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The Lasting Legacy of the Abstinence Pledge

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In the height of purity culture, purity rings were a symbol of one's vow to practice abstinence until marriage,

A used tissue. A crushed flower. A chewed up piece of gum. Images meant to illustrate the dangers of premarital sex can inspire feelings of guilt and shame for those who grew up in purity culture, even after they’ve left the church.

The late 90s and early 2000s were the height of a movement called True Love Waits, which encouraged teenagers and young adults to sign pledges and wear purity rings signifying their commitment to abstinence until marriage. Now, many of the people who grew up in purity culture are actively dismantling its legacy of shame and guilt in order to reclaim their sexuality and bodily autonomy.

In this episode, host Anita Rao speaks with three people who came of age during purity culture’s heyday and have since worked to deconstruct purity myths. Lyz Lenz, author of “God Land and “Belabored,” shares how the concept of virginity impacted her marriage and her relationship to her own body. Filmmaker Nathanael Novero shares how he went from working as a youth pastor at an evangelical summer camp to producing erotic films. And Cindy Wang Brandt, author of “Parenting Forward,” shares her advice for parents who don’t want to pass on the legacy of purity culture to their kids.

What our listeners gained by leaving fear and shame behind

Kelsey said leaving purity culture had a positive impact on her faith:

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

Anna gained a sense of agency and autonomy in her sexual experiences:

“I began to stop seeing myself as an object, and started kind of realizing that I could be a participant in this experience of both love and pleasure.”

Tope talks about replacing guilt with confidence:

“I’m much more comfortable in my body and with my body … I’ve come to realize what a profound difference it makes to not live with the weight of that shame.”

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Audrey Smith is a writer, educator, and temporary producer of "Embodied" based in Greensboro, NC. She holds a Master's degree in Secondary English Language Arts Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (2018) and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from Oregon State University (2021).
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.