The Rainbow Underside of Pristine White Roses: Exploring the Impact of Purity Culture in the Lives of Queer Youth
Since 2018, the Muncie LGBTQ+ History Project has been collecting the stories of queer people who grew up in and around Muncie, Indiana. I worked with the project for over a year as a research associate, conducting interviews with members of the LGBTQ+ community about their experiences growing up in Muncie, a small town in East-Central Indiana in the heart of the Rust Belt. One thing that I encountered during my research was the surprisingly widespread impact of purity culture, with its ideas of transphobia and homophobia, on queer young people. Alongside its well-studied impact on female-identified individuals, purity culture also affects LGBTQ+ people, who themselves hold gender and sexual identities that may be at odds with the cisgender, heterosexual ideals of their churches.
Unlike traditional archival research, which often means flipping through hundreds of pages of newspapers, letters, and more in archives, oral history research involves sitting down with individuals and asking them about their own lived experiences through recorded interviews. Oral histories specifically look for and collect the experiences of everyday people, especially people from communities whose voices and experiences would likely be lost to the record, including LGBTQ+ communities in small Midwestern towns. Asking people to share their own stories from their first-person perspective can often disrupt or complicate our understandings, or rather assumptions, about their experiences and lead to the discovery of unexpected connections and impacts.
Before delving into one particularly striking oral history about purity culture among queer young people, it’s important to unpack the term “purity culture,” or more specifically in this case, white evangelical purity culture (WEPC). Christian communities manifest this focus on sexual purity and control in different ways, but purity culture refers to a systemic set of ideologies enforced by religious communities through educational programming and events that place the brunt of sexual responsibility on young men and women. Usually, WEPC places the burden on young women, who shoulder the task of keeping male sexuality in check by policing their thoughts and behaviors in a way that defines their own sexualities, often through physical manifestations like purity pledges, wearing modest clothing, and practicing sexual abstinence until marriage.
Although studies often focus on the cisgender, heterosexual female experience, purity culture has a tangible, harmful impact on queer young people who internalize the gender binary and homophobia inherent in lessons about sexuality. As Emily Joy Allison describes, “queer people in general are hypersexualized regardless of their actual level of sexual activity, and this too often shows up in church and other Christian contexts and leads to victim-blaming.” Theological commentaries surrounding homosexuality, especially those from the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelical Christian traditions, are supported by Biblical “evidence” that churches use to demonize, hypersexualize, and shame LGBT+ people and uphold harmful gender stereotypes. For queer people, whose gender and sexual identities often do not conform to those emphasized by their churches, purity culture can have an especially important and traumatic impact on their identities and relationships.
Rachel Replogle, who now identifies as a nonbinary lesbian, is one individual I interviewed as part of the Muncie LGBTQ+ History Project. She spoke about her experiences with purity culture growing up in a conservative Christian environment in the 1990s. Replogle was raised in Muncie and fully immersed in her Christian community. Her parents were leaders within a conservative Christian ministry at Ball State University. Rachel took part in a conservative Christian youth group and worked at several conservative Christian churches in the Muncie area. She eventually left the church following a traumatic encounter with the therapy program SOZO as a young adult. The SOZO program is not specifically a conversion therapy program, but it can be used for conversion therapy, as it was for Replogle.
“This was a world with a lot of different messages that I grew up in, hearing that being queer was wrong, hearing that my body was inherently bad and that any sort of sexual desire was inherently evil,” Replogle explained, “any attraction to a gender that was not explicitly outlined in the Bible was inherently evil.”
Different Christian communities enforce this guilt and shame surrounding the female body and sexuality that Replogle describes in different ways, through commercial products, such as signed purity pledges and rings inscribed with Bible verses, and with church- and school-wide events, These include Father-Daughter purity balls and youth ministry lock-ins, which grew in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the Purity Movement. At the height of its popularity, purity culture involved government-funded abstinence-only sex education programs, which were initiated by the Clinton administration in 1996 and then solidified into the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program by the Bush administration in 2000.
Using federal funding, religious groups hosted school abstinence programs, and groups such as Silver Ring Things and Truelovewaits profited from the sale of purity rings, pledges, candles, and educational guidebooks. Around the same time in 1998, Randy and Lisa Wilson held the first purity ball, closely associated with the Generations of Light ministry, where fathers and daughters mutually promised to guard the daughter’s chastity through a ceremony exchanging rings, rings that the father would later give to the woman’s husband.  At the center events like purity balls, and debates over the purity movement more broadly, was the implicit understanding that the rules of sexual behavior and responsibility do not apply equally to everyone.
Growing up in Muncie, Replogle felt the influence of white evangelical purity culture, which emphasized sexual abstinence prior to heterosexual marriage as the only option. Along with reinforcing the idea of gendered spheres of work and identity, such as the dutiful mother and faithful spouse, purity culture also involves the shaming of young bodies. In purity culture, young people are told that their body can make them want things that they should not desire, including sex outside of marriage, any kind of nonheteronormative sexual desire, and gendered expression that does not conform to the binary or one’s gender assigned at birth. Homophobia and transphobia are key aspects of purity culture, and its dialogue intimately affects young people’s relationships to their bodies. Many people are still grappling with the effects of internalized homophobia.
As Replogle explains, “I grew up in this environment hearing these messages that my body was inherently bad both because it’s a feminine body (and would lead men into sin) but also because it’s a body – she’s a body, and bodies are inherently evil, and our flesh is a thing to overcome. So that was the world with a lot of different messages that I grew up in, hearing that being queer was wrong.”
Since coming out as gay to her acting class at Ball State University and later to her family, Replogle has distanced herself from practiced religion. She continues to grapple with the effects of purity culture, conversion therapy, systemic homophobia, and its associations with her own faith, as do many LGBTQ+ young people. Her involvement in a body-positive retreat in California, right before she came out, was the primary catalyst for rethinking her views on female bodies and sexuality. While she remains distanced from religion, she continues to engage with religious spaces, using her background experiences in religion to serve as Indiana’s only queer-affirming wedding videographer and photographer, capturing moments of love that defy the strict gender and sexual binary she grew up with in evangelical Christianity.
Although just one story of the impact of purity culture on a young queer person raised in the height of the Purity Movement, Replogle’s story speaks to the long-term impact of this culture on the development of queer sexuality. Katie Cross identifies the way that purity culture tells women that they are to suffer for the sins of their own bodies as body theodicy, combining the idea of theodicy, or the theological intention to defend love, goodness, and purity surrounding God in a human world of evil and suffering, with women’s bodies, where this theological battle is waged.
From my research surrounding purity culture and queer young people, I would argue that queer people raised in purity culture have a unique relationship with body theodicy. These individuals are raised in churches that see their institutional mission as actively fighting for the goodness of God and the purity of heterosexual attraction and marriage in a world of evil – namely a world in which those same young queer people would see increased recognition of their sexual orientations, gender expressions, and identities, as well as their right to gender-affirming medical treatment and marriage. This battle therefore takes place in the bodies of queer young people, who are struggling with targeted lessons telling them their nonheteronormative, noncisgender selves do not exist or that they are the direct result of the untrustworthiness of their own bodies.
- Kathryn Hart House, “The Afterlife of White Evangelical Purity Culture: Wounds, Legacies, and Impacts” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2020). ↑
- Emily Joy Allison, #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing (Broadleaf Books, 2021), 120. ↑
- Caroline Blyth, “Christian Complementarianism and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles,” in Rape Culture, Purity Culture, and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles (Routledge, 2021), 68–96. ↑
- William Conley Harris, Slouching towards Gaytheism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America (SUNY Press, 2014), 16. ↑
- Harris, Slouching, 15. ↑
- Katie Cross, “‘I Have the Power in My Body to Make People Sin’: The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theodicy,’” Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective, eds. Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross (SCM Press, 2020), 21–39. ↑
Emma Cieslik (she/her) is an emerging museum professional and public historian based in Washington, D.C. She studies the intersections of religion, gender and sexuality and how these histories are curated in museums. She has experience working in curatorial, collections management, and education capacities at numerous institutions, including at the National Museum of American History, the Field Museum, the National Anthropological Archives, The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, and more. She has also conducted ethnographic research in religious and LGBTQIA+ communities across the United States focused on the intersection of religious and sexual identities.