“He was taught that by purity culture”: sexual purity codes and attitudes toward sexual assault among evangelical young adults

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University of New Brunswick


Challenging harmful attitudes toward sexual assault, such as rape myths and victim blame, is an important part of dismantling rape culture. Evangelical Protestant communities offer a unique context for this work as sexual purity codes, which mandate abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage, may contribute to victim blame among Evangelicals. Guided by feminist theories of sexual violence and a lived religion lens, this thesis uses two qualitative data sources to explore the impact of sexual purity codes on attitudes toward sexual assault in the Evangelical context: content analysis of Evangelical abstinence books (n=6), focus groups with Evangelical young adults (n=13), and follow-up interviews (n=4). Findings from the content analysis show that Evangelical abstinence books promote the traditional heterosexual script, engage in victim blame, and frequently fail to label sexual assault narratives as such (particularly when the victim is not purity adherent). In contrast, focus group participants tended to accurately label sexual assault narratives regardless of the victim's purity adherence and generally did not engage in victim blame. Most focus group participants were critical or ambivalent toward the concept of “purity”, which they associated with the traditional heterosexual script. Sexual purity codes seemed to be associated with attitudes toward sexual assault to some degree, but only for purity supportive and some purity ambivalent participants, who engaged in victim blame when the victim was not purity adherent, and for purity supportive participants, who excused the perpetrator regardless of the victim's purity adherence. For Evangelical young adults, critiquing “purity culture” appears to be a religiously meaningful way to critique the presence of rape culture in Evangelical communities.