A few years ago, after speaking at a university event about my research into the evangelical understanding of biblical womanhood, several colleagues approached me to admit their incredulity about purity culture and its ephemera: purity rings, purity balls, “Hottest is Modest” T-shirts, youth group activities that compared a girl’s sexuality to a new or crumpled $20 bill.
“I had no idea this stuff existed,” one faculty peer—a teacher in the religion department—told me. “This doesn’t reflect my experience of evangelicalism at all.”
“This perfectly described my upbringing,” a young woman messaged me later, one of many students, mostly female, who described to me the devastating ways purity culture had trammeled their sense of self and their sexual identities. These women’s experiences in church were colored by a miasma of messages reminding them that their sexual purity before marriage was sacrosanct, the female body a sacred possession to be shared only with some future husband. As girls, they learned to be accountable for their own sexual purity, and were also tasked with protecting their male peers, who might stumble into sexual sin at the very sight of a bare shoulder or pair of yoga pants.
I thought about these young women—indeed, all the students I teach at an evangelical university—while reading Emily Joy Allison’s excellent new book, #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing. I thought about my colleague’s response: that he had no idea this culture existed, even though his students and faculty peers were clearly swimming in it. And I thought about the article I’d just read by David French at The Dispatch; he details the abuse of at least 57 boys at Kanakuk Kamps, a well-known Christian summer camp in Missouri, where a sexual predator had easy access to kids for years, his abuse covered up by camp executives and a bevy of nondisclosure agreements.
A through line connects the sexual assault these boys endured and my students’ upbringing in purity culture, and that through line is evangelicalism’s inordinate focus on sexuality as the defining trait in people’s lives; the ways that focus is experienced differently by men and women, cis-gendered and queer; and how the ideology of purity culture provides perfect conditions for the kind of predation that affected the lives of countless children at Kanakuk Kamps and elsewhere.
In #ChurchToo, Allison draws a clear connection between evangelicalism’s significant focus on purity culture and the preponderance of sexual assaults that have occurred in churches and youth groups and summer camps. Her book is a stunning reminder that too many abuses occur in what are to be safe Christian spaces, and she provides a compelling argument that purity culture itself grooms young people, making them more susceptible to assault.
At the center of her argument is the claim that when the ideology of purity culture seeps deep into Christians’ minds and bodies, they become perfect victims for assault. Purity culture is its own kind of grooming, and can be a precursor to assault, as people hear time and again that any sex outside of cis-gendered, heterosexual and monogamous relationships is the gravest of sins, the paramount transgression against God that will potentially lead to their destruction.
Given this overwhelming messaging, which likewise conveys that victims are complicit in perpetuating this grave sin, assault becomes a source of shame to be hidden. Thus young people are less likely to report their assault to leaders, and leaders are less likely to discipline abusers; concurrently, leaders are more likely to provide cover for abusers in their midst, under the aegis of grace and forgiveness. The Houston Chronicle’s 2019 expose of the Southern Baptist Convention’s willingness to shield 700 church leaders accused of abuse is but one of many examples Allison provides. The SBC’s abysmal handling of the sexual assault cases fundamentally reflects a pattern in church and parachurch organizations to stand with the accused, rather than the accuser.
Allison premises her conclusive reporting on her own experience. As a teen, she was groomed by a youth pastor whose actions faced no serious ramifications within her church. In 2017, on the heels of the #MeToo movement, Allison courageously told her story through social media, using the hashtag #ChurchToo. Countless women and men responded with their own #ChurchToo experiences, a groundswell of response that showed Allison—and the world—how endemic sexual assault within Christian organizations is, and how rarely assaults are adjudicated, either within the church or without.
The Kanakuk Kamps case, which David and Nancy French brought to light this March, is an excellent example of the inordinate efforts some Christian leaders take to shield abusers. The perpetrator, Pete Newman, was arrested in 2010, and charged with seven counts of sexual assault. Prosecutors identified 57 victims, but assume there are hundreds more. Newman began working at the camp in 1995, and over the next 15 years, groomed and abused boys, allegedly sodomizing some victims, masturbating with them, and “performing and receiving oral sex,” according to The Dispatch article.
The Frenches report that by 1999, the camp had received calls from concerned parents, though Newman not only continued to be employed by the camp, but became one of its “rising stars,” featured in camp promotional material. When he was finally arrested, leaders expressed shock that he had behaved so treacherously, even though they were well aware of his actions—and had plied victims’ families with money, free Kanakuk gear, Playstations and tuition to summer camps, in exchange for silence. The muzzled victims created a sense that all was right and well within the camp, and Newman continued having access to children until his arrest in 2009.
Allison’s book is a call for reckoning: for the leaders involved at Kanakuk Kamps, for churches and families where victims are silenced, and for an evangelical culture that has elevated sexual purity above all else, a goal to which we are all to aspire. Such an ideology denudes people of their inherent worth apart from their sexuality, creating a culture that is especially damaging to those who lack power, who are sexual and gender minorities, or who have shame heaped on their heads, simply because abusers chose to victimize them sexually.
#ChurchToo is a hard but important read. Allison’s work should compel Christians to contemplate the destruction wrought by purity culture, in our churches and homes and summer camps and institutions: in other words, every place where people thought they were safe, until the church leaders in their lives failed them, all in the name of purity.
#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing (Broadleaf Press, 2021) can be found here.