Broken Daughters

Picking up the shattered glass of fundamentalism

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the purest of them all?

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Ages after we abolished paying money to a father so that he would let you marry his daughter, we still somehow see virgins as something desirable. Though we might not measure in gold or land anymore, we certainly put a price tag on every woman, spiritually, emotionally, culturally.

These price tags are especially important in christian fundamentalism. And that price goes WAY down if only the slightest scratch was ever attained (though, it was only right at the back of the knee and didn’t leave a scar).

We’re not talking about physical virginity here. That is important, though, because once that’s gone, a man might as well marry a street-walker.

We’re talking about emotional purity here. Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free? That’s old news. Why buy the cow when you can look at it for free would be much more accurate to describe what fundamentalism is doing to its’ daughters.

There is only one way a woman can stay pure: If she never even had an emotional attachment of any sorts with a man. And with this mindset, purity become the impossible good. A girl will be damaged goods if she has had a deep friendship with a boy. A girl is damaged goods if she ever held hands or “flirted” with a guy. And flirting is stretched very far here. Laughing about a joke a guy tells might be flirting if the wrong people see it. Being in a room with a boy who’s not part of your family is considered damaging to the girl’s purity. Purity becomes a minefield and the only way to avoid it is, I’m sad to say this, staying at home. Inside your house. Seriously, don’t even take out the garbage because some boy might say hi and talk to you, and you would be flirting. And anyway, what if somebody saw you? They’d gossip their mouths fuzzy that you’re having a secret boyfriend and once that’s in people’s minds, you’re about as damaged as a vase somebody dropped out the 13th floor on the hard concrete sidewalk.

And what about men? Well, men are so focused on sex even at a young age, you can’t really blame them for a slip here and there. A man who wastes his purity on, say, holding hands, will not be “as impure” as a woman doing it. And even worse: A man who admits his “sin” is considered strong, spiritually mature and godly. His purity is easy fixed in the minds of people. A woman admitting her “sin” is still damaged. The reputation of being impure will always follow her around.

I grew up in an environment where even talking to a guy could make me look like a slut. Any interaction between boys and girls was so dangerous and at a young age lead to strict discipline that I stopped interacting with boys completely. I wouldn’t talk to them in church or at conventions unless a male relative of mine was right next to me. They don’t tell you to behave that way, but it’s expected.

I couldn’t go out alone, or with girls only, or, much worse, with boys who weren’t related to me. Whenever I wanted to do something outside the house, I needed a male relative with me. Even at the supermarket I couldn’t move too far away from my mother (unless one of my smaller brothers went with me). My smaller brothers were trained to “protect” their sisters, us older ones as well as the younger ones. Age didn’t matter, gender did. A girl out alone, walking down the street to bring something to that nice old lady a living a quarter mile away? Can’t have that! There’s all those horny, sexually perverse, monkey-like men just waiting for to pick you up, tell you you’re so pretty and they feel an instant connection. And of course us girls are stupid enough to hop right into bed with them. Or into the car, whatever. No joke, I had to take my younger brother with me in order to bring that old lady a pot of soup when she was sick.

The very few times I got to talk to boys and later men was when my brothers were around. At church, my brothers would talk to their friends while us girls stood next to them, smiled and acted quiet and meek. We were not to look into their eyes, or to laugh about their jokes as this would imply interest in them, not to ask questions because that again would imply interest in them, not to mention that we were supposed to look godly, and godly girls and women are meek and quiet, not straight-forward asking a bunch of questions.

Our lessons for school were different. We learned female things like cleaning, sewing, music and cooking, together with girls from like-minded families. There were meetings with other women from our community, old and young, teaching us different instruments and exchanging “secrets”. How do you get grass stains out of those jeans? What can you do when you overcooked potatoes? It was treated like secret, sacred knowledge. We were miles ahead of those secular feminists who couldn’t even boil water without burning down the house.

We also had lessons on men. How to treat them, how to act around them, what they liked and didn’t like. Wise tips and tricks were given. Always have a glass of your husband’s or Dad’s favourite drink ready when he gets home. Don’t bother him with questions. Cheerfully eat the food you hate once a week if that’s his favourite food.

We were given advice how to dress, too. Our clothes were checked for potential immodesty: Was the neckline too low? Would the top show the skin on your back when you kneeled down to pick something up? Would the skirt outline your butt if you picked something up or was it still lose and modest?

I had a time, or better phase in my life, I was 15, 16, where I discovered a love for colorful hair bands. They made my long, boring hair look somewhat fashionable and allowed different hairstyles than the typical modest braid. I could wear it up, wear it open, wear it in different braids artistically wrapped around my head and top it off with a cool looking hair band. My intention in this wasn’t any other than trying to look somewhat worldly. It had a surprising effect: I was praised for covering my hair. It started a whole discussion whether women should cover or not, and I was asked why I did it – to which I replied “Because I think it looks pretty”. They didn’t realize I meant fashionable, they thought I meant modest and godly. I never corrected them and quiet this practice a while after.

Purity goes far beyond sexual relations. Extreme purity is something that has an effect on every area in your life. I was considered one of the really pure girls in our community. My fear of being anything else was too big to be rebellious.

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18 thoughts on “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the purest of them all?

  1. Very interesting post. I wonder how much of that mindset is tied into the fairy tales where a princess is locked up in a tower only to be rescued by her prince charming? On the surface it seems to break down to a similar idea. The woman is locked away only to be rescued at the end, although the people holding her prisoner are portrayed as trolls or witches (perhaps that’s because I’ve seen the Disney versions).

  2. Just a quick introduction… I was raised with two younger sisters in a secular, egalitarian environment by loving, committed parents. I have never experienced the fundamentalist lifestyle, but I feel for you! So deeply. I’m trying to understand, and thank you for writing about your experiences with such candidness and grace.

    I knew about emotional sin, but I was not aware that the behavior required for a female to uphold it was so extreme.

    In my family, I was expected (even encouraged!) to have multiple sexual/emotional partners, and my future mate as well – if I ever decided to get married. It was considered natural. How else were people to discover what they liked and what personalities they’d be compatible with?

    And so, neither me nor my husband were virgins, many times over, when we decided to get married. I was 28 years old. We both understand and accept (and even love!) the fact that both of us fell in love and experienced relationships with other people; we regret none of those previous relationships and feel no guilt. They were all learning experiences and special in their own ways. The fact that we chose each other over all others is the part that makes our relationship special. Our choice of the other as a mate was mature and mutual, based on information and experience.

    It is very difficult for me to understand the emphasis placed on extreme “purity.” It seems like it makes the future so much more uncertain and difficult (and the past so guilt-ridden and unhappy!) for both parties.

    • The argument of experience and knowing what you like both emotionally and sexually is usually countered with the opinion that you can’t chose your spouse, only God can and when you let him do that, you won’t be disappointed, the match will be perfect and the issue of not being compatible sexually won’t arise as God will make sure you go perfectly together.
      As I have learned reading several blogs, this doesn’t hold truth in reality and struggled with sexuality are just as big (if not bigger) as in worldly relationships. There is just as much porn, cheating and abuse. They just manage to hide it much better. Just reading about how many wives “caught” their husband watching porn makes me think that this whole purity and faithfulness deal doesn’t change things in reality.

  3. Lisa … I like how you write and that you give us a look inside your strict upbringing. I grew up traditional Mennonite and while we had many rules (many more for the girls than the boys, which always annoyed me!) it wasn’t quite as oppressive as your world was. My heart breaks for you and I hope that you can find freedom and peace as you process where you came from and move forward.

  4. Yes. And you think that any glance from a man, any guy who says hi, is hitting on you. I prided myself on never allowing myself to be in the same room alone with a guy, even if the room had an open doorway and there were a million people a few feet away. I never hugged guys, never even shook hands. If I felt very daring, and a guy I thought was nice at church seemed to be showing interest in me (aka talking to me at all, opening a door for me) I would “flirt” by making eye contact very briefly. I remember wishing I had an older brother so I could go out of the house more, the brother closest in age to me was 8 years younger. I envied the girls who were able to go places with a protector.

    • Yeah I was lucky that my parents thought of my younger brother as honorable and responsible enough to “watch” over me. I still felt really stupid because I saw so many other girls going out in girls only groups, meeting at the mall, drinking coffee, chatting and having fun. And there I was in my stupid modest clothes with my little brother as my chaperone and instead of telling him “I want to go to that shop” I had to ask “Would you mind going into that shop?”. I didn’t see those girls flirting around or anything and I thought to myself, this looks so innocent, why can’t I have that? But then again, you were supposed to be best friends with your siblings, not strangers.

  5. I’ve done a little bit more pondering on this subject of purity. Perhaps this is a throwback to the primal instincts of our ancestors. Males are at a distinct disadvantage compared to females, because they can’t be completely sure that their offspring are theirs (women give birth, so they can’t help but know!). In some species, males even kill offspring of the females nearby to prevent other males’ genetic lines from prospering. Perhaps this idea of purity is just another way for males to try to guarantee, socially, emotionally and spiritually, that one’s offspring are his.

    • That’s an idea I’ve heard and though I don’t know that much on the subject of evolution it sounds very plausible. Another thing that I have been pondering is the fact that maybe men are so fragile in their ego that they can’t take being compared to other men. I don’t think that holds true for reality. I’ve been in a courtship and so far when I saw a guy I thought attractive or nice, I didn’t think about he would compare to the man I was in a courtship with.

  6. Pingback: Original Sin | Why Not Train A Child?

  7. Pingback: The land of the pure | Butterflies and Wheels

  8. Wow, what a frightening and anxious childhood that must have been, to always be so fearful of how others saw you. In a movement that claims not to care what others think but only to please God (to be different, for goodness sake), it seems like this sort of thing would cultivate some very serious issues of self-consciousness and a need to always assess others’ opinions of oneself, to create an army of people-pleasers.

    I only have one sister (no brothers), and so I am even today a little awkward around men (God has a sense of humor in giving me four sons, though :-)). I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I had been raised to be afriad of being seen talking to a boy. Are you very self-conscious around men now, or even fearful of them? It seems very unfair to the men, too, to somehow paint them as sex-monsters in the minds of girls. I would guess that could lead to some very unhealthy marriage patterns, too.

    As controlled as I thought my childhood was, I am realizing that it was really pretty tame in comparison. In fact, you would cringe (maybe even GASP) if you knew some of the things that happened in my church youth group (conservative evangelical church, mind you!). I remember a lake outing with the youth group during which we swimsuit-clad girls rode the shoulders of the boys and had “chicken fights” with each other, trying to knock the other girls off the boys’ shoulders and into the lake water. Seriously, picture that! My husband’s comment is, “Do you have any idea what those boys were thinking???” Another youth group trip took us to some cabins at a ski park. We all snuck out and ran around the entire lake in nothing but our undies (teen boys and girls, of course). I figured it was really too cold for any dirty thoughts, but my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time and running through all that snow in nothing but tightie-whities and a pair of Nikes) said it certainly was NOT too cold for any such thoughts! Just a little insight for you into “normal” church youth groups. Not my finest hour and a bit embarrassing, I must say. But my hubby didn’t seem to think the experience damaged me one bit!!

    • I AM very strange around men actually! I call it the “This could be someone else’s husband” syndrome. I have a very hard time even TALKING when men I don’t know are around. I might say my name but that’s about it. I did find 3 guy friends, though, who more or less forced me to be friends with them because they are friends with my roommate. In retrospective I’m very thankful for that because if it wasn’t for my roommate and these three guys training me to get better around strangers and especially men, I’d be even weirder right now. The guys actually sat down with me and talked about men, women, attractions and sex, which was very hard for me but it was mostly them talking and really explained a lot of things about men. That was great because they told me things I wouldve never dared to ask but I was really curious about it. Like, do men REALLY think of sleeping with every woman they see? What do they percept as “flirting”? And so on. I realized that what I considered flirting wasn’t flirting to them. It was normal behaviour. I’m training myself too, forcing myself to talk more than I feel comfortable doing in order to look somewhat normal. People still consider me very shy and quiet.

      Stacy, I wish I could’ve grown up like you. I envy you for the way you can speak about faith and relationships and life. You sound so balanced and healthy. You have no idea how much I appriciate your comments on my blog <3

  9. Holy crap. I’ve got a friend who grew up in Brunei, under fairly strict Islamic law, and this bears a lot of similarities to the stories she’s told me. I guess Bronze Age fundamentalism is still Bronze Age no matter where it’s found.

  10. I guess this something I’ll never really understand. The sex before marriage part I do (I’ve heard that before though why men get a pass and women get called names is totally unfair and sexist) but not the whole heart/purity thing. This does seem to be creeping into the really extreme Catholics I.e. traditionalists and those individuals who thing they have the right to dictate how other people should act but it still is on the fringe. I still have no real idea what flirting is and I’m 29. But considering I work with guys and they consider me one of the guys (though they do remember that I’m a woman) I guess I’m not going to worry about. I also have no clue if a guy likes me either. Ah, the joy of never having dated.

  11. I didn’t know there were Christian sects in the US like that. It sounds like the worst practices only known from Islamic communities.

  12. This is my first time reading your blog. Thanks for sharing so much.
    My upbringing was similar to Shinseiko’s except my mother and father divorced when young and she remarried twice. My husband was raised Catholic, even went to catholic school so there is more ‘baggage’ there but less of course because he is a boy.
    You are on my ‘New Blogs I like’ list!

  13. This whole mindset defines the worth of a girl not by what she does (she acts kind/friendly/etc) but by what she DOESN’T DO. How can you have any personality this way? By what method are boys supposed to tell one girl from another? It seems like this whole system winds up forcing attraction to be based solely on physical beauty – since that’s all the boys have to go on. Probably the exact opposite of what is intended.

    I mean really – you nearly got married and your pre-fiance had NO IDEA you disapproved of the whole system. Seems like an unbelievably major flaw in the system.

  14. THAT IS A EVERY NICE AND WORTH OF EMULATION LESSON, I LOVE IT.

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