How Canadian evangelicalism is reinventing purity culture as ‘pro-women’

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The anti-Asian shootings at three massage parlours in Atlanta, Ga., in March 2021 have complex religious elements. Eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in the attacks. The alleged shooter emerged from an evangelical “purity culture” that teaches a narrow view of sexuality, often with racial undertones.

Purity culture has both specific and broad meanings. It directly refers to a 1990s wave of practices of “extreme abstinence,” mainly directed at women. But it also incorporates decades of broader evangelical teachings restricting sexuality to within heterosexual marriage.

While some argue that purity culture only refers to the narrow 1990s practices that even many evangelicals now distance themselves from, there is no clear distinction and the underlying ideas are the same. According to Bradley Onishi, an American professor of religious studies, women are taught to “hate their bodies” and men to “hate their minds.” This is the mindset that led the accused Atlanta perpetrator to claim he was plagued by a “sexual addiction,” because he felt unable to manage his sexual thoughts and urges through purity culture’s hardline approach of denial and self-loathing.

Purity culture also taps into xenophobic and racist views of non-white cultures as exotic and sexually licentious. Canadian ex-evangelical Jenna Tenn-Yuk writes that “women of colour … do not get to be seen as pure.” Asian American ex-evangelicals like Angie Hong, Flora Tang and Onishi have also explored the connections between purity culture and the fetishization of Asian women in the wake of the Atlanta shootings.