How Purity Culture & Idolizing Virginity Harms Rape Survivors Like Demi Lovato

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Demi Lovato

Remember back in the 2010s when stars from Miley Cyrus to the Jonas Brothers flaunted their promise rings and preached lessons about abstinence that sounded straight out of the mouth of a Puritan?

It seemed great at the time. Why not teach kids to wait for sex? What’s the harm, right?

A decade and several ditched purity rings later, we are now hearing the full impact of purity culture and just how damaging it can be for rape survivors.

Demi Lovato has spoken out about her experience surviving rape as a teenager while working for the Disney Channel in her docuseries Dancing With the Devil: The Art of Starting Over.

The candid documentary focuses on Lovato’s near-death experience during an accidental heroin overdose and delves into the lifetime of trauma and addiction that preceded it.

Lovato is strikingly open throughout the series given the degree of pain and exploitation she has experienced since her early days in Camp Rock and Sonny With A Chance. She matter-of-factly tells her sexual assault story without mincing words.

At 28, she knows now what too many young women don't yet — that every survivor should feel empowered to speak their truth.

RELATED: Demi Lovato Says Drug Use 'Saved Her Life' — But Should Coping Mechanisms Be Praised Just Because They 'Work'?

But even as Lovato takes control of her narrative by coming forward, it is hard not to see the disturbing impacts of the purity culture that silenced her for years.

She is one of many victims of a wider cultural assault on sexual abuse survivors and women in general that defines worth exclusively by a woman’s body and what's been done to it, with or without her consent.

Purity culture makes sex more valuable than women.

In the third episode of the docuseries, Lovato speaks candidly about losing her virginity during a sexual assault in which a fellow Disney cast member raped her.

Lovato says the trauma of the rape itself was compounded by her Christian upbringing and the purity culture she was surrounded by during her time at Disney.

“I was a part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage,” she says. “So what, I’m supposed to come out to the public after saying I have a promise ring?”

The idolization of “waiting until marriage” completely neglects the reality that, for many, losing their virginity is not a choice. Survivors of sexual assault are left questioning their place in a society that considers them damaged goods for having sex too soon.

Even outside the context of Christianity, losing one’s virginity is a highly debated topic inflicted on the lives and minds of young people, particularly young women.

There is an entire rhetoric around the right time, place, and person to have sex with that is most often directed at women.

Sex becomes like a kind of bargaining chip of which women only get one. Once they give it away, it’s gone, even if it was stolen from them against their will.

Meanwhile, men, like Representative Matt Gaetz and his male colleagues, go through life collecting chips from each of the women they bed.

RELATED: Demi Lovato Comes Out As Pansexual — Why Making The Distinction Matters

The idolization of virginity only perpetuates trauma.

For Lovato, the incident and her fear of speaking out became the basis of years of bulimia, addiction and trauma.

“I internalized it and I told myself that it was my fault,” she says, opening up about how she came to believe the incident wasn’t a rape at all.

“The Christian southern girl inside of me didn’t see it that way.”

Her words echoed the experience of another child sexual abuse survivor, Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted and held captive for nine months as a teenager.

Smart has said her religious background and experience in a culture that idolized virginity stopped her from attempting to escape her captor.

“After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy,” she says.

RELATED: Why I Told My 8-Year-Old About Sexual Pleasure (And You Should Too)

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Purity culture places illogical value on women’s intact hymens, to the point that all other qualities of oneself become obsolete once they engage in sex.

Both Lovato and Smart are brave, strong, inspiring women who have much to offer to the world — yet they were torn down and made to feel worthless by a culture that makes women into sexual objects without giving them any autonomy over their own sexuality.

This culture also creates a repetitive trauma that is hard for survivors to escape.

For Smart, this meant nine months of daily abuse and a lifetime to overcome it.

For Lovato, she returned to her rapist for a second encounter, stopped eating, started abusing substances, and was later raped by her drug dealer before being left for dead after her overdose.

But even for women who don’t face these extreme circumstances, sex becomes so synonymous with shame that expressions of female sexuality are weaponized against them.

Women who send nude photographs end up taking their lives when those photos are released.

Those who show too much skin are “asking for it."

Women experience anxiety and depression in high numbers after experiencing sexual shaming.

The root problem of idolizing purity and virginity damages women in countless demeaning ways, and it needs to stop.

RELATED: Virginity Tests Are Sexist And Inaccurate, But They're Still Performed On Girls And Women Legally In The United States

Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment.