This Sex Educator Offers a 'Purity Culture Dropout' Program
Erica Smith is helping those who grew up thinking sex was shameful to reshape their understanding of sexuality, their body, and their right to pleasure — all in a judgment-free zone.
For many Americans, sexual education was an awkward, giggle-ridden class that consisted of graphic images of uncontrolled STDs and/or sterile anatomical explanations of genitalia. At a minimum, abstinence was covered, although it’s far more likely it was essentially the only thing covered. (Today, 29 states require that abstinence is stressed in any sex education classes, according to the Guttmacher Institute.) And only if you're "lucky," you were able to fill in some of the blanks by watching rom-coms or episodes of Sex and the City late at night.
The point: The quality and even the existence of sexual education in the U.S. vary — a lot. So, it's not surprising to learn that many folks are in need of a sexual awakening of sorts — at least according to Erica Smith, M.Ed, a certified sexuality educator and creator of the Purity Culture Dropout, a six-week program of one-on-one coaching sessions, written exercises, and group support designed to help people learn about sexuality in a judgment-free zone. "I created the program and this focus in my sex education work in response to the conversation that I saw people having, and the people who were coming to me asking for help," says Smith, whose clients are most commonly those who grew up in purity culture.
You probably associate chastity with conservative Christian values, but the 20th-century purity movement — a push for modesty and abstinence until marriage — was actually a much more widespread response to the AIDS epidemic, as well as the increase in sexual expression, according to Mother Jones. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), a bill intended "to promote self-discipline and chastity, and other positive, family-centered approaches to the problems of adolescent promiscuity and pregnancy," into law. From there, and well into the '90s, the U.S. federal government allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to the AFLA (and, thus, abstinence-only education programs).
Later, the 1996 welfare reform bill required abstinence ed classes to teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." And as pro-abstinence policies became the law of the land, these sexuality-suppressing ideas were being reinforced vigorously by certain communities, particularly within evangelical churches. (Related: Sex Education In the U.S. Is Broken — Sustain Wants to Fix It)
Along with abstinence-first sex ed, purity balls were also a cornerstone of the movement. The first annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball was held in 1998 in Colorado Springs, CO, and continues to be the blueprint for similar gatherings all across the country. A key element of the dances is the signing of a "virginity pledge," in which a father typically vows to uphold his own purity as a man and place his faith in God to ensure his daughter remains pure. He also presents his daughters with a purity ring.
As purity culture grew, researchers looked into its effects on the public. In 1998 and 2001 respectively, psychologists A.S. Hastings and Karen A. McClintock published books on their findings that individuals from conservative religious backgrounds are at risk for developing sexual shame. In the paper Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame, and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences, other researchers also noted a correlation between religiosity and sexual guilt.
Purity culture has largely fizzled out in the U.S., though some churches and conservative communities still promote it, according to The New York Times. Still, this antidote to temptation and teenage lust has had long-lasting effects. As a result of many adults now wrestling with immense guilt, self-loathing, and confusion around sex, Smith launched her Purity Culture Dropout program in 2019.
"There was no shame or secrecy involved in my upbringing when it came to sex," says Smith of her own adolescence. "My family is pretty matter-of-fact about it." She says her interest in sex skyrocketed after she started attending Penn State University in 1997. "A lot of the discourse happening in my women's studies classes was about sexuality and sexual pleasure," she says. "I had never experienced that being talked about before."
Smith realized her enthusiasm for de-stigmatizing sexuality was a bit edgy at the time. "In the mid- to late-'90s, in rural Pennsylvania, being a women's studies major and an open feminist? I didn't have a lot of company," she quips. With the emphasis on abstinence-only education, the public's consciousness of sex-positivity at this time was limited, she adds.
Although she began working as a sex educator upon graduation, Smith didn't hear the term "purity culture" until reading Pure by Linda Kay Klein. The book clued Smith into the impact a conservative mindset could have on women's sexual self-image. (Related: Unbound Founder Polly Rodriguez Is Helping Women Reclaim Their Sexuality with Style)
Smith says she knew abstinence-only education was dangerous, but through Pure she was able to understand those who say they were harmed by purity culture. Curiosity piqued, Smith took to Instagram, asking her following two questions: "Were you raised in purity culture?" and "How has that affected you?"
"The outpouring of responses was bananas," says Smith. "So many people were so eager to share their story and experience — all the messages they'd gotten, the damage they thought it had done, and all of their frustration with the lack of sex education they received." It was from this feedback that the idea for the Purity Culture Dropout program was born.
With a cap of 14 clients per course (offered several times per year), Smith provides her students with medically accurate, comprehensive sex education that's queer-inclusive and trauma-informed.
"A lot of times, it boils down to people being empowered with basic information about their bodies and sex, and that carries over no matter who people are," she explains, adding many people, no matter their religion, receive misinformation about sex prior to taking her course.
"Most of the time, when folks come to me, they've experienced the same set of sexual values from their community," says Smith. "Those are things like, your virginity absolutely defines your self-worth, and there is one definition of virginity, which is penis-in-vagina sex, and it should only occur in marriage. There's also a firm gender binary. In purity culture, you're either a cis woman or a cis man, and you have very rigid gender expectations that go with that."
She continues, "There's no acknowledgment of queerness as a valid identity. It's compulsory heterosexuality, for everybody. You, young women, are responsible for being modest because you could be the reason a man is led to sexual sin."
Many people she works with (in the purity program and otherwise) also have this idea that they don't deserve to feel pleasure, says Smith. "Especially for women [raised in purity culture], it's almost unheard of for some folks to feel comfortable seeking out pleasure with masturbating — with doing anything in service of pleasure," she says. The hope is that by becoming informed, participants become armed to shape their sexuality on their own terms. (Related: Why Are Some People with Vaginas Scared to Finger Themselves?)
PCD students complete a detailed assessment of their background and experiences, and their personal goals for the program. Smith offers a variety of learning topics, including human anatomy, what to expect when having sex for the first time, how to be a better communicator with your sexual partner, and how to talk about sex with your children. Students unpack homophobia, transphobia, among other sexuality-related fears, and learn to take ownership of their sexual health — important topics to learn and relearn no matter your upbringing.
Smith says she hears from PCD graduates who are speaking up about their desires in bed for the first time. Or she'll find that her program was the catalyst to some of her clients embracing their gender identity, exploring their sexuality, or giving non-monogamy a try. "It's my favorite thing, really, when out of nowhere, a client will be like, 'Oh my God, I had the best sex ever last night, and I thought of you and I really wanted to tell you!'" says Smith. "Folks who really give themselves permission to experience pleasure and not feel bad about it? That can really transform everything for them."