Rachel Held Evans) you'll have been following over the last week or so the debate about the "purity culture" of evangelicalism and the way it has created an ecosystem of shame around the subject of virginity. More, the shaming here is generally asymmetrical, a burden and a stigma almost exclusively placed upon young women.
As a man it's not my place to tell that story, or unpack that shame and damage. So let me suggest Rachel's post, the powerful "I am Damaged Goods" by Sarah Bessey, and "Virginity: New and Improved!" by Elizabeth Esther.
I'd like to add to this conversation some observations about the psychology of purity and why this psychology makes purity culture so toxic. This analysis will be familiar to those of you who have read Unclean and have thus become the resident experts in your churches about the negative effects of purity psychology on the life and actions of the church.
But for those who have not read Unclean, why is the Christian purity culture so toxic and shaming?
It has to do with the psychology of purity. At root, purity is a food-attribution system, a suite of psychological processes that help us make judgments about whether or not it is safe or healthy to eat something.
One aspect of purity psychology is how we make contamination appraisals. The psychologist Paul Rozin has been a pioneer in naming and describing these appraisals. And one of these appraisals is the judgment of permanence.
To illustrate this Rozin will put, say, a cockroach in a glass of juice and swish it around. He then removes the bug and offers the juice for participants to drink. They, of course, refuse. That's to be expected. But then the interesting part of the experiment begins. Rozin goes on to sterilize the juice in front of the watching participant. He then makes another offer. Participants continue to refuse. This despite knowing, at a rational level, that the juice has been sanitized. So why refuse? Because at the affective level a judgment of contamination continues to dominate. The juice is judged as unclean. Despite all efforts to purify, sanitize, or rehabilitate.
Rozin's demo illustrates the attribution of permanence, which is a key part of purity psychology. The judgment appears to be "once contaminated, always contaminated." The implication here is that contamination--a loss of purity--is a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated. The foodstuff is, as we say, ruined. And if ruined it's only fit for the trash.
As I discuss in Unclean, what happens when we structure parts of our moral experience with the metaphor of purity is that we import the psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives. That is, we start to use the attribution of permanence (along with other purity appraisals I talk about in Unclean) when thinking about moral failure and sin. A loss of purity is understood to be permanent and is unable to be rehabilitated because, well, that's the way purity works.
Now what is peculiar about all this is that we use the purity metaphor in an uneven manner. Most sins don't get the purity metaphor. True, generally understood sin is understood to be a purity violation. But particular sins aren't typically viewed as a purity issue. Most sins are framed, metaphorically, as mistakes or errors, as performance failures. Another common metaphor here is sin as a form of stumbling or falling. What is important to note about these metaphors--performance failures and stumbling--is that these metaphors aren't catastrophic in nature. That is, they can be easily rehabilitated. If you make a mistake you try again. If you stumble and fall you get back up. Inherent in the logic of the metaphor is an obvious route to rehabilitation.
But not so with the purity metaphor. When the sin is framed as a purity violation the damage that is done is total and unable to be rehabilitated. A purity violation creates a state of irreversible ruin.
And with that in mind let's ask ourselves, what sin categories are almost exclusively regulated by purity metaphors in our churches?
Answer: sexual sins, the loss of virginity in particular.
Think about it. I bet most of us would say that the sin most Americans are guility of is materialism. I bet most of us would even say that materialism is the sin most killing the church. And yet, when did you ever hear a talk about "materialism purity"? Beyond never hearing such a talk, the phrase "materialism purity" just sounds weird. And try tacking "purity" onto any other sin. Fill in the blank: "__________ purity." Can you think of any sin--except "sexual purity"--that works in the blank, that doesn't sound weird when framed as a purity violation?
The point is, we treat sexual sins and the loss of virginity very differently from other sins, as a class of sin unto itself. And how do we make that happen? We accomplish this by framing these sins almost exclusively with purity metaphors. And in doing so we recruit a psychological system built upon a food-aversion system, a system driven by disgust, revulsion, and nausea. But instead of directing these feelings toward food we are now directing the feelings of disgust, revulsion and nausea toward human beings. More, we teach our children to internalize and direct these feelings toward themselves.
And I think we can sharpen this point even more.
Based upon my experience, I would argue that male sexual sin isn't generally framed as a purity violation. The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor. If a boy losses his virginity it's a mistake, a stumbling. Consequently, this is something he can easily rehabilitate. He's not damaged goods. He can simply resolve to do better going forward. How is this so easy for him? Because his sexuality is being regulated by a performance metaphor.
By contrast, and this is the heart of of the matter, the loss of female virginity is almost exclusively regulated by the purity metaphor. For females the loss of virginity is a bit more than a performance failure. It's a loss of purity that, because of the way purity works, is catastrophic and beyond rehabilitation. And because of this she's got no way to move forward, metaphorically speaking. The game's over. And thus she reaches the only conclusion the purity metaphor makes available to her: She's damaged goods. And all the emotions related to that judgment of contamination rush forward as she internalizes all the shame, disgust, revulsion and nausea.
This is the psychology that makes the Christian purity culture so toxic.
Welcome to the blog of Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University (brief vita) and author of Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith.Experimental Theology is available on the Kindle.
"...tour de force..."
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"...the liveliest voice in the contemporary integration of psychology and theology..."
"...surprising and even astonishing..."
"...deep and important..."
"...a remarkable achievement..."
"...one of the most intelligent and provocative voices in world of theology today..."
The Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The William Stringfellow Project (Ongoing)
- Subversion and Shame: I Like the Color Pink
- The Bureaucrat
- Uncle Richard, Vampire Hunter
- Freedom Fellowship
- Palm Sunday with the Orhtodox
- Looking Like Jesus (or a Crazy Person)
- Freedom Rider
- On Maps and Marital Spats
- Get on a Bike...and Go Slow
- Buying a Bible
- Memento Mori
- We Weren't as Good as the Muppets
- Uncle Richard and the Shark
- Growing Up Catholic
- Ghostbusting (Part 1)
- Ghostbusting (Part 2)
- My Eschatological Dog
- Meditations on Y'all
- Tex Mex and Depression Era Cuisine
- Aliens at Roswell
- Driving to Pizza House
On the Principalities and Powers
- Christian Anarchism
- A Restless Patriotism
- Wink on Exorcism
- Images of God Against Empire
- A Boredom Revolution
- The Medal of St. Benedict
- Exorcisms are about Economics
- "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?"
- "A Home for Demons...and the Merchants Weep"
- Tales of the Demonic
- The Ethic of Death: The Policies and Procedures Manual
- "All That Are Here Are Humans"
- Ears of Stone
- The War Prayer
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail
From the Prison Bible Study
Series/Essays Based on my Research
- Death and Christian Art, Part 1
- Death and Christian Art, Interlude
- Death and Christian Art, Part 2
- Death and Christian Art, Part 3
- Satan and the Emotional Burden of Monotheism
- Death, Gnosticism and the Incarnation
- Summer and Winter Christians
- Sinning in Your Heart
- Quest Religious Orientation
- Satan as a Functional Theodicy
- Attachment to God
- PostSecret, Part 1
- PostSecret, Part 2
- PostSecret, Part 3
- PostSecret, Part 4
- PostSecret, Part 5
The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes
The Theology of Peanuts
The Angel of the iPhone
Reflections on Gender and the Church
- Call No Man on Earth Father
- Head Coverings: Why Female Hair is a Testicle
- A Letter to My Church on Women's Roles
- Pragmatics or Power in Patriarchy?
- Whores: A Meditation on Gender and the Bible
- On Masculine Christianity and Powerplays
- Thoughts on Mark Driscoll While I'm Knitting
- Ambivalent Sexism
- Direct Your Hearts to Her
- Gender, Submission and Ecosystems of Abuse
The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia
How Facebook Killed the Church
Blogging about the Bible
- Adam's First Wife
- I Am a Worm
- Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer
- Let Them Both Grow Together
- Here I Am
- Becoming the Jubilee
- Sermon on the Mount: Study Guide
- Treat Them as a Pagan or Tax Collector
- Going Outside the Camp
- Welcoming Children
- The Song of Lamech and the Song of the Lamb
- The Nephilim
- Shaming Jesus
- Pseudepigrapha and the Christian Witness
- The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs
- The Second Moses
- The New Manna
- Salvation in the First Sermons of the Church
- "A Bloody Husband"
- Song of the Vineyard
- The Jubilee
Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prision
Civil Rights Family Trip
Demons and The Powers
- Part 1: Thinking about Demons
- Part 2: Evil and Illness in Modernity
- Part 3: Evil as Residual
- Part 4: The Language of The Powers
- Part 5: The Angels of the Nations
- Part 6: Yoder on The Powers
- Part 7: The Spirituality of The Powers
- Part 8: The Inner Aspect of Material Power
- Part 9: Stringfellow on The Powers
- Part 10: Demons in the Gosples
The Midrash of R. Crumb
Theology and Evolutionary Psychology
- Prelude: Galileo's Dilemma
- Part 1: Natural and Sexual Selection
- Part 2: On the Sweet Tooth (and Morality as Dieting)
- Interlude: Emoticons
- Part 3: Evolution and Human Sexuality
- Part 4: Sexual Jealousy
- Part 5: Kin Selection and Family Values
- Part 6: The Storge to Xenia Shift
- Part 7: Reciprocity
- Part 8: Moralistic Aggression
Scripture and Discernment
- Biblical as Sociological Stress Test
- Cookie Cutting the Bible: A Case Study
- Pawn to King 4
- Allowing God to Rage
- Poetry of a Murderer
- On Christian Communion: Killing vs. Sexuality
- Heretics and Disagreement
- Atonement: A Primer
- "The Bible says..."
- The "Yes, but..." Church
- Human Experience and the Bible
- Discernment, Part 1
- Discernment, Part 2
- Rabbinic Hedges
- Fuzzy Logic
Interacting with Good Books
- Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?
- Christ and Horrors
- The King Jesus Gospel
- The Bible Made Impossible
- The Deliverance of God
- To Change the World
- Sexuality and the Christian Body
- I Told Me So
- The Teaching of the Twelve
- Evolving in Monkey Town
- Saved from Sacrifice: A Series
- Darwin's Sacred Cause
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 1
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 2
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 3
- The Black Swan, Part 1
- The Black Swan, Part 2
- Rapture Ready!
- A Secular Age
- The God Who Risks
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 1
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 2
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 3
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 4
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 5
- The Evolution of Cooperation
- On Apology
- Ethnocentrism and Politics
- Flies, Attention and Morality
- The Banality of Evil
- Regarding Sex
- The Ovens at Buchenwald
- Violence and Traffic Lights
- Defending Individualism
- Guilt and Atonement
- The Varieties of Love and Hate
- The Wicked
- Moral Foundations
- Primum non nocere
- The Moral Emotions
- The Moral Circle, Part 1
- The Moral Circle, Part 2
- Taboo Psychology
- The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Conviction
- Holiness and Moral Grammars
Experiments in Quantitative Ecclesiology
The Theology of Everyday Life
- Hating Pixels
- Dress, Divinity and Dumbfounding
- The Kingdom of God Will Not Be Tweeted
- The Ethics of :-)
- On Snobbery
- The F-word
- Can you sin on a deserted island?
- Ironic Christians
- Everything I learned about life I learned coaching tee-ball
- Gossip, Part 1: The Food of the Brain
- Gossip, Part 2: Evolutionary Stable Strategies
- Gossip, Part 3: The Pay it Forward World
- Sinning in Your Heart?, Part 1: The Morality of Mentality
- Moral Progress, Part 1
- Moral Progress, Part 2
- Human Nature
- On Humility
Dogmatism & Doubt: Curing the Religious Disease
Sticky Theology (Why is Bad Theology so Popular?)
- Holiness in Heaven?
- Universalism and the New Perspective on Paul
- A Googolplexian Hell
- The Best Ending to the Christian Story: An Exchange with Daniel Kirk
- Universalism and the Bondage of the Will
- Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination
- Universalism and Theodicy
- Universalism FAQ & Answers
- Universalism: A Summary Defense
- Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)
Alone, Suburban & Sorted
The Theology of Monsters
Original Sin: A New View
The Theology of Ugly
A Walk with William James
- Part 1: The Jamesian Situation
- Part 2: Habit
- Part 3: Belief as Vote
- Part 4: Pragmatism and the Emerging Church
- Part 5: Theology is a Fork
- Part 6: Ontological Emotion
- Part 7: Religious Surrender
- Part 8: Introverts at Church
- Part 9: Bubbles in the Sun
- Part 10: Ghostbusting
- Part 11: The Empirical Trace
- Part 12: Saintliness
Preparing for the Cartesian Storm (Free Will & Souls in the Age of Neuroscience)
Musings On Faith, Belief, and Doubt
- Cheap Praise and Costly Praise
- Wired to Suffer
- A New Apologetics
- Orthodox Alexithymia
- High and Low: The Psalms and Suffering
- The Buddhist Phase
- Skilled Christianity
- The Two Families of God
- The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity
- Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith
- Theodicy and No Country for Old Men
- Doubt: A Diagnosis
- Faith and Modernity
- Faith after "The Cognitive Turn"
- The Gifts of Doubt
- A Beautiful Life
- Is Santa Claus Real?
- The Feeling of Knowing
- Practicing Christianity
- In Praise of Doubt
- Skepticism and Conviction
- Pragmatic Belief
- N-Order Complaint and Need for Cognition
The Theology of Humor
Game Theory and the Kingdom of God
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 1
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 2
- It's Still Christmas
- Easter Shouldn't Be Good News
- The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Meditation
- Palm Sunday with the Orthodox
- Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation
- The Liturgical Year for Dummies
- "Watching Their Flocks at Night": An Advent Meditation
- Pentecost and Babel
- Ambivalence about Lent
- On Easter and Astronomy
- Christmas & TV, Part 1: The Grinch
- Christmas & TV, Part 2: Misfits
- Christmas & TV, Part 3: Charlie Brown
- Sex Sandals and Advent
- Freud and Valentine's Day
- Existentialism and Halloween
- Halloween Redux: Talking with the Dead
- Jesus Would Be a Hufflepuff
- The Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow
- Weddings Real, Imagined and Yet to Come
- Michelangelo and Neuroanatomy
- Believing in Bigfoot
- The Kingdom of God as Improv and Flash Mob
- 2012 and the End of the World
- Chocolate Jesus
- The Polar Express and the Uncanny Valley
- Why the Anti-Christ Is an Idiot
- On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies