Purity is a Class Issue: Personal Responsibility, Condescension, and Poverty

When I was in high school, I knew a guy who graduated during my sophomore year. He moved down south for college, and within the next year, there were rumors that he had become a male stripper in order to pay his bills. In my buttoned-up, purified little world, this was a huge disappointment. How could someone make the decision to do that? Was money really that important? How could you sacrifice your purity for a little extra cash?

I grew up in a fairly middle class setting. My parents were both teachers (and my dad later a principal) in the state of South Dakota – a state with the lowest teacher pay in the United States, but also one of the lowest costs of living. My parents retired from teaching in the late 1990s, and started investing in the stock market. Unfortunately, this was at the beginning of the Bush Administration, the economy began faltering, and my parents made some bad bets. When I was 15, in early 2001, we downsized from our three-story house to a three-bedroom apartment. Even then, we were still comfortable. My parents were still able to cosign on loans for college and put food on the table. I’ve never been in real danger of homelessness and poverty, and have almost always had money in my bank account – the account I was able to open at 18 with graduation gift money.

A year before we moved into the apartment, my parents and I went to WalMart to pick out my purity ring. At the jewelry counter, we found a small gold band with chips of diamonds inlaid. It was simple, pretty, and it cost $100.

My brother had a similar ring – a gold band that Mom and Dad had bought him at a jewelry store. We both wore the rings on the ring finger of our right hand. I remember showing mine to my eighth grade teacher and her exclaiming, “That looks nicer than my wedding ring!”

Getting such a ring was commonplace in my purity culture soaked youth group and college. Most people I knew had some kind of engraved or bejeweled ring that they wore daily, usually given to them by their parents. It never occurred to me, ensconced as I was in the rich kids’ youth group at the rich kids’ school, that having a purity ring, attending purity retreats, going to Christian conferences, etc. etc., was a matter of my privileged economic class.

When most people in the US are introduced to privilege theory in the US, they immediately protest the idea that they are privileged in any way because “I didn’t grow up rich.” We have this idea that all privilege is class privilege, and that the only ones with class privilege are the richest of the rich – the Romneys, for example, are seemingly class privileged while I, a middle class woman, am not.

But this is hardly true. Sure, compared to the Rich Kids of Instagram, I’m poor. But privilege doesn’t necessarily depend on comparison to who has it better; it functions in comparison to the ease with which you are able to live. And while I have to keep a relatively careful budget, I have enough discretionary income to buy a coffee everyday and put gas in my car, which makes me privileged based on economic factors alone. This doesn’t erase my financial need or undermine arguments against student loan debt (my net worth is in the negative because of loans), but it does place me in a position where I am able to buy a new suit for job interviews and go on vacation without breaking my budget – this is my class privilege.

In purity culture, those making purity pledges, buying the rings, and attending the balls are women of a certain class. If you watch any documentary on the purity movement, you’ll see mostly white women and girls, standing in large elaborate houses, in clearly comfortable lifestyles.

When I attended a Secret Keeper Girl tour stop here in Sioux Falls back in November (and wrote about it for RH Reality Check), one of the things advertised (along with “buys our books and merchandise!”) was a donation drive to support taking the SKG tour into the inner-city in New York. “We’re going to the Bronx!” they declared, to preach their gospel of longer skirts, higher necklines, and modest clothing for all!

White rich Christians have the answer to the invented problems of teenage sexual activity, and it’s modesty and purity for women! Instead of looking at systemic injustices, racism, and poverty which makes it hard to obtain birth control, prenatal health care, or abortion care, the rich white Christian message is to buy a more modest t-shirt and maybe your kid won’t have sex. “Personal responsibility!” in the form of buying better, more expensive clothing in order to cover your rear.

Modesty/purity as fashion (and as theology) is often tied to one’s economic situation – the outward expressions of a pure heart are also expressions of monetary wealth.

White, middle class, American evangelical culture has transformed purity from an issue of the heart to one of a status symbol – necessarily denying such status to those who are poorer. It is no mistake, then, that those who tend to be poorer are historically women of color who are often sexualized simply for their existence as women of color. White American evangelicals have a vested interest in the personal responsibility narrative, especially when it comes to questions of purity and modesty. It keeps their status, creates outward symbols of their wealth without being obscene about it, and allows them to condescend to others in guiding them toward “purity.”

Perhaps, it is the white middle class women in the suburbs who are the problem here. Perhaps it is those women who travel the nation, presuming that buying more modest clothing is the answer to the nation’s problems. Perhaps we need to look more closely at our bank accounts and wallets, not our necklines.