A collage of purity rings and red pills.

Rape Culture

How “Purity” and “Pick-Up” Culture Exacerbated Toxic Masculinity

Men aren't born hating women. But in a culture that promotes chastity as strongly as it celebrates male conquest, is it really a surprise that misogyny has reached new depths?

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In the late 1990s and 2000s, America saw the rise of two (ostensibly) very different strains of misogyny. On one side, there was Girls Gone Wild, Tucker Max, and Pick-Up Artist gurus like “Mystery” going around promising to turn any dateless loser into a velvet-top-hat-wearing sex machine (for a price). On the other side, there was purity culture. Silver rings, pop stars promising (and failing) to wait until marriage to have sex, purity balls at which young girls would make vows to their fathers to do the same, and a whole lot of federally funded abstinence-only education.

At the time, feminists spoke out about the ways in which both of these things hurt women, about the way that pick-up artists promoted rape culture, about how psychologically damaging it was to tell young girls that an intact hymen was the only thing they had to offer the world. It made sense. After all, no one was asking boys to get all gussied up and ask their moms to guard their chastity in a room full of onlookers.

By and large, it was an incredibly successful backlash—what came out of it was a framework for consent that was not based simply on the absence of a “no,” but on enthusiastically saying yes. What came out of it was that girls who had been raised in purity culture, who had been raised with abstinence education got to see a whole lot of people saying “No, having sex does not make you a chewed-up piece of gum.” That mattered.

Today’s misogyny looks a little different. Instead of wearing silver rings and going to youth group, or wearing Ed Hardy T-shirts and going to the club, men congregate in forums online to talk about how much they hate women. There are your standard Men’s Rights Activists, “red pillers” (men who claim to understand the “truth” that men are actually oppressed and women are the privileged gender), Men Going Their Own Way (who hate women so much that they have decided to cease interacting with them entirely), and, of course, the “involuntary celibates.”

The influence of Pick-Up Artist (PUA) culture on the manosphere and the alt-right in general has been well-documented, and what remains of the movement is considered to be a faction within it. PUA rhetoric—the obsession with the pseudoscientific concepts of alpha and beta males, the idea that women like men who are mean to them and exhibit “dark triad” characteristics, that when a woman rejects a man she is only “shit testing” him to see if he is “alpha” enough to refuse to take “no” for an answer—has evolved from being used to attract women to being used to justify hating them.

There’s also been a lot of crossover. Professional misogynists like Roosh V. and misogynistic white supremacists like Matt Forney and Roissy (of the now-defunct blog “Chateau Heartiste”) started their “careers” on the internet giving men extremely terrible advice on how to get laid and/or sent to jail on a rape charge.

On the other side of the spectrum, the first iteration of the male incel movement as we know it today actually began on PUAHate.com, a site that was initially intended to be a forum for men who needed to vent about the pick-up gurus who took their money and failed to turn them into heart-throbs. But soon enough, their fury turned away from the men who had scammed them and towards the women who had dared to reject them.

Then, it turned violent. In 2009, after George Sodini, another man who had attended PUA seminars and failed to get laid, shot up an L.A. Fitness in Collier Township, Pennsylvania, he became a hero in the forum, with several members changing their avatars to his picture. In 2014, Elliot Rodger, a frequent poster on PUAHate, went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, because he was angry at women for refusing to sleep with him.

But while the influence of purity culture and abstinence-only education is less overt, it has also contributed to some of the most toxic foundational beliefs held by extreme misogynists.

One of the most popular exercises in abstinence-only education classes was one in which the instructor would introduce the class to “Miss Tape,” a piece of tape that they would stick to the arms of several boys in the class in succession, showing that the tape became less sticky each time. The instructor would then explain that the “tape” represented a woman who had sex with multiple partners and therefore was left unable to “bond” to her future husband. And now, one of the most fiercely held (and fiercely stupid) beliefs across the manosphere is that women who have sex with multiple partners lose their ability to “pair bond”—meaning that they will never be able to truly love anyone. They insist that this is “scientifically proven,” despite the fact that pretty much all scientific research on the concept of “pair-bonding” has centered upon prairie voles, not humans, and even that research does nothing to “prove” this theory.

Source: r/IncelTears

Demonstrations like “Miss Tape” did not just occur in fundamentalist sects, either. They happened in public schools and they cost us about $170 million a year. In Mississippi, students were instructed to pass an unwrapped Peppermint Patty around the classroom and, when it reached the last person, the students were told that this, too, represented a person who had sex before marriage. Another widely used curriculum used the analogy of a rose with no petals:

“Hold up a beautiful rose. Talk about the petals and how they add color and fragrance to the rose. Hand the rose to a student, telling that student to pull off a petal and pass it on to another student who also pulls off a petal. Continue passing the rose around until there are no more petals. At the end, hold up the rose. Ask: Of what value is the rose now?… The rose represents someone who participates in casual sex.”

These lessons didn’t just teach children that having sex would make them “valueless” (which is horrifying in and of itself), it taught them to view others that way as well. What the hell happens to men when you teach them from a young age that a woman who has had sex has no “value?” What happens when you teach them that she is analogous to a bucket of your classmate’s spit?

To further understand the way PUA culture and purity culture warped the way men think about and interact with women, I spoke to a few men who had been involved with them.

A running narrative among the men I spoke to who had been involved with the PUA scene on some level was, ironically, that once they gained the confidence to talk to women and become platonic friends with women, the more they understood that the things these gurus were telling them about women were pretty messed up.

But for those who had been involved with purity culture, it has taken a lot more work, both in terms of dealing with their own shame and confusion, and in terms of what they had been lead to believe about women and sex.

“One concept that really influenced me,” David, who grew up in a fundamentalist homeschooling environment, told me, “was the idea of an ‘ice prince’—be nice to girls, but don’t really engage with them. The danger was that doing that can cause emotional affairs. That would be ‘stealing’’ part of her heart. This concept doesn’t protect women, rather it protects the woman’s future husband by allowing him to have ‘all of his wife.’ … I always lived in fear of going too far and causing a woman to ‘stumble’ and become less ideal for her future husband.”

David also says that a large part of the reason why he decided to wait until their wedding day to even touch his future wife was because he believed that this was what was necessary to having a fulfilling sex life once married. “If I pleased God,” he said, “and lived my life according to his ways my needs (and expectations) would be met. That did not happen.” When those high expectations were not met, he says he ended up wondering what he “did wrong to not achieve the prize that [he] had built up in [his] mind.”

Purity culture and PUA culture were not just similar in that they both reduced a woman’s value to what’s between her legs, but also in that they promised men things that they almost definitely were not going to get, regardless of which rules they adhered to. Most men, even the most charming and attractive among them, are not going to be taking half of the eastern seaboard to pound town. Most men are not going to be getting a perfect virgin bride who has never even had a crush on another man before. When men are promised these things, they are being set up for disappointment, anger and resentment when they don’t get them.

The best-case scenario with these unrealistic expectations is that the men involved realize just how unrealistic they are and do the work necessary to deprogram themselves. The worst-case scenario is that they become dangerous. Those are not great options.

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