The Problem with Purity (When Christian Values Distract from the Message)

I wore a purity ring throughout my teens. It was pretty easy to honour the contract I associated with that ring because I only dated once during that time and pretty well never saw my boyfriend outside of a group setting.

When I started having more complex relationships in my 20’s I suddenly began to realize that “purity” was a more complex idea than I first thought. At what point was I “giving myself away”? Did I need to Kiss Dating Goodbye if I wanted to hold to this contract ( a topic Evan has touched on in previous posts)? Or did I just push the line as far as I could, as long as I could “technically” tell people I was still a virgin (a practice Elisa critiqued in a past post)?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to a couple different conclusions about the purity culture trend than what I first believed. I don’t want to make it seem like all sexual restraint needs to be thrown out the window. I do, however, want to take a look at some unpleasant consequences of the purity movement, and consider why they came about.

I want to give credit to the church I grew up in. I felt like there were always very balanced expectations for both guys and girls. Sexual urges weren’t considered solely a “guy issue” and modesty wasn’t just a “girl issue”. Unfortunately, in a lot of Christian situations that does tend to be the division. I’ve even been in chapels where girls and guys were split up specifically so that the girls could receive a modesty talk while the boys discussed porn problems. I have a couple big issues with this kind of division.

1) It makes sex all about the man 

Why is it we Christians seem to think only men actually want sex? Seriously, who came up with that idea?

I’ve read many a Christian marriage book that primarily focused on the husband’s sexuality vs. the wife’s emotionality. While you can maybe argue that men lean more towards the physical and women towards the emotional, by reducing men and women to one characteristic we limit both genders. It tells men they aren’t allowed to be emotional, but it also tells the woman that sex is for the man. This male-centric aspect of purity culture automatically bases sex around a man’s pleasure. It also tells women their sexuality doesn’t matter as much as their husbands’. I’m pretty sure this is part of the reason that North Americans are worse at sex than the French (because we seem to think that anything that pleasures a guy will just have to be good enough for the woman too). I think this is also why it is so easy for people to pretend that non-penetrative sex doesn’t actually count. Why the heck wouldn’t it count? For most women these alternatives are the far more enjoyable part of sex.

2) It punishes women for being sexual (even when that sexuality is projected onto them)

My second issue with splitting up men and women for “purity talks” is the kind of message we give women when discussing modesty. Evan and I touched on this in our talk on the subject when I mentioned how the challenge to “not tempt your brother in Christ” puts the onus of purity solely on the woman. It makes men seem like mindless sex maniacs, and it makes it possible to reduce a woman’s character to one feature based on her sexual history (i.e. slut shaming). When it comes to sexual assault, purity culture can also make it possible for people to lay fault on the victim.

In her article, titled “How Christian Purity Culture Enabled My Step Dad to Sexually Abuse Me“, Lynn Beisner shares some of the responses she received when she finally sought help:

“To this day, I am not sure that my step-father understands that what he did was wrong. When I told my mother and three pastors what was happening, they were alternatively disbelieving or scornful of me. I was given advice very similar to this advice given to another young woman

“‘Before you can accuse your father of being unprotective, (as close to abusive as they will say) ask yourself: ‘Do you make it clear to him that you are a woman of virtue, worthy of his special protection? If your behavior was more gentle, feminine, respectful and lovely would he be more inclined to be protective of you?'”

The thought that purity culture creates an environment for shame and silence around sexual abuse is frightening. Even when those kind of horrors aren’t happening, it’s still wrong to tell a woman that her sexuality matters more than anything else about her.

3)  It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do

I understand the motivation behind the purity culture because I once wholeheartedly embraced it. Most of the time I really believe the motivation behind the movement is completely well intended. Parents/mentors/church leaders want to protect young people from broken hearts, physical illness, and unexpected pregnancies. The only problem is that it hasn’t been working, even on the physical level.

For some people, promising to wait for marriage has been an effective way to ensure sexual health and reduce pregnancy. Unfortunately, in environments where abstinence is the only option of birth control we see a regular spike in STI’s and teenage pregnancies. In contrast, methods like “free access to birth control” have shown much more positive results when it comes to health and safety, including a large reduction in abortion rates.

Yet physical issues aside, I still feel like this movement is failing young people. As much as I consider myself a very liberal person, my faith does matter to me very much. Looking at the character of Christ and the way he treated sexuality makes me think those of us who have participated in this purity movement had our focus in the wrong place. While we were busy making ourselves feel better about our lives by comparing our sexual histories (or lack thereof) to the “sinners” around us, we missed the opportunity to treat sex the way Christ did. There are so many stories of Jesus responding to prostitutes and “wayward individuals” in a loving way (and angering religious leaders in the process), but I can’t think of a single example where he made an effort to point out and praise someone for their sexual purity.

Don’t you think the purity movement would look a lot different if it was led by the guy who spent most of his time with “sinners and prostitutes”?

The story about Jesus’s treatment of the woman caught in adultery is one of my favourites. John 8: 1-11

I’m not saying that sexual discipline doesn’t matter (because we aren’t bonobo monkeys), or that all types of clothing are appropriate for all situations (because you wouldn’t want to wear your speedo to a job interview). However, sex shouldn’t be the thing that defines a persons identity, and a woman’s choice in clothing should not make her at fault for where your mind may wander.

15 responses to “The Problem with Purity (When Christian Values Distract from the Message)

  1. Kat

    Nice blog post. If nothing else, those in purity circles and who promote “kissing dating goodbye” seem so enamoured with what they teach that they won’t admit any of the problems that their “alternative” causes.

    I have a blog critiquing Josh Harris’s book. Sadly Josh has done little to admit the problems his alternative has caused while claiming all the defects are with dating.


  2. agree with almost everything you’ve said… and i’ve written about this before… and we’re back into a world that embraces that purity culture scene more so than ever. sigh… at the same time, i think it is key to recognize that part of the problem is that everyone wants this to be an easy fix – girls just need to dress the right way so that guys don’t have to worry about their thoughts… or guys just need to learn to control their thoughts and body parts and girls can wear whatever best allows them to express themselves and feel beautiful and they shouldn’t have to worry about what “other” message a man may “get.”

    As a mama to both teenage boys AND girls – I can vouch for the fact that neither extreme addresses real problems, real struggles or real life for those who want to honor the Lord with their choices. So I’m teaching our kids that my actions, my words, my clothing choices can and DOES impact others and I DO carry responsibility for that impact, sometimes because of or in spite of my own intentions… I know that for a fact because I’m impacted by what others do, say, wear, write, etc. Yet there is a second side to that equation – when I’m impacted by others, I ALWAYS have a choice as to my response and I’m 100% responsible for my choice in how I react, respond, the direction my thoughts take, the critique that comes from my mouth…

    We can’t “change” other people; we can only, by God’s grace, change ourselves and our reactions to other people… demanding that someone else change very rarely accomplishes the result we are hoping for in the making of that demand. True teaching on modesty is not all about clothes/physical appearance – but a whole demeanor and heart position before God – and we are all instructed to “let our moderation (or other translations say gentleness) be known to all.” What would happen if we started thinking more about modesty of either appearance or thought or action looking more like gentleness… or “douceur” in the French?

    • Well said. I admit that this article doesn’t really offer “the answer”, just a critique of the ideology I was brought up with. You make a good point though, moderation (or gentleness/douceur) is well worth pursuing.

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  4. Yes, the purity culture is just killing us. Those virgins standing on the street corners with automatic weapons. Those purity rings stabbing us in the face. Those white dresses blinding our eyes. Somebody call an ambulance. How dreadful.

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  9. Thank you. It is wonderful to read a Christian writing about this in a thoughtful and respectful way.

    • Thanks! It’s a topic I’ve done a lot of thinking on lately, but I think the way it’s often represented tends to demonize one side or the other. I was trying not to do that if possible.

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