2014-02-28 20:45:23

Lifetime’s “Preachers’ Daughters” Shows Everything That is Wrong with Purity Culture

Show's daughters with eyes, ears, or mouth covered by their father.

This week, I came home to my sister watching a show On Demand, Preachers’ Daughters, that followed the lives of three different daughters who had one or both parents as pastors. As someone who grew up in a family that regularly attended a Pentecostal church, I was interested in seeing how Lifetime would choose to portray several families that are–presumably–very religious. Fully aware of the many shortfalls of reality TV in regards to sensationalism, sexism, race, etc., I still found myself watching the show long after my sister had left the room. Instead of a series showing different facets of the trials and tribulations teenagers face as the child of a pastor, I found myself watching nearly 10 hours of purity culture in action. Over the course of the binge watching session, my feelings morphed from genuine curiosity to a strange mixture of disgust and disbelief.

While there is just way too much to unpack about the show’s first season that could fit into one post, there is one overwhelming point that rang clear: Preachers’ Daughters provides an accurate if unintended summary of what is wrong with purity culture  (a culture that is centered on the belief that sexual abstinence until marriage is the only way for women to remain good and “pure”) in hour-long bites. Here are some points that really stood out to me during my private rage-a-thon marathon.

For its first season the show PreachersDaughters follows the lives of three different young women — Taylor Coleman, Kolby Koloff, and Olivia Perry — who have one or more parents who serve as pastors. The show follows the girls and their families as they try to balance growing up, the expectations of both their parents and congregation, and their own personal values. The show features three very different women and families: Tayor Coleman is a young black woman who turns 18 and often rebels against her father’s strict rules; Kolby Koloff is a 16-year-old woman with divorced parents (one of whom is the director of two crisis pregnancy centers) who is just starting to date; and Olivia Perry is an 18-year-old teen mother who has recently renewed her religious commitments after ending a phase of her life that included frequent drinking and drug use.

Despite the wide variety among the three families in terms of structure, geographical location, and parenting styles, there were many similarities when it came to the parents’ approach to the sexuality of their teenage daughters.

It’s all about sex, sex, sex!

For a group of adults who don’t want teenagers to have sex, they sure do talk about it with at them a lot.

It is understandable to expect that there is a unique set of trials that the child of the leader of a church face. Growing up is hard, but doing it while a congregation watches you? It sounds hard. But, alas, clearly I was foolish to expect seeing this addressed in any substantial way.

The series’  focus on sex reaffirmed the same old sexist attitudes when it comes to young women: how their relationship with sex is the most important thing about them. Because what else would we (and their parents) care about when it comes to young women? It doesn’t really matter whether your daughter is smart, kind, ambitious or confident. She must be PURE. According to purity culture, that’s the only true way she can prove that she’s a good person, since her worth is solely proven by what she does with her body and sexuality.

Over the course of the series, the incessant talking about sex and dating started to make me think that there is no way that these families could possibly focus on these topics so much. It just had to be the editing, right? Maybe not. During the season one finale one of the girls, sitting next to her mother on a couch, complained that her mom talked about sex a lot. Her mother, who also is a pastor (and is the one who is the director of two crisis pregnancy centers), turns to Kolby and admits with a laugh, “Yeah, you’re right. I do!”

Unfortunately, the volume and content of the sex talk from her mother has a clear negative impact on Kolby. When another young man shows interest in dating her, her anxiety about  being tempted to have premarital sex is palpable. Soon after they they start dating, she breaks up with him because she is convinced that premarital sex will not only ruin her relationship with God, but ruin her life.

Do as I say, not as I’ve done.

In 2006, a federal survey revealed that 95% of Americans have engaged in premarital sex. From what the audience has seen so far, it looks like that figure is roughly correct among the adults in this show, too. Over the course of the season, almost every parent shared how they themselves did not wait until marriage. Taylor’s father did not become a Christian until later on in his life–after he ended up having two children born by two different women around the same time. Kolby’s parents lived together before they got married. Kolby’s married sister confessed at the dinner table that she and her husband had sex before married.

The surprising part wasn’t that multiple pastors and other adults in the series had engaged in premarital and extramarital sex. It was that the parents tried to use these transgressions as a way to defend why their daughters should fear kissing or engaging in any sort of sexual activity. The failure of the pastors and/or their children to remain virgins until they were married serve as very real evidence that purity culture just doesn’t work. The hypocrisy by the proponents of purity culture just reinforce how out-of-touch they are with the reality of sex and sexuality and provides a very unconvincing argument about the damaging effects of premarital sex. How can I believe that premarital sex ruins lives and one’s connection to God when the same people who have done it claim to be currently living well with a strong relationship to their partners and their god?

Men can’t be trusted

The purity movement does not just harm women. There are harmful stereotypes about men too, which the show unabashedly perpetuates as these parents attempt (with varying degrees of success) to force convince their daughters to stay on the straight and narrow. And they all can be summed up in one sentence: Teenage boys are lascivious, uncontrollable creatures that cannot be trusted and must be kept in check by young women and their fathers. 

During one of segments, Pastor Ken Coleman said something that hits close to home. He said that teenage boys are only interested in sex and think about it all the time. I had a flashback to the time my mother told me that if a young man is interested in me, it is because he is only after one thing (what the one thing was, I had no idea at the time) and once they got it, he would leave me. This is problematic both because it frames young men as individuals who would never want a genuine emotional and satisfying connection with a romantic partner and also because it tells young women that their only value  is their sexuality. Internalizing these beliefs can only serve as a barrier to having healthy romantic relationships.

We can’t be sure why these families agreed to participate in the show. I would like to think that they thought it would be a great way for them to share their beliefs with the world and perhaps convert some people along the way. Unfortunately for them, no one in my living room was converted. From the constant worst-case scenario assumptions from parents about the behaviors of their daughters and friends to the teary monologues by Kolby when she describes her fear of premarital sex because it will ruin her life, there is one thing that is obvious: purity culture leads to negative, unhealthy, and unrealistic attitudes about sex.


Wagatwe’s Avatar Wagatwe watches way too much reality television.

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