Bullshit: how purity culture polices language

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By Mandy Shunnarah

When I was in second grade, a silly but popular thing to do was to trick a kid into saying a curse word. It would go something like this:

Me: Sarah, let’s play a game where you say “it” after everything I say. Alice went to the library.

Sarah: It.

Me: She couldn’t find any books she liked.

Sarah: It.

Me: She yelled for a librarian.

Sarah: It.

Me: Who told her to SHHHHHH!

Sarah: It.

Me: You said the s-word!

Kids find all sorts of things funny, especially cursing, so I laughed. Annoyed at being tricked, Sarah stormed off to tell our teacher— which, at our fundamentalist Baptist elementary school, definitely meant punishment. Maybe walking sweaty laps around the playground during recess in the Alabama humidity, maybe writing sentences, or maybe a trip to the principal’s office where she’d call my mom.

The punishments were more severe for us because, by our parents enrolling us in a Christian school, we were told we were special, better than the unwashed, unsaved masses, and that as children of God we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We were told we were chosen by God and as such, we should act in accordance with his will—which, according to our teachers, meant no cursing.

In the few moments I had before our teacher came over, I prepared my argument. Technically, Sarah didn’t say a curse word, we each said two letters of a curse word. “Sh” and “it” were fine by themselves. Neither of us had actually cursed, so what was the big deal? But after Sarah explained what happened, I wasn’t prepared for what the teacher said next.

“Sarah, I’m surprised at you!” the teacher barked to a horror-stricken Sarah. “You just got baptized last week.” The teacher shook her head disapprovingly while Sarah stared at her toes in shame.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t understand why Sarah got in trouble instead of me or why the teacher seemed to think Sarah’s soul was in danger over a silly game. I didn’t even think saying “shit” in all of its four-lettered glory was that bad. Would God really send either of us to hell over this? I felt left out and immature for not understanding why their upset seemed so disproportionate to what happened. Then again, I hadn’t been baptized. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe I wasn’t chosen or special after all.

Sarah hardly spoke the rest of the day, to me or to anyone. She seemed afraid that she’d slip up and say something (or half of something) that would condemn her to the fiery pits of hell, so she opted not to speak at all. As she sat silent through lunch while the rest of us laughed and talked, I wondered how long Sarah was expected to be on perfect behavior after getting baptized. If she messed up in any little way, would it nullify her baptism? If she did something wrong without getting rebaptized, then died, would she go to hell? Would the punishment always be worse now that she was baptized and, in theory, should know better than to sin?

We were told that we should want to be baptized, that we should yearn for our spirit to be cleansed by the Savior. But as I watched Sarah looking so unhappy throughout the school day, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to get baptized if it meant adopting such enormous pressure as one’s own.

After lunch came recess and the teacher told Sarah to walk laps and think about what she’d done. I felt bad that Sarah had gotten in trouble when I hadn’t been punished, so I asked the teacher if I could walk laps with her. The teacher shook her head no.

“Sarah has been baptized,” she emphasized. “Her soul was clean and the devil knew it. God sent her a temptation and she didn’t resist.”

When most people think of purity culture, they think of the policing of women’s bodies, sexuality, and appearance, but there’s more to it than that. So often purity culture tries to convince girls and women that they’ve transgressed when their actions are benign at best and normal at worst. Perfection is inherent in the definition of purity.

In the same way that a God who would send temptations to his most devout followers is setting them up to fail, so does purity culture and those who uphold it set women and girls up to fail. Even as the church acknowledges that all are born sinners, hence the need for baptizing in the first place, the church so often fails to acknowledge how it’s far more accommodating for the errs of boys and men while holding women and girls to the unreasonable standard of purity.

As an adult now, I curse with abandon. I curse as much as possible, as often as possible. And not because, as some would argue, I have a poor vocabulary. That doesn’t hold water when I’m a full-time writer who makes a living through words. I curse often and enthusiastically because it’s my way of reminding myself that I don’t have to hold my tongue to anyone’s unreasonable standards. I’m my own person and not in need of anyone’s purification or approval.

Cursing is my daily reminder that purity is bullshit.

Mandy Shunnarah is an Alabama-born, Palestinian-American writer who now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have been published in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and others, as well as an essay forthcoming in the New York Times. Her first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out from Belt Publishing in fall 2022. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com

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