Researcher of the Month – October 2021, Chrissie Thwaites

Chrissie Thwaites is a PhD student in theology and religious studies, and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. Her research focuses on the impact of purity culture in UK Christianity, and is funded by the AHRC through the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH).

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

As an undergraduate I embarked on a theology degree at the University of Exeter. This was the perfect solution to the problem I had when applying for university: I wanted to do too many subjects and couldn’t decide! The theology modules at Exeter were wonderfully diverse and I got to explore religion through history, culture, languages, and written texts. I developed an interest in the ancient world, and eventually ended up with a degree in theology and ancient history.

During my masters, I decided to take a more contemporary approach to my studies. I wanted to incorporate my personal interests more into my academic work, so I focused on things like disability, society, and mental health; I wrote about eating disorders and Christianity, and my dissertation considered disability benefits from a theological perspective. It was during this time that I had the idea for my PhD – initially, it was going to be an essay, then a dissertation, and eventually it spiralled into a PhD proposal!

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

My current area of research is purity culture, a movement in evangelical Christianity that was prominent in the 1990s and 2000s, especially in the USA. Within this movement there was an emphasis on sexual purity, and a whole culture emerged to try and maintain this purity (particularly in teens and adolescents). Through my PhD I’m exploring whether purity culture has made it over to the UK and, if so, what its impact has been, particularly in evangelical circles.

My interest in this topic grew out of personal experiences – things I encountered as a Christian myself, and stories I’d heard from friends growing up in Church too. These made me think of purity culture, and I wondered whether aspects of it were present in the UK. As I was trying to bring together my personal interests and academic studies, I started to consider using my academic work to research this topic.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

I’ve just started the second year of my PhD, and this year my main focus is on undertaking the data collection for my project. This should involve interviews and an online survey, so I’m about to start recruiting participants.

For the survey, I’m looking for women aged around 20-45, who currently live in the UK (or at least previously lived here for a substantial amount of time) and are associated with evangelical Christianity. This might mean that they currently identify as evangelical, or previously attended a church that was evangelical in nature and tone. At the end of the survey, participants will then be invited to participate in an interview. Hopefully this will give a good picture of experiences of UK church-goers and whether any purity culture teachings have cropped up at all.

I also have a chapter in an edited book called Young, Woke, Christian coming out in early 2022. My chapter is on disability and Christian communities.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

At first glance, purity culture seems to be a purely religious phenomenon limited to Christian circles, and it’s true that it was a significant subculture within evangelicalism. But it was also influential on a public level in a number of ways, and emerged within a particular socio-religious context.

For example, young celebrities of Disney Channel fame (think Jonas brothers) wore purity rings, indicating the national reach that purity culture had. Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) was also a government-funded policy for sex education in the US from the 1980s onwards, meaning that organisations such as Silver Ring Thing received funding. So the flourishing of purity culture occurred congruently with the promotion of AOUM sex education and healthcare initiatives. Some of the language in purity culture also invoked anxieties concerning civic morality – Sara Moslener has discussed how sexual immorality is interpreted as an indicator of national decline, and how this can be seen in US purity culture.

So purity culture involved federally-funded programs and had close ties to public discourse on morality, the state of America as a nation, and culture wars. My research therefore examines the influence within the UK of a religious movement that happened not only in the public eye but also sometimes in the public sphere. And, more broadly, this reflects my own research interests in how religious communities engage with topics of discussion in public life (especially in the UK), such as wellbeing, culture, and (in)equality.