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The Dark Side of the Purity Movement: How Religious Teachings on Sexuality Can Create “Monsters”

by Dr. Eitan Bar
5 minutes read

Themes of infidelity, adultery, and betrayal are common in stories, movies, songs, and novels, reflecting their presence in human history, as also depicted in biblical narratives. However, the heinous acts of religious leaders, including pastors, priests, and rabbis, involving the sexual abuse of women and children are utterly demonic.

In the 21st century, it became tragically predictable that every other month, another gruesome scandal involving a conservative or fundamentalist leader charged with horrendous sexual misconduct surfaces. These horrific stories are likely only a tiny percentage of what remains hidden in the dark.

Although the latest case of the famous Evangelical Pastor Robert Morris and the 12-year-old girl drove me to want to write this article, this phenomenon is not unique only to Evangelicals. In fact, you can observe it in many conservative/fundamentalist religious movements, including infamous cases of priests in the conservative Catholic church, Rabbis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, or the case of Bill Gothard and IBLP (Southern Baptist) that turned into a mini-series.

The Psychological Effects of the Purity Movement

Like many psychologists who voiced their voices, I, too, believe that the strict “Purity Movement” within conservative religious circles directly contributes to these disturbing patterns as, from a psychological perspective, enforcing sexual repression from a young age is known to have negative psychological affects and at times, catastrophic outcomes.

Some swore to not so much as kiss another person or even go on a date, for fear of putting themselves on the road to moral failure.

Clyde Haberman, “How an Abstinence Pledge in the ’90s Shamed a Generation of Evangelicals.1

The complete suppression of sexual desires without a way to express them healthily can lead to significant psychological repercussions.2 These include persistent feelings of guilt and shame, which damage self-esteem and self-worth. Over time, this can result in chronic anxiety, depression, and stress. Individuals often resort to secretive, harmful behaviors, leading to a hypocritical double life and increased mental and emotional strain. The suppression distorts their views on sexuality, making it challenging to form healthy sexual relationships later in life. Furthermore, unresolved tension and frustration can manifest in harmful behaviors, including exploitation of others, as seen in numerous cases of sexual misconduct among religious leaders. The long-term effects are profound, impacting mental health, relationships, and overall well-being.

To be clear, I am not endorsing sexual permissiveness; however, I think there is a significant gap between the extremes of the Purity Movement and sexual permissiveness, a gap that is frequently ignored.

Strict Religion and Sexuality

“Everyone is expected to maintain absolute sexlessness before marriage…and upon marriage, they are expected to flip their sexuality on like a light switch…. men are taught their minds are evil, whereas women are taught their bodies are evil.”

Linda Kay Kein, “The dangers of purity culture.3

Purity Movements promotes abstinence from any kind of sexual activity until marriage and instills the notion that any sexual expression outside of marriage is sinful, indoctrinating children and teenagers with ideas like them risking going to hell for kissing or masturbating. These fear-based messages are relentlessly imparted to children and teenagers during critical stages of their personal development. Despite this, their sexual development naturally progresses as they enter puberty and experience sexual urges, which are then internally framed as sinful, fostering intense psychological conflict.

Labeling inherent sexual urges as sinful creates a psychological time bomb. Young people trapped in this guilt, shame, and fear cycle often resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Instead of developing a healthy understanding and ways of expressing their sexuality, they face repression that causes them much harm.

This repression often leads to harmful outcomes. Some, unable to align their natural desires with their strict beliefs and having to physically “release themselves,” might secretly engage in behaviors that contrast sharply with their public piety, living a double life. In a religious context, the shame, fear, and terror of social punishment and religious ex-communication or cancellation, even for “minor offenses,” can drive some to extreme, dangerous behaviors to satisfy deeply repressed natural desires.

My experience in the Messianic movement

It’s crucial to break the culture of silence and suppression that purity movements perpetuate. For 20 years, I was a member of several different churches, and not once did I hear a sermon or teaching about sexuality unless it involved the “keep pure or burn in hell” message (along with the never-dying recommendation of taking cold showers…).

Also, having spent over 20 years in various churches and ministries within the Messianic movement in Israel, many of which align with fundamentalist evangelical ideologies, I have seen the grim reality of this repression. The hidden aspect of sexual abuse, harassment, and molestation of women and teens by Messianic leaders and pastors, including some very prominent figures, is chilling. Ironically, while the secular world condemns and actively combats such malevolence, it is often the religious “moral” world that conceals these acts and covers up their behavior.

Too often, I attended or served in messianic churches and ministries in Israel, where people serving or worshiping side-by-side with me turned out to be sexual harassers, abusers, and child molesters. I can easily think of a handful of cases. Unfortunately, only a few of them are behind bars, while others are still serving. In fact, only last month, one of the largest, most well-known messianic congregations here came into a quiet settlement, paying large amounts of money to silence one of its previous members. Simultaneously, a Messianic pastor from a different messianic congregation is now pressing charges for slander against a young woman who publicly claimed he raped her sister. By their fruits, you will know them.

In the Messianic movement, there are numerous individuals who are God-fearing, honest, and loving. However, this does not negate the existence of “monsters” within this and other religious movements. These predators, often shaped by their own strict religious beliefs, cause incalculable harm to their victims.

These leaders, under the guise of righteous leaders, exploit their authority, manipulating and controlling victims by leveraging the trust and power dynamics of their positions. When these abuses are exposed, they are often concealed, with victims often silenced through payoffs funded by donations from well-intentioned Christians who support Israel but are completely oblivious to the behind-closed-doors realities of the Messianic movement. I’m only using the Messianic movement as an example because I used to have a very active part in it. However, this hypocritical behavior is very relevant to most other rigid Puritan-like religious groups.

In conclusion, followers of Christ need to foster a healthier, open, respectful dialogue about sexuality that isn’t rooted in fear and shame (nor in radical permissiveness) but promotes understanding and respect. Only through such transformation can we hope to dismantle the structures that allow such abuses to persist and safeguard the vulnerable from falling prey to these so-called monsters.

Related Article: 10 Signs Your Church is a Cult

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html ↩︎
  2. https://www.verywellmind.com/sexual-repression-definition-causes-and-treatment-5217583 ↩︎
  3. https://thewoostervoice.spaces.wooster.edu/2024/03/08/the-dangers-of-purity-culture/ ↩︎

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist