When Purity Culture Feeds Rape Culture

In a previous post, we discussed some of the ways that small, Christian colleges might propagate purity culture. In this post we will discuss how rape culture can grow (like a parasite) and thrive on such a campus.

The “Prize” of Purity

If purity culture holds up virginity as a good to be prized and safeguarded, this can lead to the unintended and unspoken idea that virgins, particularly virginal women, are also to be prized…so long as they can maintain their virginal state. The pernicious corollary to this notion is the idea that those who have had sexual experiences do not need safeguarding, since what made them a “prize” has already been lost. This objectification–combined with the lethal notion that it is more natural, important and expected for women to be the chaste, restrained, and modest sex–is the turning point at which purity culture becomes rape culture. If you accept the false premise that men are naturally always going to be trying to have sex if they can, one way or another; while also accepting the lie that the burden is upon women to tame the beasts and protect their “virtue;” the syllogism that follows ends with, “so men will treat prized women well and use cheap women as they like. And that serves them right.”

The appeal of the myth of the “bad girl” to the misogynist is that she exists to be mistreated. The misogynist feels entitled to the prize of the “good girl” even if he abuses the bad girl first. What is the difference between the “good” and the “bad”? Essentially nothing. Does a rapist actually treat the “good girl” better than he does “the bad girl”? No. That is another myth that serves the misogynist. The only difference is that the rapist means to possess the “good girl” more permanently in a relationship or marriage. Whereas the “bad girl” is the one to be used and then discarded. Or she is to be punished for spurning or breaking up with the rapist. But the “prize” he keeps in marriage is not safe from abuse any more than the woman who rejected the rapist’s advances. So what gives the rapist or the rape apologist his criteria for which is the “good” woman and which is the “bad”? And how can something that is actually a personal whim or subjective malice be projected and garner sympathy for the rapist within his community? That is where the toxicity of purity culture on the college campus comes in again.

“Good Girls” vs. “Bad Girls”

Purity culture provides the obvious criteria to the would-be rapists or rape apologists that virgins are the “good girls” and that girls who have reputedly lost their virginity are “bad.” But the lines often are drawn even more extremely. If most of the young women on campus are, in fact, virgins, the misogynist’s rules can become as arbitrary as,

“Anyone who perfectly obeys the dress code on and off campus is good.”

“Anyone related to this family or connected is good.”

“Anyone who has reputedly kissed or held hands with more than two guys is bad.”

Trivialities as banal as one woman chewing gum or smoking cigarettes or being overheard speaking profanity can be used to justify abusing, harassing or sexually assaulting women, even if the same behavior would never be criticized among men. Of course, any use of drugs or alcohol is also used against the victim and in favor of the rapist.

Like many other cultural phenomena which fuel rape culture, the simple belief that it’s better to marry a virgin than a person with sexual experience is not necessarily going to result in rape or constitute rape culture — but it is important to recognize when and why it often does. White supremacy, for example, might not always result in rape culture either, but it often does for the same reason that purity culture does. Just like white supremacy, purity culture creates a false division and a value system for rapists to exploit in order to justify their crimes within their communities. Just as a white supremacist would blame or try to discredit a woman of color he has victimized while trying to minimize the rape to his Caucasian wife; the Theology professor who rhapsodizes about the perpetual virginity of Our Lady can snarl and foam at the mouth about female students who don’t sit cross-ankled with their skirts over their knees.

Just because a college encourages or falls prey to purity culture need not mean that it has a rape culture problem but such colleges need to be vigilant. A certain kind of predator is always going to be drawn to that type of school environment. He might be looking for a wife to force his will upon permanently, but that doesn’t mean he won’t rape other women before he selects the one he waits to rape after he marries her.