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Pure to Pieces Podcast

I was honored to be interviewed recently by Morgan McGill of Pure to Pieces podcast, and wanted to share it with you all! Below is the audio link, and the written transcript. Enjoy!

Podcast on Spotify is here: Link

And here is the complete transcript!

Pure to Pieces Podcast Morgan McGill and Tessi Muskrat February 13, 2022

Morgan McGill (01:17):

Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh is a student researcher of purity culture starting her PhD, this fall studying trauma at the intersection of religion and sexuality. It's a bit staticky on my end because we were recording during the recent ice storm. So I'm sorry if you hear that, but without any further ado, enjoy this conversation with Tessi.

Tessi Muskrat Rickabaugh (01:42):

The year I went to college was 20 years after my high school graduation. Um, because you know, I was taught that it's my job to grow up and find some kind of a job that I can do while I'm raising kids with that guy that I'll obviously marry, you know? Um, and, and I didn't. I didn't get married until I was 31. And by then it was like, I'm not gonna raise kids. Like, that's not the thing I'm doing. *laughs* So, um, or at least not in that traditional way know. And so, uh, when I eventually went to college, um, it was, you know, my very first semester I had to take English 101, you have to write a research paper. You know, it was like three page paper or whatever. And I was like, well, I wonder about sexual shame and how that might impact--you know, so like from the very first class, right, I was researching and writing about how, how the teaching of teenagers and pre teenagers view sex with disgust, you know, like the chewed cookie and the, um, plucked rose and all of those sorts of examples, like how that might be impacting sexuality. What does the research tell us about that? Um, and so it's just kind of snowballed from there at this point I've presented research at several national conferences and getting ready to go to another one in March.

Morgan (02:54):

Yeah. And is there any link so far that you can tell or...

Tessi (03:01):

Yeah, we're in the early, um, analysis portions, but some of the themes that look like they're already emerging have to do with, um, the intensity to which--the degree to which lack of education and lack of experience set-- mostly girls there's a few men who speak about abuse, but for the most part girls and young women--up to be victimized, um, many of them in their marriages, a lot of them are talking about like, I didn't, I didn't know what red flags might be for relationships because I had no dating experience. I had no sexual experience. So I didn't know how to say yes how to say no, it's, it's a lot of the messaging that purity culture's been based on though. Right. You know, God requires this behavior of us and in return he will reward us with this. And so it's that, um, you know, it's been referred to as the sexual prosperity gospel, you know? Right. All I have to do is follow God's commandments in this way, and this will be what I will get. And then it, you know, it doesn't, it doesn't work that way for the vast majority of people.

Morgan (04:09):

I think purity culture, like in and of itself is a pretty extreme idea, but then bleeds into all these subtle other things. And so when you were growing up in it, did you, or I guess looking back, do you feel like you were in some sort of extremism within Christianity or like, how do you view that?

Tessi (04:31):

People tell me I was, I, I have this ongoing conversation with this Baptist-Southern Baptist pastor from Kentucky. Who's like, yeah. But, but you guys were way out there in the boonies. And I was like, yeah, there were a whole lot of us out there together. So, you know, I, I think one of the things that sometimes happens in this narrative is that, um, the, the slightly more mainline evangelical church tries to "other" the, the more quote unquote extreme sides of purity culture and be like, "Yeah, but like, we didn't mean THAT." Um, but they DID mean that in a lot of cases, you know, the, the messaging that they taught was the same. Um, there might have been slightly less strictness in the application. I was like committed to waiting for my spouse from the age of like 10 or whenever it was that it came into to, you know, my consciousness, that this was a thing. And I, and I was, I was one of those people who was completely sold on the idea, you know what I mean, just completely sold out. And, and, you know, I had, um, parents who, uh, had had some sexual struggle, um, you know, they were converts later in life. And, um, they, you know, they used their story of like, I should never have done this. And if we had done this--and their marriage was terrible, their marriage was abusive. And so there was this story of like, what we want for you is better than this. And when I talk to my mom now about purity culture and about the things that I was taught specifically within it, you know, she's, she's kind of like, she, she's very surprised and I've heard that from some of my other part--research participants, you know, some of them also have parents who are just like, "I mean, I, I wanted them to teach you how to have good relationships, but I didn't know that they were teaching you that your body was inherently a cause of stumbling and sin for all men everywhere. Like, I didn't want them to, like, I didn't know. "

Morgan (06:34):

Okay. And you said how you, like formed this kind of club or like, uh, what, what did you call it?

Tessi (06:42):

That was a youth--I mean, a youth led ministry. Um, I said, I think I said youth ministry, but it was, you know, it was a team of teenagers. We had sometimes as many as 10 people at a time who were on like this drama speaking team. And, um, and we traveled around the state of Missouri doing, you know, speaking engagements, um, promoting, you know, purity, purity, what we would now call purity culture and then was just like abstinence. And, you know, um, did, did a little bit of teaching in public schools, um, since abstince education is required in the state of Missouri. Um, and so, or at the time it was. And so we, you know, took advantage of, of that law to participate in like going into some classrooms, even and teaching, um, this, this form of absence education that was just really shaming and really, um, very insensitive to the poss--to the possibility that we had per, you know, students in the room who may have been not just chosen to be sexually active, but who may have been sexually assaulted, um, you know, at any point in their lives previous to that. And, and that was something that people mentioned, but I think I, I personally was just not cognizant of how likely it was or how often it happened or how damaging what I was saying--like I tried to be like, well, yeah. And then I'd put hopeful messages in and like, "It's not your fault if--" you know, um, but knowing what I know now and what I'm learning through research, it's like, yeah. And that was not nearly enough.

Morgan (08:11):

Right. And it's tough because you think, you know, this message has saved you or will save you in whatever way. And you just wanna save other people. And I feel like that is somewhere, like, that's the core of this? Like how do you believe something and want that good something for other people without always sharing our good quote unquote truth, because like, it might not be the right for somebody else. And, yeah. Anyway, that's just a, a question for the universe.

Tessi (08:47):

No, it's a good question. And it's something that I sit with now in that, you know, I continue to do at essence, um, in some ways a similar work to what I was doing in my teen years. Right. You know, like I still professionally work with people to make their lives better, to help them improve their relationships, to help them, um, heal from their past experiences to help them move forward, to help them understand what they want and, and lots of things like that, but I'm approaching it for, from such a different perspective. That's, that's actually empowering rather than oppressive, but, and at, at like at its core, it's the same thing that I wanted back when I was teaching this, you know, I mean, because like relationships are hard and if you have a limited perspective on them, um, and especially, because like I was coming into this out, you know, off of the eighties and, and the AIDS epidemic and lots of fear around lots of things around sex at the time. And, um, wanting the best for other people, you know, for, for, for me and for other teens, like me who were like part of this and then perpetuating it on other people, you know, you, you may be doing it from the best place of your heart. And also that doesn't mean you're not doing damage, you know? And so I think for, for me, part of my healing process has been and continues to be, um, trying to, to sit with the two things happening at the same time, right on the one hand. And I truly wanted even then to help people have the healthiest, safest, um, life--teen years, and then the healthiest, happiest marriages or relationships at, you know, into adulthood. Um, and at the same time, what I was doing was something that was very damaging and very trauma and very oppressive. And I didn't have the tools to understand that at the time. And so being gentle with myself as someone who's perpetuated, and then also being, um, gentle with myself as someone who was had that, you know, had that teaching on ME and having to do MY OWN healing at the same time, you know, it's just kind of a, several different things that just have to go on at the same time.

Morgan (11:03):

Like maybe if with purity culture, people also taught like, and this also might not be THE THING who knows, because we don't have all the answers, thatt people might not take it SO seriously. Like I did, or like you--

Tessi (11:19):

I definitely agree with that. I think that one of the things that, um, has become increasingly clear to me, um, through my research, through my own personal healing journey and the journey of my clients that I work with is that the, the STRUCTURE that produced purity culture, um, is, is built on the idea that you can't question. You just can't question you don't question scripture. You don't question your teachers, you don't question your parents, you don't question your pastors, right? And so some of the, um, the damage and the struggle and the trauma and the healing that, that, that those of us who were so immersed in purity culture, um, go through has a, lot do with allowing ourselves to learn to question and to learn in order to ask questions, to learn, to trust our OWN intuitive knowledge of what feels right, um, and wrong and healthy and damaging for us and to us in ourselves, in our relat relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves in our relationship to creator or spirit or deity or God, or however we grow to understand, um, our spiritual journey. Right. And I mean, I had, I, I could clearly remember moments where I sat with teens that I was working with as a young youth worker. And they asked me questions about their sexuality, about their relationships, about their orientation. And the only option I had was to bring them back to this is what the Bible says and just watch that devastate them like, well, the Bible says in Leviticus that, you know, loving another woman is an abomination. And, and, and, and I knew in EVERY fiber of my soul that that was damaging and that it was devastating. And there was no space for me in that moment, in that time to be able to say this can't be good and healthy and loving and caring. It just can't.

Morgan (13:30):

If you were to say, so--if you were to question it or something--who knows, you know, the pastors may lay their hands on you and try to make sure, you know, you don't have a demon or whatever, like crazy things can happen if you start to question in church or in that kind of environment, so.

Tessi (13:49):

Right. There was very high stakes for non-compliance. Yes. And, and that's another thing that, that, that I'm seeing, you know, those are pieces of, of what I'm seeing that are themes that are developing in the research, you know, is that, is that there was no space for questioning. There was no space for, um, for challenging, and that really strict social ostracization, social control methods were, were, were, and ARE in place, um, for people who did question and did walk away from the teaching. I mean, you know, the numbers of participants that, that are no longer able to be in contact with at least one of their parents or with, you know, a sibling or more than one sibling. Um, because, you know, they wore clothes home as an adult that revealed their breasts, and they did it one too many times. And their mom was like, you know, "No." And they're like, "I'm 30 and I will wear what I want." And now they just don't really see each other. I mean, like, it, it continues to be something that doesn't, um, that doesn't allow for space for, for being who you are and expressing yourself in a way that feels healthy for you.

Morgan (15:00):

And it's amazing that you've gotten like so many responses too. That's another cool part of it.

Tessi (15:06):

Yeah. It's, it's really unusual. Um, I, I, this is an undergraduate research project for me partially, you know, I'm just, I'm a very non-traditional undergraduate. Like I said, you know, I've been out of high school for 20 years and I've done a lot of learning and studying in the meantime. Um, and so, uh, I wanted to, to get started as soon as I could. Right. So I, I sought out undergraduate, you know, opportunities, but even a lot of grad student, from what I understand, like coming up with a hundred or 150 participants for a study is really challenging for, for most student researchers. Um, and this was just overwhelming. I mean, I've had have almost 500 people that have volunteered to be interviewed, and there's just, no, I mean, there's, I want to talk to everyone and there's just no way that I can, you know, um, and so one, one of the things that my research mentor said was that, you know, they, they said, they said, you know, the fact that you're getting this level of response suggests that this is really an important thing that we, that we need to be looking at.

Morgan (16:06):

And so moving forward, like, you know, you're about to go and get your, or start getting your PhD and all of that. Like, what do you expect will, you know, help, I guess, or like, why do you feel it's important to get your PhD in this?

Tessi (16:25):

Um, I'm, I'm gonna be entering a counseling psychology program. So ultimately at the end I'll be a psychologist. And, um, what I'm hoping to do on the research side, and then on my, my psychological practice, right, is that I'm trying to produce, um, a body of knowledge that will be available for therapists, for counselors, for other psychologists who are not--who didn't grow up in purity culture, who are not aware of religious trauma, who don't really just get what it means to grow up in some of these sorts of settings and, um, and, and produce knowledge that will help them to be able to provide services for people who are coming out of religious trauma, who are coming out of religious, sexual trauma, purity, culture, and other, you know, I mean, there's an unfortunate number of people who have experienced sexual assault or molestation in the church or in religious settings, um, or with religious excuses tied to that, that has been very damaging to many people. So there's a, there's a lot of pieces to that I'm currently focusing on purity culture. Um, but one of the things that we're seeing is that quite often, for many people reaching a place of healing from this trauma does, um, I don't wanna say requires because that's not true, but the healing journey often benefits from having professionals, um, kind of come alongside on that journey, be that a therapist or a counselor or whatever. Um, but maybe an equal number of people who really benefit from it are people who go to counseling and try to explain--and start talking about their experiences in purity culture and are met with counselors who just don't get it. Don't know how, and so don't know how to help, don't understand why it's a big deal. And so, um, you know, a lot of people end up trying to teach their therapists about all of the things in order to, you know, and, and that's just not, that's not, that's not helpful. That's not where we need to be, you know? And so there need to be professional resources available to mental health professionals who are, who are serving people with these sorts of experiences so that we can, um, start to really reach a place of healing.

Morgan (18:47):

Yeah, that's really cool. And it's like already with therapists and other professionals, like even just the topic of sex itself, like sometimes doesn't ever even come up because like, you know, we just don't talk about it in our culture, but yeah. To add onto that, like purity culture and any experiences you've had in that, I don't know, like, it would feel very strange to try to relay that to somebody who just has no idea.

Tessi (19:17):

Yeah. It's really challenging. Um, the, the research project that I'm doing first that I'm finishing up right now, um, is, uh, working with a set of interviews of sexual minority women. So women who are, um, identify as bisexual, pansexual, demisexual and um, lesbians, um, and, and just really looking at the, the very unique space that people who grew up in purity culture and also are not heterosexual, um, how those experiences kind of con--com--that there's a compound between, um, in some cases, you know, those women were really good at purity culture because they didn't wanna have sex with guys anyway. *laughs* Right. But then at the same time, you know, there's like, not only am I gonna have, am I gonna go to hell, you know, because I'm touching myself and exploring my own body sexually, but I'm also gonna go to hell because I'm thinking about people with the same gender as me. And so it's like, there's this extra level of traumatization that happens. And so it's, it's also not, um, uncommon that someone might seek, uh, therapy or counseling for sort of like issues around orientation issues around coming out issues around coming out to family. But then that the purity culture side of that might be overlooked. If the therapist, isn't someone who's familiar with the way that religion can interact with both sexuality and, and, you know, the embodied female experience and then also, um, also their, their orientation. So.

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Tessi (21:30):

So people who are, um, polyamorous, um, or ethically non monogamist people who are, um, in sexual minority relationships, non heterosexual relationships, um, have a much lower--are REPORTING a much lower level of sexual shame, then people who are straight married and still in church. And so that's something that's really interesting that we're, that we're looking at. Um, some of that I think has to do with the way that sexual shame is evaluated in some studies, um, has to do with like questions that are inherently, either follow Christian theology or don't follow Christian theology. So like, "How do you feel about sex outside of marriage?" Well, if you feel like it's bad, um, then that would be rated as like feeling shame around sex outside of marriage. Um, but if you retain Christian--traditional Christian beliefs, then you're sort of obligated to feel like it's bad. So one of the things that we're that really kind of sitting with and looking at is the question of, you know, how does, how does those traditional Christian beliefs interact with sex guilt? And, and are they, is there an inherent level of sex guilt that's present, um, in people who maintain those beliefs and are people who are in more non-traditional relationships I already at a point where they've worked through a lot of that just to get to the point of being able to be out, to be able to be in relationships where they love the person that they love and they do so publicly. You know--

Morgan (22:59):

So what you're saying is everyone should be not straight and then that's the answer to all that guilt? *laughs*.

Tessi (23:07):

*laughs* I, I think, I think maybe what I'm saying is that is that I, I have curiosity around, um, the process of people coming, um, where, where that healing process, where we come to the point of saying, this is who I am. It's not who you thought I was. Um, no matter how many people we say that to, it can just be to ourselves. You know, it's not, all of those people are out publicly, right? It can be to ourselves, it can be to, to trusted friends. Um, but there's something very healing about just getting to the point that you can say, "This is what I know about myself. This is who I am. The end." Uh, and, and just doing the work to get to that point itself, I think removes and mitigates some of that guilt that, that we've been taught to, to carry with us all the time about our sexuality.

Morgan (24:06):

Oh, thank you. You have so much knowledge about this stuff. And I think the research you're doing is very, very valuable to even just the 1300 people that you have gotten these surveys from, you know, but everybody else too. And so, um, yeah, it keeps doing research and I can't wait to see what happens, you know, once your PhD is, is finished. Yeah.

Tessi (24:30):

Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

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