Laaaaand sakes! We are diving deep in the purity culture dirty laundry pile today. For some of you this is going to sound way more familiar than my first post because you either experienced this first hand or know someone who did.
The awful part is that there are believers who have walked away from the church because they think these issues were actually God’s standards, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. The awful part is that there are believers who have walked away from the church because they think these issues were actually God’s standards, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. #apologetics #purityculture Click To Tweet
So let’s clear the air a bit and dispel some of the most common purity myths.
1. Purity is the new holiness.
When I asked Kyle, a former classmate of mine, about his PC experience, one of the things that frustrated him the most was the legalistic belief that chastity and holiness were the same thing.
Holiness calls for Christians to be set apart and chastity, “…certainly contributes to that, but it’s not the total measure of holiness,” which some students were led to believe.
And it wasn’t just holiness. In some circles, virginity was akin to a person’s morality card. As author Jessica Valenti scathingly remarked, “You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a “good” (i.e. moral) [girl] and therefore worthy of praise.”1Valenti, Jessica The Purity Myth (Berkley: Seal Press, 2009) Pg. 24. Her focus was toward the subjugation of girls, but boys were told the same message. In some circles, virginity was akin to a person’s morality card. You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a “good” girl. #apologetics #purityculture Click To Tweet
Chastity before marriage is God’s design and it does contribute to holiness, but it is not the total measure of our holiness. This important distinction was missing from much of the movement.
2. Only the sexually pure will have a happy fulfilling marriage.
In Living Pure Inside Out, students were introduced to two different love stories. The first was of Calvin and Sylvia, “… didn’t touch each other till their wedding night,” and shared a long wonderful relationship. The second was of Katherine who, after becoming a single parent at 18, had a string of failed marriages. With her daughter grown and out of the house she was “…empty, struggling, alone,” and still searching for Mr. Right.
What was the cause of Calvin’s joy and Katherine’s loneliness? According to the study guide, the “deeper truth” was that Calvin was the right kind of person (he was sexually pure) and Katherine wasn’t.2Hughes, Bill Living Pure Inside Out (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2002) Pg. 7. More than likely “Katherine” had poor dating practices which perpetuated the pattern of failed relationships, but this can only be assumed. What was more concerning was that it took another 17 pages to reach any message of redemption for those who had already had premarital sex.
Harsh. Ok, there’s some truth here, but there’s also a lot that’s missing. Contrary to first impressions, it’s not a person’s virginity that nurtures a successful marriage but the mutual and continued practice of the fruits of love that enables a relationship to weather the storms of life, 1 Cor. 13. This was hinted at within the story, but the priority emphasis was on how virginity enabled this relationship to succeed, not the convictions and content of their character.3Ibid.
This mistakenly caused many students who had already had sex to think that they had lost their one chance at attaining a Christ-honoring marriage, but this just isn’t true.4Joshua Harris followed all the “right” steps and even wrote Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship about his pure courtship between him and his wife, but after 4 years their marriage ended in divorce. It is not virginity that ensures you find a wonderful spouse, but God’s grace.
As my friend reflected, if Paul, who persecuted and saw many believers put to death, can be redeemed by Christ, so too can our broken past.
3. If you aren’t pure then no one will want you.
Oh my goodness, I wanted so badly for this to have been an exaggeration! Instead, I found just the opposite.
For example, a PE teacher had her class spit on an Oreo to illustrate a girl’s undesirable state after she lost her virginity.5Klein, Linda Kay Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (New York: Touchstone, 2018) At a TLW rally, a teen leader remarked that girls who lost their virginity were like rumpled magazines that no one wanted to buy,6https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp5HkXw9Rag&has_verified=1. While comments like these were made, TLW material was very clear that we are redeemed through Christ. The problem was that kids who had already fallen were less likely to believe that message because of how virginity was praised. As one teen put it, “I can be a non-virgin whenever I want, but they can never be like me.” and countless books referred to those who had slipped as impure or damaged goods.7Each book referenced in this article used one or more of these phrases. Countless books referred to those who had slipped as impure or damaged goods. #apologetics #purityculture Click To Tweet
These illustrations tried to show the seriousness of losing one’s virginity outside of marriage,8Contrary to Seventeen magazine, you cannot have more than one first time. https://www.seventeen.com/love/a30103/things-no-one-tells-you-about-losing-your-virginity/ but they ended up reducing the value of an individual to the state of their purity, leaving many feeling hopeless, dirty, and irredeemable.9This also caused immense confusion about sex. Some had the idea that sex was so wrong and dirty that marital intimacy was difficult or unappealing. Many women saw it as more of a duty and a God-given pleasure, which caused tension within their marriages. We’ll cove this more in our next post.
Metaphors and similes are an invaluable tool when you’re telling a story, but they are painfully inadequate when you compare the complex human person to a single-purpose inanimate object.
What kids need to hear is that they are not an object. Their value isn’t found in their virginity, but grounded in a Savior who can make all things new. What kids need to hear is that they are not an object. Their value isn’t found in their virginity, but grounded in a Savior who can make all things new. #apologetics #purityculture Click To Tweet
4. You give a piece of yourself away to each person you date.
In case you haven’t read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris retells a friend’s dream in which she and her husband were joined at the altar by every woman he had ever dated. Even though he had broken up with these women years ago, they remained permanently connected because each possessed a piece of his heart.10Harris was not clear about what causes this piece to be joined to another. It could have meant that he was sexually intimate with these women, or that he fell in love with them emotionally. In his book he implies both.
Fifteen-year-old Elsie made a similar reflection for Oprah Magazine’s, “The Innocence Project,”
“I think your life is kind of like a flower, and every time you have a relationship or a boyfriend or something, you’re taking a petal of your flower and giving it to that person. So you’re giving all these petals away. Pretty soon you’re not left with anything to give your husband.”11Robb, Amanda “The Innocence Project” Oprah Magazine https://www.oprah.com/relationships/father-daughter-purity-balls-to-promote-abstinence-chastity-pledges/2
For Harris and Elsie, whenever you enter into a romantic relationship outside of marriage, your very self12Ibid. Pearcey. Pg. 50-51 Notice how her simile offers a dualistic view of the human person. When Elsie speaks of one’s “life” she is not referring to a person’s body (you don’t give your left pinkie to James from 10th grade, or an ear to Heather from Chem 101 unless, of course, you’re dating someone with the last name of Bobbitt) but what Descartes called the mind: the autonomous self, that which makes you, you. becomes fragmented and a piece is transferred to your partner.13It’s possible that Harris meant to say that when the fiancé gave a piece of his heart, that he was metaphorically bonded to the woman in marriage because they had be sexual intimate together. But since virginity can only be lost once it doesn’t make sense to refer to someone as progressively giving “pieces” away to different people. It’s this ambiguity that allows for a variety of interpretations and he later implies that even falling in love with another has the effect. If you aren’t careful, by the time you find Ms./Mr. Right you’ll have run out of pieces to give.14This line of thinking raises a host of questions regarding the nature of self. For example: if we gave every bit of ourselves away while simultaneously gathering bits from other people, who or what then do we become? How can one’s self endure while becoming fragmented or must it remain whole to exist? Like I said, it’s a mess.
This flawed philosophy sent many people, the majority of them women, into a panic whenever they began dating someone new. How far was too far? What if they got too close and he doesn’t turn out to be the one? How many pieces did they have left? No one knew.15What they did know was that they couldn’t get those pieces back, or worse, a piece of each partner stayed with them too, so that any future relationships only added to an ever-compounding orgy. This may sound messed up, but it was taught to a friend of mine during his youth group experience.
Is it any wonder that people felt like they were in a legalistic trap? Look, dating does not turn people into metaphysical vending machines because *surprise!* God made you in His image, not in the image of a Pez dispenser.
5. A girl’s body itself is a stumbling block, so be modest or else!
The Bible has a lot of practical principles when it comes to modesty. Paul encouraged the women of faith to dress with decency and propriety, not being consumed with clothes, but to do good works consistent with a professing believer, 1 Tim 9-10. These are teachings that we here at Mama Bear believe are an important part of living out your faith, and so did the original PC curriculum. But if this series has taught you anything it’s that even the best of teachings can be misused if they fall into the wrong hands, and modesty was no different.
Instead of equipping girls to know and understand modesty as a beneficial act of worship, some church leaders turned it into a pair of shackles. A girl’s body became a threat to the souls of the boys in the youth group as well as to the faith of the girl herself. If a guy fantasized about you, it was your fault for leading him into sin. And that figure you had been waiting for your whole preteen life? You had better cover that up because the body you were told was fearfully and wonderfully made is starting to make you look like a harlot now that puberty has kicked your development into high-gear. That figure you had been waiting for your whole preteen life? Cover that up because the body you were told was fearfully and wonderfully made is starting to make you look like a harlot now that puberty has kicked in. #purityculture Click To Tweet
As one girl put it, their bodies were, “…nothing more than things over which men and boys could trip…,”16Ibid. Klein. Pg. 7. shameful stumbling blocks waiting to drag you and the boys who liked you away from God. So be modest, or else!
A lot could be said here, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to appeal to St. Anselm. He argued that it is the intent or use of something that can be sinful, not the thing in and of itself. Food, for example, is not inherently sinful, but gluttony is. Your body, likewise, is not inherently sinful17He’s not talking about sin nature here. He’s meaning that no one would say an arm is sinful, but you can use your arm to do sinful things. but how you use it can be when you act outside of God’s design.18Williams, Thomas Anselm: Basic Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2007)
This is where some church leaders went wrong.19Ibid. Klein. Pg. 7. Many girls were taught that they had to cover up because their bodies were shameful, wrong, and a threat to the men in their presence. What they should have taught is that a girl’s body is beautiful, distinct, and sexual. This means that our bodies are awarded special modesty without sacrificing honor because we are meant to be like temples, offering glory to God, rather than dressing provocatively and drawing attention to ourselves, 1 Cor. 12:23; 6:19-20.20If you’re struggling to teach modesty here are some practical tips I apply to my own life. When trying on a shirt I lean over 90 degrees. If I can’t bend over without ‘the girls’ making an appearance the shirt gets a cami underneath or put back on the shelf. Same with skirts. If I bend over to pick up a pen and the folks behind me get a show, then the skirt is too short and it doesn’t come home with me. Last of all, it comes down to underwear. If I have to take off my underwear to wear a pair of pants then I don’t buy them. None of these prevent me from being attractive and afford me the practical ability to wrangle children without fear of showing off what only my husband gets to see.
Nor are girls to blame for the wandering thoughts of the guys.21Even though girls are not responsible for every thought of the guys, there are cases where each can share in a portion of the other’s sin. For example: If a believer knows that someone is struggling and cares more about exercising their own “freedoms” (i.e., what they wear, how they act) than supporting a fellow brother or sister’s walk, they are acting selfishly and share responsibility in their sin, Matt. 16:23, 18:5-7, Rom. 14:13. This can play out in ways like: a guy/girl leads the other on to believe the relationship is more serious than it is to get them to sleep together or a girl who dresses sexy to attract the attention of a guy. Our boys have the responsibility to honor their sisters in Christ by treating them with dignity and respect. While they may notice an attractive girl,22https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201205/the-triggers-sexual-desire-men-vs-women. The male sexual motivation pathways have more connections to the subcortical reward system than in those of women, who are more often aroused by relationships and emotion. their thoughts, eyes, and anything else for that matter are not to linger, Matt. 5:28; Phil 4:8.
What to do about Purity?
I think we can agree that using false biblical teachings to reject actual biblical truth23http://tinaschermersellers.com/2013/09/13/virginity-is-not-the-issue/ And embrace, like we talked about in our first post, the New Covenant Sexual Ethic. is like banning the game of baseball because someone took a bat to your car windshield. It doesn’t make sense.
Yes, some church leaders and parents made a lot of mistakes. They tried to change culture on a dime by appealing to scare tactics instead of explaining and praising God’s heart for marriage, the beautiful design for sexuality, and the benefits of choosing His best for us.24Beautifully said, Gracie! They appealed to scare tactics instead of explaining and praising God’s heart for marriage, the beautiful design for sexuality, and the benefits of choosing His best for us. #apologetics #purityculture Click To Tweet
But this doesn’t mean we should reject God’s design. It means that the methods and message need to be changed so that it, “…affirm[s] the goodness of creation, realism about sin and the fall, and the healing message of redemption.”25Ibid. Pearcey. Pg. 141.
This is exactly what we are going to try to do in our next post when we tackle how to give a better sex talk to your kids. Which I know you’re just dying to have!
Bunn, Bob Path of Purity: A Family Guide (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2010)
Elliot, Elizabeth Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984)
Harnois, Catherine (Spring 2008). “Re-Presenting Feminisms: Past, Present, and Future”. NWSA Journal.
Hughes, Bill Living Pure Inside Out (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2002)
Klein, Linda Kay Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (New York: Touchstone, 2018)
McDowell, Josh Finding True Love (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000)
Pearcey, Nancy R. Love Thy Body (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018)
Schermer Sellers, Tina Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (New York: Routledge, 2017)
Stenzel, Pam Sex Has A Price Tag (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003)
True Love Waits Goes Home (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2002)
True Love Waits Crossing Bridges With Purity (Nashville: Lifeway Press, 1998)
Valenti, Jessica The Purity Myth (Berkley: Seal Press, 2009)
Williams, Thomas Anselm: Basic Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2007)
Important statement by Dr. Richard Ross reflecting on the backlash of TLW: https://theologicalmatters.com/2018/12/11/has-true-love-waits-harmed-the-young/
Amy Davison is a former Air Force veteran turned Mama Bear Apologist. She is currently a grad student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary studying apologetics and philosophy. She and her husband Michael (also former Air Force) have been married for over 15 years and have 3 kids. Amy is the Mama Bear resident expert on sex and sexuality, and she’s especially hoping to have that listed on her Mama Bear business card.
Hi Amy, Great Post – That about nails it. There was also the line – “Every partner your spouse ever had sex with will be in bed with you guys every time you have sex.” So basically if you find an “impure” one to marry, you are also pretty much marrying his former girlfriend(s), as far as the bedroom goes. That particular lie haunted me and my marriage for years, until I finally figured I’d had enough.
Thanks, CJ! It’s interesting that you point that out because one of the men I spoke with was told the exact same thing. He said that if you get married after being impure you are basically creating an orgy with everyone you were ever with. The guys and gals in his youth group were horrified. Some ever said, “What’s the point since I’ve already messed up?” This hopelessness did not help teens rededicate themselves to chastity. Instead, chastity seemed like a single-use-only ticket. Once it was punched there was no going back.
In light of this post, I’m wondering if you’ve seen this yet: https://sojo.net/articles/questioning-faith-after-purity-culture-conversation-joshua-harris?fbclid=IwAR3hAdkJWISkbXDDyT9d8XKxbeOcVGO8qPo16l6Bi_ZPnIS-DO7SJH6rRMA
Would love to hear/read your comments on the evolution of Josh Harris.
Hi Amy, I love that you’re addressing this topic. I too was a teen during the TLW movement and though it certainly helped me remain a virgin (for some very wrong reasons), it also set me up for the deepest pain I have ever had to work through during the early part of my marriage. 1. The message that you had to keep pure because your spouse was worth the wait, reversed itself. Meaning, the fact that my spouse was not a virgin must mean that I was not worth the wait. *Heart crushed* 2. Rather than thinking of myself as “the one”, meaning, the only one, the one he waited for, the one he married etc. I felt like I was actually Number# in a line of previous sexual partners – even though they were from years and years earlier and he had since been abstinent. 3. I presented my virginity as some trophy to my spouse, as in “here, look what I have saved for you”, which belittled him since he could not offer me the same thing, and it belittled me when he didn’t quite now what he was meant to do with this ‘trophy’ I had presented him. It was like I expected some shrine to built in gratitude for this huge sacrifice I had made, for him. *Sigh*. The sexual abstinence was a good idea, but not the idolatry of it.
Wow! I never thought of it that way. It was the opposite for me. My husband was pure & I was not, although he didn’t hold that over me himself, I felt “less than”. It did spark a desire in me to reclaim my sexuality & a long road of healing, which God did heal! But it did causes me to be extra aware & cautious with my own children as we are approaching teen years.
I wonder Amy how we should approach sexuality, sex outside of marriage, in the best way as to not cause shame? God does clearly define it as sin & it does have consequences we cannot deny.
sex is for the man only
“The Bible got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong… slavery. What are the odds that the Bible got something as complicated as human sexuality wrong? 100%!”