Preacher's Daughter: Sexual Violence and Discourses of “Purity”

October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, and my friend, Katie Mulligan, has been blogging to raise awareness of intimate violence. She writes that she decided to do this “because the silence around this subject, even when I speak, is staggering.” In her most recent post, Mulligan remembers what it was like to go to a teen abstinence rally as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. 

She says this promotional video captures the spirit of that rally:

I have always found the evangelical injunction to remain sexually “pure” until marriage naïve and unrealistic.  But Mulligan’s post captures the reasons why it is also cruel and downright abusive. She writes:

It was toward the end of the rally that I realized what it was all about. I always was a bit slow to understand the church’s stance on sexuality and sexual activity. As things wound down and the speaker asked us to commit to purity and chastity, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but I felt a bit queasy. I wasn’t sure what she meant by virginity, but I was pretty sure by most definitions I hadn’t been one since I was six…

I didn’t last long in this space. I had questions. And they weren’t the kind of questions that were easy to ask in a church youth group full of people screaming, “YESS!” every time someone asked, “Do you love Jesus?” I took one of the leaders aside and asked what I should do if I wasn’t a virgin. She explained that I could be re-virginized by pledging not to engage in sexual activity anymore. Now she had questions. I was mortified. I explained that I had been abused, and her demeanor changed. “Don’t worry!” she chirped. “Jesus knows it wasn’t your fault. It’s not like you wanted this or were willing.” I left that youth group meeting very confused…

Even more confusing was the relief the youth group leader expressed over the fact that I had been raped. It seemed to her a far better situation than if I had engaged in consensual, pleasurable sexual activity. There was no need, in her mind, to “revirginize” a girl who had been raped. I could still make the pledge to purity and chastity with the other girls and boys.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the silliness of “True Love Waits”-style campaigns, but it never really occurred to me to think about how a child who has been raped might experience these shaming “abstinence-only” discourses. That is to say, this would be particularly cruel, painful, and potentially traumatic for such a child.

Potentially even worse than teen purity rallies, I think, are the “purity balls.”

Consider the opening line of this local news video: “Would you pledge your virginity to your father?”



And this purity ball organization says:

The Purity Ball brings fathers and daughters together for an elegant evening of dining, discussion, and decision. Fathers commit to their daughters that they will remain pure, and ask their daughters for the same commitment. The fathers also commit to pursue the hearts of their daughters by working on strengthening their relationships and letting them know how much they love and care for them.

Why are fathers “pursuing the hearts of their daughters” in the first place?

After she got out, a Quiverfull-raised friend learned that an alarming number of the fathers she’d known had sexually abused their daughters. These men may very well have been abusers anyway, but rhetoric that casts the father-daughter relationship as a romantic one gave them a veneer of theological justification. Is it really surprising that the metaphor is lost on some of these fathers? 

One of the most egregious dangers of the “purity” rhetoric is that it provides what is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all roadmap to sexuality throughout one’s life. In its rosy picture of humanity, there is no child rape or incest. Its careful regulation of daughters is supposed to prevent such abuses, so there are no rhetorical tools—let alone emotional or psychological ones—sufficient for addressing reality. When one is committed to “purity thinking,” there is no logical answer to the question of child rape other than relief that the sex wasn’t consensual. Whew. At least you still have your purity intact.

And what about the lifelong consequences of this? When control of a woman’s sexuality is handed from her father to her husband like a business transaction, she may find it hard to remove herself from abusive situations in the future. At the very least, she will not have a language with which to discuss what she wants and what she doesn’t want in future sexual relationships.

I’m just going to be honest. At times, I’ve figured out ways of integrating musical analysis into these more topical discussions, but I have no idea how to do that here. I am not a sexual abuse survivor, but I was certainly entrenched in the purity rhetoric in my adolescent and teen years. I’ve seen the consequences of it.

This is one reason that I think women in blues have always appealed to me. In blues music, sexuality is aggressive, unapolagetic and very straightforward. Theological discussions about “sacred sex” and similar don’t really resonate with me, as I’m skeptical of attempts at thinking through sexuality within any sort of theological framework, but there is quite a bit of music out there that I find empowering. Some of it touches on sexuality and/or sexual abuse, and some doesn’t. In these recent posts about the Christian Right, I’ve been dissecting a lot of musical crap. So, here’s a smattering of music—in various genres—that is (1) not crap and that (2) makes me feel strong and/or celebratory (for a range of reasons, from lyrics to the way that it sounds). I probably won’t have time to analyze all of this music over the course of this series, so I present a few of them here. What music does this for you?


“Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed),” The Raveonettes (video contains lyrics)


“Cold War,” Janelle Monae


“The Laws Have Changed,” The New Pornographers


“Joy,” Lucinda Williams


“The Fight,” Sia


“Gold Guns Girls,” Metric


“Look at Miss Ohio,” Gillian Welch


“Identity Theft,” Nellie McKay


“I Hope You Die,” Wye Oak


“Make It Easy,” She Keeps Bees


Heartless Bastards, “Searching for the Ghost”


“Heart of My Own,” Basia Bulat


“Stolen Car,” Beth Orton


“Wayfaring Stranger,” Eva Cassidy


“Little Fly,” Esperanza Spalding

by Kristin Rawls
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9 Comments Have Been Posted

One size fits all

Thanks for writing about the place of sexually abused women/girls within this chastity rhetoric. This shows so powerfully how the 'one size fits all' assumptions of these ridiculous campaigns are really harmful. It's interesting, because the thought of a mom or dad or other adult person talking to a daughter about chastity doesn't creep me out. Even if they're telling her to remain a virgin until marriage, this imagined discussion doesn't particularly rile me because it's private, it's probably within the framework of the belief system this particular girl is raised in, etc. But these public pledges and balls are so appalling, and I think part of it is the weirdly materialistic/depersonalized/pop culture undertones. Nothing about it even feels "religious," but it does feel American. Anyway, you need to watch this clip of an outburst at a purity ball from the TV series Shameless:

That isn't the only issue

I completely agree with the comments about teens and children that went through sexual abuse, but I think that this idea of purity and chastity is all wrong to begin with. Ensuring that you remain pure by not having sex automatically means that sex isn't pure, which leads to sexual confusion and frustration on teen agers that one day will be involved in adult relationships. And I find really creepy the father-daughter bonding over a sexual decision, honestly I think the only person that you have to pledge something related with your sex life is yourself.

I really enjoyed this

I really enjoyed this article. The fact that so many religious fathers are so concerned (even expected to be concerned) with their daughters' vaginas has never sat well with me. I wonder how many of these men actually feel like their daughters owe them their "purity," and how many feel that way because Christian pop culture tells them to.

Thank you for writing this

Thank you for writing this post; I was actually talking to a friend about this subject yesterday. Experiencing assault, and experiencing the shaming effects of purity rhetoric, can cause psychic wounds so deep that it can take years to be able to feel good about sexuality and be able to relate and trust another person.

Thanks for writing about the

Thanks for writing about the damaging conceptual impossibilities emerging these enforced chastity movements -- on top of all the body-based self-hatred and distrust of one's own sexuality, but that's a whole rant in itself. And kind of an obvious one, too. Although I wonder if that whole "pursuing their daughters' hearts" thing may be a particularly egregious version of "Christianese," I also think it's a REALLY disturbingly thin rhetorical line to walk, especially if the resources for breaking down figurative and literal languages are weak or absent.

Also, Beth Orton and Stolen Car! HUZZAH.

I appreciated this piece. Not

I appreciated this piece. Not too long ago I found out about a little girl that was being sexually abused by her stepfather and asked "our" minister to intervene and try to help even though he holds a position of influence in the mom's life and is someone she would likely listen to about the need to protect her daughter. He would not. I was shocked. For so long i have heard him moralizing about sexual immorality and sex before marriage being wrong and yet he was surprisingly unbothered about the (obviously) extramarital and immoral sexual relations going on here. What was ver troubling to me was the blatant hypocrisy. As crazy as it is, I can imagine that someone sincerely believes sex before marriage is wrong, however I do not see how you can believe extramarital sex is wrong in one context and be willing to go to such great lengths to prevent it and yet in another context ignore it. This post was spot on about the disconnect that exists in fundamentalists condemnation of consensual sex before marriage and their apathy toward child sexual abuse.

In many states, ministers,

<p>In many states, ministers, like teachers and counselors, have a civil legal obligation to report even suspicions of child abuse. I hope someone did the right thing - or that you can.&nbsp;</p>

Oh, the memories!

The preacher at the fundamentally anti-womanist church of my youth managed to take this whole thing a step further. After a condescending lecture on how what little brains God originally gifted women with fly out the window when they fall in love, he invited all of us elementary and middle school aged girls to give HIM the final veto power over our life partners of choice, inviting us to "vow" that we wouldn't marry anyone he didn't approve of. I said thanks, I'll pass, and I hope all the other girls did too. I guess he had a point -- if you go into the ministry to feed your delusions of god-like power, why have the parents in the loop at all?

Also, in some churches, the value placed on "purity" is so high that girls who are sexually abused are considered damaged goods and encouraged to beg Jesus to forgive THEM. The man who forgoes his "right" to marry a virgin is performing a public service of such magnanimity that he can't be sufficiently praised. Abused girls are essentially told, "Pray to Jesus for forgiveness, and he just might send you a man who is willing to overlook the fact that you're not a virgin." That's how it used to be, anyway. Hope it's changed now. Doubt it.

I know I'm super late on

I know I'm super late on writing this, but I want to thank you SO much for writing on this topic. As someone that was sexually molested a child, getting the "purity" talk constantly by my parents and church has been tough. I'm in my 20's, and my mother always talks about how I should stay a "pure maiden" for my future husband and how he'll be so proud...meanwhile she seems to have forgotten so much that happened during my childhood. When the molestation happened, my parent swept it after the under the rug after a family member begged them not to tell the police. After that, I was molested frequently between aged 5-6 to my early teens. It's so frustrating because I feel like this issue is never talked about.

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