The Real Truth About YouTube’s Obsessive Purity Subculture

Emily Wilson in YouTube video (Screenshot from YouTube/Emily Wilson)

The algorithm that dictates YouTube’s suggested videos has taken me to strange and wonderful places, including an unusually pious part of the streaming site: women vloggers who aren’t having sex until they’re married. Of course, they vlog about other things too. Emily Wilson, who describes herself as a “women empower-er,” makes faith-based advice videos; Courtney Raine does makeup tutorials and “expectation versus reality” skits; and Milena Ciciotti offers clothing hauls, Q&As, and tips on finding a Godly man.

Their subscriber counts vary from 15,000 to 200,000, but each of them has a popular video titled something like “The Truth About Saving Yourself For Marriage.” Ciciotti’s videos average between 100,000 and 200,000 views, but her “Untold Truth About Saving Yourself for Marriage” video has over 1.9 million views. Wilson typically reaches between 25,000 and 50,000 viewers, while her chastity video, “What No One is Saying About Saving Yourself for Marriage,” has been watched over 900,000 times. The vloggers usually say that they want to share their experience, not evangelize, but their decision to wait is primarily rooted in a Christian scripture that proclaims sex is only virtuous when it happens between a husband and wife.

Along with sharing their own experiences, they also include reasons why you, too, might want to live chastely: having sex will cause heartbreak; birth control is bad for women; and you’ll become chemically bonded to your first sexual partner. (That’s untrue, by the way.) I was raised by a fallen-away Catholic, so I was baptized but never confirmed. When I went to church with my cousins, I’d sit in the pews and watch while they lined up to drink wine and eat wafers. I was jealous of the practiced ritual, the mid-morning snack, and the gold cross necklace my cousin got for her confirmation. When I binge purity videos, I get the same feeling—I’m on the outside looking in. Intellectually, I see the limitations in their argument, but then part of me thinks: What if they’re right? What if these women know something I don’t?

Maybe that’s the reason these videos are so resonant, especially among the teenage girls that dominate the comments. Purity vloggers offer chastity as an antidote for the problems that plague many young women. Wilson says it was the best decision she’s ever made (after following Jesus) while Raine assures her viewers that living chastely will protect them from heartbreak and bad boyfriends. They also paint a bleak picture of the alternative. Wilson, for example, knows so many women who lost their virginities to someone who didn’t become their life partner, and felt “the emptiest [they] have in [their] entire life.” Of course, these alleged women are never named or included in the videos because they don’t matter. What matters is that these anecdotes confirm their assertion that women suffer when they have premarital sex.

***

After girls lose their virginity on teen shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Glee, and 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, their relationships fall apart. In 8 Simple Rules, Kerry (Amy Davidson) loses her virginity to a guy who won’t return her phone calls. When Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) loses her virginity on Glee, she gets pregnant, dumped by her child’s father, and kicked out of the school’s celibacy club. After Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) loses her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz), he literally turns into a demon. These storylines give the concept of virginity so much power, and serve the same purpose as the purity vlogger’s unnamed friends: They’re warnings about what could happen if teen girls don’t follow the rules.

I learned the rules the summer before high school when a friend brought me to her church youth group. After Mass, we filed down to the church basement and sat around a conference table, where one of the youth leaders was solemnly handing out uncut keys like they were the Eucharist. “Virgins are like these uncut keys,” she said. “The first time you have sex, your key is cut for good.” Can keys be cut over and over? No. They were designed to fit one lock, and if you cut your key wrong the first time, it will never properly fit another lock. It might be able to open a faulty lock—and there are some people that never even lock their doors. But in order to unlock a really good lock—the one you were meant for—you need to remain uncut.

WHAT NO ONE IS SAYING ABOUT SAVING YOURSELF FOR MARRIAGE

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I felt sad and uncomfortable with this confusing metaphor for my unbroken hymen. Why did I have to lose a part of myself when I have sex? And how did I wind up with something that everybody wanted to take? The lecture made clear that there were mobs of boys just waiting to trick me out of my virtue.

Young men are given similar lectures, but still, the concept of purity is gendered. A fallback for the purity educator is the phrase “sex was created for a man and wife,” but in that sentence, the man remains unaltered. He was a man before and he’s still a man after the wedding. But now the woman is a wife with a purpose. She’s a cut key. It seemed like I couldn’t have sex and retain all of myself. When I wasn’t feeling jealous of my cousins in Mass, I was feeling afraid—afraid of sex, afraid of hell, afraid of sinning. Afraid of being sin itself, but in the church’s eyes, I am. All women are.

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Purity culture is defined by the idea that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong, but there are also other facets. Masturbation, for example, is forbidden, as is holding lustful thoughts about someone other than your spouse. Adhering to strict heteronormative gender roles is part of it too, and women are expected to practice modesty to shield boys and men from sexual temptation. Ambassadors for purity culture often posit their lifestyle as the only legitimate alternative to “hook-up culture.” Justin Garcia from the Kinsey Institute says between 60 and 80 percent of North American college students have had at least one hook-up experience (defined as a sexual encounter between individuals who are not romantic partners).

Purity vloggers tell women that they suffer when they don’t follow the rules, but the truth is that the rules are why women suffer. In a patriarchal society, women are inherently ruined; in the Bible, we are the reason for the fall. We are the reason that childbirth hurts, suffering exists, and why every human being doesn’t get to live forever.   

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Not everybody is satisfied after hooking up. A 2008 survey of undergrad students found that the morning after a hook-up, 82 percent of men and 57 percent of women had overall positive feelings about the experience. A 1993 study found that 32 percent of men and 72 percent of women said they would feel guilty about having sex with someone they’d just met. Purity vloggers pounce on these studies, using it as proof that premarital sex is harmful to women. When researcher Terri Conley tried to replicate these findings, though, she found that gender differences in desire for casual sex diminished when considering perceived comfort, attractiveness, and sexual skill of the potential partner.

A large scale sexual-satisfaction survey showed that in a first-time hook-up, only 19 percent of women received oral sex (compared to 55 percent of men) and only 10 percent of women reached orgasm (compared to 31 percent of men). And in 2010, researchers Chris Reiber and Justin Garcia found that 78 percent of people overestimated the comfort of their hook-up partner, with men particularly overestimating women’s actual comfort. In situations where both parties feel comfortable, that gender gap closes. When people aren’t educated about boundaries, comfort, and mutual pleasure with their partners, they’re set up to feel dissatisfied, disrespected, and not in control of their sexual behavior.

Purity culture tells women that uncommitted sex will make them feel guilty and unsatisfied, and so it does. But it also doesn’t teach enthusiastic consent, and those problems don’t evaporate when a woman gets married. Down the rabbit hole of YouTube’s sidebar recommendations, I found Jolene and Eric Engle, a couple who give advice about Christian relationships. In a video about what’s not permitted in the Christian marital bed, Jolene says she’s received letters from wives asking whether or not their husbands are “biblically allowed to rape them.”

UNTOLD TRUTH ABOUT SAVING YOURSELF FOR MARRIAGE

Jolene, of course, says absolutely not, but then Eric follows up with: “Here’s the deal. If you have a relationship then you aren’t forcing yourself upon them.” Yikes. Jolene, to her credit, tries to correct this scary, chauvinistic, super rape-y assumption, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re not on the same page.  

Jolene to Eric: “You wouldn’t do that to me because you know that it would break our fellowship.”

Eric to Jolene: “Of course, but the other side of it is, I don’t think there’s a time you would say no to me, even if you didn’t feel like it. I mean, you know, if you’re sick or something, okay…”

Eric’s perspective is not rare in Catholic circles. Men raised in purity culture aren’t taught about consent, and this disadvantages everyone. Purity educators imply that men and women are fundamentally different creatures, so there will always be a disparity in who gets pleasure from casual sex. But thousands of years of work have gone into making women feel guilty for exerting agency over their bodies, both by engaging in sex and by declining it. It seems impossible to extricate biological facts from this engrained socialization. Without working to reverse that culture, how can purity vloggers possibly determine anything about what women naturally like?

***

Whenever I get fed up with purity YouTubers, a sideways, quasi-feminist element of their vlogs sucks me back in. Modern purity educators know the language of feminism, or at least the feminism that has made its way into the mainstream. Wilson has videos about marriage not completing people and the importance of women standing up for ourselves. Of course, I agree with these ideas, but I deeply disagree with her overall premise—that the correct way to live is chastely, modestly, within the confines of heteronormative gender roles. While vloggers like Wilson are committed to an institution rooted in patriarchy, they’re not brainless factotums of it. They’re turning it over and over in their mind, looking for a way in, trying to find a place for themselves as women.

My favorite example comes from Wilson’s video entitled “The Thing I Couldn’t Stand About Modesty Talks. Here, she describes attending modesty talks where speakers encouraged girls to cover up in an attempt to shield boys from lustful thoughts. “I didn’t understand why I had to do this for men,” she explains, “and why I couldn’t do this for myself first.” She continues: “The first reason that I should cover up my body, that I do cover up my body, is I am a woman of inherent dignity and worth…to outwardly proclaim to the world that my body belongs to me.” 

This sounds so good on the surface, and if I was younger, it would have worked on me. But if there’s a way to proclaim your body belongs to you, then there’s a way to proclaim that it doesn’t. Not being treated as a woman of inherent dignity? Being treated as though your body is not your own? You must have proclaimed it, even though we know there’s no way to dress that will prevent sexual harassment and assault. There’s something sickly comforting about believing that staying pure will give you power, about the idea that everything will be okay if you follow the rules. The rules, of course, are submitting to the patriarchy, knowing your place, existing within the confines of what religious men believe women should be—available for a heterosexual, monogamous relationship led by the husband, who has biblical dominion over the wife.

Purity vloggers tell women that they suffer when they don’t follow the rules, but the truth is that the rules are why women suffer. In a patriarchal society, women are inherently ruined; in the Bible, we are the reason for the fall. We are the reason that childbirth hurts, suffering exists, and why every human being doesn’t get to live forever.  The undercurrent of these videos, of the whole purity perspective, is that if you follow these instructions, you will somehow undo the damage you have done to the world by existing in it. To follow these instructions, you have to condemn so many women: sex workers, trans women, gay women, women who’ve had abortions. You have to tell them that unless they change, they’re doomed.

Yet, I’m jealous of the certainty these vloggers have. Of how close they say they feel to God, of how sure they seem that they’re right. I want that certainty like I want to line up for communion, like I want that gold cross necklace. But on the other side of this certainty is exclusion and hatred. To reap the rewards of purity culture, I would have to play by unjust rules, hoping one day they might allow me the freedom afforded to men.

Ultimately, it’s not a fair trade to me. I’d rather just sit in the pew and watch.  

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by Amy Oldfield
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Follow Amy on Twitter @amymoldfield.