Written by Precious-Uzoma Nwosu

It’s 55 minutes after 2 in the morning. The world out there seems to be quiet except for the sound of the crickets and, of course, the snore of the man you married. You stare silently at the ceiling of your room and wonder if this is how it’s going to continue, if sexual dissatisfaction has become the norm and the order of the day.

This was not the marriage that was promised to you. No, not the reward you expected for keeping your virginity throughout college. Not at all!

Your mum had told you there were rewards for keeping yourself. For not allowing any man to “defile” you. She didn’t say have sex with you; no, she used the word “defile,” like to stain and pollute your body. And now you’re thinking if men ever get “defiled.” Didn’t they have a first time like women?

Last month, you celebrated two years into the marriage and still yet to receive those rewards she talked about. The beatings you receive from him, the sexual dissatisfaction, the demeaning, sure can’t be the reward, right? Or are they?

She also mentioned that your husband wouldn’t value you if you weren’t found “pure” on your wedding night. “Your value drops whenever you have sex with someone who isn’t your husband” was her mantra to you every day. Then you agreed, but now you wonder if that isn’t the fault of men. Surely you have a problem if someone’s worth drops as a result of sleeping with you. The way she often said it, it would seem that sex is something done to a woman and not a pleasure enjoyed by both parties.

You wished you were given the choice to make a decision, to choose if you wanted to remain a virgin for a reason that resonates with you and not that of your mother or your society.

Perhaps, then you would be able to forgo this shame associated with sex even as a married woman, and ask the man you said “I do” to at the altar to pay more attention to your sexual needs.

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Purity culture refers to a set of beliefs, attitudes, and practices that promote sexual abstinence, modesty, and adherence to traditional gender roles within certain religious or social communities. It often emphasizes the importance of preserving one’s “purity” or “sexual innocence” until marriage and typically includes teachings about avoiding premarital sex, pornography, immodest dressing, and other behaviors deemed contrary to moral or religious values. While this can be argued to be a sexual ethic that encourages unwed individuals, especially teenagers, to pledge and maintain abstinence before marriage, there are underlying factors that aren’t talked about.

Using Roses and Bullet, a novel by Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, as a reference, it is seen that in Nigeria, women are usually the ones this culture is pushed upon. The culture instructs that women keep themselves pure and untainted before marriage, first, to maintain the good names of their families, secure a good husband for themselves, get a solid and reasonable bride price, and lastly, have a stable and blissful marriage. So, to ensure this, women right from the teenage age are instructed to wear the right dresses, walk and talk the right way, keep the right friends, and so on. When they go against these rules, they face several consequences. For Ginika, she had to face Uba, her father’s tyrannical invasion of her privacy when he suspected her going against his rules to secure her purity.

“The examination was brief but thorough. Ginika lay on her back, totally devastated. After he had finished, he told her to get up, and she could see he was more relaxed” (Roses and Bullets, pg 99). He thereafter went further to explain his actions and it was hinted towards keeping her whole for marriage:

“I was afraid these boys did something to you, but I’m satisfied they did not. You can go to your room now, but remember, what happened today should not repeat itself. You are not allowed to keep late nights. I do not want any man around you until you finish your education and get married. Then someone else will be responsible for you” (Roses and Bullets, pg 100). His behaviors towards his obsession with her chastity would go ahead to cause her mental and psychological trauma in her later years; trauma that would cause her to hate her father for years. Also known throughout the novel, there was no way it was noted that Nwakire, Ginika’s brother, was given such an inspection. This is only to demonstrate how purity culture is pushed onto women. 

Purity culture also sees that women do things in the right way so as not to “instigate” and “rouse” sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions in men. If they do “inspire” such thoughts, they are said to be a “stumbling block” – literally a thing over which men trip on their pathway to God. This can be seen in the instances between Lieutenant Ofodile and Ginika:

“Sorry for yourself, do you realize you are a bloody flirt? You encouraged me all along and now you pretend you did not” (Roses and Bullets pg, 56). He is therefore saying that she initiated his impure feelings toward her. This indicates that there is no winning for women. We would always get blamed for everything.

Another underlying factor not talked about is how strict emphasis on sexual purity may inadvertently promote feelings of shame and guilt surrounding sexuality, particularly for individuals who do not adhere to its standards or who experience sexual abuse or trauma. Talking to Mide, a lady in her early twenties, she noted how despite being a self-acclaimed feminist who is irreligious, she is still not exempted from the shame associated with sex. According to her: “Sometimes I want to take charge more during sex but I just feel held back as if I want to do something unnatural, and this is coming from me who is feminist and irreligious so imagine women who are the opposite. This shame will go ahead to affect women who are married because you have to be coy about sex or you would be asked where you got the experience from.”

Asking Doyin, a gender advocate and feminist, for her views on Purity Culture, she says:

“Christianity preaches abstinence and only focuses on how women should be pure. In a traditional system, likewise, a woman’s marital worth is proved by her purity. Before the advent of globalization, a woman’s blood was shown to all to prove her virginity status and not her husband’s. Female Genital Mutilation was, and still is, one of the ways to make a woman sexually abstinent till marriage. To date, only a woman’s modesty is acknowledged, and she is taught from birth to not be as sexually active as a man.

The concept of purity culture is fluid because your opinion about it is different from another. People who believe that the revelation of blood at vaginal intercourse affirms her virginity should be reminded that not all women are born with a hymen. Likewise, some women could break their hymen by being rigorous. So, does that make them less of who they are? By their justification, even a woman who has engaged in several sexual acts excluding penetration is a virgin, even a lesbian. But by the definition of purity culture, it is meant to be a set of beliefs and practices that emphasize abstinence and sexual purity in all forms.

Men, most especially African men, expect sexual purity from women, but many of them have several sexual partners. They want to settle and marry the “good women” after sleeping around with “baddies” just to cheat on the good women with “baddies” again, sigh.

A recent video surfaced where the owner of Madonna University, a Christian University, said females in the school graduate as virgins, and he is proud. No mention of the male. No institution even checks the man, which reinforces the gender stereotypes instituted by patriarchy. At least to them, men are born to be sexually active, but it is women they check and point daggers at. Foolish take!”

The pressure to maintain this said “purity” can also lead to women staying in unhealthy and oppressive relationships, especially non-marital sexual relationships that do not serve them, so as not to increase their body counts which may have them referred to as wayward, impure and unmarriageable. 

The long list of the detrimental effects that Purity Culture has on women’s self-worth, self-esteem, mental health and autonomy will continue to go on and multiply if culture, media and society continue to promote these outdated practices. It is therefore essential to challenge and dismantle these outdated beliefs and practices, and replace them with comprehensive sex education, empowerment, and respect for individual agency. That way, we can create a society where women are valued for their entirety, free from the shackles of archaic expectations and able to embrace their sexuality with confidence and dignity. Women are human beings with rights, needs, and freedom and should be treated as such. 

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