What Do “Certificates of Purity” Communicate to Sexual Assault Survivors?
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
Content warning: discussion of child sexual abuse.
By now you have likely heard about the increasingly viral story of Brelyn Bowman and her father, Pastor Mike Freeman. Pastor Freeman glowingly shared on social media the fact that his daughter presented to him, on her wedding day, a “Certificate of Purity.” Brelyn wrote on Instagram that she “present[ed] a certificate of purity to [my father] signed by my doctor that my hymen was still intact.” This fact — that Brelyn has an intact hymen — is the evidence used to demonstrate that she preserved her “purity” until her wedding day.
There are problems with this scenario, which many internet commentators have addressed. For example, there are plenty of non-sexual activities one can engage in that can break a person’s hymen — riding a bike, gymnastics, even performing a worship dance in your church. There are also plenty of sexual activities one can engage in that do not break a person’s hymen.
In other words, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the state of one’s hymen and one’s “purity.” If you are a young person committed to Christian purity or the parent of such a child, obsessing with the young person’s genitals is a red herring, and honestly an unhealthy way to present the concept of purity to one’s children and future generations. The Greek word the Christian Apostles used for “purity,” ἁγνεία, comes from a word used to describe religious ceremonies, ἁγνός, which means holy or set apart in the sense of preparing for worship. It is the idea of dedicating one’s entire self to God, which is a more uplifting thought than parents obsessing with the state of their children’s genitals. It also makes 1 Timothy 4:12 sound less creepy. With the Freemans’ definition of purity, 1 Timothy 4:12 would read, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith, and your intact hymen, show yourself an example of those who believe.” We get a better translation saying, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith, and your dedication to God, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
But even more importantly, this latter concept of purity — in other words, the concept of purity that is actually from the Bible — is something everyone can aspire to, regardless of tragedies that may befall them. And that’s what I think the Freemans aren’t thinking about: tragedies.
Did you know that 1 in 5 girls is a victim of child sexual abuse?
Did you know that abuse can include molestation and rape, both of which can tear a hymen?
What are your “Certificates of Purity” telling those girls?
Take a moment and think about it.
They are telling abused kids that, if their hymens aren’t intact — because they were assaulted or raped — then they don’t get to be “pure.” No intact hymen? No “Certificate of Purity.” Sorry, that’s just how it is. Because you’re using intact hymens as the standard of purity, remember?
So now abused kids not only get shame every single day of their lives from the day they were abused until their wedding day. They also get shame on their wedding day, too. Because they don’t get happy smiles from their fathers. They don’t get Instagram pictures with proof of their “purity.” They are used, defiled, and dirty. There is no redemption for them.
These are demonic messages to communicate to abuse survivors and they are the messages your “Certificates of Purity” communicate.
If you don’t believe me, listen to what one rape survivor herself says:
“I had to go through the True Love Waits program. The ‘activity’ I remember the most was a wrapped present. I held the package and stood at the front of the room. Then, the youth leaders lined up the guys and each of them tore off some of the paper. Then I had to read some paragraph about how virginity is like a gift – no one wants a present that was ‘meant for them’ to have already been opened by someone else. Because of that one activity, I never told anyone I was raped at 15 until years later.”
This is the same sentiment that kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart expressed recently when she said that after being kidnapped and abused it was “easy…to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value.” Smart directly related this feeling to the purity teachings she had imbibed, that taught her that her purity — her holiness before God — was linked to “virginity” — namely, an intact hymen.
We desperately need to stop these messages. We need to rethink purity and rethink how we teach purity. What Brelyn Bowman and Pastor Mike Freeman are communicating (likely unintentionally) to sexual assault survivors is nothing short of cruel. It can keep victims from coming forward about their abuse. It can keep victims stuck in abusive relationships. It can exacerbate depression or suicidal ideation.
These messages seriously need to stop. And they need to stop right here, right now, among conservative Christians like the Freemans. They need to stop right here, right now, in our Christian homeschooling communities.
We need to stop speaking guilt and shame into survivors’ lives; we should be speaking freedom and healing, instead.