoided the True Love Waits ring ceremony, “but it seemed to happen all around me,” he said. “I didn’t think anything negative was happening.”
But when he got married, he found himself unprepared to deal with a kind of sexual dysfunction he never had been taught about. Purity culture teaches that if good Christian teenagers save themselves for sexual relations in marriage, God will bless them with beautiful spouses and fulfilling sex lives.
Novero discovered that was not true. “When I did get married, we encountered our sexual dysfunction and we didn’t know how to talk about it,” he said. “The advice we got was simply to read these books or pray about it more. I started feeling the real weight of what it was.”
He experienced 15 years of a sexless marriage, which led him to unfaithfulness and then to a period of being asexual. The marriage ultimately ended in divorce.
“We were promised something different,” he said, which made him and his then-wife “feel divinely broken.”
‘We played by the rules’
“The youth group teaching on sexuality was if you play by the rules God will bless you with a wonderful marriage life and this whole idea of if you wait until you get married, God will bless you with a great sex life or a great family,” Clark added.
Yet what he came to understand in time is the danger of such a “transactional theology,” he explained. “It created a situation where if we played by the rules and things aren’t working out, there must be something wrong with us. … Even a conversation about sex or sexual feelings creates trauma.
“We played by all the rules, and then sex was not working in our relationship,” he added. “We went first to a Christian counselor who gave us exercises. At the end of the day, (we were told) I had a desire, my wife had a duty, and we just needed to try harder.”
While working in admissions at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Clark made an almost-passing comment about this as he spoke to new students one day. He explained that seminary studies often open minds to truths and realities not previously understood — such as how complicated the biblical text can be, what it’s like to experience other cultures and even what it’s like to live in a big city like Atlanta.
Then he added: “Some of you are newlyweds like I was when I came to McAfee, and that’s a huge transition. One reason is that this is where we figure out that no matter how beautiful the wedding ceremony, it doesn’t undo all the ‘sex is bad’ programming.”
That opened a door to more conversations with other Christian men than he ever imagined. “I had men coming to my office nonstop for months and months. … I knew it wasn’t just us, but I didn’t know it was a lot of people struggling.”
A book, a TV show, a podcast
Clark’s first idea was to write a book on the subject. He has the manuscript written about purity culture from a man’s perspective. Then he and Novero started talking about making a film or a TV series.
“I had men coming to my office nonstop for months and months.”
Novero is a graduate of the University of Southern California film school and has worked in New York and Hollywood as an editor and producer. He mainly works on the kind of docuseries that appear on the History Channel, NatGeo or Netflix.
In the meantime, they started a podcast to discuss these issues and got an agent to sell the TV show concept. The idea was received favorably by several networks and distributors but, as with all things Hollywood, the concept kept getting tweaked and delayed.
Finally, the big-name distributor they were negotiating with sent back their materials with a “thanks but no thanks.” At that point, they decided to get off the merry-go-round and produce something themselves.
A social media campaign
On June 2, they launched a social media campaign that is intended to offer small doses of what could have been a docuseries on TV. Each week, a new 60- to 90-second episode is released with a portion of one person’s story.
The first episode released this week features family and marriage therapist and sexologist Tina Schermer-Sellers. Later episodes this summer will feature Linda Kay Klein, author of PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, and Dove Award winner and two-time Grammy nominee Jennifer Knapp.
“This is not a linear documentary that you sit down and watch one time,” Novero said. “It’s a series of one-minute interviews that are meant to be commented on, passed along and shared on social media. The conversation from others is as important as the content. We want other people to include their stories, include their content.”
“This is not a linear documentary that you sit down and watch one time.”
Although this bite-sized format wasn’t the original intention, its power became clear when Novero and Clark first started filming interviews for a possible film or docuseries.
“When we sat and did these interviews, the things these guests had to share were so potent that whenever they made a comment, we just had to take a breath,” Novero recalled. “We’re creating more space so this can be taken in at a pace a viewer can handle. By doing this consistently every week for one year, what we are hoping to accomplish is a frequency of this conversation. It’s not just a movie you watch one time.”
The series doesn’t just focus on what has happened and the trauma created by the past, the two creators explained.
Each speaker is asked about what they think a solution is,” Clark said. “The series will go into how to be patient with yourself and how to recognize that you are not alone and when you need to seek additional help.”
Finding that kind of community and awareness is itself part of the solution, Novero added. “For me, the first step to healing was to admit this, to recognize the wound as a wound. And to separate that wound from a relationship with Christ. You can investigate your sexual wounds without giving up your faith.”
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