Overcoming Purity Culture: What I Learned When I Started Looking Past the Trauma of Shameful Sex
The other day I was considering posting a photo of myself wearing a more revealing outfit. I love this photo and I think I look amazing in it. I believe it celebrates the journey I’ve had with my personal relationship to purity culture and overcoming sexual assault.
But I decided not to post it. I was scared that I would be judged by my friends and family for looking “too sexy” or that people would be scandalized by this photo. I was scared that I would lose friends or that I’d have to answer awkward questions at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I was deeply scared of getting the unwanted attention that makes me shrink when shouted at me on the streets of NYC — objectifying attention. I also realized that the photo wasn't even that scandalous, I just wasn’t wearing pants.
I realized that I am never scandalized when my friends post photos like this. I support them, cheering them on, and come to their defenses if and when they are objectified. I became acutely aware of my own bias based on my understanding of sex and modesty due to my upbringing and religious background. I also asked myself why my family or friends should feel awkward that I am celebrating my body and that if they do, they are another person who has been deeply, negatively affected by purity culture.
Growing up Catholic, I was taught that sex was shameful.
As a teenager, I felt so much shame for feeling desire even if I wasn’t acting on it. I began to question whether or not I was disgusting for thinking about sex or men or porn. As a woman, I wasn’t supposed to think about those things, much less want them. I was supposed to remain innocent and pure. However, the reality of human development is that people have a high sex drive from age 13 to 19 more so than any other time in their life.
During this time in my life, I made the switch from attending public school to Catholic school for my high school education. For the first time in my life, I saw just how much the Catholic Church painted sex as something shameful. I realized how miseducated Church leaders were on things like oral contraceptives, reproductive health, and a woman’s body. The misinformation and active attempt to shame completely turned me off from my Church communities and that’s when I began to distance myself from God.
When I left home for college, I found myself longing for a deeper relationship with a higher power and I rediscovered my relationship with God. I did more research on different perspectives and legitimate Church teachings. I was also exposed to different cultures and communities where sex drive was celebrated and where people were properly educated on how to practice safe sex.
Through my research and cultural immersion, I learned that sex was supposed to feel good, something I had never been taught before. I discovered that God gave us this wonderful gift on Earth and that it was the closest you could feel to another human being. Sex, from the perspective of scripture and Catholic teaching, was actually a beautiful act of intimacy between two people who love each other and never something to feel ashamed about.
In my personal journey deepening my relationship with God, I learned how to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for my sexuality and relationship to sex. I now view it as all the beautiful things I know God gifted it to us as, but I didn’t always feel that way.
The reality is that most women understand sex as a negative thing and have a dysfunctional relationship to sexuality. Many women learn how to overcome this relationship but these teachings and purity culture ultimately contribute to the broader issues of shaming women and rape culture. By teaching women to cover up and to not even desire sex, it contributes to our insecurities about our own bodies. It teaches us that we are viewed as nothing more than a sexual object and that it is our individual responsibility to suppress our sexuality.
It silences a woman’s power and it stops them from posting a photo like the one I am posting today. I now know that I have control over my own body. I know how to manage my positive relationship to sex in a meaningful way and I know my relationship with God isn’t suffering because of it.
Sometimes it is still a struggle because what the Catholic Church taught me growing up was and is still powerfully in my subconscious. However, I work every day to love myself and my body and to express that however I want to.
Here’s the photo:
If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with purity culture, shameful sex, and how you’re working to overcome it. ❤
Monica Arsenault is a Brooklyn-based director and producer whose work addresses issues at the intersection of womanhood, sexuality, and faith. Her work has been internationally recognized at over 20 different film festivals. Her ultimate goal is to make a global impact helping women and people from marginalized communities step into the spotlight by highlighting issues that directly affect them, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Monica is constantly seeking new projects and would love to connect with you at monicaarsenault.com.