New Book Details Harms of Evangelical ‘Purity’ Movement and the Obstacle to Change

By Elizabeth Shively

When Linda Kay Klein was a teenager growing up in the Midwest, she dreamed of being cast as a virtuous woman or pious martyr in church plays. Instead, because of her sexually developed body and feminine curves, she was often cast as a demon or Jezebel figure; and once, she writes, she even played sex itself, miming the role in a skit about a Christian resisting temptations. It wasn’t until she was physically emaciated and weak, recovering from surgery due to untreated Crohn’s disease that she was offered the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the church Nativity play. It was only when both her body and spirit had been whittled down to size that she was deemed appropriate to represent the pious mother. She turned the role down.

Klein, a New York-based writer and sexuality educator, shares this memory and other striking stories of her experience growing up in the purity movement in Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (Touchstone, 2018). She combines memoir with survivor interviews and research on shame, sexuality, and religion to effectively argue that the evangelical sexual purity movement has done lasting harm to many of the women who embraced its message as teens in the ‘90s and early 2000s.

The movement itself, which encourages sexual abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage via purity pledges, parachurch organizations, and abstinence-only sex education in schools and churches, has been well documented in recent work examining the intersection of sexuality and evangelical Christianity in the US. Pure complements the recent work examining the history and rhetoric of the movement, as Klein dives deeply into the stories of women for whom the purity culture has been a force that haunts them, putting them “at war” with their own bodies and their desires, much like the illness that threatened the author’s own health as a young woman.

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