How Christian Purity Culture Enabled My Stepfather to Sexually Abuse Me
My stepfather began having problems getting erections when I was a senior in high school. How did I find out about this? He told me that he was using me to get an erection so that he could have sex with my mother.
In those incredibly awkward and galling conversations he reassured me repeatedly that he would never do anything to compromise my virginity. Using the tone of a person explaining something perfectly logical that should be obvious to anyone with the IQ of a mollusk, he explained that my mother had gained weight and it was killing his boners. I was young, slender and attractive and he saw nothing terribly wrong with using my body to kick-start the old engine and thoughts of me to keep it humming along.
What baffled me then but makes perfect sense to me now is why he thought that I would be reassured by his repeated promises that he would not cross the arbitrary line of virginity. He had no real plans to stop using me as his fluffer. But my virginity, which he had pledged to protect and to keep safe for my future husband, was off-limits. As time went by and his fluff-sessions became more lurid, I feared the line of technical virginity would be like the Maginot Line, more an illusion of safety than an actual defense.
But he kept his promise. And now I understand why. The emphasis placed on virginity by the Purity Culture allowed my step-father to minimize his non-vaginal sexual abuse of my body.
I still cannot imagine what he thought that I would feel knowing that he was using me so that he could have sex with my mother. I wonder if it occurred to him how degrading and even disloyal it felt. I felt like I had been forced into a sick and incestuous ménage a trois. And of all the abuse that I have endured, including a nearly deadly sexual assault, this made me feel the dirtiest.
To better understand the role that Purity Culture played in my step-father’s abuse, I would ask that you bear with me while I explain a little about the beliefs and practices of that culture. I should distinguish first the difference between the emphasis placed on purity in mainline Christian circles, and the hardcore Purity Community. The latter is best known for their the icky tradition of Purity Balls. At these annual events, daughters as young as five dress in elaborate white gowns and “gift” their virginities to their fathers for safekeeping.
I will grant you that purity balls are indeed cringe-worthy. But it is important that we not stop our examination of the culture at that point because the Purity Culture is far more troubling, and the relationship between father and daughter becomes far more enmeshed and emotionally incestuous than most articles about purity culture expose.
For starters, the balls are celebrations of the vow that these girls have made and the contract that they sign. They are agreeing to being spiritually married to their father and to God until such time as their father sees fit to give her to a husband. For their part, fathers pledge to protect their daughters’ virginity, which is the “most precious gift that she can offer her future husband.”
In most cases, Purity Balls are just the spoonful of sugar that helps the poison go down. They are “field day” sort of reward in a curriculum that aims to teach girls two things: First, how a man should treat them on dates. Second, they are taught how they should treat a husband.
According to Vision Forum, one of the leaders in the Purity Culture, a father treats his daughter in such a way that is that he “woos her and wins her with a tenderness and affection unique to that relationship.”
My stepfather couldn’t woo me using Purity Balls, because there were none at that point. Back then, fathers were encouraged to woo their daughters on regular dates. My stepfather would bring me flowers, open doors for me and generally treat me like I was his much younger girlfriend. The example that he set for me while on these dates was supposed to keep me from picking bad guys in the future. The logic seemed to be that a man who opens your car door for you will never beat you, and if he pushes in your chair for you, he will never try to rape you.
Not only is the logic behind these dates appalling flawed. To me, these dates felt more like an excuse for my stepfather to re-experience his youth. He got to be seen with a younger woman on his arm, and more importantly he got to spend an hour or two basking in the warmth and adoration of someone who was not allowed to challenge him.
I am not being egotistical when I say that my step-father fell for me, developed a huge and creepy crush on me during those dates. Had we been allowed to have the normal step-father/daughter relationship where we ignore each other and occasionally snarl back and forth, I feel fairly sure he would never have developed that heartfelt affection and sexual attraction.
But the dates succeeded in one way: They taught me exactly what I should expect while dating men in that environment: abuse.
The second and more important lesson that a daughter is to learn through her relationship with her father is how she should treat her husbands, by being her father’s apprentice wife. In fact, girls are encouraged to think of their fathers as their boyfriends. We are meant to react to the wooing as described above by “giving her heart to him.”
I learned how to cook my step-father’s favorite foods, to anticipate his needs and to wait on him better than professional servers in five-star restaurants. It was my job to wake up two hours early to make him a hot breakfast, and I was the one who made sure that his glass of iced tea was never empty – even if I was studying and he was working out in his hobby shop.
The second lesson, however, is about more than just being your father’s servant. It is meant to teach young women to orient their entire lives around pleasing their fathers as practice for pleasing their husbands. One of the more important ways that this shows up is in the requirement that a woman dress and groom herself in a way which pleases her father.
A prime example of this is a statement from Michelle Duggar, a star of the hit series “19 and Counting” She said that she styles her hair however Jim Bob prefers because “what he likes is what I want,” The Botkin sisters, luminaries in the Purity Movement, talk about wearing their father’s favorite colors, styles in dress and hair so that their father will enjoy seeing them.
This emphasis on a young woman dressing and grooming to please her father is important both symbolically and in practice. The Purity culture believes that what a woman wears has the ability to lure or repel men. That takes on a troubling tone when we understand that these daughters are being told to dress in the ways that their fathers find most alluring.
In the practical case of my step-father, surrendering to his wishes about my appearance led to him treating me as his personal Barbie doll. He bought my clothes had my hair styled as he wanted. Then under the guise of giving his stamp of approval to the outfits that I planned to wear, he would demand fashion shows. Although they were obviously for his titillation, he was doing nothing more than what Purity Culture encourages.
The authority given to him by the Purity Culture meant that he owned my body was his to do with as he pleased so long as he did not penetrate my vagina. As often happens often in these father-daughter purity relationships, he never gave me permission to date. The one time he heard a rumor that I might have kissed a boy, he reacted as if I had cuckolded him.
Purity doctrine had made my body and its favors his to dispense, withhold or even sample. While he wouldn’t allow anyone too near the goods, he took obvious pleasure in showing me off to his friends. He drank in their compliments about me while I stood beside him feeling as depersonalized and judged as a prize heifer at the fair.
To this day, I am not sure that my step-father understands that what he did was wrong. When I told my mother and three pastors what was happening, they were alternatively disbelieving or scornful of me. I was given advice very similar to this advice given to another young woman by Visionary Daughters.com:
"submit to an imperfect man's 'whims' as well as his heavy requirements. To order our lives around another person. To esteem and reverence [sic] and adore a man whose faults we can see clearly every day…Before you can accuse your father of being unprotective, (as close to abusive as they will say) ask yourself: 'Do you make it clear to him that you are a woman of virtue, worthy of his special protection? If your behavior was more gentle, feminine, respectful and lovely would he be more inclined to be protective of you?'
Eventually my step-father “admitted” that he had succumbed a bit to my “seductiveness” during the command-performance fashion shows. And he allowed that and he might have made his hugs last too long. But whatever mistakes he made were “between him and God.” I was considered the instigator, not the victim.
Of course not every man in purity culture uses his daughter to treat his erection problems. But the attitudes and beliefs about women that encourage men to see daughters as apprentice wives and their sexuality as his make it very easy justify all manner of oppression and abuse just as my step-father justified his behavior. The potential for abuse grows exponentially when you factor in the isolation that these families and religions generally practice which leave the fathers with no fear of reprisal and daughters without recourse.
Here is the frightening part of my story: It isn’t particularly unusual, or even a one-off in my own history. Opportunities for abuse are thick and compelling in environments where men own women’s bodies. We know from the reports of scores of women who have lived in purity cultures that sexual abuse and rape are rampant.
Purity cultures are the perfect environment for sexual predators. As Dianna E. Anderson writes on RH Reality Check:
“The purity movement not only robs women of their agency by not allowing them to say yes, it robs them of the ability to understand what it means when a ‘no’ is not respected. By failing to equip women to understand their own agency and bodily autonomy, the evangelical purity movement creates an environment that is ripe for rape.”
In my experience, Purity Culture was not about making sexuality something sacred. It was about men trying to resolve the problems that they have with their unreliable and incorrigible penises. They feel helpless to control their own desire, to raise it when appropriate and to let it go when inappropriate. And since they become desirous in response to women, the simplest solution seems to be controlling us.
Of course I cannot say that my step-father would have been an appropriate father figure had we not been living in a Purity Culture. What I can say is that Purity Culture made it possible for him to coerce me and it did not stop him when his abuse was well-known.
I am not alone. There are thousands upon thousands of other stories of people harmed by Purity culture.
*For more information, I recommend the following websites and articles:
Read this for a man’s experience dating a girl in the Purity Culture: http://thecommandmentsofmen.blogspot.com