In a broad sense, talking about sex is my job.
I've written about various sex topics for online publications, I'm part of the marketing team here at Honey Play Box, and my Instagram is a kaleidoscope of thirst traps and vibrator-related sponcon. I've also hosted sex ed workshops for LGBTQ+ youth.
As a closeted queer kid, growing up parallel to the aggressive purity messaging of the 90's and 2000's, I never imagined that this would be my career. There were a lot of gaps in my awareness around sexuality back then, not to mention shame from the adults in my life. After all, the federal government was dedicating billions to abstinence-only curriculums across the United States. Furthermore, queerness was intentionally left out of these curriculums –– or worse, stigmatized. In New York, where I live, there was absolutely no mention of queer people. But in Alabama, sex education is required to include "an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state."
"Purity culture reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and sets unattainable purity requirements."
I was further inundated by TV shows that assigned value to virginity and celebrity interviews where purity rings were in focus. There was an entire purity industry that commodified sexual risk avoidance, with purity shirts, purity planners, and all types of purity jewelry. Even thinking about sex, dressing immodestly, or learning about sex comprehensively, was framed as risky behavior. And the task of remaining pure seemed to fall mostly on young women, girls, and those perceived as women/girls.
Purity culture reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and sets unattainable purity requirements. It completely ignores that abstinence-only programming does not significantly delay young people from having sex or that most U.S. teens have sex by age 18. Purity is also deeply connected to whiteness and heteronormativity, resulting in teachings that are disproportionately applied to marginalized communities. Society views young Black women and girls as more sexual –– and more adult –– than our white counterparts, which means we are seen as innately impure. Bisexual women (and girls) similarly face hypersexualization. Biphobia frames us as greedy, indecisive, and inherently immoral, making it an identity that is viewed in opposition to purity culture.
By the time I was fifteen, I was struggling with chronic sexual shame that kept me up at night. I was also a Debutante participating in my church's cotillion –– an experience that involved etiquette lessons, learning how to waltz, and signing an abstinence contract. For years, I punished myself for self-pleasure, for sexual curiosity, for being bi, and even for being sexualized by others. Purity culture ensured that my regular human development was something to be suffered through. And, because purity messaging seemed to focus on penetrative sex only, it reinforced the idea that 'real' sexuality was experienced with a male partner.
Two years after my abstinence pledge, when I finally had sex, shame had me examining my vaginal canal in the bathtub, searching for fragments of a punctured hymen. It had me turn to my boyfriend one day and through tears, ask if sex had ruined me forever. It added an extra layer to the times I experienced sexual assault in college. And for many other people exposed to purity culture, there are other consequences – like vaginismus, an involuntary physical tightening of the vagina that makes sex painful, as well as anxiety and PTSD.
Although I've learned so much about sexuality in adulthood, shame –– permanent and insisting –– sticks with me. My work is largely about providing healing and education to those harmed by purity culture, myself included. But one day, I hope to live in a society free of purity culture –– and for wellness, intelligence, and kindness to be valued above all.
Gabrielle Alexa Noel is a writer, author, and peer sex educator. She has bylines in Playboy, Elle, Bitch, and other places on the internet. Her first book, "How To Live With The Internet And Not Let It Run Your Life," debuts March 2021.