Reading Time: 14 minutes How the Purity Myth Destroys Lives.
Reading Time: 14 minutes

(Content Note: Discussion of sex and pornography, and also some NSFW links.)

We’ve talked about the Purity Myth off and on here, and even knowing what I know about it I still get completely blindsided sometimes by the dramatic examples of lives that have been destroyed by it. Today we’re going to look at one of those lives–and talk about that person’s mistakes in perception.

(Credit: liz west, CC license.)
(Credit: liz west, CC license.)

An Open Letter.

A few days ago “An Open Letter to the Dad Looking at Porn” began slithering its way around social media. In it, a Christian woman of indeterminate-but-youngish age publicly takes her father to task for the sin of viewing pornography (like so much else in the Bible, Matthew 18:15 is an optional verse). Writing as if conducting an intervention, she discusses how she thinks pornography has destroyed her life by enslaving her father to its vile whims, and ends with how even as an adult she is still affected by her father’s choice.

I’m not convinced that the author of this bit of pandering is really a devastated young woman lecturing her father for ruining her entire adulthood by being a *GASP* viewer of pornography. She certainly hits all the right talking points here for the standard-issue fundagelical shaming and fearmongering, but enough is missing here that the account feels at best incomplete and at worst assembled. I like to assume that people are on the level and being up-front about who they say they are and what they say they’ve encountered, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this post was actually written by a middle-aged male megapastor with a new book coming out about the evils of porn. So I’m not writing this to her, but instead to freethinkers as an example of how to look at something skeptically and weigh what it claims. If she really is sincere, then we lose nothing; if she’s not, then we’re not wasting emotional capital on another internet marketing stunt from yet another liar-for-Jesus.

The letter starts out with shots fired:

I want to let you know first of all that I love you and forgive you for what this has done in my life. I also wanted to let you know exactly what your porn use has done to my life.

Now, I know that non-fundagelicals will see that and be totally baffled because out here in the real world, people don’t blame others’ private, personal decisions for their own issues or graciously, generously, mighty-whitely pardon them for something that actually isn’t any of the person’s business at all. (We might also wonder about that loftily-declared “forgiveness.”) Christians really do imagine that someone else’s porn use is their business.

Porn is a hot-button topic in Christianity these days. It’s never been so accessible as it is now, thanks to the internet. In the past, things were a lot different. You had to get videotapes and watch awful productions on a television, or go to an ickie little theater, or read paper magazines to get access to porn. I think what drives Christians the craziest is that exact issue of control that they no longer have over the delivery medium. Even pastors and church staff could be using it and nobody’d know unless the user is extraordinarily careless. In the past, people could easily see tangible signs of porn usage–maybe the TV’s program would be seen through a window by a passerby, or the magazines could be spotted in someone’s bedroom or sticking out of a mailbox, or the staffer caught walking into a theater or buying an X-rated magazine at some gas station. But now hiding porn use is easier than it has ever been.

That’s going to fly in the face of Christian attempts to shame and police each other’s sexual expression. A big part of the religion is focused on making sure people only have approved sex. They’ve spent decades convincing themselves that porn is evil, that it affects people, that it’s some kind of “competition” for male attention that impacts women’s hold on their partners, and that a man’s use of porn means he doesn’t “really” love his partner as much. Meanwhile, the people trying to create a Satanic-Panic level of hysteria over porn use forget about the huge number of women who enjoy porn, the growing numbers of for-women porn companies and productions, and the number of couples who consume porn together as a spice for an already-active sex life.

Indeed, if porn use was common in the pre-internet days, it is all but ubiquitous now. Here’s a survey claiming that 3/4 of adult men–and 93% of teenaged boys–have viewed porn at some point, with women trailing far behind with 40% of adult women and 62% of teenaged girls viewing it. Those figures are, if anything, an underestimate. But right now, we’re only talking about how much business of this letter-writer’s it is that her dad uses porn, how much it’s really impacted her, and if the real problem is actually porn at all. (Spoiler: 1) None, 2) Not at all, and 3) No.)

As downright skeevy as it is to imagine a daughter thinks that any part of her life has been impacted by her father’s porn usage, it hits the right fundagelical talking points to say so. I don’t know what Christians like this writer would do if they couldn’t police, monitor, and control each other. And by now, they’ve worked themselves into such a dither over porn that this letter is going to make every one of them scrunch up their face in the Jesus-grimace and go OH THAT POOR LITTLE THING, OF COURSE SHE’S SAD.

Crossing Boundaries.

She begins her tale of woe at twelve years old, when she discovered her dad’s porn stash on the family computer (notice that Dad is curiously inept and non-communicative):

I found your porn on the computer somewhere around the age of 12 or so, just when I was starting to become a young woman. First of all, it seemed very hypocritical to me that you were trying to teach me the value of what to let into my mind in terms of movies, yet here you were entertaining your mind with this junk on a regular basis. Your talks to me about being careful with what I watched meant virtually nothing. Because of pornography, I was aware that mom was not the only woman you were looking at. I became acutely aware of your wandering eye when we were out and about. This taught me that all men have a wandering eye and can’t be trusted. I learned to distrust and even dislike men for the way they perceived women in this way.

The “just when I was starting to become a young woman” sounds a little too talking-point, but let’s focus on the real issue here:

This dad is a sleazeball. He subscribes to the idea of the Purity Myth, which means that he’s fed his daughter a lot of distortions, untruths, and double standards about sexuality. He ogles other women when he’s out and about in front of his own daughter and makes her feel uncomfortable on a constant basis. His problem is not porn. It’s that he is an entitled, untrustworthy, misogynistic jackass with no respect for women.

That’s the real issue here.

Our letter-writer’s father did nothing at all to teach her about consent, boundaries, and the many nuances of healthy human sexuality. And clearly she never asked him about his hypocrisy to discuss it like rational people would, or I’m sure we’d have heard about it.

What actually was this porn? Similarly, if it’d been out-there she’d have mentioned it. She sounds like the type of busybody Christian who would have blown right up if she’d found child pornography, or bestiality, or something fetish-related like bondage. She doesn’t mention worrying about what the women were doing or discuss fears that she couldn’t compete with their behaviors; she is worried only about their appearance and the illusion of their greater accessibility to men. So we’re assuming she found regular Penthouse-style porn of naked women with glossy come-hither smiles nakedly showing their naked bodies all nakedly and stuff, and she freaked out because of the Purity Myth she’d been indoctrinated into for her entire life.

The Purity Myth is the shorthand term for that whole raft of interconnected ideas in fundagelical Christianity regarding sex, women’s worth and value, and how men and women should behave and interact. It is an expression of patriarchy to the utmost degree. In a culture that buys into the Purity Myth, which I’ll just call Purity Culture here, men own women and are entitled to their bodies, attention, affection, and time.

A woman’s sexual transgressions against this puritanical code are an offense against her owner more than anything else. Women are passed from owner to owner–from father to husband and back again–and kept carefully corralled and controlled because their bodies are dangerous and wild, causing untold chaos if allowed by foolish men to run around unchecked. Women can be significantly devalued by having unapproved sex; indeed, they are defined and given a price both by themselves and by their peer and authority figures by whether or not they’ve had sex of any kind and how many partners they’ve had. They are expected to dislike sex or at least to want it less than their partners do, and to dole it out sparingly in exchange for favors and concessions (like marriage or good treatment), which men will give them because that’s the only way they can possibly get sex.

Despite their largely powerless status in that culture, even in their earliest childhood women are also held responsible for the lustful thoughts and reactions of the men around them, who are seen as rampaging, rape-spewing animals who cannot control their holy erections once aroused, which means that women must always be aware of how the men around them feel. Women spend their lives placating and soothing these petulant man-babies and trying not to cause a holy erection.

And I’m not exaggerating a whole lot here. That was my life as a Christian woman. What I’m describing is how my peers and I were all kept in line and controlled.

A Contempt for Consent.

The Purity Myth incorrectly teaches people that they’re oh-so-above and evolved past the animal hunger of sexual need and that controlling sexuality means improving one’s spirituality, but this lie paradoxically leads its members–especially men–to obsess about sex. Consent barely even gets a glance from such obsessed folks–and why should it? The concern here is not that nonconsensual sex never happens, but that unapproved sex never happens. Women’s autonomy is terrifying enough for a Purity Culture–so women’s owners are certainly not going to start telling them that their consent matters when it comes to their bodies. If anything, that idea scares them more than the idea of men looking at porn. And its adherents have no idea what to do with women who fall outside their desired parameters for women: cisgender, heterosexual, barely-tolerating-sex, young, and highly-desirable.

But I don’t think our letter-writer knows any of this stuff, or cares. PORN IS EEEEEBIL! RRAWR!!! Like abortion-access opponents often do, she attacks the thing she thinks is the problem rather than addressing the underlying forces that bring about that thing she hates so much. She seems convinced that if she can just shame people enough about it or control their access to that thing enough, that that thing will magically go away.

Well, Christians have been squawking about porn for decades, and having about the same impact on porn usage as they do on abortion rates, which is to say their efforts may actually be backfiring. You might have seen this map of state-by-state porn use and search terms put out by the very popular porn site PornHub. Notice, please, that the most Christian-heavy states use the most pornography. And even more interestingly, the most Christian parts of the country spent the longest looking at porn per visit to PornHub.


Having spent a good part of my childhood in Christian-heavy states, I’m not surprised at all to see this graph. Sex is the worst, most shameful “gift” a loving god ever gave his slaves pets barbecue briquettes children, and as such sex is demonized and vilified every step of the way–except for the true-love-in-the-dark variety that only married people get to enjoy (only under the right circumstances). It’s no secret that the most harmful and toxic cults tend to seriously curtail and undermine their members’ sexual freedom; if you can gain control of what humans do with their genitals, you can usually control most of the rest of their behavior too.

I’m not even surprised that “teen” comes up as a search term as often as it does in Christian-heavy states. Virginity becomes a fetish in a Purity Myth-driven culture, and men in such a culture tend to view extremely young women as more desirable for a variety of reasons (don’t you suddenly wonder if duck-plucking was the reason Yahweh demanded his Hebrews sexually enslave only the very young daughters of the Midianites he wanted slaughtered?).

So our letter-writer found her dad’s porn stash, and like a lot of fundagelical Christians do, completely misinterpreted its meaning by viewing it through the lens of the Purity Myth. She’s blaming the wrong stuff for why she turned out the way she did and why she has the problems she does. But it is simply unthinkable to blame the message (“PORN IS EEEEEBIL! RRAWR!!!”). The message is beyond questioning or reproach. Instead she fixates on one result of Purity Culture–high porn viewership–and just glosses over that men raised with the Purity Myth are obsessed with what they can’t have and display double standards about sexuality and women in general. And then she decides that the porn must be the issue here–when it’s just an inevitable outgrowth of terrible teachings. (I don’t think porn consumption is a bad thing, by the way, or that it’s some huge moral failing to use it. A lot depends on what kind of porn it is, how often it’s used, and the effects of its use, sort of like with drinking alcohol.)

This letter-writer’s dad apparently buys into that model of patriarchy and passed that thinking down to her, and she accepted it without questions. She continues:

As far as modesty goes, you tried to talk with me about how my dress affects those around me and how I should value myself for what I am on the inside. Your actions however told me that I would only ever truly be beautiful and accepted if I looked like the women on magazine covers or in porn.

That’s actually totally correct. That’s exactly what he was telling her, weirdly enough. It really was a total double standard. She knew instinctively that all the sunshine blown up her butt about “what you are on the inside” meant nothing in reality; she sensed early on exactly what was valued: her appearance and how well she conveys sexual availability. On one hand, his own daughter needed to be “pure” because she was responsible for how even the oldest adults around her–including himself–reacted to her hypersexualized, objectified body. Their reactions could sully her and devalue the only thing she possessed that mattered: her purity, measured by whether or not she conformed to the model of objectified femininity that Purity Culture preaches. (Does that totally creep y’all out? It should.)

But on the other hand, this hypocritical father was happy to participate in the sullying of other men’s daughters. I can’t blame her at all for wondering why he didn’t care about those other daughters, though she doesn’t realize that was a problem. She blames her anguish on feelings of competition with the women in the porn, which is like one slave getting mad at another slave for being the master’s favorite. She doesn’t realize that the women in porn are not the ones ruining her life.

The Christian-taught illusion of the Happy Christian Marriage and Family is actually the problem here. The women in porn are not competition with this dad’s own daughter–that’s really sick, and I’m totally skeeved out by the idea of a young woman who thinks that way about her own father. The weird trend of fundagelical fathers posing romantically with their daughters in formal wear and going on dates to “purity balls” as if they’re boyfriend and girlfriend is one of the creepiest, pedophile-looking things ever to come out of that end of Christianity; we don’t know if the letter-writer had to do anything that excruciating, but she certainly buys into the mindset behind it.

She goes on to discuss her teen years:

As I grew older, I only had this message reinforced by the culture we live in. That beauty is something that can only be achieved if you look like “them”. I also learned to trust you less and less as what you told me didn’t line up with what you did. I wondered more and more if I would ever find a man who would accept me and love me for me and not just a pretty face. When I had friends over, I wondered how you perceived them. Did you see them as my friends, or did you see them as a pretty face in one of your fantasies? No girl should ever have to wonder that about the man who is supposed to be protecting her and other women in her life.

In the interest of fairness, this message was reinforced by the culture she lived in, and her dad did absolutely nothing to counteract it by teaching her that she deserved basic respect no matter what she chose to do with her body and private time–or to insist on the same respect from her regarding his own choices about his own body and private time. She got sucked into the sexual dynamic between her parents, and he let that happen. I can’t blame her in the least for wondering if he had a thing for her friends given the culture she was in. Given how many fundagelical men regularly get caught with their dicks in underaged girls and boys, she’s right to wonder. And let’s not forget that her dad ogles women when he’s out with his wife and daughter. I’m sure that has a lot more to do with her feelings of insecurity than porn does.

But instead of thinking about why her dad preached a double standard and what it meant, she instead reacts to that knowledge by viewing men’s sexual attention as a prize to seek and hold, and blamed herself and her own mother for not being competitive enough to be able to win that prize. She was taught to view her body as a commodity and a bargaining chip, and she is right to be angry about that. But she’s not blaming the right parties here for her anger.

I did meet a man. One of the first things I asked him about was his struggle with pornography. I’m thankful to God that it is something that hasn’t had a grip on his life. We still have had struggles because of the deep-rooted distrust in my heart for men. Yes, your porn watching has affected my relationship with my husband years later.

I truly hope that this letter-writer is actually the creation of some creepy male pastor somewhere, because if not, then this is what she needs to hear:

You need someone professional–and way outside the Purity Culture you’re embedded in to the tips of your ears–to talk to here because this is not normal or healthy behavior for adults in relationships.

This person is old enough to be married. That means she no longer gets to blame 100% of her emotional problems on Daddy. If she’s still this crippled by her traumatic experiences in childhood and still having trouble with relationships, then she really needs to get help. She needs someone professional to tell her how controlling, abusive, and beyond dysfunctional it is for her to try to control and dictate another person’s private decisions and what they will and won’t do with their body. It’s really not any of her business what her husband does in private, any more than it was her business what her dad did in private, and it isn’t any of their business what she does in private. But “MYOB” isn’t something Purity Culture does very well.

A False Sense of Control and Security.

Between the lines of this letter, we see that its writer is frustrated that she can’t totally control her husband–and that she’s already worried about how she’s going to totally control her son later (because daughters never look at porn, right?). She breathes this huge sigh of relief that her husband doesn’t seem all that interested in porn–because what if he was? Or what if he’s lying about it and gets caught like her dad did? Or what if he develops an interest in it later? In Purity Culture, a man’s porn consumption is seen as the fault of the women around him–especially of his wife, who isn’t “good enough” or available enough to him to feed his sexual appetites. Does our letter-writer blame her mother for not effectively controlling her dad? Worse yet, does she blame herself for her dad’s private sexual actions?

Though women in Purity Culture get taught that through “modest” dress and behavior they can purify and control the men around them, in reality they are powerless to stop men from doing anything. This letter-writer can fight tooth and nail to control her family and set all the rules she wants for internet usage and install all the filters she likes, but ultimately if she lets her serenity and happiness depend on men’s sexuality in a Purity Culture, she’s setting herself up for a life of disappointment and drama.

She’ll never feel secure enough, and every step of the way she’s going to blame pornography for that lack of security.

In short:

Does she have to like porn herself? No.

Does she have to look at porn herself? No.

Does she need to learn what is and isn’t her damned business? Yes.

And she will never, ever, ever be able to control her husband or son(s) enough to feel safe and secure in the misogynistic culture she’s unfortunately a member of.

The only way to win that game is not to play at all. She needs to opt out before she does some real damage to the next generation. But questioning the Purity Myth would mean dismantling a lot of other cherished ideals about sexuality, relationships, masculinity, and femininity. I don’t think she’s going to be up for the task anytime soon.

In the end, it’s simply easier for her to scapegoat porn than to seriously examine the Purity Myth that’s done the actual damage to her. I sympathize with women who feel the way that she does, and I genuinely hope that women like her get real help for their hurt. But she’s not going to find that help from the people who taught her to believe in the Purity Myth.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...