How OCD and Purity Culture Shaped my Sexual Development

AJ Tanksley
7 min readJul 26, 2023
Photo by Jornada Produtora on Unsplash

This article is part of the series “Sex, Love, and Connection on the Spectrum,” in which I explore sex, intimacy, and bonding through a multifaceted and neurodivergent lens.

First, welcome to my newest followers who discovered me from this Prism and Pen article I wrote in June. The experiences many of you shared with me in the comments were eye-opening and deeply heart-felt, and I look forward to having more of these types of conversations in the future.

Sexuality through a neurodiverse and mental wellness lens is a difficult topic to tackle, and it can’t be addressed in just one article. My goal is to eventually write a book someday on this subject with some professional help; for now, a blog series is the best way for me to freely communicate my thoughts.

I speak of autism and neurodiversity frequently, but I haven’t discussed my experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder as much. OCD, more than any other condition, has had the biggest influence on my sexual development. The particular way my OCD manifests is primarily obsessional with very, very few compulsions, and the majority of my obsessive thoughts are sexual in nature.

My intrusive thoughts replay over and over in my head like sadistic, X-rated GIFs, which is what sets OCD obsessions apart from ordinary intrusive thoughts.

For the truly curious, I’m not going to go into detail about what specific thoughts I have. I’d rather people not ask at all, but I understand that the human impulse to find things out is an impossible one to suppress. If you really want to open Pandora’s box, I recommend doing your own research on sexual obsessions and OCD, and letting the wings of your imagination take flight. Let’s just sat they’re not fun to have.

Intrusive sexual thoughts have played such a major role in my sexual development that I can even remember my very first intrusive thought. Around age nine or ten, I was with a family member geeking out about a book I was obsessed with. As he was listening to me, I felt a bizarre sense of dread creep over me, and had my very first sexually-themed intrusive thought. I didn’t understand it; all I knew is that the thought came out of nowhere, and I felt like I was in danger.

This is the insidious way that OCD has messed with my head since puberty: it blurs the line between reality and delusion so convincingly. It didn’t matter if I was actually in danger, either of harming someone or of being harmed. My intrusive thoughts replay over and over in my head like sadistic, X-rated GIFs, which is what sets OCD obsessions apart from ordinary intrusive thoughts.

Most people have had at least one bizarre thought about drop-kicking a baby or throwing a stapler at their supervisor, and are able to shrug it off. OCD, on the other hand, does not “shrug it off.” The thoughts linger, loop, and laugh at your moral queasiness, convincing you that because you have such fucked-up thoughts, you must be a fucked-up person.

If you’re brain is yelling at you from puberty onward that you are a sick fuck who deserves to be cancelled/jailed/yeeted to hell, you eventually start to believe it, even if in reality you are morally upright to a fault. At age nine, you’re told that kissing is similar to sexual intercourse in terms of filth exchanged between people. And then purity culture comes in and tells you that not only is sex bad, but all men secretly have lustful thoughts towards you.

And then you read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (amazing book, by the way, but kind of a tough read when you’re 14 and AFAB.) And you spend hours and hours in the high school library reading about sexual trauma, and learn through other people’s experiences that even family members can be the monsters under your bed.

And then Josh Duggar gets arrested for molesting his sisters. And, as the cherry on top, you get fucking flashed by a total stranger on the way to school. So violent intrusive thoughts of revenge get thrown into the pervy thought soup. Fun!

It doesn’t matter that you are safe. You’ve been primed from an early age to see sex as bad and men as potential rapists, and now have had an incident happen confirming your worst fears. And that, my friends, is OCD. Not washing your hands. Not straightening pillows. But consecrating yourself as a virgin to God every night from age eleven to eighteen to stave off anxiety attacks because you’re convinced someone will come in your room and rape you.

OCD is never about rationality, but about taking things in your environment, twisting them up, and playing them against your values. It has taken me years to fight through over a decade’s worth of threat-priming to see it’s lies, and guess what? I still have intrusive thoughts. I’ve just learn to manage them more effectively.

So yeah, the next time you ask me what’s going on in that beautiful mind, I’m probably imagining you hurting me. Or me hurting you. Or licking Jesus’ nipples; you know, normal stuff.

I loved purity culture as a teenager. This purity culture era was the 2000s-Joshua-Harris’-I-Kissed-Dating-Goodbye-calling-women-boiled-frogs-giving-people-golden-stickers-for-saving-their-first-kiss brand of purity culture that was popular around the same time as Motorola Razrs and Taylor Swift’s career breakout. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable, and it helped me make sense of the loss of control I felt around puberty.

I never really got the chance to have a normal or healthy sexual development as a pre-teen and teenager because of my OCD, and purity culture guaranteed that any hatred I had towards sex and men was completely vindicated.

The end result was paranoia towards male family members, nightly anxiety attacks about being raped, and (on the more positive side) an intense interest in human psychology and the way trauma manifests in the brain and body. In college, I carried the burden of unpacking the lessons I learned, and often did so in the most disastrous and unhealthy ways imaginable. Basically, I was a 19 year-old sex addict, but that’s a topic for another time.

Doing the exact things I’d railed against doing throughout my late teens and early twenties made my OCD ten times worse, convincing me that going against the values of my younger self really did make me a monster (hey kids, ever heard of real-event OCD?). Realizing that I was just as capable of being a dirty little ****** ************* ****************** *** as the straight girls I judged in high school shook me to my core.

My college transgressions created a very intensive morality and identity crisis that I’m still dealing with the fallout of today. The #MeToo movement happened around the same time I was coming to terms with what I did, and boy did that not help me mentally. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms to unpack. Either way, I haven’t relapsed into hilariously unhealthy sexual behavior for a couple of years, so that’s something.

Being born female is an inherently traumatic experience, and the intrusive thoughts of OCD combined with the horrifying lessons of purity culture made for a pretty shitty sex ed curriculum. Hell, you could argue that purity culture hurts men as much as it hurts women and gender minorities, as it paints men in a fairly monstrous and unforgiving light and hamstrings their ability to have healthy sexual and romantic relationships.

I never really got the chance to have a normal or healthy sexual development as a pre-teen and teenager because of my OCD, and purity culture guaranteed that any hatred I had towards sex and men was completely vindicated.

I often wonder how I would’ve turned out if I hadn’t had a sexual development so heavily influenced by mental illness and a grossly erroneous cultural understanding of how God designed intimacy to be. It’s really hard to say. Everyone in my family can corroborate that I was born with a stick up my ass, so there is a chance that even if I didn’t have OCD and was raised in a less conservative evangelical environment, I would still have uptight sexual morals.

Ironically, turning back to religion as an adult has helped a great deal in some ways with deconstructing the lies of OCD and purity culture. In Catholicism, I found a concept that is absent in both: grace and forgiveness. I have to continuously forgive myself for the battery acid I dunked my soul in from my bad college years, and accept God’s grace by learning to not seeing myself as a monster.

Religion is not an amazing path for everyone, and Catholicism definitely has its own baggage. However, forgiveness and absolution have really helped me move forward from the years of my life I lost to intense shame, a work that is continually in progress. Also, Catholicism is much more on-brand for me as a guilt-mongering intellectual descended from a long line of clinically-depressed Irish Catholics.

Either way, sex is weird, brains are stupid, and God forgives you, damnit. So memento mori, and keep laughing through the pain.

Next topic: sex negativity!

Questions, comments, inquiries: ajtanksley96@gmail.com

Patreon: patreon.com/AJTanksley

Paypal: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/annajtanksley

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/annajoytanksley

Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe: all my articles are free!

--

--

AJ Tanksley

A lifelong learner and poet, AJ (they/she/he) writes about the intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, spirituality, and identity.