If you’ve watched “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” chances are you remember this scene well: Frollo, filled with lust for the beautiful Esmerelda, rages against her beauty, decides his lust for her is Esmerelda’s fault, and vows to kill her for her sin.
The scene is beautifully done, but it sends shivers of disgust up my spine everytime I watch it. It’s pure evil played out on screen. Frollo’s scene is a great illustration of the dangers of purity culture and how it hurts women. But we don’t often consider how purity culture hurts men.
Purity Culture Affects Men Too
The aforementioned scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is extreme. But, Frollo’s reaction to Esmerelda and his lust towards her is a familiar tale to those of us raised in purity culture.
Purity culture often rears its ugly head in the form of rules for women’s clothing with the justification that it’s to “protect the men in your life.” But it actually does the opposite.
I experienced quite a few of these incidents in high school, most notably my senior year of high school. My mom announced one evening at the dinner table that we would have to buy longer sport shorts for an upcoming school event as my high school had ratcheted up its modesty standards. The new rule wasn’t exactly concerning, but the school’s reasoning was.
Modesty rules for women are “to protect the men in your life.”
A few days before the school event, a mother had complained to the administration because her 13-year-old son was “made uncomfortable” by the shorts worn by the girls volleyball team. The uniform shorts for the girls volleyball team were mid-thigh length and not at all tight – characteristics that usually meet conservative Christian modesty standards. But, the school decided those characteristics were not enough, and the shorts requirements for girl students were changed from mid-thigh to at the knee. No changes were made for male students.
But this wasn’t the only incident. Some family friends told me a story of when they invited boys from the school on their boat. The boys were school friends with their daughters. The boys’ parents said they could go, but only if the girls didn’t wear bikinis. If the girls did wear a bikini, then they had to cover it with a t-shirt (both in and out of the water). Our family friends begrudgingly agreed. What did the boys wear all day? Shorts but no shirt.
Women Aren’t Responsible for the Actions of Men
Instances like these without a doubt hurt women. But justifying modesty standards as “protection” for young men is hurting them too. This mindset relinquishes men of all responsibility for their sexual thoughts and feelings. A man lusts after a woman? It must be her clothing. A man cheats? It must be a woman's fault for not satisfying him in the bedroom. Any sexual temptation that a man faces is the woman’s fault.
There’s no better real-world example of women being held accountable for the actions of men than the case of Josh Duggar. The eldest son of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar from 19 Kids and Counting, Josh Duggar was indited on child pornography charges in December. The federal agent who worked the case said Josh’s material was in the top five worst cases he had investigated.
Any sexual temptation that a man faces is considered to be the woman’s fault.
Despite his horrific crimes, Josh’s wife Anna has stayed by his side. She won’t divorce him or leave him. Multiple sources say some in the Duggar’s community blame Anna for Josh’s actions. As his wife, Anna was responsible for Josh’s actions, especially his sexual satisfaction.
From a young age, Josh had been taught that his sexual temptations were caused by the woman in his life. Anna had been taught that she was directly responsible for the sexual thoughts and actions of the men in her life. The result? A disaster of incredible proportions.
Anna is a victim of purity culture, but so is Josh. Josh Duggar was raised with the understanding that women were responsible for his temptations. This results in a disordered relationship with sex and women and his own will. His actions are not his own, but the fault of a woman, whether it be his wife or his mistress.
Ignorance Isn’t Necessarily Bliss
To combat these disordered relationships, purity culture encourages men to find innocent women and to maintain their innocence themselves. Women are told that innocence is an attractive quality, while men understand that innocence is a necessary quality in a wife. But, rather than its true definition of lack of experience, purity culture often equates innocence with a lack of knowledge. The less you know about sex, the purer you are.
Purity culture often equates innocence with a lack of knowledge, rather than experience.
Purity culture views sex as a taboo subject, which affects young men especially as they tend to be more sexually driven than young women. When elders are unwilling to discuss sex, young men turn to the internet for answers. As a result, many young boys develop addictions to pornography by way of innocent curiousity. Without understanding what they’re viewing, boys can be deep in a pornography addiction before they even understand what it is.
What Were You Wearing?
But the ways in which purity culture hurts men don’t stop there.
If you, like me, were raised in a religious household, you heard the phrase “modest is hottest” constantly. You were also told that boys like girls who cover up and that modesty is sexy because of the mystery. And the boys were told similar things, like girls who wear skimpy clothing are damaged goods or desperately want attention from men.
But this sort of thinking creates a scary and steep slippery slope of reasoning. We’ve established that purity culture divorces men from any responsibility for their sexual temptations. We’ve also established that purity culture teaches men to see their sexual temptations as the fault of women. Men are then told that women who wear skimpy clothing want attention from men, that their clothing is a sign that they desire the male gaze. Men also understand that women dress modestly to protect them from sexual temptation.
Therefore, if a man sees a woman dressed to his standard of immodesty, he will then assume that she wants him to look at her. And, as purity culture teaches, if she wants you to look at her, she must be a whore or a slut or any of those words assigned to women who don’t conform to the purity culture standards.
This line of thinking creates a kind of consent in the male mind. If you have been taught that women dress to protect men and women who dress immodestly desire the male gaze, and you’ve also been taught that your sexual temptations are the direct responsibilty of women and you can’t control them, what are you going to think about an immodestly dressed woman? She’s intentionally dressing provocatively because she wants male advances. She’s consenting to her objectification from merely her dress.
Purity culture logic implies that immodestly dressed women are consenting to their objectification.
This contributes directly to rape culture. Immodestly dressed woman = wanting to have sex with a man. It’s where we get the question of “what were you wearing?” when a woman is raped.
We question not the fault of the man who has committed the crime, but the woman and her effect on the man’s psyche. We reason that her dress or demeanor must have asked for it. But, if a house is broken into, we don’t ask what thing of value was displayed in the window to attract thieves. And if a person is murdered in cold blood, we don’t ask what thing they did to attract the murderer. So why do we do it in the case of rape?
Because we’ve trained men to do so.
But how does this hurt men? Again, we see the problem of disordered sexuality. Men can view women as property or simply sexual beings. But it also hurts men by leaving them in a perpetual cycle of objectifying women. That is no way for anyone to live.
How Do We Fix It?
Purity culture hurts men. And, in turn, those men hurt by purity culture hurt the women in their lives. To fix that, men must first be made to take responsibility for their sexual temptations. They must understand that the buck stop with them when it comes to their sexual thoughts and actions.
We also have to talk about sex! Having healthy conversations about sex is the key to fixing most of purity culture’s wrongs. Men and women deserve to have healthy relationships with their sexuality. Talking openly and honestly about sex could lessen the number of young men who turn to porn for answers.
Undoing the harm of purity culture isn’t an easy fix. But, there are tangible steps we can take to lessen its negative effects. If men are freed from bonds of purity culture, then women are not too far behind.
This article only scratches the surface of the unfortunate relationship between men and purity culture. Purity culture is a deep seeded problem in our society. And there is no easy way to fix that. But, if we can recognize the harm that purity culture causes men and how that harm leads men to hurt women through purity culture, we can begin to understand how to heal its effects.
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