What should Christian feminists do with their old “purity” rings, symbols of a patriarchal theology that has harmed countless women?
Melt them down, says progressive Christian author and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber, and create something completely new.
On Monday, Bolz-Weber issued a call on Twitter for people to send her those rings “for a massive art project.”
In certain evangelical Christian circles, the rings were given to young girls as symbols of a pledge they made to abstain from sex until marriage. But the rings ― and more broadly, the Christian purity culture of the 1990s and 2000s ― also shamed young girls into disconnecting from their bodies, Bolz-Weber argues.
With the help of artist Nancy Anderson, Bolz-Weber said she plans to melt down the rings that people send her and recast them as a “golden vagina.” She said that the project ― part of a promotion for Shameless, her upcoming book about sex and Christianity ― is about “reclamation” of women’s bodies.
“This thing about women that the church has tried to hide and control and that is a canvas on which other people can write their own righteousness ― it’s actually ours,” Bolz-Weber told HuffPost. “This part of me is mine and I get to determine what is good for it and if it’s beautiful and how I use it in the world.”
Bolz-Weber was the founding pastor of Denver’s House for All Sinners and Saints, a progressive, queer-inclusive Lutheran congregation. Although she was born a generation too early to experience the purity ring phenomenon, she said that many of her younger friends and former parishioners were immersed in that culture.
Notions about the need to control women’s sexuality have existed for centuries in Christian communities, but the purity culture phenomenon that Bolz-Weber is referring really took root in certain evangelical circles during the 1990s and 2000s. It grew out of the alarm that some conservative Christians felt about the sexual revolution, according to Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.
Some Christians believed that a renewed focus on chastity and traditional sexual values was the best solution to the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, Klein writes in her book. The U.S. government, influenced by this belief, began pouring money into abstinence-only education. This helped the purity movement spread beyond the most insular circles and into more mainstream evangelicalism.
Thousands of teens signed the “True Love Waits” pledge of abstinence, which was supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest evangelical denomination. I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a wildly popular 1997 book, encouraged Christian teens to abstain even from dating. (Its author, Josh Harris, recently stopped publication of the book and apologized for the harm it caused.)
In the end, Klein writes, purity culture essentially taught girls that they were responsible not only for their own chastity, but also for that of the boys around them. Girls who had premarital sex were compared to “used” cars, tissues and gum that no one else would want. Purity culture had a particularly devastating and dangerous effect on gay and lesbian teens, since in condemning all sex outside a heterosexual marriage, it left them with no hope for a future relationship. Ultimately, girls were led to believe that their sexual thoughts and choices determined their spiritual standing in the eyes of God.
Bolz-Weber said she recognizes that for many Christians, an emphasis on purity comes from a genuine desire to lead a holy life. But she said problems arise when people substitute purity for holiness, since purity is easier to regulate.
The two concepts are not interchangeable, she said.
“The difference between purity and holiness is that purity is always about separation ― separating ourselves from people who are less religious, separating ourselves from our sexual natures, from our desires,” Bolz-Weber explained. “But holiness is always about connection ― to God, to ourselves, to our nature.”
While writing her new book, Bolz-Weber said she talked to women in their 40s who still wouldn’t wear V-neck shirts because they were once told the shirts were immodest and that female modesty was the best protection from unwanted male sexual advances. Some women who had waited to have sex until marriage spoke to her about struggling with sexual pleasure.
“A lot of women have gone through a lot of their lives sort of judging themselves on a scale of worthiness that somebody else handed them,” she said.
Bolz-Weber is collecting purity rings until Dec. 17. In exchange, senders will receive a silicone “impurity” ring and a “Certificate of Impurity.”
The vagina sculpture, Bolz-Weber said, will be revealed at the 2019 conference for Makers, a feminist media brand. (Makers and HuffPost share a parent company.)
Bolz-Weber hopes the purity ring project will show that the symbols used to shame women can also be used for their liberation.
The idea is to tell former purity ring wearers that they are holy because of the life that God has breathed into them, the pastor said, and that this holiness isn’t something that can be taken away by another human being.
“To me, to be able to have the self-determination to take symbols and words and actions that might have harmed me at a different time in life and to reclaim and redefine and rework those into something healing and humorous ― that’s a powerful thing,” she said.