I recently finished Pure, a book about the purity movement in evangelical Christianity (and beyond)and the psychological effects it has left on the generation of girls that grew up under it. It’s a really good read and offered me a lot of insight into the minds of a community that I have always had a hard time understanding. (I don’t have firsthand experience being immersed in this sort of culture so please read the book if you’re interested in learning more.) In it, there was one idea that really struck a chord with me — a lightbulb went off:
Othering (n.) – The process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.
So today, we’re going to explore a little part of the purity culture with the concept of othering as well as some other topics to explore a little more about the human condition. **To be clear, in relation to our discussion about purity culture, I will be focusing on the effects on women; for some sources exploring how it has affected people more broadly, check out the bottom of the article for additional resources.**
In the book, the concept was introduced when the author pointed out that many within the communities that adopted the purity movement saw how it was affecting their children negatively with none of the benefits that it was supposed to guarantee (lower sexual activity, delayed sexual “debut”, lower teen pregnancy rates, etc.) and yet did nothing about it. The leaders of the communities often also refused to acknowledge the damage done to the members of their community. Even those close to victims could often found to be unsympathetic or worse, judgmental. Why?
There is a prevalent sense of shame associated with any deviation from this culture. Those who deviate aren’t worthy, unsaved, dirty, used, and somehow less. To further enforce these ideas, some communities associate the deviations with biases and prejudices the community may hold, subconscious or otherwise. These biases/prejudices may be based on race, class, ethnicity or religiosity (and obviously, being a gendered issue and also affecting women disproportionately, gender). This, then, introduces a strong divide in what people perceive that those that are like and those that are unlike themselves. Since much of the US’s, and indeed, the world’s Christian communities are heavily influenced and dominated by those considering themselves Caucasians and evangelical, the out-group will be made of those who are decidedly not those things. Subconsciously or not, people who are sexually active, sexually expressive, sex positive, have been r*ped/assaulted etc. will be thought of being black/brown, poor, uneducated, atheistic, etc. and therefore, not the image of a good, white Christian so these sort of things will never happen to them. This obviously will play out in the many ways these beliefs can manifest in racist acts etc. but we won’t talk about that now.
There is a prevalent sense of shame associated with any deviation from this culture. Those who deviate aren’t worthy, they’re unsaved, dirty, used, and somehow less. To further enforce these ideas, some communities associate those who deviate with biases and prejudices the community may hold, subconscious or otherwise. These biases/prejudices may be based on race, class, ethnicity or religiosity (and obviously, being a gendered issue and also affecting women disproportionately, gender). This, then, introduces a strong divide in what people perceive that those that are like and those that are unlike themselves.
Since much of the US’s, and indeed, the world’s Christian communities are heavily influenced and dominated by those who identify as Caucasians and evangelical, the out-group will be made of those who are decidedly not those things. When being a virgin and untouched is synonymous with being a good Christian girl while those used as an example of a sexual sinner is someone who is homeless, a minority, an immigrant or someone who dresses “immodestly”, then when confronted with a Christian girl who isn’t sexually “pure”, many would try to ignore it in hopes of denying the fact that it could happen within a good Christian community. This is especially troubling when faced with issues like pedophilia, r*pe and other forms of sexual abuse.
Failing to conform to the standards of sexuality makes one as other as someone who is not accepted within the community. Such guidelines create room for other implicit interpretations which leads to ostracizing the “others” instead of addressing whether their inability to conform is their fault or if the guidelines themselves too unforgiving. Someone who is sexually assaulted is at fault for “not fighting back hard enough” or for being a “tease”. Nonconformity immediately places one outside the umbrella of protection offered by the Christian community. No longer are you a child of God being tested by the devil but someone who must be avoided so that the unacceptable behavior does not become acceptable by mere exposure or “infect” the rest of the pious community. The book goes into more detail with personal accounts of how this culture has created an atmosphere of almost constant shame and anxiety even when individuals hadn’t done anything to be ashamed or anxious about.
And the thing is, this doesn’t even touch on the fact that this seems to leave some Christian minorities perpetually with two bad options. If you fit the stereotype, then it enforces their beliefs and is used as justification for ill treatment. If you don’t, there is still a sense of shame and fear moreso because you’re seen as more likely to “succumb” to it. For example, black girls are often seen as more sexually mature and more capable of adult-like thought than their white counterparts and are punished more severely as a result. This happens despite the fact that black girls cannot control the rate at which their bodies mature and are often sexualised at a young age (starting as young as five). This intersection of both race and gender under this religious context creates a doubly toxic environment for those growing up with it.
The effects of interracial dynamics whether positive or negative are well-documented especially between groups that have in contact for thousands of years but those within a race are less obvious and less understood. There is othering within racial groups as well that cause significant social issues. Race has been simplified in large part to skin color in the history of the US and it plays a huge role in how the in-groups are formed within a racial minority. In Asia, colorism is highly prevalent and can be seen in everyday media, marketing and in the popularity of whitening creams. This exists to a large extent in most of the world touched by Western influences. White was beautiful, dark was not. This creates the lighter-skinned in-groups and the darker-skinned out-groups.
This not only impacts people’s opportunities for social and economic mobility but also exposes them to discrimination from their own racial group in an effort to distinguish more markedly the difference between the two groups, though oftentimes the differences were non-existent and based on stereotype. Think of Dr. Bledsoe‘s character in Invisible Man.
Because of these divides within the communities, it undermines any effort to progress the group’s rights or status as some within the group are content to cater to the majority by stepping on others within their group.
I didn’t go into a lot of detail in this second part so I’ll leave some supplementary material below if you would like to learn more.
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In any case, hope you’ve learned something new and we’ll talk to you next time,
- Rape Culture
- Internalised Racism
- A deep analysis into intra-racial othering and racial self-loathing with a focus on Asians
- Crash Course: Racial/Ethnic Prejudice & Discrimination
- Intersection of Feminism and White Supremacy
- Impurity Culture: Surviving Virginity