Female Masturbation as Resistance: Responding to the “Harm and Damage Rhetoric” of Purity Culture
By Lauren D. Sawyer.
For the past several months, I have been informally gathering stories from my friends about their experiences with evangelical purity culture, the world of abstinence pledges, purity rings, and kissing dating goodbye. I caught up with my friend Grace, who reminded me of the Spiritual Emphasis Week we attended at our evangelical college. The theme of the week was “You Asked for It” (collective groan) which featured two male pastors on stage, answering questions the guys and girls at my college had about sex.
Grace asked me, “Do you remember when the pastors joked, ‘I guess if you masturbated to a toaster’—so in a non-lustful way—‘that would be OK. But otherwise, it’s a sin?’”
I hadn’t remembered. It was likely the pastors were speaking just to the guys in the audience that day; we were always being told that masturbation was a problem for them but not something young women were prone to do.
“I think about that toaster way more often than I should,” Grace confessed.
Now I, too, think about it more often than I should.
It has been years since Grace and I have identified as evangelical. Though I wonder if the pastors’ joke lingers with Grace—and now, with me—not only because of its absurdity but because it offered possibility to girls like us raised in conservative evangelical spaces: the possibility to resist or subvert a culture which insists that female sexual desire is either non-existent or dangerous.
Elizabeth Gish, in her article, “‘Are You a “Trashable” Styrofoam Cup?’: Harm and Damage Rhetoric in the Contemporary American Sexual Purity Movement,” published in issue 34.2 of JFSR, describes the rhetoric Grace and I heard at Spiritual Emphasis Week and in the books we read in our church groups. One of the primary messages that purity culture teaches is that sex outside of marriage is “not only sinful, but also physically and psychologically dangerous, primarily to adolescent girls,” Gish writes (7). The kind of danger girls are warned about ranges from STIs, teen pregnancy, attaching to abusive boyfriends, severing her relationship to her parents and God, and overwhelming amounts of shame.
While some of these risks are overblown, others are not necessarily avoided by adhering to purity culture teaching. In fact, the risks of pregnancy and STIs are often higher for these young people. Gish writes, “The risks stem primarily from stigmatization, limited access to support and age-appropriate, accurate information, a shortage of opportunities to learn about healthy romantic and sexual relationships, and limited access to health care” (8).
And the risk of shame, that seems to be caused by purity culture itself. No surprise, it’s not sex that causes shame; it’s being told that you ought to feel shame—that you’re damaged goods, a dirty lollipop, a “trashable” Styrofoam cup.
In my thinking about purity culture as a former evangelical and as a student of feminist social ethics, I’ve been wondering about how young women exercise their moral agency, especially regarding their sexuality, when this shame-inducing “harm and damage” rhetoric is the norm. I think female masturbation is a compelling act of resistance, as it disrupts significant aspects of what purity culture teaches about women’s desire. In a culture where women are taught to be passive recipients, to want sex not for pleasure but as a means to relationship—and any act of sex is damaging to her and her relationships—masturbation is one way for a woman to exercise her moral decision-making.
In her recent book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Linda Kay Klein interviews women who grew up in evangelical purity culture through the ‘90s and mid-2000s. In one of her interviews, Klein spoke to Alma, a woman who admitted that masturbation was what helped her survive “so many years of chastity” with an “incredibly sexually active imagination” (125).
Alma told Klein, “I had to find ways to [masturbate] without totally breaking the rules.” So she would masturbate to fantasies of her honeymoon with her future husband. Or, when Matthew 5:30 was recited to deter masturbation—“…if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…”—Alma found a work-around. She’d say to herself: “‘Oh, I have this marker that just happens to be here, or this pencil or whatever. Oops! I don’t know how it got there!’” (125) She continues, “And I also used to arrange these little pointy tissues in my panties so that they would rub against me while I walked” (125).
But even this little act of rebellion fails to be fully liberative, as pleasure is constantly being linked to damage. These girls find ways to masturbate in non-pleasurable ways—to think about a toaster instead of a crush, to completely empty the mind so as to limit the pleasure of the experience—and thus to avoid the overwhelming shame. But in avoiding shame, they are disconnecting bodily pleasure from emotional or spiritual fulfillment.
I wonder what it would mean for these young women to think with feminist ethicist Christine Gudorf that pleasure is an ethical criterion for sex, not as something to shun in fear of shame. I actually think some purity rhetoric gets to this. In the best-selling purity culture book Every Young Woman’s Battle, coauthors Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Arterburn write to adolescent girls: “God wants you to enjoy sex, and that is why He gave you a body part, the clitoris, that has no other purpose but to give you sexual pleasure. Yay, God!” (32) Yay, indeed.
But you cannot talk about how great the clitoris is and still idolize penial-vaginal intercourse, along with narratives of female passivity, especially as only 18% of women orgasm through vaginal stimulation alone.
So perhaps for women like Alma—like me, like my friend Grace—who grew up in a world where shame was the norm, masturbation that embraces pleasure, desire, and fantasy, could be the way into a more liberating sexual ethic. It could be a means to begin dismantling the harm and damage rhetoric, the sexism, and the mandate that heterosexual marriage is the only “safe container” for sex. Female masturbation is a practice that allows a woman to make decisions for her body, and to seek pleasure, while disrupting the Warning label placed on her desire.
I wonder what it would have been like for Grace and me to hear that message during Spiritual Emphasis Week: to learn not just how to squelch desire but to embrace desire and pleasure as essential criteria for a young person’s sexual ethic.
Lauren D. Sawyer is pursuing her Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. Her current research focuses on how women and LGBTQ folk develop moral agency under the constraints of evangelical purity culture. Between paper-writing and impressive amounts of coffee, she works as submissions editor for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. You can read her work at laurendsawyer.com.