Purity culture fuels victim blaming. It’s time for Christians to drop it.

I vividly remember learning about sex in middle school. We were split, boys in one room, girls in another. There a woman bombarded us with messages and analogies about how, as women, we are pure, and it is our responsibility to stay that way. Men cannot control themselves, she said, so we as women need to be wary of what we wear, how we act, and what we say and how we say it. She held a glass of water, explaining that we are currently like the unblemished water – pure and clean. But for every sexual experience, we become “dirty.” She illustrated this harsh analogy by dripping food coloring in the water, saying, “no one will ever want to drink dirty water.”

The message of responsibility and purity is heavily directed towards women through both the overarching purity culture and abstinence-only sex education. Young girls are taught that virginity is not only a woman’s gift to her future husband but also the key to eternal salvation.Through explicit and implicit messages, young girls are also taught that men are unable to control their sexual desires, therefore, women bear all responsibility for all sexual experiences. Dress codes, cautionary tales of flirting, and simple analogies painting women as objects result in a societal expectation that women are responsible for sexual experiences regardless of whether or not that experience was even consensual.

When such non-consensual experiences happen, we systematically blame women for the sexual assault they endure. By asking what she was wearing, saying that she secretly wanted it, implying that if she did not flirt she would not have been assaulted, we are in fact oppressing women while giving men an excuse to assault. It is also important to note that it is not just women that are assaulted, men are as well. These messages of purity, shame, and responsibility may affect them too. 

As a result of the societal disbelief of sexual assault and a long history of victim blaming, why would any survivor come forward? Why would they re-traumatize themselves by telling their story time and time again, to have their report go nowhere and receive no justice?

 The likelihood of sexual assault survivors seeking justice is so low because of the harmful messages that have bombarded them since they were young. In addition to messages in sex education and purity culture’s impacts in our daily lives, women are taught that they need to protect themselves and if not, bad things will happen. They see society neglecting to believe a survivor, they hear people belittling the feelings of hurt and diminishing the justice they deserve – all because it is so deeply ingrained in us that men are sexual beings that cannot control themselves. The reality is that men can control themselves, but as a society we have given them a pass not to, and we continue to allow them to be perpetrators every time we fail to bring justice to survivors.

I know that many students, alumni and those affiliated with Calvin have gone through abstinence-only sex education, or had experiences with the purity culture. Many of you may have been a victim of sexual assault, or know of someone that has. I am sorry that this has happened to you. It is not alright by any means. Please know that it is not your fault: you are not responsible for how others treat you.

Calvin students, as the next generation of leaders, parents, workers, teachers, instructors, and more, we need to be aware of the harmful rhetoric and messages within how we talk about sex and handle sexual assault. We must do better. We need to do better. Teach young boys responsibility. Teach young boys not to rape rather than young girls how not to get raped. Teach that purity and the worth of a person are not intrinsically linked. And please, believe survivors. The trauma of being sexually assaulted is enough; they should not need to bear the weight of not being believed when they courageously come forward.