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”?
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.