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The first virginity-pledge program, True Love Waits, was started in by the Southern Baptist Convention and now claims more than 2. Hundreds of thousand of American teens have formally pledged to save themselves for marriage: attending purity balls where they often wear white dresses and are symbolically given to Jesus by their fathers, even accepting rings as vows of their sworn chastity.

Although the culture largely consists of girls, boys do take part, including pop-star siblings Nick and Joe Jonas when they were younger. Part memoir, part cultural commentary, it chronicles her complex relationship with religion and sex. The writer, who works as a consultant in the nonprofit sector, became a born-again Christian at the age of 13, following in the footsteps of her mother. This was largely presented as her problem, not theirs: It was made clear that she would be cast as a Jezebel — with her character corrupted — if she had sex before marriage. The message traumatized Klein and many of her peers, sparking fear, anxiety and, in the extreme case of one woman interviewed for the book, the symptoms of anaphylactic shock when she first had sex.

The woman started wheezing and breaking out in welts and wound up in the ER. These issues continued into her 20s when, still a virgin, she attended Sarah Lawrence College and, later, New York University. By then, she had turned her back on Evangelism after beginning to doubt aspects of its theology — and after a youth pastor at her old church was convicted of the sexual enticement of a year-old girl. She recalls how she would curl up into a ball of anxiety and cry uncontrollably while lying naked in bed with him.

Sex created such a sense of shame that not only could I not have [it], I had nightmares and constant nagging thoughts of how far we had gone sexually. The cycle came to an end in her mid 20s after she decided to discuss the damage that the purity ethic had done with female friends back in the Midwest, who admitted they struggled with similar issues.

As the stepmother of a year-old girl, she hopes her book will help other women who have experienced the shame she did. She has launched a nonprofit, Break Free Together, which guides people of all ages on issues of spirituality and sexuality.

Read Next. Having sex once a week can make you feel 15 years younger This story has been shared 96, times. This story has been shared 74, times. This story has been shared 45, times. Learn More. In this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak and women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make, and it's women and girls' responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people — and if they don't, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

There was a lot of fear and anxiety. When I was trying to have sex — and this is something I hear a lot of my interviews as well — that pleasure is something that we have learned to be quite afraid of. And it requires a whole rewriting of our relationship to ourselves and to our bodies to be able to see pleasure is a good thing, and as a valuable thing and to be able to move through the shame and the anxiety to be able to get to it.

And, of course, this isn't just true of people who are raised in the evangelical church.

The purity message that I was raised with in the evangelical church is not very different than the message that we learned in society. In the church we learn that you are either "pure" or "impure" but in society we hear about "good girls" and "bad girls. I've hardly talked to a person — especially a woman — who hasn't experienced some level of sexual shame and difficulty with embracing pleasure. Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

I'm Terry Gross.


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We're going to talk about the evangelical sexual purity movement, its insistence on sexual abstinence before marriage and the impact the movement has had on women who were brought up in it, women like my guest, Linda Kay Klein. She says the movement has traumatized many girls and maturing women who are haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear and shame.

Her new book, "Pure," is part memoir, including the story of how she left the movement. The book also draws on the interviews she did with other women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, including women from her hometown, about how the evangelical purity movement has affected their sense of identity and their sex lives. The purity movement grew in the s during the Reagan administration, which funded abstinence-only programs for community organizations, schools and health departments. A whole industry of purity-related products developed around the movement, including purity rings, T-shirts, mugs, even a purity Bible.

Klein describes the purity movement as conveying the expectation that all unmarried girls and women must maintain a sexless body, mind and heart to be pure. Klein is also the founder of Break Free Together, which tries to help people escape the sexual shame they were raised with.

So the project that you undertook, and the result of that is your book, is interviewing other women who were part of the sexual purity movement, who were brought up in the movement. Describe your project and why you wanted to do it. I had left the evangelical church, in large part because I had rejected the sexual shaming that I experienced in that community, and I no longer wanted it to be a part of my life.

And when I left, I thought that I was going to be completely free of sexual shame and fear and anxiety that had haunted me up until that point, and discovered quite to the contrary that I was actually not free at all, that I had so internalized the sexual shaming that I no longer needed external shamers, that I was more than capable of shaming myself.

And that was scary for me. And I worried a lot that I was broken and that I would never have a healthy relationship or be a healthy person. And it wasn't until I started to call up my girlfriends from back home in the evangelical church in which I was raised and started telling them what I was experiencing and then sat with my jaw just dropped to the floor as they told me very similar stories, you know, from their own lives, that I started to realize that I wasn't alone.

And I spent a year, you know, sitting down with people in coffee shops and in living rooms and in bars and talking to them about their adult experiences with sex and gender and sexuality having also been raised in the purity movement. And that year, you know, was such an aha for me because I kept hearing these same stories that mirrored the pain of my own life - this, again, fear and shame and anxiety that, for many of us, was manifesting physically in ways that even mimicked classic PTSD.

So what were some of the symptoms that you had and that other women brought up in the purity movement had that you thought were very similar to PTSD? And that's incredibly common. You know, it was common for me, but it's also something I hear a lot about from folks who I interview about this. You know, a lot of us also had this anxiety that lived in our bodies. You know, for me, that meant my eczema that comes out when I get stressed would come out when I would have sexual thoughts or feelings or make sexual choices because I, you know, had this sort of association of deep anxiety around my sexuality.

Whereas some of the people I was interviewing were actually - you know, this was so physicalized that they were having panic attacks, literal panic attacks and they were going to the hospital. You know, another example is, you know, there was a lot of fear. You know, people walked in a constant cognizance of other people's perceptions of their purity and how other people would assess them as good or bad, pure or impure.

And that created, you know, for me, a fear that led me to do things that felt crazy to me, like take pregnancy tests, though I wasn't having sex, you know? Because I was so afraid of my sexuality being found out, whatever sexuality I was engaging in. Whereas for other people, you know, that paranoia started to become fears of being followed when they went on dates, or fears of being recorded in their own homes.

And the thing that probably is the most scary is, you know, for a lot of people, it was a feeling of worthlessness. And for some, that was subtle. You know, just in the background of their minds. And for others, it became so extreme that they felt that they had no choice other than to commit suicide.

I'm not a researcher. I don't think that's my role. And in your book, you describe yourself as not quite having panic attacks, but having freakouts. When you were a young woman after you'd left the church, you'd left the purity movement, you had a boyfriend and you had talked about having sex. And you thought you were ready to do it. But every time you came close, you'd freak out. Maybe it wasn't a full-blown, clinical panic attack, but you couldn't deal with it. You know, the reality is, is that again, I thought that I was capable of making the choice of having sex. I was in my early 20s.

I had a boyfriend who I loved. I really wanted to be able to express my love for him physically and felt very comfortable with making that choice. And yet when I actually would get into a situation where, you know, we were actually beginning to go down a road toward having sex, I would have what he called freakouts. That was his term for it. And a freakout consisted of me breaking down into tears, sometimes that eczema that I mentioned coming out, and my scratching myself until I bled and ending up, you know, in a ball in the corner of the bed in a way that was deeply unsexy, laughter , and that definitely prevented us from having sex.

You know, and even afterward, even though we hadn't had sex, I was still filled with a fear that I had gone too far. And I felt myself awaiting some grand punishment that I had been taught would await somebody who was too sexual, somebody who was impure. GROSS: You know, the impression I get from your book is, when you're young and in the sexual purity movement, you were kind of trying to experience shame if you kiss, even. You know, like, kissing is going too far.

At least, that's the way you describe it. And that you're preached to be pure, to not engage in sex, but when you find your partner and marry, then you should start having sex. And as one of the pastors said, men like a woman to be a lamb during the day and a tiger at night. So you're expected suddenly to be able to like, you know, have sex and please your husband, and it's this kind of, like, flipflop of what your brain is expecting from the very idea of sexuality.

It seems like coping with that might be complicated? You know, the rules, first of all, of purity culture were always really unclear because your purity or lack thereof was defined by the community. So some members of the community would say, you know, yes, you couldn't even have an emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite sex without risking your purity before marriage, whereas others, you know, seemed to feel that, you know, as long as you didn't have sex before marriage, you were still fine.

You were still safe. So you were in this pre-stage of non-sexuality. You were constantly wondering what it was that was going to lose you your purity, right?

The struggle women don’t talk about

So that's hence, I think, some of the anxiety that people were living with. You know, you're constantly awaiting the assessment of the community. But one thing that you know is that if A then B, is what we were taught. If you are pure, non-sexual to whatever extent is the requirement before marriage then you will have a perfect, blissful, highly sexual life after marriage. He will never cheat on you because you will be such a sexual delight for him.

And it's fascinating because, you know, this teaching doesn't really work.

The heart of change

You know, the reality that I've learned, from my interviews in particular, is that if A then A. You know? If you learn to shut down your sexuality, if you learn to train your body to experience shame, to protect you from the consequences of your sexuality in your community then A. After you get married, you often still struggle with turning your sexuality on. But, you know, when people come to pastors oftentimes with problems in their marriage and say, you know, we're having sexual issues even, you know, having sexual shame, oftentimes, you know, the pastors will bring them back to that same old nonsensical equation, if A, then B.

So they'll say, well, you're struggling in your marriage with being hypersexual. So, you know, what happened before you got married? Did you masturbate? Did you go a little further than you think you should have together? What happened with your parents? You know, what happened before this moment that you did wrong or that was done wrong to you? How are you broken that made this A-then-B equation not work in your life?

If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. She's the author of the new book "Pure" about the purity and abstinence movements in evangelical Christianity. We'll be right back. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is about the evangelical purity and abstinence movement, a movement she was raised in as an evangelical Christian.

She broke away from the evangelical church and the purity movement when she was in her early 20s. Her new book, "Pure," is part memoir, but it's also filled with interviews with other women who, like her, were raised in the purity movement and then left. And it's all about the impact of that movement on their lives. Let's go back and talk about your early life in the purity movement.

How old were you when you started being taught about purity? And I loved the church. You know, I really joined because I fell in love with the message of Jesus and the person of Jesus and the example of Jesus and the idea of radical love and radical acceptance. You know, my mom had been an evangelical since I was a baby. And so in many ways, she had raised me evangelical though we actually attended an Episcopalian church as a family, you know, on Sundays. But she would listen to the Christian radio station and read evangelical books and had evangelical friends.

And so when she raised me, you know, she really was teaching me about a personal relationship with Jesus and teaching me about emulating the person of Jesus in a very particular way that was very intimate and very beautiful and that I loved. And when I found the evangelical church, and they were talking about these things at a church level, at a community level, I was so excited. It felt like coming home in so many ways. And when I first came in, you know, it was at that very first retreat that I attended with a youth group that I first was starting to be exposed to the purity message - that I quickly learned came along with a lot of the messages that I deeply loved about the community.

So gender and sexuality are deeply intertwined in the purity movement. So women and girls are expected to be hyper-feminine supportive followers of men and boys who are expected to be hyper-masculine leaders - you know, supportive and loving leaders but leaders nonetheless. And if either the man or the woman or the girl or the boy strays from their gender expectation - for example, if the woman, you know, leads to much, or the man becomes her follower - you know, the idea is that the whole picture topples.

GROSS: Is there an example you can think of that demonstrates the kind of gender conformity that you just described?

And the Bride Wore White

I was at a retreat - and my very first retreat - and having an incredible time and had just made these, you know, amazing new girlfriends who were incredibly welcoming and really embodied the radical love and acceptance that I had fallen in love with in the church that, at that point, seemed to be open to all. And at the very end of the retreat, one of the youth leaders, the woman who was actually our cabin mom, had pulled one of my new friends and I aside.

New friend's name was Piper. And she told the other girls to leave. This was free time. She said, go off and do want you need to do. And she said, Piper and Linda though, I want you to stay in the cabin and talk with me. So she and I stayed. And I remember feeling like we were in trouble, feeling like something, you know, awful had happened.

And so I was going through my mind about anything we might have done wrong. And then the mom had us sit down. And she turned to me, and she said, Linda, are you having a good time here? And I was like, oh, that's all you want to say. Yes, yes, I'm having an amazing time. And then she stopped. And then she looked over me, and she looked at Piper.

And she said, what is it about you that makes you so insecure that you think you have to answer all the Bible questions? Do you think that the boys like that? Do you think the boys are going to continue to like that as you become older? You know, I can tell you right now that they won't. So I want you to do some deep thinking about this. You know, what is it in you that makes you feel like you always have to be seen?

You always have to be showy. You always have to be the smartest person in the room. And I just remember thinking this mom doesn't get it. This mom doesn't get the radical love and acceptance that's happening here. And Piper and I left eventually. And she broke down crying - you know, just hyperventilating crying. And it was horrible. And I remember thinking, you know, as the years went on, as this first exposure to the gender expectations became clear to me, I thought back to it many times. You know, at the time I thought it was an anomaly.

But I soon came to realize that this unconditional love that I'd learned about in the community in fact had conditions. Were these harlots in Bible stories, or were they also in stories about people you knew? And we also heard them about people that we knew, but they weren't necessarily embedded into sermons.

Those were more the stories that were embedded into gossip or embedded into prayer because sometimes a prayer circle, you know, felt like a gossip circle. And, you know, it could mean all kinds of different things. It ultimately meant that you were a "sexual temptation," quote, unquote, to men and boys.

You know, in this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak. And women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately, women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make. And it's women and girls' responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right laughter , to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people.

And if they don't, you know, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot. GROSS: Now, was that thought especially difficult for you during puberty when your body was changing and you were becoming more sexualized but also the boys who you knew were becoming more sexualized?

But it was all on you as a girl - do you know? And it was so important to me to be a good Christian. And so this guilting line about you're hurting them was very effective on me. You know, I heard a lot less and certainly internalized a lot less about, you know, protecting my purity and heard a lot more or at least internalized a lot more about protecting their purity.

You know, it was all about how you needed to be a good Christian by protecting them from the threat that is you, the threat that is your body, the threat that is your sexuality. GROSS: So if your body was a threat, how did you feel about your body when it started to change in your early teens or earlier? You know, I was not a fan of my curves. And this is also something that comes up a lot in my interviews. I have interviewees who talk about wanting to get breast reductions and getting very close to spending, you know, thousands of dollars on one simply because of their shame about their body, interviewees who when they look in the mirror, you know, are filled with so much shame that they can spend hours just trying on outfit after outfit after outfit, trying to find something that would make them less curvy, less of a potential sexual threat to other people.

You know, oftentimes modesty doctrine isn't an assessment of your clothing. It's an assessment of your body. For example, one day, I got pulled aside and talked to about a pair of shorts that I was wearing. And I said, you know, my friend was literally wearing these exact same shorts yesterday all day at this retreat, and she wasn't pulled aside laughter once, you know? I barely have left the cabin laughter , and I'm already pulled aside. And they said, oh, well, she must be shorter than you. And, you know, she was a little bit shorter than me, but I - but, you know, where it hit her knee, these shorts, and where it hit my knee were essentially, you know, indecipherable.

And I remember at the time thinking, gosh, I feel like there's something wrong with me. I'm always going to be bad in this community's eyes. And it's only in retrospect that I realize that part of that was that I had this curvy body that I think changed the rules for me. Let's get back to my interview with Linda Kay Klein, author of the new book "Pure" about the evangelical Christian purity and abstinence movement which Klein was raised in.

Her interview is part memoir - I mean, her book laughter is part memoir and part based on interviews with other women - women in their 20s, 30s and 40s - about how being raised in the movement affected their sense of identity and their sex lives. So one of the stories one of the women you interviewed told you was the Oreo story. I want you to tell that story for us.

And the Oreo story - what was so fascinating about that is that this is a illustration of the importance of sexual purity that we heard about in youth groups - in evangelical youth groups but that she actually learned in her public school. So here's what happened. She had her teacher hold up in front of the class an Oreo cookie and say, OK, who wants this Oreo cookie? Everybody raises their hand of course. Then she passes it around the room, and she says, I want each of you to spit on it or to drop it on the ground.

And by the time it comes back to the front of the room, it's disgusting. And she holds it up again, and she says, now who wants this Oreo cookie? Nobody raises their hand. And it's described as an illustration for a girl or a woman before she's had sexual experience and after she's had sexual experience when now nobody will want her. So you basically staged a prayer intervention for yourself. You gathered some of your girlfriends, got together in a prayer group with them to pray for the answer of what you should do. So how did you interpret the outcome of that prayer group?

KLEIN: You know, before I called my girlfriends together for this concert of prayer, as we called it, I was already under the impression that I was supposed to break up with him, that I was supposed to break up with my boyfriend who brought out all of these feelings in me.

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And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity by Dannah Gresh

You know, and I would say that the kissing, you know, was part of what I was concerned about. But moreover, what I was concerned about was all the feelings, laughter , that I had with the kissing that just felt deeply, deeply dangerous. Dangerous to me and dangerous to him because I was supposed to be protecting him, as well. And my girlfriends, you know, when I proposed that to them and asked for them to pray about it with me, didn't have any questions. You know, because that made perfect sense to all of us. We had all been raised with this messaging.