A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Smart made a brave statement about the unintended consequences of the religiously-based preoccupation with “sexual purity” for females prior to marriage. Smart’s point was simple: Because virginity and “purity” were so valued within her conservative, religious culture growing up, she felt “worthless, dirty and filthy” after her virginity had been taken from her- even as a victim of abduction and rape. She felt so damaged, in fact, that the idea of escape from her captors or even being rescued seemed meaningless. Her culture had taught her that to be “defiled” sexually made her used and undesirable. She had nothing to return to.
In fairness, might family members or religious leaders in that situation encourage a girl to believe differently about herself because of the circumstances of her “loss?” Probably. But not necessarily. In extremely strict cultures- usually but not always religiously based- a loss of virginity renders a girl unable to marry within expected circumstances and therefore cursed and worthless regardless of whether she consented to the act. This is thankfully fading in most places, but not completely. I dealt with parents of victims as recently as the mid 2000′s who were more concerned about the “technical status” of their girl’s virginity than any other aspect of her recovery or our criminal case.
But particularly where religiously-based obsessions with female premarital sexual activity are present, even efforts to relieve a rape victim of the purity burden will fall short. As long as the focus is on the the genitalia itself rather than on the girl possessing it, shame will fall like a stone when some arbitrary, bodily status is altered regardless of intent. Or consent.
Adherents to the importance of premarital “purity” (usually for girls) claim practical as well as religious reasons for stressing it. Some, like the issue of STD’s, are at least fair and considerable. Others, like the believed psychological consequences of promiscuity, are far more questionable. Still others, like the “cultural realities” put forth as a warning to girls (i.e., how society judges and devalues them when they are perceived to be promiscuous) might seem valid. But ultimately it’s only because of the myths and judgment that those giving the warnings are reinforcing to begin with. Whatever the motivations of those obsessed with sexual purity, an undeniable consequence to the indoctrinated will be a profound sense of loss, failure and even hopelessness when whatever the standard set fails to be met.
The issue has implications beyond sexual violence. Risk is a natural part of youth. Whether one believes that sexual activity before marriage or between teenagers is good, bad or simply dependent on circumstances, the fact is that it happens. Young people act recklessly and impulsively; some of this is explainable neuro-biologically. They make mistakes, they find themselves in situations that spin out of control, etc, etc. A conscious choice or something far less volitional may result in an irreversible, “status change” regarding a girl’s “purity” before God or whatever other institution. Are the consequences to her psychological wellbeing and sense of self truly worth reinforcing this arbitrary ideal?
Not being religiously observant in this manner, I cannot claim an unbiased view or an objective answer. I find any religious preoccupation with “purity” to be more harmful than helpful, not to mention sadly distracting from concepts like charity, humility and service to others. In particular I find things like purity balls- staged events where girls as young as 7 pledge their purity to their fathers until they are given in marriage to another man- to be rank and offensive if not worse. I don’t believe more than a tiny percentage of families engaged in the practice intend harm to their daughters. Regardless, as a longtime student of predatory behavior and environments that nurture and protect offenders, I find the practice disturbing, other objections aside.
Feminist writers like Jessica Valenti have written much more comprehensively on the subject and I recommend her work in particular. But I can say with confidence that an obsession with sexual purity can and usually will bear a dark consequence at the worse possible time: An added psychological wound when one or several others have just been borne.