A combination of journalistic style, cultural commentary, and memoir, PURE: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein is a look at the Evangelical Christian Church’s religious beliefs surrounding purity and the effects these teachings have had on young women.
Throughout her youth, Klein was taught to be submissive, repress her sexuality and avoid becoming a “stumbling block” for men — that is, tempting them in any sexual way. Exhausted by the shame and scrutiny she’d felt her whole life, Klein began to rethink her approach to her faith and asked young women she knew from home if they were coping with the same issues she was. These conversations developed into a journey that brought survivors together, facilitated her own healing and led her to churches that take a different approach to teaching youth about sexuality.
PURE explores the potential dangers of power in extreme hierarchies (religious and other) as well as positive influences when a collective power structure is put into place. Klein has spent over a decade working at the cross section of faith, gender and social change. She founded a non-profit group called Break Free Together. She offers a dinner series workshop that is focused on sacred story exchange, in which people can discuss sexuality around the table. She recently did a presentation for United Methodist Chaplains.
“They were receptive and said my book and presentation was really hitting right on what a lot of the people they were ministering to were dealing with,” Klein said.
Klein is concerned that the current discussion in the United Methodist Church involving the special session of General Conference skips over discussing sexuality by focusing entirely on sexual identity.
“Whatever conclusion (The United Methodist Church) reaches, there is going to be a need for care and counseling,” she said.
Since the publication of PURE, Klein hears from people recovering from purity culture every day. They share stories of shame, fear and anxiety that sometimes manifests in the body in ways that mimic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They tell me they are scared that they are going to lose their romantic relationships because they haven’t been able to recover from the damage that purity culture has done to them. But mostly they say thank you — for telling my story, for telling the stories of so many others who were raised in purity culture, for making them feel less alone and giving them hope that healing is possible,” Klein said. “I have also heard from youth leaders who used to promote purity culture. They often tell me my book was hard to read but a good kind of hard. They are being challenged to face the long-term effects of purity messaging and to imagine another way forward.”
Not everyone has been a fan. Some still adhere to the teachings Klein calls out as scarring.
“I do receive some pushback, but they tell me the same things that they told me when I was growing up in purity culture, almost verbatim. In particular, they say I’m not really a Christian if I don’t believe exactly what they believe, and that I’m a terrible person for promoting my promiscuous lifestyle (which is as ridiculous to say about me—a deeply committed married woman with a 17-year old step-daughter—now as it was to say about me when I was a teenager and the accusations of promiscuity were based on my talking to boys too much or wearing a skirt that went above my knees). In other words, they attempt to shame me,” Klein said.
Klein recommends the Our Whole Lives (OWL) curriculum for sexuality education across the lifespan. It is a secular model with two optional faith-based overlays, one developed by the United Church of Christ and the other developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association.