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‘Nothing has radicalized me more’: How one man discovered that purity culture is not the answer to the pastor abuse crisis

Matthew Manchester did everything right, according to what his pastors said. He was a passionate member of his church, volunteering and dedicating his young adult life to ministry with hopes of making ministry his vocation.

As a child, Manchester survived sexual assault, but for years believed the abusive relationship he was in was a consensual, homosexual relationship.

He was sent to conversion therapy in Orlando after Manchester told his family and pastor he had participated in a homosexual relationship.

My parents’ reaction was ‘I know it was so hard for you to tell us. We love you. We are proud of you.’ And really, we never talked about it again,” Manchester said. Only many years later would Manchester’s parents understand the extent of this “relationship.”

Manchester survived spiritual abuse from multiple pastors and leaders of different Christian denominations. Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader uses religion or beliefs to exert power or control of another person or group of people. Spiritual abuse can happen in large and small groups and on an individual level.

The church he was sent to for conversion therapy used a program related to Exodus Ministries, a one-time conversion ministry famously dissolved after its founder announced he was, in fact, still gay.

“Nothing has radicalized me more than other Christians’ hate for certain groups,” Manchester said. Since discovering the reality of his own sexual abuse, Manchester has been a vocal supporter of others who were victims of spiritual and sexual abuse.

Manchester said the concept of consent he was taught was basically “if you are involved, it is consent.” But that explanation didn’t line up when he found himself disturbed and confused by his sexual experiences.

“All I think at this point (while the sexual abuse was ongoing) is, I’m in a homosexual relationship. It was essentially a homosexual experience that I didn’t ask for. I didn’t want it, and I definitely didn’t want it to keep going. I had laid in my bed at night and prayed and cried,” Manchester said.

Much has been said about the connection between purity culture and rape culture, but purity culture also causes young adults to see their consensual experiences as “sins” and their nonconsensual sexual experiences also as “sins,” said Sara Moslener, a researcher whose “After Purity Project” is dedicated to studying how purity culture affects Americans.

“True Love Waits makes no distinction between that kind of bad sex and non consensual sex. One of the things I’ve seen is people go to purity events and they may have had a perfectly fine adolescent sexual experience, but then they are taught to remember it in a very different way. If you’re teaching adolescents that any sex outside of marriage is as harmful as any other form of sexual misconduct, how are people going to know the distinction?” Moslener said.

True Love Waits is a popular sexual purity curriculum for teenagers created by LifeWay, which is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. LifeWay has been producing sexual purity curriculum under this name since 1993.

While not every church handles this topic in the same way, there have been multiple reported stories where people raised in purity culture say they were told they were impure if they had any sexual activity, which some teachings include sexual assault, before marriage.

This ideology that frames any and all sex before marriage as sinful can make survivors of sexual assault feel like their assault was their fault or that they could have done something different to stop the assault and in turn, keep their purity intact, said Dr. Cameron Morgante, a therapist who works with survivors of purity culture. People whose abusers were the same gender must also wrestle the commonly held Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin. Many Christian doctrines also teach that it is a choice to be attracted to people of the same gender.

“You’ve got this added layer of many Christians think same sex activity is sinful. It becomes very confusing for the survivor, and it can cause confusion about their sexual identity,” Morgante said.

The issue of consent and where it applies has come up often in her work with clients who are survivors of evangelical Christian purity culture.

In some instances, girls who disclosed their sexual assault to their youth pastor were not allowed to participate in purity ceremonies or other sexual purity-related events at churches.

This point was highlighted in the Paramount Plus series “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed.” A student at Hillsong College described the experience where she was questioned about her past sexual assault during an interview that would allow her to work with students at the church. One of the requirements was sexual purity, something that was repeatedly mentioned during the interview and questioning.

She was still allowed to work with students, but the fact that her sexual assault was held over her head like leverage instead of something she was given therapy and support for bothered her.

“I had a lot of fear and shame because before coming to college, I was sexually assaulted and up until that point I had not experienced anything sexual. And after that I was devastated because I felt so impure.

I was carrying this immense guilt and shame with me to college because now I have to tell them that this happened to me, and that might hinder me already right off the bat--what I’m allowed to do and what opportunities I’ll be able to partake in. And that was a very scary feeling.”

Morgante said she’s noticed a lack of discussion about consent in purity culture influenced sex ed and Christian sexuality teachings, especially in the context of marriage.

“Consent was never addressed. It’s a nonissue because sex can only happen in marriage, according to purity culture teachings,” Morgante said.

Federal law has also been slow to adopt the idea that even if you are married, you still need consent from your spouse. It wasn’t until 1993 that all 50 states removed marriage restrictions in rape cases. It wasn’t until the 1970s that states began removing exceptions for married couples in rape cases.

While Manchester’s experience was not that of marital rape, the myth of consent and the idea of homosexual activity being a choice created confusion for him. It wasn’t until 2019 that he fully understood he had been spiritually abused and was a rape survivor. He was in his 30s and married with children.

Growing up in the fever of the Brownsville Revival in Florida in the 1990s, Manchester received a heaping helping of purity teachings. The Brownsville Revival brought a new focus on purity and holiness in charismatic churches.

“I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris was also published around the same time. The True Love Waits event where thousands purity pledge cards were stuck in the ground on the National Mall in D.C. happened in 1994, the year before the Brownsville Revival broke out in the Florida panhandle.

Purity was serious for people who sought revival at Brownsville. This period marked a pivotal moment in Manchester’s purity culture experience.

“At the heart of it, it was about there not being a hint or a trace of impurity,” Manchester said. “They taught that your life should be so clean that people would be ashamed if they tried to pin an impurity on you.”

Manchester explained a rule his youth group had where boys and girls could not ride in a car alone together. He needed a ride home from a prayer meeting one night. He sat in the back seat of the car as a girl from his youth group drove him home. He said he would duck down in the back of the car at stoplights so people would not see him alone in a car with a girl.

For Manchester, evaluating his faith has meant coming to terms with his sexual assault, relearning his approach to parenting and discipline and relearning how to do church. He has been an advocate and supporter of people who were victims of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. He attended the 2021 convention in Nashville to support survivors who were asking the executive committee to investigate the SBC executive committee’s handling of reported cases of abuse and harassment of survivors and advocates.

This summer, the SBC announced it was being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice due to the denomination’s mishandling of sex abuse cases. Manchester, who has been an advocate and supporter of SBC survivors, said he is glad the DOJ is stepping in.

“I hope this is the start of survivors getting justice and abusers/enablers getting consequences. At the same time, law enforcement have a horrible track record at being a refuge for & defender of survivors so I’m hoping they do things this time. The survivors deserve it,” he said.

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm | abeahm@reckonmedia.com

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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