Reframing purity culture, step by step

Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.

By: Lea Ervin

Growing up, I didn’t have a purity ring, nor did I attend an elaborate ball pledging my purity until marriage to my father. Thank God for that because it is weird. However, I was raised a Catholic in the South. Purity wasn’t a pledge; it was understood. Reflecting on it now, I see the dangers that such a culture can impress upon young women compounded with fear of disappointing one’s family and future husband.

In my own experience, purity culture landed me in countless emergency rooms and operation rooms due to advanced endometriosis. How is this connected? Because of purity culture I didn’t get the medical help I needed when I needed it. Virgins didn’t need a women’s health specialist because they didn’t need birth control and you didn’t need birth control if you weren’t having sex.

I didn’t need birth control. I needed treatment for an advanced, incurable disease that affects 176 million women worldwide, one in ten in the United States. I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and I’ve centered my work on endometriosis awareness. One of the observations I’ve made is that purity culture and respectability culture are dangerous to young women regarding reproductive illness.

First, it can prolong an aggressive disease like endometriosis and cause irreparable damage to the reproductive and surrounding organs. Second, it can make one feel shame when discussing the illness with family and friends since “good Southern girls” don’t talk about such things.

It’s time for the years of “grinning and bearing” to come to an end. We must reframe how we approach women’s health within purity culture. In Majo Molfino’s book Breaking the Good Girl Myth, Molfino introduces design thinking, which helps us to reframe problems and make them work better for one’s needs. Albeit it was created for design projects, it works well with solving societal and cultural issues. It consists of five steps that allow someone to take an active role in reframing and reevaluating.

Step one: Seek a deeper understanding.

 According to Molfino, the key here is developing empathy. Becoming empathetic towards one with reproductive illness is the first step in recognizing and seeing them as a human being and not a prize for a future spouse. Listening, researching symptoms, and accompanying the patient to doctor’s visits is the first step in understanding how important these issues are. What good are purity and respectability if one’s quality of life is terrible?

Step two: Open your mind.

Reevaluate what you were taught against the needs of the patient. Were you taught birth control is sinful? That seeing a women’s health specialist means that the patient is having sex/has an STD/is pregnant out of wedlock? Research. Learn what women’s health specialists can do. Learn how birth control helps women with reproductive illness outside of just merely preventing pregnancy.

Step three: Make something.

This can be tangible or intangible. Make an effort. Let the patient know you are doing so. Share a post about the illness on social media. Write your own. Simply show your work. Exhibit your new-found deeper understanding.

Step four: Engage someone.

If you face resistance from family, friends, church family, etc., engage them in critical discourse in which you foster understanding. Explain what you learned and start composing a new narrative based on the new information you learned. Share resources and your story if you are the patient.

Step five: Set yourself up for success.

Molfino defines this as “setting up our physical space to align with the life we want to create…” If you are a patient, make a safe space to talk about how you feel. Eliminate past beliefs that hinder you from advocating for yourself. The first step in treating reproductive illness is talking about how you are feeling to someone you trust. Suppose you are a family member or friend of the patient, set aside your pre-determined beliefs and be that safe person. Make that safe space for them.

Purity culture has hurt women in many ways, including their health. From my own experience, if my family knew the danger of the purity standards and societal norms they subscribed to, I might have had my endometriosis diagnosed and treated sooner. I might not have had a hysterectomy before I had the chance to have children. I might not have felt ashamed to talk about my pain without fear of being judged. I might not have felt alone.

If you are afraid to speak up about reproductive issues or know someone in a similar situation, speak up. Talk about your pain. Let them talk to you about their pain. That’s the first step in improving her quality of life. 

Lea Ervin lives in Oneonta, Alabama, with her husband Brad White and Beagle mix Starla Belle. She is a writer and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Educational Studies in Diverse Populations at the University of Alabama Birmingham. 

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