Growing up in the church and culture I did, I couldn’t conceive of a Christian not knowing about “purity culture”. But lo and behold, I met my husband, in seminary, who had never been exposed to it.
Just so no one feels left out, here are the details.
Purity culture is a belief system as well as a lifestyle that places high emphasis on virginity before marriage (i.e. abstinence for those of you not familiar with purity culture) while maintaining emotional purity. The emphasis historically seems to have been placed on females maintaining virginity as well as staying away from sexual thoughts or any sexual activity. Purity culture can include purity balls, purity rings, purity pledges, and a specific modest dress code. (Think avoiding short shorts,spaghetti strap tank tops, red lips and mini skirts) AND PLEASE FOR YOUR LOVE OF THE LORD: DON'T WEAR A TUBE TOP. Since purity culture was a way of life, it also involved certain types of movies and books. I specifically remember one movie involving a teenage girl with mossy brown hair who became pregnant and her life was basically over*. There was terribly sad dramatic music and even worse acting. And the father-of-child seemed to be entirely missing in action from what I recall. (If you are envisioning Teen Mom from MTV, it's not quite like that.... think more Lifetime). Generally purity culture believes in abstinence-only sex education in public schools. In some purity cultures, people give up dating for courtship or even marriages arranged by parents.
From what I’ve come to understand the purity culture started in response partially due to the mid-20th century sexual revolution. Around the 1980’s conservative evangelicals wanted to move back to prioritizing sexual purity. To be pure meant you didn’t engage in any sexual activity before you were married, you guarded your heart and dressed modestly. It encompassed the heart, soul, mind and body. This was no easy vow.
The first purity ball was held in 1998 in Colorado (yes I said purity ball.) Fathers and daughters dress up and attend this ceremony or ball. Daughters make a pledge of purity to their fathers and to God. In a lot of cultures, the daughter is considered under her father’s authority until the day she says her vows to her husband. After that the daughter is under the husband’s authority.
In my family, we weren’t that extreme. I don’t remember attending a ball or moving from being under father's authority to husband's authority. Our marriage was certainly not arranged. However I do remember picking out a purity ring with my dad as a child. I do remember dressing up for a ceremony at our church when I was 13 years old with my best friend Hannah.
At that time, it was rather exciting because I got to dress up and look fancy. It was also exciting because one of my favorite things to do was to go shopping with my dad. Usually I would shop for toys and later clothes. But this time was special. I got to shop for jewelry! I chose a ring that had 3 little hearts clustered together. The big heart was my promise to God to remain pure till my wedding day. The two other small hearts represented my promise to my parents and then my future husband.
For further disclaimer I would also like to note that I am not blaming my parents for living during the purity culture. After all, they had just witnessed this crazy sex revolution and now their oldest daughter was 13! How terrifying! I’m not a parent, but working with minors and high-school students has helped me empathize with my parents. Once I have children I am not going to want them to engage in numerous sexual activities at the age of 13! Thinking about children without their brains being fully developed and wandering around with raging hormones is absolutely terrifying.
I am also the kind of person who if you tell me to run one mile, I will run 5 miles. If you ask me to read one chapter, I will read the whole book. So imagine my personality living in the purity culture. You tell me to stay pure? Well, that meant no kissing, no two-piece swimsuits, no feelings that resembled anything close to sexual desire. What can I say, to my detriment, I have always leaned towards the extreme.
Nonetheless at some point, it’s good to challenge some of cultural’s constructs that were not helpful so that we can move and grow from here. After what I went through, I want to encourage others to be a critical consumer of what the purity culture teaches. Though the purity culture came with noble intent, there are some truly harmful messages I encountered that I would like to share.
1. Purity Culture Teaches Men It’s Okay and Normal To Objectify Women (and also promotes sexism): Ever since I was little I felt uncomfortable with the way Evangelical Christians talked about men and sex. Books like For Women Only by Shaunti Feldhahn terrified me and made think that men were out of control sex-obsessed creatures. (which, in her defense, was probably not her intention at all) In truth, I’m sure this notion made men feel similarly. They probably felt like they had no control over their own bodies. I always felt confused about bold statements about “men being visual” and that short skirts and shorts turned them on so much they could have an erection right then and there. No one ever cared about my experience as a female. No one asked if I was visual. In fact, I consider myself to be a visual learner and one who is drawn to color and art and fashion. Purity Culture taught me that I was responsible to control and help men’s “lust problems” by dressing modestly, not looking at them a certain way and by avoiding all signs of physical affection. This was detrimental to me because it caused me to feel responsible for someone else. It was a very co-dependent system if you ask me.
2. Purity Culture Teaches You To Obsess About Sex At An Early Age: Let’s be real. If you live in our culture, Christian or not, everyone seems to be a little obsessed with sex. (take for example how much money the porn industry is making: however this is violence and not sex soooooo….mute point) However Purity Culture taught me to obsess about sex long before I was ready to think about it. I made a vow to abstain from sex before I knew what it was or even if knew if I wanted it. I learned that it was of utmost importance to keep my virginity and hopefully to find a man who did the same for me. When I should have been focused on school, my friends, and being young, I was already obsessed and terrified of purity. I was terrified of being raped. I was paranoid that every boy was lusting after me. I was scared that I would date a guy who had sex with countless other girls. These are not the things a 12, 13 or 14 year-old-girl should be worrying about. I could have been thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up or thinking about ways to pursue my hobbies. But instead I ruminated about purity.
3. Purity Culture Teaches You That Your Body Is The Enemy: This has been one of the most hurtful and detrimental to me personally. Purity culture taught me to bully my body into submission. Purity culture taught me that discipline was the highest of virtues. People who couldn’t control their bodies like me were lazy and dumb. I had so much pride in how I could control my body. I didn’t understand people who over-ate, did drugs or had sex. Little did I know how hurtful this was to me and my relationship with my body. Since sexual desires came from my body, purity culture made me believe that my body was the enemy and could not be trusted. Thus, if my body felt sexual attraction, it was my job to kill that feeling. Yet my tendencies to take things to the extreme didn’t let me stop there. I had to be in control of every aspect of my body and take away its voice all together. If I had headaches, it was my job to tell it to go away and ignore it. And worst of all, if I was hungry, it was my job to tell my body “mind over matter” and not eat. Before I knew it I was so “disciplined” I was lost in an eating disorder, forgetting how valuable and beautiful my body is. I stopped listening to my body because it was ”evil” and against me. I didn’t stop to think that my body was given to me by God, that it was enough, that I was enough and it was my responsibility to be kind and gentle to the only body I would have. Where purity culture didn’t give me my eating disorder, it helped foster they type of thought process that fueled it.
4. Purity Culture Teaches Black and White Thinking: Either this person is a potential future husband, or a temptation, who might make you lose your virginity. A male is not a person, he is a temptation who might make you compromise. This was also a hurtful approach to sexuality. Rather than seeing people as people I only saw them as a threat to my sexuality or I saw them in terms of their sexual experiences. Rather than getting to know someone I was dating in terms of how they treated me, their passions and hobbies, their beliefs and values I immediately started obsessing about their sexual experiences. Were they a virgin? Did they masturbate? Had they looked at pornography? How many girls or guys did they have sex with? Rather than getting to know them, I dehumanized them by their sexual experiences. I broke up with guys over and over again who had “too many sexual experiences” because it scared me, because I was told those sexual experiences would rule their life. These were guys who loved Jesus and respected me and cared for me. They did not like their past sexual experiences or flaunt them like a badge of honor. It didn’t matter to me.
5. Purity Culture Teaches All Or Nothing Approach To Sexuality: Let’s break this one down. Purity culture teaches to avoid wearing bikinis, short shorts, and mini skirts, to avoid kissing and making-out, sexual pleasure and sexual feelings at ALL costs. It teaches you that having sex has horrible consequences before marriage and anything on that trajectory can have lasting impact in your marriage. So for me, it’s no wonder I avoided ALL those things. I didn’t kiss my boyfriend in college. I didn’t even let him hold my hand till we had dated for almost a year. So just imagine this kind of living and thinking and then one day you get married. And then BOOM. WEDDING NIGHT. Now you are expected to kiss, make-out, wear something small (and full of strings) and have intercourse. One day you can’t do anything, the next you SHOULD (actually it is required now) have sex. How confusing for the brain and body! Talk about a shock to the system. Are you kidding me? One day you are not allowed to have sex but after your wedding vow you are not allowed to NOT have sex. In fact, if you don’t have sex you are putting your marriage at risk! Now this is really ridiculous. This line of thinking is dangerous. We are not robots. We don’t have “on and off” switches or buttons. We all need to show a little more respect for our bodies, brains and hearts that acting like this is a GOOD thing for us. I am grateful I didn’t go from wearing a turtle-neck and holding hands to being completely naked and having sex. There’s enough anxiety out there for things we can’t control. This, now this, we can control.
My experience is not the only one out there. If you have any questions or stories you would like to share, please don’t hesitate to comment below or shoot me an email. Your story matters!
*This film did NOT, I repeat, did NOT show them having sex. To be honest, I think they looked at each other and she became pregnant. (Note to teenager self: Don't look guys in the eye for too long or else...SURPRISE!!!)