“Purity culture,” a set of attitudes, teachings, and practices committed to sexual “purity” especially prevalent in American evangelical churches in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, has been the topic of much critical conversation over the past few years. These teachings center around sexual abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage and emphasize the importance of modesty and the danger of lust. Several blogs, news articles, and books evaluating purity culture and its effects have been published recently by pastors, sex therapists and individuals who have been impacted by purity culture. Despite some disagreements, there is a consensus that the ways churches have promoted purity have been harmful.
The purity movement began in earnest in the mid-1990’s with the formation of organizations like True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, which produce purity curricula and host events promoting purity. Both organizations are still in operation today. The purity movement was strengthened by the publication of Joshua Harris’ book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” in 2003. Harris encourages his readings to forego dating for the more traditional and chaste option of courtship. His book has now sold more than 800,000 copies. The movement grew into what Linda Kay Klein calls the “purity industry,” with, “the purity rings and the purity balls and the purity pledges and purity-themed Bibles and purity-themed curriculum.” While purity rings, rings worn as an external sign of a promise to remain abstinent before marriage, are less common than they were at the height of the purity movement, the values of the movement and some of the specific teachings are still prevalent in many American evangelical churches.
These teachings have been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years. Books like Diana E. Anderson’s “Damaged Goods” (2015), Tina Schermer Sellers’ “Sex, God & the Conservative Church” (2017), Linda Kay Klein’s “Pure” (2018), and Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Shameless” (2019) seek to expose the harmful nature of purity teachings. A common metaphor used in purity curriculum compares virgins to new cars which go down in market value for every previous owner (sexual partner) they have had. This metaphor can also take the form of a piece of food which has a bite taken out of it by every sexual partner or a piece of tape which loses more of its binding ability each time it is torn from the skin of a sexual partner. These authors criticize the objectifying nature of these metaphors and the way they shame individuals, and especially women, by connecting their value with their sexual behaviors.
Another aspect of purity culture that concerns these authors is the emphasis placed on women’s modesty. If women wear clothing that is too revealing, they could become a “stumbling block,” leading men to lust after them. This logic places the burden of controlling men’s sexual thoughts and actions on women. Diana E. Anderson further critiques modesty messaging by pointing out that it is targeted at thin, white, able-bodied women. Bodies that don’t fit into these categories are either hyper-sexualized or desexualized by mainstream thought and media, and therefore don’t have a place in modesty teachings.
Having critiqued these messages and highlighted how harmful they can be, these authors declare a need to reclaim sexuality not as something to be controlled or ashamed of, but as a natural and beautiful part of our lives.
While there is much pushback against these more progressive ideas about sexuality, voices across the political spectrum agree that the ways purity has been promoted have often been harmful. In episode 81 of her podcast Relatable, self-identified conservative evangelical millennial Allie Stuckey says that while she doesn’t agree with the “sex-positive” messaging of authors like Bolz-Weber, she does agree that, while there is no problem with the idea of purity, there are problems with the way that it is taught. She says, “My problem with purity culture is not the purity part, but the culture part – the way that they were teaching it, the motivation that they were giving us to be pure, to be holy. The Bible says, ‘Be holy because I am holy,’ not, ‘Be holy so your husband will like you better.’” In other words, sexual purity should be motivated by a desire to be like Jesus rather than an obligation to one’s future spouse.
Laura and Adam Hardin, a married evangelical Christian couple, chose to remain abstinent until after their wedding and are happy with their decision. Still, like Stuckey, they see the ways that purity messaging is often presented as harmful. Adam says the criticism presented by authors like those mentioned above “can be helpful” because “it’s a criticism on waiting to talk about sex, or how you talk about sex,” and he feels that having candid conversations about sex with their pastor and his wife were beneficial for his and Laura’s relationship.
While purity culture is not as rampant as it was at its peak, it is still alive in many evangelical churches in America, and abstinence-only education is common in churches and public schools across the country. But, as Adam noted, it is beneficial to talk candidly about sex rather than to avoid the subject by promoting abstinence and “purity.” Such conversations are becoming increasingly more common in public discourse as authors, pastors, therapists, and others continue to analyze and critique purity culture.
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