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?

Seriously.

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.

32 comments

  • I’ve heard of the present example before and it’s absolutely horrible, especially for victims. I was given the tape example where they stick tape to different people’s arms and say that it loses its stickiness for each new person just like having sex before marriage supposedly makes it harder for you to form an attachment with your future spouse. That’s really cruel, and incorrect. I was told that the stickiness represents oxytocin, which is a hormone that facilitates bonding. I was told to avoid activating oxytocin in order to remain pure. Guess what? It’s also used to bond mothers to their children, and can be activated by something as simple as hugging someone. I hugged my mom the other day. Let’s not stop giving hugs and being human over a concept as vague and socially constructed as purity.

    • Clearly, mothers only bond with the first child, and every child after that they bond with a little less until finally they are unable to bond with the lastborn at all. Kind of punches a hole in the Quiverful ideal. *eyeroll*

    • Science has discovered that sustained, loving eye contact with your dog releases oxytocin in both the human and the dog. Never love your dog. Sheesh!

  • Pingback: Let’s Make Jesus Famous: Hype about Her Hymen | Spiritual Sounding Board

  • I completely agree with your assessment of this. On the other hand, we ought to be careful about attaching the label of the “biblical definition” to things. There are passages like Deuteronomy 22.13-21 the death penalty is prescribed for women who are found to be impure on the basis of their lack of hymen blood on their wedding night. The fact that physical virginity is given this kind of weight in a biblical text is disturbing to say the least, not least because virginity is understood and defined as a feminine virtue exclusively (as is the corresponding “vice” of not being a virgin), not to mention the “test” is as you note wholly inaccurate as a test of either virtue or for that matter virginity.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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?

    In two words: USED GOODS.

    I know because though raised completely outside of Christianese Purity Culture, I somehow ended up internalizing all its tropes. Including the extreme Virgin/Whore Dichotomy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      P.S. Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board has also picked up on this.

    • The Virgin/Whore dichotomy and the other tropes of purity/rape culture are basically woven into the fabric of Western society. The larger culture is starting to change–albeit far, far too slowly–but conservative Christians seem to be doubling down on purity/rape culture, especially recently. (As this highly offensive and disturbing “certificate” example shows.)

      I come from a non-homeschooled, very mainstream United Methodist background, and I survived a sexual assault attempt when I was 14. In the aftermath, my well-meaning but uneducated parents, rather than getting counseling for me through the local rape crisis center, thought it better to send me to our church pastor for counseling instead. The pastor informed me that I may have been at least partly to blame for my assault because I wore “too much makeup for a girl your age,” and also suggested that my parents bore some responsibility for allowing me to wear “inappropriately tight jeans.” To say this was unhelpful is an understatement….30 years later, it still hurts.

      The entire concept of “virginity” is an anachronism that just needs to go away. Just because a girl has an intact hymen does not mean she is in any way “sexually pure.” I knew plenty of girls, even in my high school days, who claimed they were “saving themselves” (or rather their hymens) for their wedding nights, even as they were engaging in all manner of very, very x-rated sexual activities with their boyfriends, activities which didn’t threaten or involve their hymens in any way. And most of those girls considered themselves “good Christians.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        The Virgin/Whore dichotomy and the other tropes of purity/rape culture are basically woven into the fabric of Western society.

        That still doesn’t explain how I ended up with such an extreme case of it. Only thing I can think of is growing up a socially-isolated kid genius, taking most of my cues from Fifties movies & TV.

        I knew plenty of girls, even in my high school days, who claimed they were “saving themselves” (or rather their hymens) for their wedding nights, even as they were engaging in all manner of very, very x-rated sexual activities with their boyfriends, activities which didn’t threaten or involve their hymens in any way. And most of those girls considered themselves “good Christians.”

        There’s an EXTREMELY NSFW song on YouTube — “Loophole” by Garfunkel & Oates — on exactly that subject. Purity Culture Virgin Girl can’t land a boy because Purity Culture Boys want her to put out (which makes her a Whore and unfit for marriage) so she searches for a loophole and finds Anal isn’t mentioned in Leviticus so… (Only problem is the music video uses Catholic Parochial School trappings when today such Extreme Purity Culture attitudes (and workarounds?) are found mostly among Born-Again Bible-Believers(TM).)

        This is also related to something I read in an online dictionary of slang years ago: “Christian Side Hug”, defined as “non-genital sex entered into to preserve technical virginity (i.e. unpopped cherry)”.

  • It’s not just rape victims who suffer: The sexual-purity message also oppresses those strong girls and women who DEMAND ownership of their own bodies and minds. This vile version of Christianity forces women to be either miserable Christians or happy Freethinkers; many choose to leave the faith (the opposite of Jesus’ goal). Ironically, Mr. Freeman’s own name implies that he has what he denies women: Freedom.

  • SO you’re blaming this couple based off what happened to other people. CLEARLY you’ve got the wrong idea about the whole concept. I’ll pray for you.

  • This is all simply nuts- neither my wife nor I were virgins when me met. We have been happily married in a great marriage for 20 years. We help rescue animals- we love our cats. We have been faithful to each other. What good is a purity vow if you get divorced after 3 or 4 years with a few kids in tow?

  • Thank you for sharing this perspective from a victims point of view. However; Brelyn has stated in several interviews that girls/women can make the choice to become ‘born again virgins’. I believe this is a perspective includes sexual assault victims. Her message is not one of segregation, it’s based on inclusion and encouragement. We should all agree that our young ladies are way over-due when it comes to lessons of valuing their bodies, ie. Pregnant at 16, Teen Mom programs, etc. Her message is not designed to slight a particular group of people, while inspiring another group of people.

    • Hi there. I would have been a born again virgin, I suppose, if I’d ended up in that type of program rather than therapy that actually helped me. Here’s the festering abscess at the core of this idea: who in the blazing blue hell are you or Brelyn or anybody else to tell me that I was rendered less valuable as a person because I was molested? My virginity did not need to be restored. I was not dirty and I did not need cleaning. Somebody betrayed me by treated me like a Real Doll made of meat, instead of a person to whom Jesus’ great commandments apply. That does not make me meat; I do not need to be graded for purity!

      You want to put sexual assault survivors of all ages back into right relationship with their communities? Fine. Don’t ever protect molesters or rapists. Provide free legal aid to survivors who choose to enter the meat grinder that is a rape trial in this country. Pay for their medical care and therapy. And when it comes to your ideas about their so-called purity, shut up.

  • This is such a dangerous trend, I am so glad you pointed this out. Rejoicing is very dangerous.

    I will from now on be careful not to rejoice with new mothers because it is so cruel to those who have survived still births or the death of a child. And i won’t rejoice with those who have a healthy child because it is so cruel to those who have a diseased or sick child. And i will no longer rejoice with those children who get an A on their paper at school, because this would be cruel to those who get a lower grade. And of course I won’t rejoice with those who chose to give their children life, because that would be cruel to those who chose abortions. I almost forgot that when I am at work, I shall not rejoice that we have had 765 days accident free, because it is cruel to those who had an accident. That brings to mind, don’t rejoice with those who aren’t injured in a car wreck because it would be cruel to those who were injured. Also be careful not to rejoice with those who survive cancer because it is cruel to those families that have loved ones that don’t survive.

  • Pingback: It’s Friday! October 23, 2014 | Jessica Veldstra

  • Pingback: It’s Friday! October 23, 2015 | Jessica Veldstra

  • God said your penis is clean and pure but a vagina that has been entered by a penis (or a hymen that is torn in exercise or casual bicycling) is filthy and disgusting! Thus saith the Lord.
    Why doesn’t preacher Freeman soak his Bible in the toilet till it weighs several pounds, and then drop it in a pillow case and just beat his Godly truth into our heads in an honest and forthright way, instead of spreading his sick little hatred using a few verses he thinks he understands. Pastor Mike, look up the phrase “covert incest”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      God said your penis is clean and pure but a vagina that has been entered by a penis (or a hymen that is torn in exercise or casual bicycling) is filthy and disgusting! Thus saith the Lord.

      That’s “LOORD” pronounced all-caps and with two O’s.

      Beware of anyone who pronounces “LOORD” with two O’s or “JEESUS” with two E’s. Doubly so if all-caps.

  • File under: Preacher stories too bizarre to be real!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      “The difference between Reality and Fiction is Fiction has to make sense.”
      — attr to Mark Twain

  • Also, just FYI, in general, hymens don’t actually break, even with sexual intercourse. Most hymens stretch to accommodate penetration of tampons, sex toys, penises, etc. Exceptions would be for Imperforate hymens, Microperforate hymens, and Septate hymens, all of which may require minor surgery to correct.

  • Pingback: 26 Oct 2015 Religion, Atheism News, Commentary | Evangelically Atheist

  • I believe in virginity until marriage but I find “purity certificates” a terrible, horrifying idea. I don’t even know where to start to explain why but I’m gonna try:
    1. Purity is more than virginity: you can be pure and not be a virgin or you can be a virgin and not be pure. If we say that intact hymen=purity we are saying that married people are not pure anymore and that once you gave up your virginity you can’t be pure anymore, because how could you get your hymen back?
    Some people are raped or abused, other broke their hymen in normal activities, why should we blame them?
    2. My purity is between me and God (and my husband someday, in some sort of way). I appreciate a father’s concern for his daughter well being and I understand that he is proud of her for living what she believes but a certificate of virginity is not a certificate that testifies his parenting techniques.

  • This is a wise person, right here.

  • “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.”

    YES.

  • In Jewish law a sexually assaulted girl is considered to have only been physically assaulted and hence to still be considered a virgin. Besides, it doesn’t take a any post-pubescent person any effort to imagine how one can be quite sexually active and keep the hymen intact; there is also hymenal reconstruction, whcih is a procedure may Islamic coeds in the US have done prior to returning to their Islamist dunghills in order to avoid execution. In fine, purity certificates are as valuable as monopoly money.

  • Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    IT SETS UP AUTOMATIC FAILURE AND CONDEMNATION TO ANY WHO WERE VICTIMS AND NOW HAVE LITTLE RECOURSE TO BE MADE WHOLE AGAIN. FRANKLY–THIS IS NOT ACTING IN LOVE TOWAD OTHERS!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s