True Love No Shame: Talking about Christian purity culture with No Shame Movement

Today’s episode of True Love No Shame is with Laura, the creator of No Shame Movement, which started as a hashtag and now has a dedicated site aimed at discussing purity culture. I spoke with Laura, the woman who started and now runs the movement.

You can listen to our conversation in full on iTunes or Stitcher, or read the edited version below.

Dani: Tell us how this all got started.

Laura: It started as a hashtag. I talked with two people that I built a relationship with online about my idea. We brainstormed and we came up with No Shame Movement, and then we shortened it for Twitter. Then I decided, well, I might as well make a website, a Twitter, and it kind of went from there.

Yeah, it has basically grown organically, but, first and foremost, the purpose of it is to be a platform, so I don’t write a lot of posts for it. I basically elevate a lot of people’s stories and I curate information.

When I talk about it being organic, I pay attention to what kinds of conversations people are having and the stories people are sharing. From when it started, it started out with purity culture, but it’s branched out. I talk about relationships, about particularly abuser dynamics, about gender norms and gender roles.

I’m really interested in featuring stories from people who are overlooked. I myself am a black American cisgender woman, a cisgender straight woman. One of the motivations for the tag was that there was starting to be a conversation.

There was some Evangelical bloggers who have been talking about it and I noticed the conversation mostly centered on white women. It also seemed to have a caveat. They would say, “Purity culture is bad,” but at the end there was still only one choice, you still had to wait, but, hey, maybe we should just not shame people, but still wait.

It was like, well, what about the rest of us that don’t want to wait or find ourself in our 30s, like myself, and not married yet? Or, some people who don’t want to get married? When No Shame Movement started at the time it was still illegal in most states for some people to get married.

Dani: Tell me about your background in the Christian church.

Laura: grew up around and in Evangelical communities. We went to a Mennonite church for part of my childhood. I actually went to a Mennonite college. I went to a black Pentecostal or Charismatic church for some time as well, but I would say, yeah, as far as community was concerned or the Christian culture that I know the most about I would say it’s Evangelical, and particularly mostly white Evangelical communities.

I grew up in the 90s, so in the 80s there was the moral majority. Evangelicals were all excited because they felt like they had a friend in Ronald Reagan and the White House. That was kind of the start of the church getting more involved in politics.

When I was a teenager and in college in the 90s that was kind of after the moral majority. It was when there was this kind of frenzy of — we need to make Jesus cool for the kids, but we need to make sure they keep their legs closed.

I actually moved overseas with my parents as a teenager. We went to Ghana and West Africa. They went there to do mission work. That actually was the start of my own sort of I guess unlearning because I was basically pulled out of my comfort zone and was in a foreign country as a missionary kid, and trying to navigate a new culture as a teenager when your own worldviews haven’t fully formed yet either. That heavily influences how I see faith and kind of how I see myself as a Christian.

Dani: What about your family? Did your parents have a talk with you about sex? How did you kind of learn about it from that angle?

Laura: They were good about just sitting me down, telling me the basics. They actually did that when I was eight. That I’m very grateful for. It was a pretty short conversation, but, yeah, they told me the basics.

Before I get into how they gave me a lot of terrible advice, I will say this, my mother always called genitalia their actual names. It never occurred me to me until I was an adult, and especially when I was working with kids and being around parents, like, my mother never had nicknames. They were penis and vagina.

The message was mostly from my mom, and it was God wants you to wait till you’re married, but most importantly sex was something that men, men and boys, want to get from you and you have to keep them from getting it.

That was essentially how it was framed, which had probably unintentional on her part, but the unintentional consequence of making me think that men were predators, or I kind of internalized that men were predators. That really affected my relationships or attempted relationships when I was older.

She would try to have talks with me. She would always says, “You can always ask me questions if you have questions.” I’ll say this, if there’s any parents listening to your podcast, and I’m sure there probably are, and you’re wondering about your kids being honest with you, don’t set them up to lie. I think that’s one of the biggest things. Don’t set your children up to lie.

If on one hand you say, which my parents did, “Oh, well, you can always ask questions,” but on the other hand at every chance you get you paint sex as dirty, you … When people say, use sexual terms, you say that’s disgusting, when you tell your young daughter that women get yeast infections because they have too much sex. Because I remember the yeast infection commercials would come on. She’d say, “Those women got it from having sex,” and then I learned later that you could also get it from wearing tight jeans.

Sex ed really is your everyday language. It’s not just what you sit down and tell them, it’s also how you react to things on TV, how you react to things that you see in movies.

Kids pay attention to that and they internalize the messages you send. If you are watching a movie and you go through scenes where Arnold Schwarzeneggar mows down 20 people with a machine gun, but then as soon as a sex scene starts then you fast forward, that sends a message. That sends a very clear message about what you believe is acceptable and what isn’t.

Not that my parents condoned violence, but it’s very telling. That sticks with people when violence is not as objectionable as a sex scene.

Dani: I know you mentioned that moving to Ghana was kind of a turning point for you. What was kind of the deconstruction or what really changed your mind about the way that you think about faith, especially in terms of intimacy?

Laura: The four years before I went to Ghana, I was in a Christian, conservative Christian, school. There was a lot of talk about godly dating, dating God’s way. It was okay. It was allowed, just no funny business. Then I moved across the ocean to Ghana, which is a majority Christian country.

There, now, this was in the 90s, so I’d imagine that there’s probably been a lot of stuff that’s evolved since then, but back then I learned very quickly that dating was not considered a Christian thing to do. I remember just kind of stopping and thinking, “Wait, what?” Because when you’re a teenager the adults around you, especially in the Christian communities, they’re very black and white, right? They’re like, “Well, we’re really clear and we have the answers, and we’re giving them to you.”

The adults in my life in the U.S. were clear that dating was okay as long as x, y, and z happened. The adults in Ghana were clear that dating was not okay, so at some point I stopped and thought, “Somebody’s lying.”

That was the start. I didn’t know it at the time. I still believed and I bought the purity culture thing for years, but that really was the start. That was the seed that was planted because all of a sudden it’s like, oh, there’s other ways to be Christian, and then there’s a whole host of other things.

I remember the first time I met a pastor who was a woman was in Ghana. The first time I heard a pastor curse … I laugh about it now, but at the time I thought, “Wait, she’s a pastor, but she’s cursing. I don’t understand.” Just so many different things where I realized, wait, there’s a different way that people can be.

This is something that a lot of missionary kids in general, and a lot of kids that spent some of their childhood in other countries, they deal with a lot, and then coming back home and reconciling a lot of that.

I remember the first time I met a Christian who was sexually active and was not ashamed of it, because that was another thing. I can say particularly I know, and I’ve talked with this with other black Christian friends in the black church particularly, because there is a form of purity culture that sometimes takes on different forms, but similar messages in the black church as well.

There’s folks that go to church and they listen to the message, and they go out and they’re sexually active, but they kind of live in this gray area where, like, well, we know our pastor says it’s wrong, and we know it’s wrong, but we’re going to do it anyway. I think there’s a lot of Christians in general that do that, and did that especially.

When I was younger I knew of other teenage friends who had gotten pregnant or male friends who had gotten their girlfriends pregnant, but it was always a level of shame around it. Always. In college, I was talking to someone who was talking about her first sexual experience. She just kept talking. I was waiting for the “And I feel ashamed,” but it never came. She just kept talking about it.

That was a seed. At the time I remember thinking she was wrong. I didn’t tell her, but I remember thinking she was wrong, but also thinking, “Wait, what?” It’s little things like that, when you hear … When you talk to folks or you hear things similar messages over and over, and after a while you start to reconcile them with what you were taught. Then you try to do the math. The math doesn’t add up.

Dani: Who are some of the people online who are writing about this that someone should pay attention to if they’re dealing with this kind of issue?

Laura: I actually have a Twitter list. I call it Purity Culture Warriors.

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