Is Porn the New Purity Culture?

by | Apr 27, 2021 | Pornography, Uncategorized | 22 comments

Is Porn the New Purity Culture? Are we treating porn as something you can't get over?
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Is the next thing that’s going to damage sex in evangelical circles the way that we’re treating porn?

Now, please understand: I think there is no excuse for watching porn. Porn is the biggest driver of sex trafficking. Even if the porn you’re watching is “consensual” (as if you could really know), when you watch you feed the demand for those types of things, and the things that you watch will eventually be forced on children and those who aren’t consenting. It’s a huge evil.

And porn does mess up the way that the user sees sex, changing the arousal patterns to respond to dehumanizing and objectifying behavior rather than to intimacy, and causing someone to need to emotionally distance themselves in order to even get aroused.

It’s a big mess, too.

This post is not about whether or not porn is bad–it certainly is. This post is asking the question: what are we going to do about it?

Are we treating porn for boys especially the way we treated sex for girls in the 1990s and 2000s?

Yesterday Keith and I recorded our podcast that’s coming out on Thursday, and we were reading from different books to help guys understand the messages their wives have been hearing about sex for years. One of the passages I read was from the book When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy, two speakers/authors who were heavily involved in the purity culture movement.

In the passage I read, Karly and Todd, a couple who loved God and who had been dating in college with the aim to marry, found themselves overcome by passion and ended up in bed together. Afterwards they both felt guilty, and Todd got distant towards Karly.

But then listen to how they describe the implications for Karly:

As for Karly, she was hurt and confused by Todd’s behavior. She had thought he loved her. She had made the mistake of giving him her most precious gift–her virginity–but now he was distant and cold toward her. She was full of guilt. When she thought of all her childhood dreams of walking down the aisle in a white wedding gown, symbolizing her purity, she felt sick. She could never hope to have a beautiful love story with Todd now. She had ruined her chance. (p. 223)

Eric and Leslie Ludy, When God Writes Your Love Story

So Karly had given up her most precious gift. Her dreams were ruined. Her purity was gone.

But hold on a second. Todd had ALSO had sex. Why wasn’t HIS most precious gift gone? Why wasn’t his loss of purity a subject for discussion? Why was it only the girl who had lost something?

That’s the purity culture message that severely messed up a whole generation of primarily millennial women.

Your worth is in your virginity. It is the greatest gift you have to give. Once you are no longer a virgin, your identity is gone. If that virginity is stolen from you, you will never get it back. You will always be tainted.

And you will be all used up if you sleep with other guys. No one will want you. You will never be able to have the sex life or the marriage that you dreamed of and that you wanted, because that is reserved for only people who do things right.

Everything is lost.

Can you see a similarity between the way we talked–or even still talk–about virginity for women and the way we talk about porn for guys?

If you watch porn your brain will be rewired and you will never be able to understand real intimacy. You will ruin your chances of having great sex because you have wrecked your sexuality. God reserves great sex for those who have done everything right; you have used porn, and so great sex will always be out of reach. 

That’s a very hopeless message. You are ruined. You have lost something you can never get back. You will never enjoy the marriage and sex life you wanted.

Let’s look at four big ways that message fails:


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1. It makes people feel as if they are irreparably damaged even when the initial porn use wasn’t consensual

One of the most hurtful messages of the purity culture is that you could be “no longer pure” if you were the victim of sexual assault. It was sexual activity that tainted you, and even if that sexual activity was non-consensual, you would no longer be pure because you weren’t a virgin.

But think of all the children who see porn for the first time in a non-consensual way! If a friend shows you porn on his or her phone when you are 11, you haven’t consented, because you don’t understand at 11 the repercussions for seeing porn. You don’t understand how it can be traumatizing and arousing at the same time, and how the trauma of some of what you see can actually cause you to want to watch again and suck you in.

Just as we don’t say that 11-year-olds can consent to sexual activity, so we should not say that 11 or 12 year olds have truly decided to watch porn. They’re curious; they’ve often seen snippets from friends; and if they then seek it out, is that truly consensual? I’m not so sure that it is.

And in many cases I’m quite sure it isn’t. In many jurisdictions, showing porn to a minor is actually an offence and counts as sexual assault.

How many young people in their twenties–both men and women–who struggle with porn today started with porn in their preteen or early teen years before they had the maturity to understand what they were seeing? And once the habit starts, it’s hard to stop, because of what we know porn does to the brain.

2. It ignores the healing and transforming power of God

To say that once you’ve done something you’re damaged forever is, quite frankly, heresy. That’s exactly the opposite of what the Bible says. Jesus said, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The old is gone. We are reconciled. We are redeemed. And we are transformed by the Spirit. We are no longer a slave to sin.

Now, recovery does take work still. But to insinuate that God will withhold the blessing of a great sex life and a great marriage because someone watched porn is just not the way God works.

3. It ignores what we know about porn recovery

A lot of people watch porn. A lot. In fact, the majority of those who came of age after the internet revolution have at least dabbled with porn.

But do you know what else we know? Most people enjoy their marriages. Most married people enjoy their sex lives. So that tells me that porn use does not have to doom anybody.

We also know from our survey of men that we finished a few months ago that when you quit porn completely, your marital and sexual satisfaction can be very similar to those who never use it. We’ll say a lot more about that in The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, but this idea that you can never get over it and you’re tainted forever is not an accurate picture of reality.

4. It encourages black-and-white, defeatist thinking

What happens, though, when we believe that we are doomed if we watch porn? That we can never get over it? That this is every man’s battle, and we’ll always be struggling, and this is just the way things are?

Then it’s much harder to fight against. You start to believe there’s no point, because your sex life is ruined anyway.

We put a lot of shame on millennial women, and I fear we’re doing the same thing for Generation Z men.

(yes, I know women watch porn, too, but the defeatist messages are often aimed at men).

We need to get back to a gospel-centred view of sexuality. Yes, life can get messy. Yes, we can make mistakes. Yes, bad things can be done to us, and we can find ourselves in situations we can’t handle when we’re far too young.

But Jesus is the God who redeems, and His power can help us overcome the things that hold us back, and we do not have to let these things become our identity, determine our worth, or determine our future or current marriages.

If you’re dating or engaged, please deal with the porn use NOW. Nothing that I’m saying means that I don’t think you should take this seriously. But just know that if you do take it seriously, it is very, very likely that you will emerge on the other side, a healthy, whole person.


Need help with dealing with or defeating porn?

My favorite books for guys are: The Sexually Healthy Man by Andrew Bauman and Surfing for God by Michael John Cusick.

I also highly recommend Good Pictures, Bad Pictures for talking to your kids about porn, and Covenant Eyes to help protect your kids as much as possible.

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We need a far more nuanced conversation about all of this stuff in the church, rather than just scaring people into doing what we want them to do.

That may get messier. But it’s closer to the truth. And you know what? People can handle the truth.

Is Porn the New Purity Culture?

What do you think? Are we being too defeatist about porn use? Or do we not talk about it enough? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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22 Comments

  1. Anon

    I don’t have words for how much this message means to me. As someone who is working himself out and by the grace of God is seeing more progress I have been feeling all of this doom feelings. I am so happy that someone is bringing this up in a balanced way. Thank you for doing that!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      You’re so welcome! The message of Jesus is NEVER that all hope is lost and you’re ruined forever. Not ever in anything. We need to stop giving that message, and we need instead to point to healing and empower people to seek it. And shame messages never empower people to do anything; they cause people to often return to the behavior that caused the shame. It’s just so sad.

      Reply
  2. BC

    I have been finding these post interesting and thought provoking. I am a millennial who grew up in the “purity culture”. I also grew up near extended family who were heavy into porn. I found the things I was exposed to there far more damaging than anything in the purity movement. The purity movement felt somewhat healing. I had another option to regular dating which seemed fraught with dangers. My husband and I courted. We weren’t completely no touch. We held hands after we were engaged, we hugged, and he would give me a peck on cheek when he left. Frist kiss on the lips was on our wedding day. I kind of hated that. LOL! I wanted a practice kiss or two the day before, so it wouldn’t be so embarrassing in front of an audience. My husband was having any of it. I think my healthier view of purity culture may have come from a church that was very focused on the grace and forgiveness of God.
    Anyways, back to the porn…it was hanging on the walls in the shops and my cousins got a hold of some of the magazine their parents read. It resulted in some inappropriate touch because kids are curious. I was only 5 and my cousin 7. I knew it was wrong AFTER I did it. I dealt with so much shame associated with it as a child and never told my parents. I was saved just shy of 15 which helped a lot, but the best thing and most healing thing for me was a sermon on shame and how Christ not only took our sin, but took our shame, too. There would be no line in heaven with people shaking their heads when they heard my list of sins. Christ bore that for me, too! I also, remember my uncles thinking it was funny to play about 5 minutes of porn in the living room full of kids. While they stopped before any actual intercourse. I still have images of the naked women in my head. My idea of what men are attracted to was formed by the images I encountered there- ridiculously large, round breasts and tiny waists. It really messed with my idea of beauty. I struggled with visual lust as a teen, mostly in the form of photos and reading material, but I could only indulge when my parents weren’t looking, so thankfully that was limited. I am glad I didn’t grow up with internet in the household. It would have been so bad for me! I managed, with a lot of prayer, hard work, and God’s grace, to overcome the issues caused by porn.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, porn culture is really, really damaging. I’m glad that you were able to purge those images and deal with them well!

      Reply
  3. Anonymous for this one

    The”unforgivable sin” growing up was being a woman with a sexuality. One of the reasons I married my husband was because we orgasmed together before marriage (non-intercourse). I was “tainted” by him. Not worth anything to another man after that. If I married him I could brag I was only with 1 man.
    I know a pastor whose life and family were destroyed to the point of poverty and almost homelessness because in his decade and a half long ministry he looked at porn twice and the church thought the same disciplinary measures they enact on adulterous pastors with congregant mistresses should be enacted upon a pastor who happened across a website with some naked women and he didn’t click away fast enough.
    My own son has looked at porn. I don’t shame him, but I make it known it isn’t healthy, polite, or Godly to do so. In some cases it is even illegal.
    We also make the human body no big deal, but also emphasize respect of persons and their privacy. I grew up where an exposed bra strap was sin incarnate!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I hear you about the bra strap! Definitely naughty.
      It sounds like you’re taking a great approach with your son. We really do need to find a nuanced way of talking about this.

      Reply
  4. Amber

    This is amazing. I think you’re right on with the way porn is treated in the church – as if you’ve broken something and it can never be repaired. What a perfectly sad parallel to purity culture. And amen to reaffirming that none of this means porn isn’t an insidious evil – it is! Also, I really appreciate the bit about whether a preteen can really even consent. My husband was 12, and from a family with terrible influences and even sexual abuse we later discovered. It was almost a coming of age thing for him, when he wasn’t even of age. But you know what….he is no longer broken. He has partnered with God to redeem all that was lost, and we and he are better than ever.

    Reply
  5. Natalie

    Wow!!! I never even thought of it this way, but having read your post, this is the blog post that NEEDED to be written and put out there on the internet!!! You’re spot on!
    And ugh, that quote about Karly and Todd makes me sick. Oftentimes, I look back and think one of the top 3 reasons I married my husband was because I loved him but also because I thought I’d be “spoiled goods” if I broke up with him and dated/married someone else who might’ve been better suited for me and shared more lifestyle hopes and dreams and goals with me. I’ve thought that thought pretty frequently over our 7 year marriage, particularly in times when my husband’s eating addiction is at its worst and he isn’t showing any signs of stopped or any signs of wanting to stop his weight gain cycle. It’s a very helpless, defeating feeling. I’m sure many other millennial and Gen Z guys feel/will feel that way in their marriages, but in regards to porn and how they feel trapped and like they made a bad choice that they’ll never be able to escape or overcome. Emphasizing the power of Jesus to redeem and heal is SO important in all of this, be it past sexual sin, past sexual abuse, different bad habits or legit addictions people face, etc. Without Jesus at the center, Satan whispering in our ears that we’re no good failures becomes completely believable and becomes part of our identity.

    Reply
  6. Cynthia

    Thanks. Some of this is a shift from even older posts that you’ve done, but this shift in message is needed, for several reasons:
    1. It harms relationships
    Like you said, porn use is really common, and lots of users still have healthy marriages. It doesn’t help anyone to give the message that any porn use means that someone is a sex addict or is sexually abusive, or that they must not really love their spouse. It’s also not helpful to give wives the message that they must be responsible for stopping husbands from using porn.
    2. It can lead to a cycle of shame, secrecy and “splitting”
    Instead of being able to acknowledge having a sex drive and finding some things arousing, it turns that into something that is both extremely difficult to resist but also a source of deep shame when they fail. So, it becomes a secret – which means that it is hidden and not discussed or acknowledged. Instead, a perfect or even self-righteous face gets presented instead. In some cases, the stress of having this secret use creates more stress – because the guy knows that he’s hiding something – and self-loathing, and can fuel a sort of split personality. Ironically, dealing with the stress sometimes leads to using more as a form of escape.
    3. It makes actual conversations about harms really hard to have
    If the guy can’t talk about where he got the idea for something he’d like to try, it’s hard to have a conversation about the fact that it’s something that was designed for the pleasure of the viewing audience and not for the woman involved.
    If he can’t talk about what he’s watching, you can’t have a conversation about which sites are known to have problems with showing user content that might not be consenting adults. It’s also hard to have a conversation about things that are documented serious problems (like companies that profit off of people posting their own content while avoiding liability for non-consensual stuff so that they actually fuel production of non-consensual stuff), when a big deal is made out of stuff that isn’t a big deal.

    Reply
    • Becky

      I agree Cynthia — I think that some of the tone and content of the older TLHV posts from years past definitely had a Purity Culture vibe to them. It’s interesting how people can change over time.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        We’re trying to go back and change them! There are just so many and I don’t have a lot of staff. But we’re trying!

        Reply
  7. Esther

    As a mom of four boys, this is a huge topic for me. Thank you for this post. I know that my kids will be exposed at some point. We have the book you linked to (Good Pictures, Bad Pictures) and read it annually. In addition to the “CAN DO” acronym of how to deal with porn when you see it, we also talk about 1 Corinthians 10:13 and how God will always give you a way out from temptation.

    Reply
  8. EOF

    I love this so much. All four points are so full of hope and healing! Which is unfortunately the opposite of what the church teaches.
    I’ve read the two “Good Pictures” books with my kids, and I’m so glad I did. They were able to understand what porn was, in an age-appropriate way, and they both told me they want nothing to do with it, ever!
    One child, a teenager, even told me today after seeing something questionable on the internet. I was really concerned before looking at what the image was, and it was so much tamer than I dreaded. I love that their hearts are so sensitive that they’re willing to share these things with me. (Now to keep them from all the harmful messages from “Christian” literature.)

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s awesome! I love hearing about parents who have good communication patterns with their kids. That’ sgreat!

      Reply
  9. Anonymous305

    If you didn’t already know, a woman from purity culture and a man addicted to porn is a TERRIBLE combination BECAUSE the woman was promised that staying a virgin would give her a happy marriage, but the man is disappointed and unsatisfied with her lack of experience. The woman thinks he should be happy at how pure she is, but the man is annoyed that she doesn’t get excited “enough”. The woman was told that no man can resist sexy clothes, but the man doesn’t find them exciting. The woman wonders if there’s anything she could have done that would motivate God to “bless her with a happy marriage” and wonders if premarital sex would have given her enough information to avoid getting married. But of course, she can’t admit that premarital sex appears to have benefits, so she tries to think of reasons why waiting until a painful marriage is still a blessing. Because it could have been worse? Because she’s not obsessing over an ex? Because she doesn’t have herpes? Because the blessing isn’t visible yet?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is so true. We’ve seen this dynamic play out again and again. It’s tragic.

      Reply
  10. K

    Hi Sheila, another good book that is helpful for dealing with porn is Unwanted by Jay Stringer. You should check it out.

    Reply
    • SDH

      Thank you so very much for this post. I grew up in purity culture and it was one of a couple poor messages from the church that led me to marry an abusive man at 20. I thought I was ruined goods because we went farther than I thought we should even though we hadn’t even had sex. It took me 16 years to leave that marriage and my husband now has a problem with porn. It’s been absolutely devastating to me and our marriage. Your point about the trauma that seeing porn at an age before consent is possible really helped bring me some compassion for my husband. He saw it at such a young age and grew up in a sexually unhealthy environment. I have 2 boys and I don’t want to damage them as I was damaged by purity culture, but also want to save them from the pain porn brings. We need to do better as a church. There need to be more books on healthy sexuality for Christians, especially for older teens.

      Reply
  11. RL

    I really appreciate this article and I do agree that there is so much shame surrounding porn, which makes it even harder to deal with.
    As a woman who has struggled with it, I find it so frustrating to not be able to find resources for women. I have done search after search online looking for articles and ministries to help women, but all articles are written to men (sometimes with a nod to the fact that women look at porn, too, but it’s mostly the guys who struggle). This has added to my shame, as though there’s something even more wrong with me because this should be a guy issue.
    I grew up in a very legalistic home with a super controlling, angry father and started having sexual feelings at a young age. In college I had internet access and began watching porn. I was always attracted to men but found that I was aroused by women.
    In my early 20’s I was very active sexually, but always with men.
    When I got married, I wanted to live for the Lord and raise my children in a Christian home, but I continued to struggle with my thoughts and with porn. I hid it from my husband (who was also looking at porn) and everyone else. I would feel such shame and cry in church because I wanted so badly to stop and to not have these feelings, but it was beyond my control. I wanted to tell someone, but was so afraid of what they’d think of me. I am now 41 and the pain and torture I’ve gone through is horrible. I have anxiety and panic attacks in the middle of the night because I’m afraid I’m going to die and go to hell. How can I be a Christian and still give in to this?
    I just wanted to share my struggle for all the other ladies out there who are going through it, suffering in silence and feeling like you can’t tell anyone. Somehow it’s expected that you have a problem with porn if you’re a male, but as a woman it’s not normal. I know I’m not alone. It’s time for the Church to be open about this issue and remove the shame. My brother shared in a small group that God had delivered him from his porn addiction and the response he got was dead silence. Why is this?? If we can’t be free to talk about what we struggle with, how can we confess our sins to one another? Darkness loves darkness. We have to let the light in so that we can be healed, so thank you for what you do.

    Reply
  12. Jessica

    “yes, I know women watch porn, too, but the defeatist messages are often aimed at men”
    Because nearly ALL messaging about pornography is “aimed at men.”
    Women are just as damaged by this messaging. You lose nothing by saying that. Instead, by sticking women is an aside in parentheses, you gloss over the women who are deeply damaged by the same messages.

    Reply

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