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Memoirist: Evangelical Purity Movement Sees Women's Bodies As A 'Threat'

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 18, 2018 3:52 pm

When Linda Kay Klein was 13, she joined an evangelical church that prized sexual "purity" and taught that men and boys were sexually weak.

According to Klein's faith, girls and women were responsible for keeping male sexual desire in check by wearing modest clothing, maintaining a sexless mind and body and taking a "purity pledge," in which they promised to remain virgins until marriage.

Looking back now, Klein says, "It was all about how [a woman] needed to be a good Christian by protecting them from the threat that is you — the threat that is your body. The threat that is your sexuality."

Klein says the central tenet of the purity movement is to delay the age at which young people first have sex. But in practice, she says, the movement is most effective at stifling women's sexuality and creating a "deep, long-lasting shame" among its practitioners.

Because she was a curvy teen, Klein was often chastised for not being modest enough. Even after leaving the church when she was in her 20s, Klein continued to experience anxiety and shame about her body and sexuality.

"When I left, I thought that I was going to be completely free of sexual shame and fear and anxiety," she says. Instead, she says, "I had so internalized the sexual shaming, that I no longer needed external shamers. ... I was more than capable of shaming myself."

Klein is the founder of Break Free Together, an organization that tries to help people escape the sexual shame from their upbringing. Her new memoir is Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.


Interview Highlights

On leaving her evangelical church and realizing that other women who had been a part of the sexual purity movement had experiences similar to hers

It wasn't until I started to call up my girlfriends from back home in the evangelical church in which I was raised and started telling them what I was experiencing — and then [I] sat with my jaw just dropped to the floor as they told me very similar stories from their own lives [and] I started to realize that I wasn't alone.

I spent a year sitting down with people in coffee shops and in living rooms and in bars and talking to them about their adult experiences with sex and gender and sexuality, having also been raised in the purity movement. That year was such an "a-ha" for me because I kept hearing the same stories that mirrored the pain of my own life, this, again fear and shame and anxiety that for many of us was manifesting physically in ways that even mimicked classic PTSD.

On how her shame and fear of sexuality manifested physically

It started with nightmares, and that's incredibly common. It was common for me, but it's also something I hear a lot about from folks who I interview about this. A lot of us also had these this anxiety that lived in our bodies. For me that meant my eczema that comes out when I get stressed, would come out when I would have sexual thoughts or feelings or make sexual choices, because I had this sort of association of deep anxiety around my sexuality. Whereas some of the people I was interviewing ... this was so physicalized that they were having panic attacks — literal panic attacks — and they were going to the hospital.

On the belief that if you maintained purity before marriage you would have a very active marital sex life

"If A, then B," is what we were taught. If you are pure — non-sexual to whatever extent is the requirement — before marriage, then you will have a perfect, blissful highly sexual life after marriage. You will please your husband. He will never leave you. He will never cheat on you, because you will be such a sexual delight for him.

And it's fascinating, because this teaching doesn't really work. The reality that I've learned from my interviews in particular is that, "If A, then A." If you learn to shut down your sexuality, if you learn to train your body to experience shame to protect you from the consequences of your sexuality, in your community, "then A" — after you get married you often still struggle with turning your sexuality on.

On how gender roles are important in the purity movement

The first exposure I had to the purity message was actually about gender. Gender and sexuality are deeply intertwined in the purity movement. You aren't just supposed to be sexually pure, but you are supposed to be pure in your gender expression. So women and girls are expected to be hyper-feminine, supportive followers of men and boys who are expected to be hyper-masculine leaders, supportive and loving leaders, but leaders nonetheless. And if either the man or the woman or the girl or the boy strays from their gender expectation, for example, if the woman leads too much or the man becomes her follower, the idea is that the whole picture topples. ...

In this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak and women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make, and it's women and girls' responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right, to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people — and if they don't, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

On overcoming shame and experiencing pleasure in her sex life

There was a lot of fear and anxiety. ... When I was trying to have sex — and this is something I hear a lot of my interviews as well — that pleasure is something that we have learned to be quite afraid of. And it requires a whole rewriting of our relationship to ourselves and to our bodies to be able to see pleasure is a good thing, and as a valuable thing and to be able to move through the shame and the anxiety to be able to get to it.

And, of course, this isn't just true of people who are raised in the evangelical church. ... The purity message that I was raised with in the evangelical church is not very different than the message that we learned in society. In the church we learn that you are either "pure" or "impure" but in society we hear about "good girls" and "bad girls." ... I've hardly talked to a person — especially a woman — who hasn't experienced some level of sexual shame and difficulty with embracing pleasure.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about the evangelical sexual purity movement, its insistence on sexual abstinence before marriage and the impact the movement has had on women who were brought up in it, women like my guest, Linda Kay Klein. She says the movement has traumatized many girls and maturing women who are haunted by sexual and gender-based anxiety, fear and shame. Her new book, "Pure," is part memoir, including the story of how she left the movement. The book also draws on the interviews she did with other women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, including women from her hometown, about how the evangelical purity movement has affected their sense of identity and their sex lives.

The purity movement grew in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, which funded abstinence-only programs for community organizations, schools and health departments. A whole industry of purity-related products developed around the movement, including purity rings, T-shirts, mugs, even a purity Bible. Klein describes the purity movement as conveying the expectation that all unmarried girls and women must maintain a sexless body, mind and heart to be pure. Klein is also the founder of Break Free Together, which tries to help people escape the sexual shame they were raised with.

Linda Kay Klein, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the project that you undertook, and the result of that is your book, is interviewing other women who were part of the sexual purity movement, who were brought up in the movement. Describe your project and why you wanted to do it.

LINDA KAY KLEIN: I was in my early 20s. I had left the evangelical church, in large part because I had rejected the sexual shaming that I experienced in that community, and I no longer wanted it to be a part of my life. And when I left, I thought that I was going to be completely free of sexual shame and fear and anxiety that had haunted me up until that point, and discovered quite to the contrary that I was actually not free at all, that I had so internalized the sexual shaming that I no longer needed external shamers, that I was more than capable of shaming myself. And that was scary for me.

And I worried a lot that I was broken and that I would never have a healthy relationship or be a healthy person. And it wasn't until I started to call up my girlfriends from back home in the evangelical church in which I was raised and started telling them what I was experiencing and then sat with my jaw just dropped to the floor as they told me very similar stories, you know, from their own lives, that I started to realize that I wasn't alone.

And I spent a year, you know, sitting down with people in coffee shops and in living rooms and in bars and talking to them about their adult experiences with sex and gender and sexuality having also been raised in the purity movement. And that year, you know, was such an aha for me because I kept hearing these same stories that mirrored the pain of my own life - this, again, fear and shame and anxiety that, for many of us, was manifesting physically in ways that even mimicked classic PTSD.

GROSS: You write, we'd gone to war with ourselves, with our bodies. So what were some of the symptoms that you had and that other women brought up in the purity movement had that you thought were very similar to PTSD?

KLEIN: Well, it started, you know, with nightmares. And that's incredibly common. You know, it was common for me, but it's also something I hear a lot about from folks who I interview about this. You know, a lot of us also had this anxiety that lived in our bodies. You know, for me, that meant my eczema that comes out when I get stressed would come out when I would have sexual thoughts or feelings or make sexual choices because I, you know, had this sort of association of deep anxiety around my sexuality. Whereas some of the people I was interviewing were actually - you know, this was so physicalized that they were having panic attacks, literal panic attacks and they were going to the hospital.

You know, another example is, you know, there was a lot of fear. You know, people walked in a constant cognizance of other people's perceptions of their purity and how other people would assess them as good or bad, pure or impure. And that created, you know, for me, a fear that led me to do things that felt crazy to me, like take pregnancy tests, though I wasn't having sex, you know? Because I was so afraid of my sexuality being found out, whatever sexuality I was engaging in. Whereas for other people, you know, that paranoia started to become fears of being followed when they went on dates, or fears of being recorded in their own homes.

So that's what I mean when I say PTSD. And the thing that probably is the most scary is, you know, for a lot of people, it was a feeling of worthlessness. And for some, that was subtle. You know, just in the background of their minds. And for others, it became so extreme that they felt that they had no choice other than to commit suicide. Now, I'm not labeling what we experienced PTSD. I'm not a researcher. I don't think that's my role. But when I look at what we experienced, it certainly mirrors or mimics the symptoms of PTSD.

GROSS: You mentioned panic attacks. And in your book, you describe yourself as not quite having panic attacks, but having freakouts. When you were a young woman after you'd left the church, you'd left the purity movement, you had a boyfriend and you had talked about having sex. And you thought you were ready to do it. But every time you came close, you'd freak out. Maybe it wasn't a full-blown, clinical panic attack, but you couldn't deal with it.

KLEIN: Yeah. You know, the reality is, is that again, I thought that I was capable of making the choice of having sex. I was in my early 20s. I had a boyfriend who I loved. I really wanted to be able to express my love for him physically and felt very comfortable with making that choice. And yet when I actually would get into a situation where, you know, we were actually beginning to go down a road toward having sex, I would have what he called freakouts. That was his term for it. And a freakout consisted of me breaking down into tears, sometimes that eczema that I mentioned coming out, and my scratching myself until I bled and ending up, you know, in a ball in the corner of the bed in a way that was deeply unsexy, (laughter), and that definitely prevented us from having sex. You know, and even afterward, even though we hadn't had sex, I was still filled with a fear that I had gone too far. And I felt myself awaiting some grand punishment that I had been taught would await somebody who was too sexual, somebody who was impure.

GROSS: You know, the impression I get from your book is, when you're young and in the sexual purity movement, you were kind of trying to experience shame if you kiss, even. You know, like, kissing is going too far. At least, that's the way you describe it. And that you're preached to be pure, to not engage in sex, but when you find your partner and marry, then you should start having sex. And as one of the pastors said, men like a woman to be a lamb during the day and a tiger at night. So you're expected suddenly to be able to like, you know, have sex and please your husband, and it's this kind of, like, flipflop of what your brain is expecting from the very idea of sexuality. It seems like coping with that might be complicated?

KLEIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. You know, the rules, first of all, of purity culture were always really unclear because your purity or lack thereof was defined by the community. So some members of the community would say, you know, yes, you couldn't even have an emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite sex without risking your purity before marriage, whereas others, you know, seemed to feel that, you know, as long as you didn't have sex before marriage, you were still fine. You were still safe. So you were in this pre-stage of non-sexuality. You were constantly wondering what it was that was going to lose you your purity, right? So that's hence, I think, some of the anxiety that people were living with. You know, you're constantly awaiting the assessment of the community.

But one thing that you know is that if A then B, is what we were taught. If you are pure, non-sexual to whatever extent is the requirement before marriage then you will have a perfect, blissful, highly sexual life after marriage. You will please your husband. He will never leave you. He will never cheat on you because you will be such a sexual delight for him. And it's fascinating because, you know, this teaching doesn't really work. You know, the reality that I've learned, from my interviews in particular, is that if A then A. (Laughter). You know? If you learn to shut down your sexuality, if you learn to train your body to experience shame, to protect you from the consequences of your sexuality in your community then A. After you get married, you often still struggle with turning your sexuality on.

But, you know, when people come to pastors oftentimes with problems in their marriage and say, you know, we're having sexual issues even, you know, having sexual shame, oftentimes, you know, the pastors will bring them back to that same old nonsensical equation, if A, then B. So they'll say, well, you're struggling in your marriage with being hypersexual. So, you know, what happened before you got married? Did you masturbate? Did you go a little further than you think you should have together? What happened with your parents? You know, what happened before this moment that you did wrong or that was done wrong to you? How are you broken that made this A-then-B equation not work in your life?

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. She's the author of the new book "Pure" about the purity and abstinence movements in evangelical Christianity. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is about the evangelical purity and abstinence movement, a movement she was raised in as an evangelical Christian. She broke away from the evangelical church and the purity movement when she was in her early 20s. Her new book, "Pure," is part memoir, but it's also filled with interviews with other women who, like her, were raised in the purity movement and then left. And it's all about the impact of that movement on their lives.

Let's go back and talk about your early life in the purity movement. How old were you when you started being taught about purity?

KLEIN: I was 13 when I joined the evangelical church. And I loved the church. You know, I really joined because I fell in love with the message of Jesus and the person of Jesus and the example of Jesus and the idea of radical love and radical acceptance. You know, my mom had been an evangelical since I was a baby. And so in many ways, she had raised me evangelical though we actually attended an Episcopalian church as a family, you know, on Sundays. But she would listen to the Christian radio station and read evangelical books and had evangelical friends.

And so when she raised me, you know, she really was teaching me about a personal relationship with Jesus and teaching me about emulating the person of Jesus in a very particular way that was very intimate and very beautiful and that I loved. And when I found the evangelical church, and they were talking about these things at a church level, at a community level, I was so excited. It felt like coming home in so many ways. And when I first came in, you know, it was at that very first retreat that I attended with a youth group that I first was starting to be exposed to the purity message - that I quickly learned came along with a lot of the messages that I deeply loved about the community.

GROSS: So what were the early purity messages that you received?

KLEIN: The first exposure I had to the purity message was actually about gender. So gender and sexuality are deeply intertwined in the purity movement. You aren't just supposed to be sexually pure, but you are supposed to be pure in your gender expression. So women and girls are expected to be hyper-feminine supportive followers of men and boys who are expected to be hyper-masculine leaders - you know, supportive and loving leaders but leaders nonetheless. And if either the man or the woman or the girl or the boy strays from their gender expectation - for example, if the woman, you know, leads to much, or the man becomes her follower - you know, the idea is that the whole picture topples.

GROSS: Is there an example you can think of that demonstrates the kind of gender conformity that you just described?

KLEIN: So this was actually my first exposure. I was at a retreat - and my very first retreat - and having an incredible time and had just made these, you know, amazing new girlfriends who were incredibly welcoming and really embodied the radical love and acceptance that I had fallen in love with in the church that, at that point, seemed to be open to all. And at the very end of the retreat, one of the youth leaders, the woman who was actually our cabin mom, had pulled one of my new friends and I aside. New friend's name was Piper.

And she told the other girls to leave. This was free time. She said, go off and do want you need to do. And she said, Piper and Linda though, I want you to stay in the cabin and talk with me. So she and I stayed. And I remember feeling like we were in trouble, feeling like something, you know, awful had happened. And so I was going through my mind about anything we might have done wrong. And then the mom had us sit down. And she turned to me, and she said, Linda, are you having a good time here? And I was like, oh, that's all you want to say. Yes, yes, I'm having an amazing time. And then she stopped.

And then she looked over me, and she looked at Piper. And she said, what is it about you that makes you so insecure that you think you have to answer all the Bible questions? Do you think that the boys like that? Do you think the boys are going to continue to like that as you become older? You know, I can tell you right now that they won't. So I want you to do some deep thinking about this. You know, what is it in you that makes you feel like you always have to be seen? You always have to be showy. You always have to be the smartest person in the room.

And I just remember thinking this mom doesn't get it. This mom doesn't get the radical love and acceptance that's happening here. And Piper and I left eventually. And she broke down crying - you know, just hyperventilating crying. And it was horrible. And I remember thinking, you know, as the years went on, as this first exposure to the gender expectations became clear to me, I thought back to it many times. You know, at the time I thought it was an anomaly. But I soon came to realize that this unconditional love that I'd learned about in the community in fact had conditions.

GROSS: So you write that you were raised hearing horror stories about harlots who destroy good God-fearing men. Were these harlots in Bible stories, or were they also in stories about people you knew?

KLEIN: There were definitely in Bible stories that were repeated to us. And we also heard them about people that we knew, but they weren't necessarily embedded into sermons. Those were more the stories that were embedded into gossip or embedded into prayer because sometimes a prayer circle, you know, felt like a gossip circle. And, you know, it could mean all kinds of different things. It ultimately meant that you were a "sexual temptation," quote, unquote, to men and boys. You know, in this culture, men and boys are talked about as being sexually weak. And women and girls are supposed to be the holders of all sexual purity. So ultimately, women and girls are responsible for the sexual thoughts and feelings and choices that men make. And it's women and girls' responsibility to dress right, to act right, to talk right (laughter), to do everything just right to ensure non-sexuality for all people. And if they don't, you know, they potentially risk being categorized as impure or as a harlot.

GROSS: Now, was that thought especially difficult for you during puberty when your body was changing and you were becoming more sexualized but also the boys who you knew were becoming more sexualized? But it was all on you as a girl - do you know? - like, if a boy gets aroused as teenage boys do kind of constantly, that it's your fault.

KLEIN: Absolutely.

GROSS: Like, and it's a fault. It's, like, it's a problem, and it's your problem.

KLEIN: That's exactly right. And it was so important to me to be a good Christian. And so this guilting line about you're hurting them was very effective on me. You know, I heard a lot less and certainly internalized a lot less about, you know, protecting my purity and heard a lot more or at least internalized a lot more about protecting their purity. You know, it was all about how you needed to be a good Christian by protecting them from the threat that is you, the threat that is your body, the threat that is your sexuality.

GROSS: So if your body was a threat, how did you feel about your body when it started to change in your early teens or earlier?

KLEIN: I mean, I remember feeling disgustingly curvy (laughter). You know, I was not a fan of my curves. And this is also something that comes up a lot in my interviews. I have interviewees who talk about wanting to get breast reductions and getting very close to spending, you know, thousands of dollars on one simply because of their shame about their body, interviewees who when they look in the mirror, you know, are filled with so much shame that they can spend hours just trying on outfit after outfit after outfit, trying to find something that would make them less curvy, less of a potential sexual threat to other people.

You know, oftentimes modesty doctrine isn't an assessment of your clothing. It's an assessment of your body. For example, one day, I got pulled aside and talked to about a pair of shorts that I was wearing. And I said, you know, my friend was literally wearing these exact same shorts yesterday all day at this retreat, and she wasn't pulled aside (laughter) once, you know? I barely have left the cabin (laughter), and I'm already pulled aside. And they said, oh, well, she must be shorter than you. And, you know, she was a little bit shorter than me, but I - but, you know, where it hit her knee, these shorts, and where it hit my knee were essentially, you know, indecipherable.

And I remember at the time thinking, gosh, I feel like there's something wrong with me. You know, I - it doesn't matter what I wear or how I act or how many Bible studies I start or how many people I bring to Christ. I'm always going to be bad in this community's eyes. And it's only in retrospect that I realize that part of that was that I had this curvy body that I think changed the rules for me.

GROSS: My guest is Linda Kay Klein, author of the new book "Pure." After a break, we'll talk about the guilt she felt when she kissed her high school boyfriend, why she left the purity movement and the evangelical church after a very serious illness and what her spiritual life is like now. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "ANY WAY YOU CAN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Linda Kay Klein, author of the new book "Pure" about the evangelical Christian purity and abstinence movement which Klein was raised in. Her interview is part memoir - I mean, her book (laughter) is part memoir and part based on interviews with other women - women in their 20s, 30s and 40s - about how being raised in the movement affected their sense of identity and their sex lives.

So one of the stories one of the women you interviewed told you was the Oreo story. I want you to tell that story for us.

KLEIN: So this was the beginning of when I started doing interviews with people around the country. And the Oreo story - what was so fascinating about that is that this is a illustration of the importance of sexual purity that we heard about in youth groups - in evangelical youth groups but that she actually learned in her public school. So here's what happened. She had her teacher hold up in front of the class an Oreo cookie and say, OK, who wants this Oreo cookie? Everybody raises their hand of course.

Then she passes it around the room, and she says, I want each of you to spit on it or to drop it on the ground. And by the time it comes back to the front of the room, it's disgusting. And she holds it up again, and she says, now who wants this Oreo cookie? Nobody raises their hand. And it's described as an illustration for a girl or a woman before she's had sexual experience and after she's had sexual experience when now nobody will want her.

GROSS: Your first boyfriend, when you were - how old?

KLEIN: I was 16.

GROSS: OK. You kissed. You French kissed.

KLEIN: (Laughter) I did.

GROSS: And you felt incredibly guilty about that and felt like, you know, you'd gone too far. So you basically staged a prayer intervention for yourself. You gathered some of your girlfriends, got together in a prayer group with them to pray for the answer of what you should do. So how did you interpret the outcome of that prayer group?

KLEIN: You know, before I called my girlfriends together for this concert of prayer, as we called it, I was already under the impression that I was supposed to break up with him, that I was supposed to break up with my boyfriend who brought out all of these feelings in me. You know, and I would say that the kissing, you know, was part of what I was concerned about. But moreover, what I was concerned about was all the feelings, (laughter), that I had with the kissing that just felt deeply, deeply dangerous. Dangerous to me and dangerous to him because I was supposed to be protecting him, as well.

And my girlfriends, you know, when I proposed that to them and asked for them to pray about it with me, didn't have any questions. (Laughter). You know, because that made perfect sense to all of us. We had all been raised with this messaging. It wasn't strange at all, the conclusion that I had reached. And so really the prayer was about how God could support me to do this incredibly painful thing, which was to follow what was clearly God's will and to break up with my boyfriend.

GROSS: Did he understand when you broke up with him? Was he Christian, too?

KLEIN: He was Christian, too. He was also an evangelical. And he did not understand. I remember him crying, and I remember him going to, you know, his youth pastor - he went to a different youth group than me - and asking his youth pastor what he could do to get me back. And the youth pastor, having these very reasonable responses, like, why don't you present to her that you can do Bible studies together and that you can pray together on your dates? And, you know, little did he know that my anxiety, you know, was way too great for such (laughter) reasonable responses. So we ultimately, you know, never did get back together.

GROSS: Do you think that you would have had the willpower, the strength, the independence to say no to sex if not for the abstinence movement? 'Cause I think part of the abstinence movement is probably based on the premise that the only way young people can abstain from having sex too early is if they undergo the kind of training that the abstinence movement provides.

KLEIN: Yeah. It's interesting. I know that that is the logic that a lot of people hold onto, but the research just doesn't show that. The research shows that it's comprehensive sexuality education, when people are offered abstinence as a choice and as a valuable and important choice, but are also offered other options. And particularly, when they're also taught how to make decisions, how to make healthy, values-based decisions, that that's when we actually see the delay in the first time that one has sex.

You know, this abstinence-only before marriage messaging which is a central, you know, tenet to the purity culture, which is an intensified version of that teaching, you know, actually does not meaningfully delay the first age that one has sex and does not meaningfully decrease the number of partners one has. So it's not actually working with the intended impact. You know, instead it is working very well with creating deep, deep long-lasting shame for many people.

GROSS: So after being immersed in the purity movement, you go to Australia when you're in your teens. Were you a missionary there, or just studying abroad?

KLEIN: Just studying abroad.

GROSS: And so during this period when you're studying abroad in Australia, you start to experience severe gastrointestinal pain. And at first, your attitude is to endure the suffering. Did you think that that was making you more pure, to suffer?

KLEIN: My first reaction was to go to a doctor, (laughter), and to get it dealt with. It wasn't until the doctors dismissed me and, you know, told me to stop complaining or some variation thereof in terms of how they treated me - you know, the first doctor I went to said, you know, your problem - I don't know why you're coming to me with complaints about pain. You should be coming to me with complaints about your acne. Let's deal with that, you know? So the various ways in which they dismissed me, you know, that to me made me feel like I wasn't supposed to be complaining. You know? And that correlated with a message that I'd been raised with, that good girls don't complain. Good girls suffer with joy, you know?

And it brings them closer to the Lord to suffer with joy, and it is an illustration of living as a true Christian, living Christ-like, if you can suffer and still shine the light of Jesus, (laughter) you know? Smiling big at every moment and inspiring more people to join the community despite your deep pain. So it wasn't really until I started to be dismissed that I said, I'm doing this wrong. You know, I shouldn't be complaining. I should be putting less attention on getting better and more attention on suffering better.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book is called "Pure," and it's part memoir about being raised in the purity movement and being preached abstinence, but it's also interviews with other young women who were brought up in that movement. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is about the evangelical purity movement and the abstinence movement. She was raised in that and then broke away. So her new book is part memoir, but it's also many interviews with other women who were raised in the purity movement in the evangelical church and how that movement affected them.

When you returned to the United States after your year in Australia, you finally got a correct diagnosis. And you had Crohn's disease. It had progressed to the point where you needed, like, four surgeries - four major surgeries. And you say when the doctor diagnosed you correctly, it was the first time you felt someone saw you and recognized your suffering. And I wasn't sure how to interpret that. Did you mean saw you medically, or did you just mean in a larger sense, like, saw you?

KLEIN: I think both. I think both - you know, medically, but also it felt so much deeper by then. You know, I had been performing happiness. I had been performing health for so long. And to have someone look at me and say, wow, you are really sick, aren't you, it felt certainly medical, and it also felt like something so much bigger. It felt like I could just let go of trying to be perfect (laughter), and I could just admit that I was hurting.

GROSS: In a way, it sounds like that feeling was reinforced by the community because when you were sick after your surgeries, you were asked to play Mary for a live Christmas manger. And you felt that now that you were sick, you were seen as a good girl again, and you were no longer criticized for looking too sexual. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

KLEIN: Sure, absolutely. You know, I was somebody who - at least the way that I felt was that I was always on the edge of getting kicked out (laughter), you know, because I was very often sort of considered too sexual, you know, as illustrated by the many times that I would be pulled aside and talked to about various ways in which people considered me, you know, flirting or 'cause I talked to - I would talk to the guys a lot, as I talked to everyone. I have a problem with that (laughter) - talking too much. And it wasn't until I was really quite sick that all of a sudden, it felt like I was being treated very differently. You know, nobody was pulling me aside and saying that I was a stumbling block or a danger to the boys and men.

You know, on the contrary, I would go to church on the days that I was not too weak to go to church, and I would be wearing the same, you know, skirts and dresses that I would wear when I was well, and nobody was pulling me aside for them. You know, instead people were telling me that I looked beautiful, you know, that they were so delighted to see me.

And then I was cast as Mary. And I remember being like, what, me, me? You want me to be Mary. I'm the last person who would have been cast as Mary earlier, you know, because, you know, I know who was casted as Mary earlier, and they were the sort of saintly, you know, women that I certainly didn't feel that anyone considered me to be despite the fact that I was utterly and absolutely obsessed with Christianity and a deep, deep, deep, deep Christian.

And I remember thinking, oh, I'm finally who you want me to be. You know, I'm weak, and that makes me not too sexual in your eyes. It makes me not too - I'm not breaking my gender expectations by speaking out too much, you know, so on. I - and I don't want to be this person, you know? I'm finally her, and I'm finally realizing I don't want to be her.

GROSS: So your conclusion that being weak and being sick is what won you approval. You realized, I don't want to be that person; that's not what I want approval for. And that's one of the reasons why you left the evangelical church. But there was another reason, too, pertaining to your youth pastor, who was accused of what?

KLEIN: When I was a senior in high school - so this is while I was living abroad in Australia - I had learned that my youth pastor at the time in the U.S. was convicted of child enticement with the intent to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl under his care in our youth group.

And I also learned that he had been dismissed from two other evangelical institutions previously after having admitted to after being accused of having done essentially the same thing to girls in those communities as well. And that information was horrifying. You know, both the fact that it happened in my community and the fact that it had happened before and that he had been quietly moved along in a way that allowed for it to happen in my community exposed to me the potential for institutional systemic abuse, which was deeply disturbing to me at the time...

GROSS: Did he...

KLEIN: ...And continues to be.

GROSS: Did he preach purity and abstinence?

KLEIN: Absolutely. And it triggered me to leave. And it woke me up to the difference between my faith and the institution that I had also put faith in (laughter), and so - yeah.

GROSS: So you feel like you left the institution of the evangelical church but maintained your faith.

KLEIN: That's exactly right, yeah. I had had faith in both. I had had faith in God and in Christianity, and I had also had faith in a institution. And that day, I lost faith in the institution.

GROSS: So after deciding that you were leaving the evangelical church and you were done with the purity movement, you went to Sarah Lawrence College. That's a pretty big steering (laughter) in the other direction. I mean, feminism, the LGBTQ movement are - they're really strong on that campus, so it must have been quite a change for you. What was your reaction when you were surrounded by young feminists and gay people and people who identified as trans or genderqueer?

KLEIN: You know, first of all, the first thing is that I actually didn't realize that that's what I was going into. You know, I grew up in a world where we had never heard of Sarah Lawrence before. I found Sarah Lawrence at the public library (laughter) in one of those giant, you know, college books and fell in love with the way that their brochures talked about education. So I really had no idea that I was going into a world that was so different than the one that I had just been living in.

And, you know, the truth is when I got there, my first reaction was just feeling an inner sort of thrill. You know, here were these people who were so boldly being who they were, you know, who were unapologetic, who were claiming themselves in a way that I struggled to claim myself and had been taught not to claim, you know, many parts of me. And I was rather, you know, amazed by it. And watching them walk around was just, you know, incredible for me, you know, watching the sort of confidence with which they lived out their identities.

GROSS: And how did that affect you and your identity?

KLEIN: Oh, it made me want to, you know, be more fully myself as well. You know, it made me want to be more of an artist. It made me want to find more of a clear sense of who I was. You know, it made me want to stop trying to be perfect and start trying to figure out who I was when I stopped smiling all the time - even when I was in tremendous pain or even when I was suffering - and just try to figure out what my real feelings were and what my real beliefs were and who I really was underneath all of the performance and pretending and trying to be just right.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is about the evangelical purity movement. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Linda Kay Klein. Her new book, "Pure," is about the evangelical purity movement and the abstinence movement. She was raised in that. She broke away from the evangelical church and the purity movement when she was in her early 20s. Her new book is part memoir, but it's also many interviews with other women who were raised in the purity movement and then left. How old are you now?

KLEIN: I'm 39.

GROSS: What's your relationship to church - to any church? And how do you pray? How do you practice your faith?

KLEIN: So I'm still very much a Christian. You know, that's not something that I always claimed. When I first left evangelicalism, I thought that I was leaving Christianity. I saw those things as one in the same. But, you know, over the years, I have found that there are many Christianities and many different ways to practice Christianity. And so I still definitely strongly identify with the Christian faith and have a very powerful spiritual life, which is I would say just as robust as it was when I was young. It just looks different.

So to answer your question about what it looks like, you know, I actually have a morning ritual where I wake up every morning. And I start out with doing some yoga and stretches on my own, which I consider to be a form of prayer. And sometimes there's actual prayer that's embedded into it. And then I journal for three pages. And that journaling sometimes looks like journaling and often looks like prayer and often moves in between those things. And then I sometimes do some meditation. And then just in general, I pray throughout the day. You know, it's such a part of me and such a part of my life.

GROSS: So the spiritual life you're describing is something very personal and very individual. Do you miss having a community, a church, that you belong to?

KLEIN: Well, I do actually join communities. I just do it differently than I used to. So I go on spiritual retreats with churches regularly. I go to religious conferences regularly. You know, I spend time with religious organizations on a regular basis. So I continuously do these sort of longer deeper engagements with religious community. And I do actually have a church. I don't necessarily go every week. There's still a part of me that feels a little gun-shy about going to church every week. But I actually have an amazing and beautiful church here in New York City that I attend and that hosted my book launch and I'm very grateful for.

GROSS: It was your mother who brought you into evangelical Christianity. When you left the evangelical church, was your mother upset? And if she was, did you feel guilty about making her upset by following your new thinking and leaving the church?

KLEIN: My mom was heartbroken when I left and moreover, I think, scared. You know, for my mom, the fact that I was a Christian was her very favorite thing about me. She literally told me that, as did my father. On separate occasions, they both told me their favorite thing about me was my Christianity when I was younger. And so, you know, when I left, I lost my parents' favorite thing about me.

And I think my mom, you know, feared that I, you know, would no longer be with her in heaven, that she would have to spend eternity without me and that she would look down and see me in eternal damnation and know that there was nothing she could do to save me. So there were a lot of tear-filled conversations between she and I. And it took her a very long time to trust that I was still a Christian and that I - that she would still see me in heaven (laughter), you know, which is something that she comes to more and more peace about every day and that at this point, I am feeling her in a very different place. I feel her at a place of peace around me and my salvation, which I'm very glad to see because I know it was just tearing her up.

GROSS: Can I ask if you're married?

KLEIN: Yes, I am, yeah.

GROSS: So for you and other women who were brought up in the purity movement and with a sense of shame about your bodies and shame and guilt surrounding anything sexual, after you and the woman you spoke to became adults and entered into, you know, marriage or long-term relationships or left the purity movement and started having sex, was it difficult to experience sexual pleasure because of all of the guilt and shame that had surrounded the idea of sexuality for so long?

KLEIN: It was definitely difficult for me. You know, there was a lot of fear and anxiety that was the headline (laughter) for me when I was trying to have sex. And this is something I hear a lot in my interviews as well - that pleasure is something that we have learned to be quite afraid of, and it requires a whole rewriting of our relationship to ourselves and to our bodies to be able to see pleasure is a good thing and as a valuable thing and to be able to move through the shame and the anxiety to be able to get to it.

And of course this isn't just true of people who are raised in the Evangelical Church. You know, this is a much larger conversation. The purity message that I was raised with in the Evangelical Church is not very different than the message that we learn in society. You know, in the church, we learn that you are either pure or impure. But, you know, in society, we hear about good girls and bad girls (laughter). And we're not talking about how often they volunteer, so this is a much bigger teaching. And it impacts many more people than this community.

And, you know, certainly not everyone perhaps is taking pregnancy tests though they're not having sex the way that I did and some of my interviewees did. But, you know, I've hardly talked to a person, you know, especially a woman, who hasn't experienced some level of sexual shame and difficulty with embracing pleasure.

GROSS: Well, Linda Kay Klein, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

KLEIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Linda Kay Klein is the author of the new book "Pure."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what we learned from the Paul Manafort trial, about how he set up a front group and used laundered money to pay Washington lobbyists so that he could circumvent registering as a foreign lobbyist when he was representing the Russian-backed authoritarian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych. Our guest will be New York Times reporter Ken Vogel. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording featuring Marin Mazzie. She died Thursday of ovarian cancer. She was 57. Mazzie was a music theater actress who won three Tony nominations. I saw her in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Passion." She was wonderful. Here she is in the opening duet from the original cast recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "PASSION")

MARIN MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) I'm so happy I'm afraid I'll die here in your arms. What would you do if I died like this right now here in your arms? That we ever should have met is a miracle.

JERE SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) No, inevitable.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) Then inevitable, yes. But I confess it was the look.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) The look.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) The sadness in your eyes that day when we glanced at each other in the park.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) We were both unhappy.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) Unhappiness can be seductive.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) You pitied me.

MARIN MAZZIE AND JERE SHEA: (As Clara and Giorgio, singing) How quickly pity leads to love.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) All this happiness merely from a glance in the park - so much happiness, so much love.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) I thought I knew what love was.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) I wish we might have met so much sooner. I could have given you...

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) I thought I knew what love was.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) ...My youth.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) I thought I knew how much I could feel.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) All the time we lost...

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) I didn't know what love was.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) I've never known what love was.

SHEA: (As Giorgio, singing) But now...

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) But now...

MAZZIE AND SHEA: (As Clara and Giorgio, singing) I do. It's what I feel with you, the happiness I feel with you.

MAZZIE: (As Clara, singing) So much happiness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.