Understood for what it is meant to be, the Purity Movement among Evangelical Christians in America was meant to reduce STDs and teen pregnancies and to encourage teenagers to say “no” to premarital sex.
Remaining chaste until marriage would protect young people from disease, heartbreak, guilt, and shame. But there are dangers within Purity Culture, some of which were embedded at its formation, and others of which have been decried even by former advocates of the Purity Movement.
What Is Purity Culture?
A movement began in Christian youth groups, at Christian schools, and among homeschool families as a counterattack against the rise of AIDS, teen pregnancy, and cohabitation. A correlation was drawn between sexually transmitted diseases, babies born out of wedlock, and a lax attitude to marriage and premarital sex.
It was not uncommon for a person to have multiple sexual partners before choosing a monogamous relationship. The church hoped to encourage self-control and they believed that focusing on the value of marriage would help to prevent some of the sex-related ills in society. “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
Participants in Purity Culture made pledges to remain abstinent until they married. They signed documents or wore special rings. Eventually, thanks to a popular book by Josh Harris called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, even dating was considered dangerous to an unmarried person’s chastity.
A girl’s father would mediate between his daughter and any boy who wanted to marry her. The boy would be permitted to court her with the understanding that “all interaction between young men and women must be explicitly for the purpose of pursuing marriage.”
Essentially, as Julie Ingersoll wrote, the father would arrange his daughter’s marriage. Girls were not in charge of their own activities, but control of their lives would switch from father to husband “in marriages arranged by their fathers.”
Dangerous Exchange of Power
Ingersoll commented on the “chewing gum” symbolism, which taught girls that if they had sex before marriage, they were no better than a piece of chewed-up gum to chaste boys. Ingersoll says that according to Purity Culture, a girl’s whole purpose was to remain marriageable. Moreover, the burden of chastity appears (according to the language and rules of the culture) to have rested mostly on girls.
Although boys were encouraged to remain chaste and to sign promises, the father of the would-be bride oversaw her. Young men were not placed under the special purity-related authority of their fathers or mothers.
“These teachings led to guilt and shame as well as profound ignorance about sex and sexuality,” which many men and women still deal with in later life. They struggle to “develop healthy adult sexual relations.”
Meanwhile, women were “taught to blame themselves” if they were sexually assaulted, which means they are less likely even now to report an assault and their shame is further augmented by the insidious idea that they somehow brought sexual violence upon themselves (Ibid.).
That shame affects men too. Zachary Wagner wrote, “The way we’ve talked about sin and temptation” has led to a “radical dehumanization of women, who are viewed as either a threat that could compromise a man’s faithfulness/career or (in marriage) as a God-given ‘outlet’ for a man’s animalistic sexual desire.”
In other words, talking about the power of women’s bodies to tempt men and the hopelessness of teaching men to resist temptation has only encouraged men to view themselves and women through a lens of sexual depravity. Purity Culture is not to blame, but it did not help men any more than it helped women.
These are some emotional and physical dangers, which persist among graduates of Purity Culture.
Behavior, Not Worship
Purity proponents also face the spiritual danger of legalism. Sam Allberry says this about abstinence: “Denying yourself does not mean tweaking your behaviour [but] saying ‘no’ to your deepest sense of who you are, for the sake of Christ. […] your life, it turns out, is not yours at all. It belongs to Jesus. He made it. And through his death he has bought it.”
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” His life belonged to the Lord, and he was called to a life of celibacy.
Allberry’s quote reminds us: we all belong to God. Christian girls do not belong to their fathers or their (prospective) husbands. Avoiding sex before marriage is not a matter of trying to be good enough or of self-punishment; behaving “good.”
The purpose is to glorify God and to love him. To obey and to worship him. 1 Peter 2:9 tells Christians that they are “a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This is the purpose of each individual, both the young person and his or her parents.
Parents, assigned by Purity Culture as watchdogs, not only enforce legalism but are also being led into their own form of spiritual darkness whereby their purpose was to promote abstinence as a form of sacrifice rather than as a matter of joyful worship.
They would have been pressured to assess their children’s moral bank balance in terms of sexual behavior and to enforce rules, which focused on dos and don’ts rather than their children’s attitudes toward God and sex, without encouraging spiritual maturity and peace of submitting to Christ alone.
“Purity culture has failed in keeping the focus on the body and on sex rather than on Christ,” wrote Joe Carter. “We practice chastity to develop purity, not for the sake of our own sexuality, but for the sake of Christ.”
Chastity is a choice to regard one’s body as a temple of the Living God, a vessel with which one goes into the world to make disciples and to use the gifts God has given the individual. Although sex is a beautiful gift provided by God for married couples to enjoy, it is not the primary purpose for which the body was created.
This would be to suggest that unmarried but chaste men and women are less valuable before God, and also places such an oppressive emphasis on the joy of sex as to humiliate and taunt individuals who have chosen to wait for the right partner or to have no partner at all.
Same Old Conflict
There is forgiveness for the individual (male or female) who has engaged in sex outside of marriage, just as there is for every sinner who truly repents of any sin. To save one’s body for marriage, however, is a goal to which the gospel-believing Christian aspires. Though difficult, it is worthwhile because God has called his people to avoid this temptation.
This is not to be legalistic, but to be free from the slavery and dangers of sexual lust. The idea of maintaining one’s virginity until marriage and of staying faithful to one partner in spite of cultural norms is not new or outdated, either; secular society or Jews/Christians have been at odds over the matter for millennia.
The dangers of sex go beyond the physical risks, and one must also remember that sex within marriage is not always risk-free. Adultery, drug use, pornography, and violence plague Christian marriages the same as they harm couples outside of the church.
Moreover, the call to preserve one’s virginity for the right person is a reminder of how special sex is; that it is the most literal realization of Genesis 2:24, which says, “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Men and women alike are never more vulnerable than when they submit to one another sexually; it is a gift, which should be treated with the utmost respect for the sake of both parties.
Final Words on Sexual Purity
“If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship,” wrote Richard Ross (Ibid.). Christ has become the perfect Bridegroom for all the church. Hard as it is to wait, nothing can compare with the joy we anticipate upon his return.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.