The Flaw at the Center of Purity Culture

An illustration of Christian iconography.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I dedicated my life to Jesus and became a Christian. As one of the few Asians at my school, outside Atlanta, I found refuge in local Korean churches, where I met like-minded friends.

Week by week, our hangouts after church became less about finding comfort in our Korean American selves and more about finding our identity in Christ. A big part of forming a Christian identity when I was young was about waiting to have sex until marriage. If we overcame our fleshly desires and transcended the needs of the physical body, we were told, we would have more time and space for receiving God’s grace and sanctification.

Our unnies and oppas taught us that a vow of chastity would keep us from getting hurt or becoming damaged, like protecting a delicate flower from blooming too early. If my flower became spoiled, then putting it back together would be really hard. If I faltered, I also risked not having intimacy with God and living the perfect, sanctified life. I read this passage from Romans 12 over and over: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

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I’ve been thinking about my upbringing in the church a lot this week, after the killing of Asian American women near where I grew up. The shooter, who was active in an evangelical church, said that he had a “sex addiction,” an assertion many in the evangelical world recognize as an outgrowth of purity culture gone awry. The details of his case are still being investigated, but as I mourned with other Asian American Christian women, I was reminded how harmful purity culture is for girls and women.

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that if I followed all the rules of purity, I would have a good relationship with God and naturally attract great godly men, and eventually a great godly husband. Many of my church friends decided to take a break from their boyfriend for up to a year to work on their relationship with God, and many decided that they would not even touch their boyfriend until they were married, to avoid temptation.

I read many books to help me remain sexually pure, most notably Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity and Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. For me, though, one book shone above the rest: Jackie Kendall and Debby Jones’s Lady in Waiting. It was the ultimate guide to becoming a pure woman in order to achieve holiness and attract the right kind of man. I read and reread this book, using different highlighters and making notes in multiple colors. The pages of my book became tattered and torn, and the binding became unglued. I didn’t mind that the writing was a bit cheesy—I wanted to attract a man like Ruth’s Boaz in the Old Testament. Boaz was a tenderhearted man who saved Ruth and her mother-in-law from poverty and rejection. Lady in Waiting instructed me to love God with reckless abandon in order to attract my own Boaz, and not a “Bozo.” My sexual purity was the ultimate turn-on for a godly man. I vowed to stay on track. I felt closer to God already.

The rules didn’t seem to apply equally to everyone, however, which I noticed as I began working at and attending primarily white or multicultural churches in college and as I grew older. For all this talk about transcending your body to be pure, I sure was being evaluated on mine. One woman stroked my hair without hesitation while cooing, “Your hair is so beautiful and just so Asian.” I gritted my teeth when men pinched my cheeks after I played music at worship service. I pretended to be entertained when men started conversations with me by fumbling through their ni haos and an yong ha say yos. And I lost count of how many times I was called a China doll.

I was encouraged to give “side hugs,” because full-frontal hugs were very tempting to men, especially those who enjoyed meeting Asian women. I realized that I was sometimes perceived as an exotic temptress rather than a China doll. And although I didn’t quite understand why this happened,  I felt ashamed of what I assumed was a character flaw. I repented after every physical interaction with a man that crossed the strict boundaries laid out in my books and by my pastors. I confessed to my unnies and oppas, sobbing, while they encouraged me to keep “running the race,” that it was never too late to become a godly woman. I read Lady in Waiting again and was reminded that even Rahab the prostitute was shown God’s grace, because she gave birth to Boaz.

I heard the whispers about other women around me who had had secret abortions. Some felt too ashamed or judged to return to church, even as their exes and violators continued to rise in leadership. Stories came out about guys who were having sex, cheating on their girlfriends multiple times, and abusing women. Church leaders told us that no man is perfect, and that they’d grow out of their southern “drinkin’ and carousin’.” If they were called by God, we had to show them grace and forgiveness.

In the book of Revelation, a beautiful character named the “woman clothed with the sun” wears a crown of stars, with the moon at her feet, and she is enveloped in God’s light before giving birth. Another character, the “great whore,” is clothed in purple and scarlet, and wears massive amounts of jewelry. She holds a cup full of her impurities, and has “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations” branded on her forehead. When John the Revelator sees this woman, he says something I now find chilling and telling: I was greatly amazed.

He is smitten with her as he stares at her drunken body, covered in jewels. Eventually, an angel yells some sense into him, revealing that this woman represents the people and institutions that turned on Jesus. She is stripped naked by beasts that “devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.”

These two characters represent a familiar binary for many evangelical women. We are either temptresses or radiant queens. In my case, as an Asian American woman, this binary exists on several levels beyond the Christian one. Asian bodies are, as the writer Anne Anlin Cheng has noted, ornamental because they’re oriental. Exotic and mysterious. Small and submissive. China dolls or dragon ladies. Lotus flowers or tiger moms.

As I followed my calling into the evangelical ministry world, I felt vulnerable in the midst of powerful white male domination. I blamed myself for feeling uneasy when a Christian social-justice leader planted a wet kiss on my cheek and held on to me while saying I was the Asian American voice of racial reconciliation. I blamed myself when another worship leader sent me pictures of his penis. In every uncomfortable situation, I figured that I was the common denominator—the great whore—and I absorbed the shame of feeling impure and far from God.

Not once did I consider whether exotification, misogyny, or Asian fetishization had anything to do with my shame. Not once did I consider that these dynamics play into layers of heteronormative patriarchy, male domination, and the subjugation of women. Not once did I consider that the men behaved inappropriately because they assumed that I would not say anything. Not once did I consider that they were wrong. I only thought about how I was somehow at fault. The hours spent poring over my manual, Lady in Waiting, seemed to have been for nothing, as I failed miserably in my pursuit of holiness and sanctification. In my worst moments, I wondered if I would ever get back to God.

A moment of disillusionment finally came one night during dinner with a friend who was in town for a conference. She confided in me that a Christian leader we both knew had inappropriately touched her. I was shocked. I told her that I had also had an incident with him. After hearing her story, I realized that I wasn’t at fault when men harassed me. And I began to understand that the lie of transcendent purity enabled an entire system of everyday sexist abuse.

Around this time, I had taken a job at the Chicago campus of Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical megachurch led by Bill Hybels. A few years later, Hybels was accused of sexual misconduct, allegations that eventually led him to step down. (Hybels denies the accusations.) Triggered by the scandal, several women told me stories about other church leaders in their past who’d harmed them in some way. The shame and abuse in the wider Christian world was more extensive than I had imagined, and now I was holding their stories as well as my own.

I had had enough. I had already submitted my resignation, because I had decided to go back to divinity school for my master’s, but I moved up my end date and left the institution and culture that had made so many women suffer in isolation and silence.

I eventually learned to embrace different ways of interpreting the Bible that considered and centered the viewpoint of women. I focused on Ruth’s loyalty and solidarity with her mother-in-law. I wondered if John the Revelator was misogynistic in his choice to classify women as objects of purity or destruction, and learned how to contrast him with Jesus, who valued all sorts of complicated women in his life and ministry. I sought out churches that let women minister and lead without depending on male models of leadership, and I called out  injustices when I saw them, by trusting my God-given body and believing what it felt, instead of trying to transcend it to escape ugly realities.

When I recently gathered on Zoom with Asian American female leaders in the Christian world to mourn the deaths of the women in Atlanta, I felt soothed as they sang the songs of our ancestors and prayed. I am thankful that the #MeToo movement prompted #ChurchToo and a whole new canon of resources for Christian women seeking to flourish outside the harmful effects of purity culture. By disentangling myself from the ideals of purity, I am creating new ways of being with others in my community. I feel much closer to God already.