The Purity Culture is not monolithic. There were/are faithful Christians within the purity movement/culture that genuinely want(ed) to help train youth to pursue godliness. However, good intentions do not excuse poor teaching, much less excuse outright sinful teaching. On the flip-side, whatever missteps or even sins that were committed within the movement does not excuse any person’s rebellion against God. One day, upon the return of King Jesus, no one will be able to say, “It’s not my fault that I didn’t repent of my sins and place my faith in Jesus. It’s the purity culture’s fault.”
by John Ellis
Without any trace of shame, my friend turned on his barstool, looked me in the eyes and said, “I regret not having had sex before I got married. I only know what it’s like to have sex with one woman and feel like I’m missing out.”
In the aftermath of his confession, as I attempted to explain what was wrong with his thought process, I could tell he wasn’t listening. Not that it would’ve made a difference if he had heard me. His almost total worship of the god of Sex had consumed him, and his liturgy of lust was unassailable.
A couple of years later, an affair brought his marriage to an end.
I thought back to that conversation while reading The Cut’s article on Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free, a memoir by Linda Kay Klein.
Although he may have believed otherwise, with his words (and actions), he wasn’t demonstrating sexual liberation. With his confession, my friend was demonstrating some of the worst fruit of the purity culture. He was giving evidence that he believed that sex is primarily a consumer act and, as such, the worth of women, in large part, can be measured by their ability to grant sexual experiences to men. Sadly, that perspective mirrors the perspective experienced by the author of the book and, I’m afraid, is a perspective that has been ingrained in many males who grew up in the purity culture.
The Cut explains the book as:
Part memoir and part journalism, Pure is a horrendous, granular, relentless, emotionally true account of how it feels to be taught – by parents, neighbors, teachers, and pastors – from the youngest age that one’s sexuality (including organs, physical body, and sexual impulses) is disgusting, a mind-set that can only lead to one place: that deep inside, the girl is disgusting, too.
The writer of the piece, Lisa Miller, after detailing a little of her interaction with evangelicalism, explains of Klein’s book, “I have never seen anywhere a more intimate and heart-rending description of what it’s like to be 14 or 15 or 20 years old living under the expectations Evangelicals have about ‘purity’ – sexlessness, including virginity before marriage – and its antithesis.”
She then points out that many females raised in the purity culture suffer much angst and fear upon marriage and the expectation that they need to go immediately from pure virgin to, “accommodating tigress in bed.”
The article (and the book), of course, is anti-purity culture to an extreme that I reject. As a conservative Christian committed to adhering to the sexual ethics revealed in God’s Word, I believe that sex outside of the boundaries of marriage (between one man and one woman) is a violation of God’s holy standard. But, based on what the article reveals about Pure, the book does shed some honest light on the tragic effects produced by a mostly well-intentioned movement that is unfortunately based on an anemic Biblical anthropology and a sexual ethic rooted in a consumer mindset.
Continuing her article, Miller lists some of the effects of the Purity culture:
With intimacy and sympathy, Klein tells stories that make your skin crawl: Of Christian youth pastors who teach about the filth of the human condition by making kids drink Mountain Dew and eat Tootsie rolls out of a baby potty; of kids passing around a lollipop and spitting or sucking on it in turn, and at the end being told that this “used” candy was like a girl who had given her virginity away; of a girl who discovered that if she slapped her own vulva repeatedly whenever she became aroused she could make the tingling feeling go away; of a teenager who, after being raped by her brother, found that her parents sided with him; … of young marrieds who had no idea how to make sex actually work — a situation that went on for decades; of woman after woman after woman who, after (or in the midst of) finally having sex, crumpled into a helpless ball of anxiety and shame.
Much of that rings true for me. I sat through many sermons that warped sex into a self-serving act for men. In groups of only males, we were warned about loose women; they would destroy our testimony. In contrast, good girls saved themselves for marriage and they were who we should want to marry. There was a sense where, as guys, we were exonerated from having to face the worst consequences of impurity. An aspect of “boys will be boys” hung on the edges of the teaching. To be sure, while boys being boys wasn’t okay, the cautions were delivered with a subtle wink.
So, while I don’t understand completely what it’s like to be a female and sit under this type of teaching, I know what it’s like to be a teenage boy with raging hormones sitting under this teaching. Sadly, my response, observation, and experience as a teenage boy confirms much of what The Cut highlights about Klein’s book.
We were taught that sex is the ultimate prize, and that purity is the means by which we would ultimately maximize the prize’s payout. We were also taught that to protect our purity, we should commit to focusing our amorous attentions on “good” girls. Those females who would stand as a buttress of purity against our innate male urges – we needed help steering clear of the “boys being boys” impulses, after all.
Except, as teenage boys with raging hormones, a penchant for immediate gratification, and a complete lack of perspective on time, all we heard was that sex is the ultimate prize. And we didn’t need any convincing on that point.
The thing was, if sex is the ultimate prize, which our lust confirmed to be true, then females were the enemy. I mean, from our perspective, females held the ability to dole out the ultimate prize. The fact that they wouldn’t meant that they were our enemy. Unwittingly, we were taught to view our female counterparts in a harmful dualistic way. Who they were didn’t matter to us; what they could provide us became all important.
Shamefully, during my teenage years and into my twenties, much of my interaction with females was informed by the mindset that sex is the ultimate prize and getting past females’ defenses was the challenge. Sadly, most of the guys I grew up with, worked at Christian camp with, and many at the Christian university I attended had very similar perspectives on sex and females. The sad irony is that the purity culture unwittingly steered young men into the perspective of the sexual revolution.
The sexual revolution embraces the hedonistic mantra “if it feels good, do it” while teaching the contra-Biblical view that sex is a self-serving, consumer act. To be fair, the sexual revolution was responding to some equally Biblically aberrant views of sex perpetuated by the Victorian culture. But a history of the sexual revolution will need to wait for another time. For this post, I want to point out that the purity culture failed to challenge the sexual revolution’s presuppositions – it’s anthropology, epistemology, and, hence, ethics. Instead, the purity culture confirmed what MTV, Hollywood, and our increasingly sexualized culture believes and teaches. In fact, much of the purity culture has embraced many of those same contra-Biblical presuppositions.
All of this, of course, raises the question of how and what should we be teaching our children about sex?
To begin with, Christian parents, pastors, and teachers need to focus more attention on teaching our youth about who God is and less attention on protecting our kids’ virginity.
Now, please don’t hear what I didn’t say. By all means, we should teach our children God’s sexual ethics as revealed in the Bible. But focusing attention on that and not on who God is amounts to putting the cart before the horse. Because if a person doesn’t understand who God is and their relationship to Him as one of His created beings, why should they care what God has to say about anything?
We need to first teach our children that God is the Sovereign Creator of all things, including them. And as Sovereign Creator of all things, it’s His divine right to set the rules. Tragically, as the pinnacle of His creation, humans have rebelled against God’s divine right to set the rules, and we express our rebellion in acts of sin. Because God is holy, He cannot have a positive relationship with sin, and so His creation is under His curse. Humans who die under that curse are damned to eternal punishment because their rebellion is against an eternal God.
However, in His love and mercy, God provided a way for His sinful children to be reconciled back to Him, enjoy a positive relationship with their Creator, and escape God’s just wrath and punishment. Jesus, God the Son, humbled himself and came to earth in the form of a man and lived his human life in perfect obedience to God the Father. In his final act of obedience, Jesus willingly mounted the cross and accepted the punishment for the sins of those who repent and place their faith in him. After dying, Jesus was resurrected from the dead three days later by the power of the Holy Spirit, vindicating his claim as the Son of God. He now sits at the right hand of the Father, interceded for those whom the Father has given him. One day, Jesus is going to return to punish the wicked (all humans who fail to place their faith in him) and reward the righteous (all those who submit to his Lordship through repentance and faith).
In other words, our main job as parents and pastors and teachers is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the youth under our authority. We need to teach our children to love God and then we need to teach them to love their neighbor. But how?
Since this post has been written from the male perspective, I’m going to focus on how we should be teaching our boys to love their neighbors, specifically their neighbors who are females.
For starters, we need to make sure that our boys know and understand that girls are made in God’s Image, too. Females fully image God as much as males do. The Bible teaches this in Genesis 1:27 when Moses writes, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Being made in God’s image means, among other things, that girls are deserving of respect and are to be treated with dignity. God demands that. Objectifying females is the exact opposite of what our Creator demands. Females do not exist to gratify the sexual urges of males, even within the context of marriage. And here’s something to think about, our young men can enter into marriage as virgins and still treat their brides with less respect and dignity than God expects.
Viewing sex as a consumer act steers our young men into a self-serving view of sex that, apart from the grace of God, they take with them into marriage. We shouldn’t teach sexual abstinence before marriage because doing so makes for a better sex life in marriage. For starters, that’s not necessarily true. For another thing, and more importantly, we don’t abstain from sex outside of the bounds of marriage because of how it improves our sex lives; we do so because sex outside of marriage lies about Jesus.
I’ve already done some of the heavy lifting on a Biblical sexual ethic in another post (you can read that post by clicking here). For the purpose of this post, I want to push back on the purity culture’s consumer perspective on sex. When we teach our young men that sex is the ultimate prize that will be maximized if they wait until marriage to enjoy, we are encouraging their innate idolatry of sex and encouraging them to view women as objects who exist to reward them the ultimate prize. Instead we should be echoing the Apostle Paul who commanded us to treat, “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity (1 Timothy 5:2).”
There is nothing in the Bible that allows men to view women in objectifying and demeaning ways. There is nothing in the Bible that allows men to view women through the lens of self-gratifying sex. Instead, the Bible teaches us that we are to love God and to love our female neighbors by honoring them and treating them as our mother or as our sister. And in the context or marriage, males should view the act of sex as a way to serve and demonstrate love for their bride. Sex is supposed to be a selfless act. The purity culture teaches that sex is a selfish act. The excesses coming out of the purity culture, while sad and often tragic, shouldn’t surprise anyone.
By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we should commit to doing a better job of teaching our children who God is, what He expects, and how we can bring Him glory by serving each other. Our boys should be taught to serve girls and to not view them as sexual prizes to win through a commitment to purity before marriage.
Soli Deo Gloria