Wolfe Dissertation Defense: Your Body is Not Your Own

Zoom and 12th Floor

Your Body is Not Your Own: (Dis)embodied Sexual and Mental Health in Evangelical Purity Culture

Rebecca Wolfe

In this dissertation, I explore the embodied experiences of persons assigned female at birth and raised as women within a protestant evangelical movement known as purity culture, which emphasizes sexual abstinence and conservative gender roles. I expand understandings of this movement by situating it as broadly focused on controlling and impressing cultural values onto female bodies. First, I explicate the functions of thinness in this environment through its associations with bodily discipline, modesty, and whiteness, intertwined with constructions of holiness. Next, I examine the gendered submission of the body and how a lack of bodily autonomy is pre-requisite to being seen as a ‘good woman’ in purity culture. Third, I outline structures and norms of purity culture as fertile grounds for, and passively accepting of, sexual assault and abuse, and the embodied consequences of such structures. Finally, I illustrate the three major ways in which purity culture lives in the body—sexual dysfunction, disembodiment, and disordered eating. Through this work, I argue that purity culture severely limits bodily autonomy and, through embodied impact, acts as a disembodying force among persons assigned female at birth, creating profound physical and mental health consequences. This work offers insights for healing strategies, particularly addressing disembodiment.