Home Audio Transcription Purified: Podcast Transcript | WUNC

Purified: Podcast Transcript | WUNC

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Anita Rao
I never felt particularly religious as a kid, but I did grow up with a lot of religious education. On Wednesday evenings I went to classes at the Catholic Church, and for most of my childhood spent Sundays attending 8:30 a.m. mass, and then shuttling over to a family friend’s house for 10 a.m. Hindu Sunday school called Balavihar. Despite all of this religious exposure, what I remember most in terms of conversations around sex and sexuality is silence. From the silence, I inferred that sex was something I shouldn’t be thinking about, at least not until marriage. I’m a 90s kid, which means that I didn’t have to look far to see and hear things that reinforced these teachings. For those of us who grew up alongside purity culture, or thoroughly immersed in it, how does that legacy show up in our lives and bodies today? This is Embodied. I’m Anita Rao.

The folks I knew growing up who wore purity rings and had purity ceremonies were Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears, which is to say that I was not in the thick of evangelical purity culture. Before we meet some people who were — a heads up that this episode contains mentions of sex acts, erotica, sexual violence and sexual trauma. If you need to stop listening to this episode, or pause it for later, feel free to do that now. Okay, here we go.

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Tope
An image that encapsulates purity culture for me is one I heard recounted in a sermon — a testimony supposedly from a male college student who said that the existence of women on his college campus posed such a challenge to him in his battle with lust and sexual temptation that the only solution was to treat any woman he encountered as essentially a floating head and to make every effort never to look below her shoulders. We were sexualized to such a degree that boys and men have to metaphorically dismember us in order to interact with us even semi-normally.

Jessica
I had to take a class in high school called “Courtship, Marriage And Family” where the course readings were heavily focused on Joshua Harris’ books, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” We had female teachers, well a PE teacher, who would remind us of the importance of keeping our bodies fit for our husbands. I have flashbacks of the scrupulous choir director in my high school that would stand in the hallway and write females up for dress code violations.

Anna
I remember one of my youth pastors standing on stage holding a flower, and as he described physical acts like holding hands, kissing, hand stuff, oral sex, and finally penetrative sex, he plucked petals from the flower and said that with every physical act, there would be less of us left to give to our future spouse.

Anita Rao
You just heard from listeners Tope, Jessica and Anna. Those images have stayed with them for decades. The same is true for writer Lyz Lenz. The metaphor seared into her brain: clean tissue, dirty tissue. Lyz is a writer who explores the intersections of faith, politics and the body, and those interests stem from her own experience.

Lyz Lenz
I grew up in this subculture of homeschooled evangelicals, and I was born in the early 80s. I’m number two of eight kids, and our whole world was home and church and home and church. And everything we heard was about staying pure, not just from sex, but our minds staying clean from the evil influences of the world. This is also backlash to second generation feminists who had work to legalize or at least get Roe v. Wade through the Supreme Court. There were so many antiquated, misogynistic laws just being systematically taken off the books in states throughout the country. The impact of second generation feminism was all these women being put into these pretty high places, and there is a cultural scramble to pull them back down again.

Anita Rao
Lyz saw the politics of gender playing out in real time. She remembers pastors making comments about Hillary Clinton’s appearance and got specific guidance about how she should be thinking about her own.

Lyz Lenz
I’m one of five girls, and [I’m] the second oldest. And there was just this vigilance over our purities and our bodies. And so when I turned 16, my dad gave me this ring that was Black Hills gold. I love my parents, but it was cheap, ugly, and I hated it even then. We didn’t have a lot of money, and so, to me, I was like: Oh, jewelry. I’m a 16 year old girl. I was so excited. And then I get it. I’m like: I hate this, but I felt like I had to pretend to like it. At least at the time — I was just a rule follower. I just wanted to be a good kid. And everybody was saying like: This is how you be a good kid. It just felt confusing and weird.

Anita Rao
So there was a lot of focus on the body. Purity culture kind of teaching you that your body is your greatest gift. It’s important that you preserve its purity; don’t attract any attention to it. And you mentioned that, as a young kid, you had some questions. Yu had some pushback, but you were also very much in this world. At what point did you start questioning the tenets of purity culture?

Lyz Lenz
I was questioning my faith in high school. Not my faith, exactly, but I was questioning what all these rules were there for. I was homeschooled until high school. And the moment I got to high school, I was a weird kid who sewed my own clothes and wore newsy-style caps — to public high school, I did that. I was a weird kid. But of course, who were the kids that befriended me — all the weirdos. The kids who were the kids of color in my small South Dakota high school. It was the queer kids at my small South Dakota high school. I find myself in this space where the people who are my friends and I love — I’m going to church and being taught that they’re sinners or bad. And I think right away, that just didn’t make sense to me.

Anita Rao
When Lyz went off to college, she stayed committed to abstinence and didn’t date. But she did put away her purity ring after it got into an altercation with her loofa in the shower. She read lots of books and kept asking questions. And then something happened that became a real and terrifying secret.

Lyz Lenz
In college, I was sexually assaulted. I had gone to a conference where I was presenting a paper. It was this huge honor. I was very excited. And I went and hung out with some of the other students at the time, and we were drinking. I rarely ever drank, but I was just there, and I did it, and I drank. And then I was assaulted. And at the time, I remember thinking: One, that it was my fault. Two, that I had done it. And three, that everything was ruined. I didn’t have a lot of clear memories of it. I just remember waking up in the morning, and I was in a strange city, and I had like no money in my bank account. And I remember immediately thinking I have to get to a Planned Parenthood, because I cannot be pregnant. I went, and I remember coming back and washing my face and then presenting my paper, and then just staying in my room the rest of the time. I was trying to figure out how to keep control of my life. And at the time, that just turned into pretending like it hadn’t happened. I just pretended like it didn’t happen. And the cognitive dissonance is truly powerful. I really understand when women talk and say: Wow, I didn’t understand what had happened to me was assault because I just didn’t have the language for it. I was 21, but sex had been taught to me in such black and white terms. It was either you stay pure, or you’re ruined and that’s it. I’m a survivor. So I was just like: Okay, how do we move forward?

Anita Rao
Lyz finished college and got married when she was 22. For the 12 years she and her husband were together, she never told him about her assault. With some distance from their marriage and divorce, she’s seen just how much both purity culture and her assault affected the way she approached sex in her marriage.

Lyz Lenz
When you teach a woman that the only thing she has to give to her future husband is her body, and that’s the only gift, and if you wreck it — it’s wrecked. Maybe you can pray enough and God will redeem you, but like, it becomes an obligation rather than a joy. So then I get married, and then we’re not attracted to each other. Sex is an obligation. It’s difficult, and I become a mother, and I’m realizing that I don’t even understand my body. And I think it was becoming a mother of a daughter, and a son very specifically, that made me feel like I was so disconnected from my body and my sense of joy and pleasure.

Anita Rao
Purity culture teaches women to control their bodies and men to control their minds, so that both don’t fall down the slippery slope toward sex. But then when sex is on the table after you exchange vows, how do you erase all of those decades of programming telling you to fear and avoid what’s about to happen? Lyz encountered that conundrum on her honeymoon, and so did Nathaniel Novero.

Nathan Novero
Because I was so principled about not having sex before marriage, my fiancé found that very attractive.

Anita Rao
Nathan is a documentary filmmaker and former youth minister. He grew up in the Bible Belt in Arkansas as the child of Filipino immigrants. Purity culture led him to believe that if he was a good Christian, and waited to have sex until marriage, God would bless him with a fulfilling sex life.

Nathan Novero
Once the honeymoon came, I already made a decision years ago that I was not going to have sex on my honeymoon night because it’ll just be too exhausting. And that honeymoon night was the most amazing, blissful, peaceful sleep that I remember having. To share that space with my bride — both of us skin against skin. What a delight. Pure heaven. The next day was when our nightmare began.

We simply could not perform. My wife locked herself into the bathroom for three hours. I did not know how to handle that situation, and that was the moment when I was thinking: Is this normal? And it continued for 15 years, so we really didn’t feel peace until we just simply let sex off the table.

Anita Rao
Nathan knew he would be waiting for sex until marriage from a young age. Like Lyz, he and his two brothers grew up inundated with purity culture messaging.

Nathan Novero
In Asian cultures, there’s such a grip on family respect and family honor — not shaming your parents and how you live. All of that translated so effortlessly into the purity culture world of Christianity in the Bible Belt.

Anita Rao
Nathan even ended up preaching that purity culture messaging while working as a youth pastor at summer church camps, but it didn’t always sit right. And eventually he left the camps and the ministry altogether. As he started exploring the effect purity culture had on his life, some realizations clicked into place.

Nathan Novero
What’s happening is there’s a duplicity. Christianity didn’t teach us spirit embodied. We are taught that we have to accept Christ to return to his grace, and that the body is essentially sin. So this separation from the body at the very get-go, what does this do to us and our psyche? It essentially teaches us to lie in the very beginning. Not trust whatever information is coming from our bodies.

Anita Rao
For Lyz, those realizations happen as she started working on her book “God Land.”.

Lyz Lenz
I remember sitting in a seminar in Chicago, and my marriage was falling apart by then. I was really struggling. I was trying to be a woman with a career, and I was being pushed back into a motherhood-only role that I didn’t want. And I remember hearing a woman say that it’s white supremacy and patriarchy that tries to separate us from our body. And that really spoke to me. And I really began to understand what that purity culture narrative had done to me. It had separated me from being a fully embodied human being. As I tried to explore that and tried to experience that — my marriage fell apart because my marriage was based on this rigid definition of my body and my sexuality. I could only ever be the one thing.

Anita Rao
Nathan and Lyz both felt disconnected from their bodies. But how do you get from noticing to healing? Lyz has processed a lot of that in her writing. For Nathan, the answer was making his own erotic films. Yeah, you heard that, right. I know, it may seem like a big leap, but it’s exactly what he needed.

Nathan Novero
Something I discovered out of purity culture was that I was afraid of women and sex. How did I study this? Well, let’s just kind of move myself around and see what happens. I checked out some adult, exotic places where women dance, and you can pay them. And so I went over there, and I discovered that I was shaking and trembling uncontrollably. And I then noticed that I — who was an eloquent speaker as a public speaker — I could not speak in those spaces. My mind would go blank. Something is blocking me off from talking about pleasure. So all of these clues made me feel like something, perhaps in an indoctrination level, locked me out. So what happens if I step in, take a breath and just see what happens? So when I shot the film — one of the reasons why I shot it with the camera is because when I’m behind the camera as a man, I feel like an ostrich who sticks his head in the ground. I feel like I’m gone, and I’m invisible. No one can see me. Of course, people can see me, but I just feel like I’m safe. I feel like I’m safe from behind the camera. And whatever’s in front of the camera has my full attention, and my full worship. After I made that film, I basically felt that I experienced God.

I just felt this tremendous grace. I have no idea what to say. And I’ve led people to Christ. I’ve seen that happen. So what I felt was equivocal. And now I had to start a whole new search, toss the script, and rediscover God in myself again.

Anita Rao
Redefining faith after experiencing purity culture wasn’t a linear journey for Lyz or Nathan. Nor for many of y’all.

Anna
My partner actually helped me start deconstructing purity culture with a simple — but to me radical —thing he said in high school. I was apologizing for what I perceived to be a defect in my body. And he was like: Anna, I love your body because it’s yours. Not because it looks a certain way. And that was honestly the moment when I began to stop seeing myself as an object and started kind of realizing that I could be a participant in the experience of both love and pleasure.

Shannon
I hit my purity culture breaking point when I was in my 20s. I was out as gay and trying really hard to remain an Evangelical. I was doing everything right. And still people just assumed that I was having sex. And I realized that purity culture was really about respectability, and that no matter how respectable I was, I would never be accepted just because I was queer. And that’s when the whole edifice fell down.

Tope
In terms of moving away from purity culture, I would say rather than a single breaking point, there have been multiple moments of rupture for me that have been part of a process of divesting myself of the assumptions and effects of purity culture. Some of those moments have been more profound, some less so.

Kelsey
When I started to deconstruct purity culture, the thing that changed the most for me was that I actually had a deeper, more profound spiritual relationship because it was no longer wrapped up in fear, shame or rules.

Anita Rao
You just heard from Anna, Shannon, Tope and Kelsey. Divesting from purity culture’s messages about sex and the body has particularly high stakes for parents who don’t want to pass the same lessons on to their kids.

Cindy Wang Brandt
As I was dismantling purity culture within me, I felt at the same time this urgency to ensure that my kids have a better way of living.

Anita Rao
That’s Cindy Wang Brandt. She’s an ex-evangelical who has dedicated her career to helping parents raise their children unfundamentalist. She’s written a book called “Parenting Forward” and hosts a podcast by the same name. Cindy was born and raised in Taiwan, where she attended an evangelical missionary school that taught purity culture messaging. She followed its rules, got married and has two kids.

Cindy Wang Brandt
I felt like I wasn’t damaged by purity culture, because I did everything right. I didn’t have to feel ashamed about anything. I didn’t feel like a crumpled rose or chewed up gum or anything like that. So it wasn’t until recent years — I would say the past couple of years — after I deconstructed a lot of other things about my evangelical faith that I realized: Oh, I wasn’t unharmed by purity culture. I was harmed. It just got to a point where my partner and I both had suppressed our sexuality, or at least parts of our sexuality, for so long, that it just was inevitable that it was gonna come to the surface. And that’s kind of what happened. And we didn’t have practice communicating very openly and honestly about our sexual desires, our sexual preferences, and we didn’t really prioritize our sex life as partners. We were suppressing because of all of that. We were really suppressing a lot of who we were to each other.

Anita Rao
And you situated us in this being a relatively recent shift for you. You have two kids, and they were already teenagers at the time that you began to really dismantle your own purity culture ideology. So tell me about kind of that intersection of recognizing your role as a parent of teenagers and the messages that you wanted them to have about sex and sexuality, and where you were at that time in your own journey with this?

Cindy Wang Brandt
It does feel a little bit like I was urgently trying to input a sex positive message to my kids. I really wanted to make sure that my kids had a better way of thinking about themselves — that they could love themselves; that they would not see their misbehavior as sin, but as simply misalignment of values or a lack of regulation in their bodies. If I would unlearn something about purity culture, I would just be frantic or desperate to make sure that my kids kind of learned the opposite, so that they didn’t have to unlearn that.

Anita Rao
Unlearning something and relearning something new at the same time, it makes your brain hurt. But Cindy has some good advice.

Cindy Wang Brandt
I work with a lot of parents, and I always try to encourage parents to take a breath, to take a beat. To understand that your child is not you. Your child is growing up in a different time, and indeed they are. They have different resources — the kinds of messaging that they’re learning. Even though I believe the culture is largely sex negative, there are really good resources out there now and information that I didn’t have access to.

Anita Rao
You’ve said that being able to unravel and distinguish the difference between privacy and shame was something that was really important in your own sex positive parenting journey. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. Maybe you can give us an example of how you could impart that distinction to a kid.

Cindy Wang Brandt
I think because of the sexual silence from purity culture, we just felt like if there was anything that we couldn’t say, that we couldn’t share with other people. For example, your sexual desire — if you feel turned on by a movie scene, and you’re like: Oh, I could never tell anybody this, and the reason I can never tell anybody this is because it’s sinful, and it’s shameful. As I dismantle that and embrace sex positivity, I realize: Oh no, it’s actually really normal. It’s a very normal human impulse to be sexually turned on, but just because something is not shameful doesn’t mean it needs to be something that is shared with whoever and wherever. Sometimes I feel like people who emerged from purity culture tend to overshare, because they feel like: Well, if I don’t need to feel ashamed about this then I can just say everything. There’s social norms that you still need to abide by. And, as parents, talking to kids, you don’t need to be sharing every detail about your sexual fantasy with your kids in order to be sex positive.

Anita Rao
Unpacking shame is huge. Y’all have heard me have some conversations with my own parents on this show. And I think all three of us still have some work to do in acknowledging the shame clouds that hang over our sex talks. Cindy gets a lot of questions from parents about how to not pass down this shame to their kids.

Cindy Wang Brandt
I hear from a lot of parents that they struggle with the way that their daughters dress, because they grew up being ashamed of their body or being told that their bodies were an object of lust. And so their impulse is to say, to repeat the way they were treated, and to tell their daughters to cover it up. But then at the same time, they don’t want that for their daughters. They want their daughters to embrace body positivity and to express themselves with freedom. And so that’s where your values and your triggers become in conflict with each other, because you’re triggered from your own purity culture.

It’s important to have compassion for yourself, when you are parenting out of fear. That is understandable. You love your kids. You want to protect them, and so fear is natural. And just like we want to validate emotions in our kids, we should validate it in ourselves. But I think we shouldn’t let fear make the decision. And to say: Okay, I respect my fear. I know that it comes from love, but I’m going to choose a different way. I’m going to not say anything. I’m going to let my daughter dress the way that she would like. And this is why it’s so important for parents to have support communities, because they can kind of bend to your triggers to other adults and other supportive parents. Then you can come to your kid with a better decision, with a more regulated body, and you can really collaborate with your kid on how to move forward.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC — a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC’s other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and Audrey Smith. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pick up: weaverstreetmarket.coop. And if you enjoyed the show, please share about it on social media. Send it to a friend or tag us in a post. It helps new folks find our show and it means so much. Until next time. I’m Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.





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