Recovering From Purity Culture: the Broken Social Map

Many Purity Culture survivors have a problem that follows them even after leaving and rejecting purity culture: how to relate to the opposite sex. Many of us grew up in isolated or semi-isolated settings, such as being homeschooled, so we had fewer opportunities for interaction with the opposite sex. But more importantly, we were discouraged from interacting with them.

Now, let’s be clear: few people actually said that guys and girls shouldn’t interact together. In fact, they talked about guys and girls getting to know each other in group settings. However, like a river with undercurrents, purity culture had “under-the-surface” teachings that weren’t apparent to those looking on, but definitely affected those immersed in the culture. This was one of them. We received an implicit message: “Don’t interact too freely with the opposite sex. Be friendly, but don’t get very close.” Sometimes, this message even became explicit, as when young people at IBLP were punished for talking to the opposite sex.

I have heard that our subconscious mind controls 90% of our brain. We make many decisions based on subconscious desires or beliefs, regardless of how we logically explain those decisions. And so, the subconscious teachings of purity culture go deep, and are difficult to uproot or even recognize. However, I recently discovered something that I believe can help purity culture survivors to improve their relationship skills.

The Purity Culture Social Map

I had the privilege of taking a webinar from Debra Fileta, author of True Love Dates. As part of assessing our relational health, she had us fill out a social map. A social map looks what you see in this diagram.

A social mapAt the center, you put the initials of core friends: people with whom you can share your heart, have deep conversations, and be very vulnerable. In the center ring, you mark down your friends: people who are more than just acquaintances, people with whom you interact freely and know fairly well, but aren’t as close as with your core friends. Finally, the outer ring represents your acquaintances: those whom you know, but don’t have much of a relationship with them. Coworkers are a great example, as well as some people from your church and probably a number of your Facebook friends.

As I looked at my own social map, and thought through its implications, I realized that purity culture asked us to skip the middle ring with the opposite sex. It was fine to be acquainted with the opposite sex. It was fine to be in a group setting and play volleyball with them. But if you wanted to get to know someone better, you had to kick it up to courtship: pushing them clear into the inner circle of core friends.

That leads to a lot of awkwardness, in more than one way. After all, it’s difficult to jump from acquaintances into a close relationship. But let’s say a guy meets a girl, likes her, and wants to get to know her better. He can’t try to just become good friends with her, then see at that point whether he wants to pursue anything more. No, he has to try to get to know her and learn as much as possible in the “acquaintance” realm and try to determine whether he should pursue a much deeper relationship.

I have struggled with knowing how to relate to women without being flirty, creepy, or too forward, especially if it’s someone I find attractive in some way. I believe this holds a key for better interactions. Rather than trying to become “good acquaintances” with someone, so that I can potentially move her to my “core friends” group, I can relax and see if it’s someone I want to be friends with.

My Own Social Map

My own social mapThere is another aspect to the social map that dawned on me as I was writing this post. You see, my social map looks something like the one on the right. See all that empty space in the “friends” ring? And of those who do reside there, a number of them are quite a bit older than me.

I don’t know for sure why this is. There are certainly multiple factors. But I do know one thing: when I was growing up, I was discouraged from having friends.

Now, I don’t mean that directly at all. My parents will definitely tell you that they wish I had a bunch of people in that middle circle. However, for years I lived the life of a hermit. I was a homeschooler who worshiped alone with my family and lived and worked on my family farm. I didn’t even buy my own vehicle until I was 24, even though I got my driver’s license at 16.

Throughout the years, my dad puzzled over why I didn’t go anywhere. He even told me that I was free to use one of their vehicles, since I didn’t really have the money for my own car. But I rarely went anywhere by myself. Other than my once-a-week trips to deliver eggs in the DC area, I stayed at home a lot.

Today I realized one of the factors that influenced my thinking: I viewed peer interaction as bad.

The Evils of Peers

Bill Gothard published a quote from Encyclopedia Britannica about peer groups, and that quote ended up in one of my dad’s articles. It says:

Adolescent peer groups serve very real functions in society. They provide a way in which children can learn to become independent of family authority.

In modern society maturity is equated with independence, with the ability to formulate one’s own judgments, and with the capacity to make independent action and live by the consequences of that action.

Peer groups provide children with experience of egalitarian relationships not possible in the family. Through peer groups the child is exposed to values and experiences of dozens of other families, many of which may be greatly different from his own. Through these contacts the child’s horizons are broadened, his perceptions widened.

In order for peer groups to serve these important functions, the child must get outside of the family and interact with children of his own age. The school is ideal for this purpose. Its corridors and classrooms, clubs and activities provide a natural and convenient setting for the young to socialize.

My father went on to say:

The design and result of graded classes is young people with independence (God calls it rebellion) from their parent’s authority and beliefs. Independence from their parent’s authority and beliefs are the very results we are seeing in the lives of many of those who have gone through the Church’s Christian school, Sunday school, and youth group programs. This is the exact opposite of what God wants and what we want in our children’s lives. The peer structure of the Christian school, Sunday school, and church youth group is ultimately spiritually destructive to the very children it is trying to help because it encourages an independent spirit. (Emphasis mine)

It’s important to note that he wrote this right at that crucial time when I was going through adolescence. It’s also important to note that he was not the only one saying such things. It was all around me in the conservative homeschool movement. And it was the message that I ingrained within myself: peers are bad. Don’t get close to them.

As I said, this message permeated the conservative homeschool movement. I know of two people—Jonathan Lindvall and Joel Salatin—who both stated something to the effect that “we don’t want our children to be socialized, unless we want them to be Socialists.” Now add in the “arms length” teachings of purity culture, and you have the potential to create young people who are crippled in their ability to interact with the opposite sex.

Where do we go from here?

The first step is to recognize the problem. Once you know what’s wrong, you can start finding answers and solutions.

I believe that, as a friend of mine said, we need to take a “chill pill” in our relationships. It’s okay for guys and girls to interact together. It’s okay to be good friends with the opposite sex. And if we try to get to know someone of the opposite sex as a good friend before moving on to the “boyfriend/girlfriend” stage, it can potentially help us to interact in healthier ways.

And by the way, ladies, you may not feel comfortable about asking a guy out. Indeed, there are some guys who you would turn off by doing so. However, there is nothing wrong with initiating a friendship with a guy. It could be the start of something much bigger. Or you may eventually realize that this guy is only someone you want to be friends with.

There are three books I would recommend for anyone trying to recover from purity culture:

The Scarlet Virgins by Rebecca Lemke (Read my review of this book)

Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstaddt Jr.

True Love Dates by Debra Fileta

If you have anything further to add to what I’ve share, please comment below!


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7 Replies to “Recovering From Purity Culture: the Broken Social Map”

  1. It is funny how you mention it was ok to play volleyball with the opposite sex, but not to have a deep relationship with them. In my family, it wasn’t even ok to play volleyball with them. It was “unwise”.

    You forbid interaction with the opposite sex while your child is at home, and you are setting them up for failing at it, or automatically thinking that when you get close to the opposite sex, you must be in love. I couldn’t tell the difference between being in love with a close friend and just loving them as a friend. It was incredibly hurtful. I had my heart broken by so many guys through no fault of their own as a result of this.

    My mother still thinks that it is unwise for girls and guys to become close friends because you might fall in love with them. And yes, if you do get close to a guy, that is a distinct possibility. But, that is something you deal with at the time. That liking someone isn’t necessarily wrong.

    For a really long time, and still to some degree, I get on better with men and women who are older than me. I was taught to value friendships with people WAY older than myself as being more important than being friends with those my own age. I have come to the conclusion that both are just as important as each other.

  2. I would say independence in relationships outside the family is an important foundation for the biblical principle of “leaving and cleaving” to ones spouse!

  3. Your article was very informative, but I can’t really agree with the public school idea, because I attended a public school, but I’m not for all the separation either. I believe there should be balanced.

    1. I agree. To be clear, I’m not particularly in favor of public school myself, but I also believe that parents should school their kids however God leads them to do. There is no “one size fits all” solution that I’m aware of. Each method—public, private/Christian, and home—have their advantages and drawbacks. I have seen both good and bad results from each method.

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