An Oral History of Shame
Editors’ note: This is an excerpt from PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, by Linda Kay Klein, out September 4th from Simon and Schuster. The book is both a memoir and a reported account based on twelve years’ of interviews with scores of women across the country who, like Klein, were raised in evangelical purity culture. This excerpt features sections from those interviews.
Growing up, I heard a lot of talk about how evangelical Christians were better people than secular or other religious people (funnily enough, I now hear the exact same self-congratulatory messages from secular liberal people). But the truth was, I couldn’t always tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. I saw both lie, both steal, both love, and both unselfishly give to others. But one tangible thing we could point to as evangelicals was that we didn’t have sex before marriage. There was that. There was always that. Which is why, I believe, the threat of losing that so-called sexual purity seemed so grave. Were we to have sex outside of marriage, could we even call ourselves Christians anymore? What if we made out? Kissed? Held hands? Had a crush? How close to sex could we come before we were no longer Christians?
After all, what other sin is said to fundamentally change you forever? You can be born again and have your slate wiped clean of lying, stealing, even murder. And if you do these things again later but honestly apologize to God, your sin is again forgiven. But sex outside of marriage is the only “sin” that I have ever heard described as changing you. Before sex, you are a virgin. After sex, well . . .
I remember there was this girl’s high school retreat where the leader was talking about purity and how important it was and how she felt disgusting. Basically, she started breaking down crying because she hadn’t stayed pure, and this happened all the time in my church. My youth pastor’s wife had walked down the aisle pregnant, and was now married with two boys, but she would still weep about it. Not that the youth pastor who she had the baby with is weeping about it! But his wife still weeps about it and says how she feels ashamed, disgusting, and wrong, twelve years later. (Muriel)
Sometimes one doesn’t even need to have sex to feel this way. The purity movement teaches that every sexual activity—from masturbation to kissing, if it elicits that special feeling—can make one less pure.
What does it even mean to be “pure”? The lines were so blurred, and there was so much tragedy tied up with it: “Don’t do this, because if you do this you’re ruining your relationship with your future spouse . . .” “Don’t just be pure in body; you need to be pure in spirit . . .” Everything was just so intertwined with each other. It almost seemed like if you weren’t being physically impure, you were being spiritually and emotionally impure. Being “pure” became this really heavy, heavy weight to bear all the time. It almost made me go crazy questioning, “Well, is this impure? . . . Is this wrong? . . . Is this okay? . . . Is this going on?” (Holly)
Some purity-movement advocates even teach that sexual thoughts and feelings can make one impure.
I sort of thought of being naked with a guy. I didn’t picture him naked. I didn’t picture me naked. I just sort of imagined, “I could marry him and be naked with him one day.” And I felt terribly guilty over that for a long time. (Rosemary)
And it is implied that the sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions of others can be signs of your impurity as well (because surely you did something to make them think, feel, or do what they did).
I had one half-kiss at the age of sixteen that made me brush my teeth for ten minutes afterward. It wasn’t even a kiss. He kissed me but I did not kiss him back. I think I mostly just stood there, kind of horrified and fascinated at the same time. But I felt guilty, ashamed, dirty for years. How screwed up is that? I thought I was dirty and ruined, a soiled package. But you know how it is. They say, “Make sure you don’t have to tell your husband the high number of people you’ve kissed someday. Your first kiss should come from your husband.” And I had just ruined it. I ruined it by letting this happen. [But didn’t you say you didn’t kiss him back?] Yes, but I felt I let it happen. I didn’t read the signals. I wasn’t on my guard. We jump through hoops to make it about our shamefulness. (Jo)
The purity message is not about sex. Rather, it is about us: who we are, who we are expected to be, and who it is said we will become if we fail to meet those expectations.
This is the language of shame.
Shame is the feeling “I am—or somebody else will think I am—bad” (as opposed to guilt, for example, which is associated with the feeling “I did something bad”). The religious purity messages many of us received as girls were about who we were, or at least who we would be seen as, not what we might do. Of course, we are all different and therefore respond to shaming of this kind differently. Our family dynamics, the affirmation we receive (or don’t receive) for other aspects of ourselves, the intersecting messages we are given about who we are based on our race, our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our physical and mental health, and so on all have roles to play. But the conversations that I have been having over the past twelve years make it clear that the consistent shaming embedded into the religious purity message, particularly during adolescence, a stage of extreme neural plasticity for sexual development, can be an extreme influence for many.
After all, researchers like psychiatrist Dr. Curt Thompson have found that our brains bend toward whatever it is that our attention is directed to. The purity message is that a girl or woman is utterly and fundamentally pure or impure, good or bad, pleasing or displeasing, desirable or undesirable, et cetera, based on her sexual and gender-based expressions or lack thereof. It follows that if an adolescent is regularly given shaming messages, she will become more likely to experience shame in association with sex and gender than she otherwise may have been. As Dr. Thompson explains in his book The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, “With repeated exposure to events [in which we feel shame], we pay attention to and, via our early neuroplastic flexibility, more permanently encode these shame networks. Thus, they become more easily able to fire later on, even when activated by the most minor or even unrelated stimuli (66).”
This is not good news for the shamed individual, or their potential partners. Shame tends to make people feel powerless and even worthless. It creates a fear of abandonment that, ironically, makes us push others away. We want to hide those aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, so we may emotionally withdraw from those close to us, lash out at them to keep them at bay, or isolate ourselves in self-blame. Whatever it takes to keep the world (including ourselves) away from those parts of us that we have come to believe make us bad.
Over the years, shame adds up, but it can happen so slowly we don’t even notice it. We look at each shaming incident one at a time and tell ourselves what was said or done to us wasn’t that bad. In time, we become less and less sure that we can, or should, heal. Rather than seek help, we bury our shaming experiences deep in our bodies, where they are held similarly to trauma.
Shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains this phenomenon in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). She references the work of Harvard-trained psychiatrist Dr. Shelley Uram, who calls attention to the importance of recognizing “small, quiet traumas,” which she has found “often trigger the same brain-survival reaction” as larger traumas, such as a car crash. In I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brown writes:
After studying Dr. Uram’s work, I believe it’s possible that many of our early shame experiences, especially with our parents and caregivers, were stored in our brains as traumas. This is why we often have such painful bodily reactions when we feel criticized, ridiculed, rejected, and shamed. Dr. Uram explains that the brain does not differentiate between overt or big trauma and covert or small, quiet trauma—it just registers the event as “a threat we can’t control (89).”
Perhaps this explains why I have heard so many stories of PTSD-like experiences in association with people’s sexuality, their bodies, and the church.
Today when I go into a church, I can’t stop panicking. I feel like I am going into a place in which I was raped, though I wasn’t. It is light-years easier for me to talk about being sexually abused as a child—I could give a public lecture about that—than it is for me to talk about what that religious community did to me. Sexual abuse is something that happened to me, but this was at the core of my identity. I participated in the community’s messaging about who I was, and allowed it to define me for years. The fear, the obsessing, the anxiety. It’s torment. It is Hell. It felt like torture. (Nicoletta)
And yet, the impact that shaming can have on people’s lives generally goes unacknowledged, and sometimes even unnoticed, within the communities in which it most regularly occurs. In some cases, shaming is so common it is coiled around core beliefs, laced through theology, and twisted into doctrine, making it nearly impossible to see.
I’m trained as a therapist, and I didn’t even recognize the trauma that I had in my life around religion until a few years ago. I’ve never spoken about these things with anyone else, not even with my closest friends. I have been through years of therapy and I’ve never once mentioned it to a therapist. (Nicoletta)
Shame can become like the smell of our own homes. The hum of an air conditioner. The feel of a wedding ring. It’s just . . . there. Which is when it is most dangerous. Because it is then that we are most likely to dismiss, rather than deal with, its dangerous effects.
Right now, groundbreaking research is being performed among young adults raised in three conservative Christian communities—Baptist, Catholic, and Latter-day Saint—that reiterates many of the previously mentioned findings and posits several new ones that can help us better understand just how and why purity messaging is impacting girls the way it is. The researchers write in their brief:
There is little support indicating that the mechanisms currently used in our society (abstinence education, chastity pledges, and religious grounding) to curb teenage sexual activity actually work. The question remains, “Is our focus on sexual abstinence doing anything?”
It turns out that those who are sexually active and have experienced abstinence education and/or have stronger beliefs that the Bible should be literally translated [a core tenet of evangelicalism], have more sexual guilt. . . . females report significantly higher sex guilt than males (and) sex guilt from the first sexual experience is predictive of higher sex anxiety, lower sexual efficacy, and lower sexual satisfaction. So, females, in particular, who have strong religious beliefs and are engaging in premarital sex, are having unsatisfactory sex, they have high anxiety about it, and don’t feel that they are capable of changing their situation.
Lastly, the relationship between sex guilt and sex anxiety, sexual efficacy, and sexual satisfaction, doesn’t diminish over time; it gets stronger. . . . This is not a recipe for young women to embark on a fulfilling relationship with their partner and we predict could be an indicator of further sexual problems and relationship issues.
To summarize, first, the researchers are finding that purity teachings do not meaningfully delay sex. Second, they are finding that they do increase shame, especially among females. And third, they report that this increased shame is leading to higher levels of sexual anxiety, lower levels of sexual pleasure, and the feeling among those experiencing shame that they are stuck feeling this way forever. Oh, and it doesn’t get better with time . . . it gets worse!
Yep. Sounds about right.
 It should be noted that revirgination ceremonies (which I have personally only heard of being offered to and attended by women) are hosted by some churches. Though the idea of revirgination reflects the purity ethic that implies virgins are somehow “better” than non-virgins, and brings with it all the complications that come with that, I have heard these ceremonies described as very healing experiences for many, especially for those who have been raped or sexually abused.
 There is no definition for “half-kiss,” though it is a term I hear often in evangelical circles. One person might use it to refer to a peck or an otherwise short kiss, another to a kiss that she turned away from, etc. For many, the intention is to keep at least as many purity points as she deserves by not claiming a whole kiss when, for whatever reason, it didn’t really feel whole.
 Beale, K. S., E. Maynard, and M. O. Bigler. “The Intersection of Religion and Sex: Sex Guilt Resiliency among Baptists, Catholics, and Latter-day Saints.” Presentation at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality: Phoenix, AZ, November 2016.
Copyright © 2018 by Linda Kay Klein. From the forthcoming book PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Linda Kay Klein is the founder of Break Free Together. She earned a Master's degree from New York University focused on American evangelical Christian gender and sexuality messaging for girls, and has spent over a decade working at the cross section of faith, gender, and social change. A Midwesterner at heart, she now lives in New York City with her family. Visit her website at https://lindakayklein.com/.