I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or does of the field, that you do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. –Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, Verse 7
I was in seventh grade when I attended my first of many purity seminars at my fundamentalist evangelical Christian church. The boys and girls were separated, and we girls were given a veritable laundry list of instructions: don’t wear too-tight clothing, don’t let your bra straps show, wear tee-shirts in the pool, don’t drape your legs over a boy, modest is hottest, imagine your pastor is watching over your shoulder, imagine your dad is watching over your shoulder, imagine Jesus is watching over your shoulder. Men can’t help it, because they have biological drives and imperatives. When you’re immodest in word or appearance, you cause them to stumble.
In my mid-twenties, while pumping gas one afternoon, I was cornered by three men who stood between me, in the driver’s seat, and my open car door. They asked me to get in their car. I politely declined. Come on, they said, our friend wants to show you a good time. You don’t look like a girl with a boyfriend. Are you even happy with him? You don’t look like a girl who is happy with her boyfriend. Just get in the car. They eventually left, after I began to slowly reach for the pepper spray in my console. Every pump at the station was occupied, and every person pumping gas was watching, and no one intervened. When I arrived home, shaken and tearful, my boyfriend said: I don’t want to fucking hear about all the men who think you are hot. You should stop wearing yoga pants.
Purity culture makes you think you deserve it all—the street harassment, the sexual threats, the abusive relationship. After all, it’s your body that makes them stumble. You are the filthy thing. The Shulamite woman, subject of the Song of Solomon, sought her lover in the streets of the city after dark, and the watchmen beat her viciously.
Every time you kiss a boy, or have sex with a boy, you are giving away a piece of your heart that you can never give your future husband, and no man deserves a wife who is impure or is missing pieces. Women are like cars—driving one off the lot makes it less valuable. No one wants to buy a used car for the price of a new car. Imagine you are a stick of gum, and sex is the act of chewing the gum. Would you want gum that had been chewed by someone else first? Imagine sex is this piece of tape, stuck to a sweater. Once it’s been stuck to too many sweaters it loses its ability to stick.
One girl sobbed when we were told that, and years later I learned it was because she had been molested by a family member and thought she was now “used” and thus unworthy of love. Elizabeth Smart talked about how that’s part of the reason she didn’t seek help immediately after being abducted and raped. She thought her religious community wouldn’t want her anymore because she was impure. Purity culture punishes women for the actions of the men who violate us.
At my public junior high school, sex ed—separated by gender, naturally—was offered for one trimester in seventh grade. Mrs. Moustakis, the sole sex educator for the whole district, began each class by proclaiming dramatically, on a scale of one to ten, sex is an ELEVEN! That is, as long as it is with your HUSBAND. She always drew out the s. Husssssssband. We learned about STIs, but only in the sense that they’d make our perfect, pure, little vaginas hideous and untouchable, and were warned about the high risk of pregnancy and how condoms and birth control were fickle and unreliable and that we should all just be abstinent. We were asked to sign an abstinence-until-marriage pledge. I was four when I was taken to my first anti-abortion protest, so I was already familiar with the notion that any women who defiled themselves by having sex deserved whatever consequences came their way. I signed the pledge.
Seventh grade also featured the B.A.B.E. Conference. B.A.B.E., according to the website of founder Andrea Stephens, means Beautiful, Accepted, Blessed, Eternally Significant—just so long as you “don’t forget your first love! That’s Jesus! When you set your affection too heavily on anyone else but Him, you set yourself up for a big fall. Jesus will never break your heart,” and, “don’t let your emotions take over! Feelings are fickle and they can steer you in the wrong direction,” among other tidbits of advice for young Christian women. Beautiful, accepted, blessed, and eternally significant women aren’t supposed to feel.
Boys are blue, girls are pink—don’t make purple! was the rule at Christian summer camp in high school. Watching my cabin-mates get dressed out of the corner of my eye, and guiltily feeling butterflies stir in the pit of my stomach, I didn’t have to wonder what God would think about pink and pink making pinker. I knew that would make me an abomination. An interest in the wrong color, or more than one color, means you’re disgusting and unworthy of love. Or if you get love, it comes with conditions, expectations: celibacy, heteronormativity. Is that even love? The best you can hope for is toleration, never celebration. It makes you a disappointment. It makes you an embarrassment to your family, perhaps even a sign of parental failure. Better not to stir up or awaken, I think. It will break their hearts, and in turn that will break yours. But in a sense, my heart is already broken from knowing I’m trapped in a place where lying is a sin and so is telling the truth. I make myself comfortable in Hell so no one will tell me I’m going there.
I kissed a boy for the first time at sixteen, and immediately confessed in confidence to my discipleship group leader because I felt so sick and guilty inside afterward. She called my mother that same night and told her. Later I kissed other people, and sometimes did more than kiss, and confessed to no one, because I had learned my lesson and tended to prize my secrecy even as I was imprisoned by it.
Sex was something not to be entertained, thought about, or stirred up. It was conditional: filthy and abhorrent until monogamous heterosexual Christian marriage, then—like flipping a light switch—guaranteed to be healthy, joyful, and full of worshipful and reverential pleasure. Sexual prosperity gospel. Erotic gatekeeping. Edging, more sexually liberated communities might call it: the deliberate postponement of gratification. I prayed for forgiveness the first time I touched myself intimately. Women aren’t even supposed to celebrate our own bodies. In a sense, they aren’t actually our own bodies. They are the property of a future husband. My body belongs to an imaginary man more than it belongs to me.
I lost my virginity at nineteen, and wasn’t really ready, and I made certain it wasn’t special or with someone I loved. I had left my abusive church a year beforehand and was overcorrecting. When a person, or an institution, who you’ve trusted and depended upon your whole life betrays you and then ostracizes you, you spin out. You have no community anymore. You can’t tell which parts were true and which parts weren’t. You become a topographer by necessity. Sometimes you find yourself consuming human flesh to survive.
Here’s the thing about the Shulamite woman’s adjurement in Chapter 2, Verse 7, though: it solemnly implores young women not to stir up love until it pleases. Until love pleases. There’s nothing there about abiding the commands of elders, institutions, or God. Indeed, the two lovers flout social customs by having sex in any secret place they can find: in a vineyard, under an apple tree. There’s nothing written about fault. There’s nothing written about sex being dirty unless it is with your husband. The sex here is with a lover. And the sex is enjoyed, because the young woman is ready for it and desires it. Eroticism, and the way it works through the female form, was always natural and healthy, something to be reveled in and not repressed.
Purity culture, on the other hand, taught me that my body is sinful, that I am vile, that I am property by virtue of my womanhood. Purity culture used words like soiled, used, chewed. Purity culture told me the only solution to fix my ugly, disgusting self was to turn my body over first to God and then to a husband. Purity culture says it is only through submission to men and their male God that I could ever hope to be beautiful, accepted, blessed, eternally significant. Purity culture left me vulnerable to abusive relationships because purity culture is psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually abusive. Purity culture traumatized me in ways that impacted me for decades and will continue to long into the future.
It took me years to develop a healthy way of moving through the world. I left Christianity and the institutional church, sought and found healing through a psychologist who introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy, and connected with an agnostic version of feminine spirituality. Last year I married a man who is the love of my life, my perfect counterweight. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death . . . Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it, the Shulamite woman implores. Indeed, he is, for me, an icon of unquenchable, unconditional love. He has never used my sexuality or sexual orientation as a weapon against me, has never thought of me as soiled, used, or chewed. He is gentle with my religious trauma. He is respectful of my choices. He treats my body with esteem and reverence; he shares in it rather than owning it.
I think about the Shulamite woman often. She is moving, poignant. She represents a part of the Bible that was kept from me: the story of a young unmarried woman who loves herself, unabashedly desires her lover, and celebrates her body—but also a woman who is assertive, masterful, confident in her physicality. She utters the first dialogue of the poem, and it is a command: “kiss me.” She is the last to speak as well, bading her lover “make haste.” She is assertive—she is ayummah, terrible, awe-inspiring, daunting, “awesome as an army with banners” (Chapter 6, Verse 10). Her sexual agency does not detract from her value. She is pure in and of herself.
Kaitlyn Kretsinger-Dunham is a Lecturer at a small California State University. She holds BAs in English Language and Literature and Religious Studies, and an MA in English. Her area of interest is postmodern women’s fiction featuring women protagonists who transform their bodies to escape or resist masculinist culture.
Featured image: Thomas Anshutz, “A Rose,” oil on canvas, 1907. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.