What exactly does “purity culture” refer to?
Our recent book She Deserves Better spends about half of its pages addressing many aspects of purity culture, that was so common in youth groups between 1995-2015, and shows how it deviated from the gospel and from what we know is healthy advice.
It hurt people.
The pushback that we get, though, often goes: “But God does want us to wait for marriage for sex!”
This shows a lack of understanding of what purity culture was. The Christian church, in its modern iteration, has always stressed sex saved for marriage (and really has throughout history, though the definition of when someone is actually married may change over time).
There are a number of ways, though, that one can talk about saving sex for marriage. You can tell people that sex is sacred and God wants it for marriage. You can tell people that saving sex for marriage is the safest for one’s heart and one’s body. That is what was done in my generation (Gen X).
Purity culture took it up exponentially, and ended up creating a whole new gospel around sex.
When we critique purity culture, we’re critiquing these trappings, and asking people to go back to talking about sex in a healthy way.
So let’s look at the 10 components of purity culture:
1. Purity culture redefined purity to mean virginity
Let’s be clear–biblically, our purity is not based on what we have done with our bodies, but on what Jesus has done with His. Our purity is about the state of hearts and whether or not we are following wholeheartedly after Jesus. Someone can be a virgin and not be pure (because of their heart), and someone can have a sexual past and be very pure (because of their faith).
Purity culture taught against that. In the books to girls that we reviewed for She Deserves Better, over and over again purity was made synonymous with virginity.
This changes the very nature of the gospel. If your purity, or your spiritual state, is based on something that you did in the past or, even worse, something that was done to you (since virginity can be taken by force), then it’s no longer about your belief in Jesus. You can believe in Jesus all you want, and still not be pure, because you made a mistake in the past (or worse). This has nothing to do with 2 Corinthians 5:17–“if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation”, or 1 John 1:9–“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
This emphasis created all or nothing thinking–if you had had sex, you were “damaged goods.” We taught girls to protect their purity, but we didn’t teach them how to protect themselves.
2. Purity culture reduced one’s faith to one’s sexual back story
While waiting for marriage for sex had always been a part of the western evangelical church (and other iterations of the church), under purity culture it became really the only thing that mattered. If you peruse materials written to teens in the heyday of purity culture, they say remarkably little about prayer; discipleship; seeking God’s will; evangelism; loving one’s neighbour; learning to be generous; being kind to those around you.
They almost entirely revolve around sex and “staying pure.” One’s prayer life was all about purity. One’s focus was all about purity. Other aspects of the Christian life seemed to evaporate into thin air, as if they had never existed. Our faith became very small. For all the emphasis on not having sex, they sure did talk about sex and marriage a lot!
In Chapter 2 of She Deserves Better, we show two word clouds of the frequency of some key words used in the New Testament versus books written for girls at the height of purity culture. You can see what the emphasis was:
Words used in the New Testament
Words used in Purity Culture books for girls:
3. Purity culture made dating into a sin
Purity culture largely revolved around control rather than discipleship. The goal was to keep kids from having sex before marriage, but instead of teaching kids to learn self-control and wisdom and make good decisions, purity culture just tried to eliminate the possibility of sex altogether by calling dating a sin.
No longer was it just a sin to have sex; it was now a sin to date until one was ready to get married.
I don’t think people who grew up in purity culture realize how radical this was. Most Boomer and Gen X women were allowed to date as teens. When millennials came along, though, suddenly that changed in the evangelical world. Not dating as a teen was unheard of for most growing up before the 90s; by the 2000s, in many churches it was dating that was seen as strange.
(We have some fascinating charts in She Deserves Better about the differences in how various generations experienced dating as teens to see what an anomaly purity culture was.)
4. Purity culture taught that teens were not capable of making decisions, and thus needed others to do so
Purity culture was largely built around fear: fear that teens would have sex; fear that they couldn’t help themselves; fear that they may make bad decisions.
And so as much as possible the opportunity to make those bad decisions was eliminated. Dating was made into something bad. But also teens were told that they couldn’t trust their judgment, and should rely on the judgment of their parents. While arranged marriages never really made major inroads, a form of courtship where the father, especially of the girl, looked around for a good match and encouraged his daughter in that direction became much more normal.
Parents were supposed to give the final okay for a marriage, and parents were supposed to supervise the courting couple to be sure they wouldn’t go too far. In effect, single adults were not really treated as adults.
5. Purity culture made any physical contact a sin–not just sex.
Purity culture saw slippery slopes everywhere. It was as if teens were living out “if you give a mouse a cookie” in real life, but it started with, “If you let a couple hold hands…”
Everything, it seems, could lead to sex.
Because kissing leads to making out and making out can lead to sex, we need to stop kissing.
But holding hands leads to kissing, and so maybe we shouldn’t even hold hands either!
Again, this is a major historical anomaly. The idea of waiting until marriage to kiss has simply never been part of Christian practice. Yet among millennials we suddenly see this strange blip where there is a minority that didn’t kiss until the wedding. This had never really been done before.
In our focus groups, we talked to so many women who were petrified about kissing because they were sure that once you started kissing, something happened where you would automatically have sex. People couldn’t explain to us what exactly it was that WOULD happen, but they were sure that it was basically inevitable, and assumed that anyone who was kissing must also be having sex.
6. Purity culture taught that self-control wasn’t possible–especially for boys
The reason that kissing was made forbidden was because it could lead to sex. Previous generations, though, had simply taught self-control. Did it work perfectly? No. (Although, to be fair, purity culture didn’t do that much better!). But it was assumed that kids could practice self-control. If teens went too far, the question would have been, “Why did you let it get that far?” During purity culture, though, the question would have been, “why did you start in the first place?”
Starting would have been seen as almost as bad a sin as going too far, because it was assumed that once you started you couldn’t stop. That’s why all of these rules were put in place that hadn’t been there before. Self-control wasn’t possible, so we’re just going to eliminate all temptation and all opportunity for sin instead.
This idea that people can’t help it once they start was doubly true for boys, though. In our survey of 7000 women for our book She Deserves Better, almost 70% of women said that they believed as teens that “boys can’t stop in a makeout situation, so it’s a girl’s responsibility to stop the sexual progression.”
Boys had no self-control, and so girls had to have enough for both of them.
7. Purity culture put the responsibility for boys’ bad behaviour on girls.
Indeed, purity culture tended to paint boys as helpless, and so girls had to have enough control for everyone. We were responsible to stop in a makeout situation, but we were also responsible not to get guys going in the first place by dressing modestly and never, ever flirting. It was vitally important for girls to never give boys any ideas, because boys were super sensitive to thinking about sex.
It was thus a girl’s responsibility to never make a boy think in that direction by making sure she never showed any of her body, and making sure she never did anything that may make him think of her in that way. (The book And The Bride Wore White warned girls not to mention their periods because it would create sexual familiarity; a huge modesty survey told girls not to ever go outside with wet hair, because it would remind boys that they had recently been naked in the shower).
8. Purity culture saw girls’ bodies as inherently dangerous
Because boys and men were basically at the mercy of their sex drives, girls’ bodies had to be controlled. Boys’ sex drives can’t be controlled, so the next best thing is to try to control the bodies of the girls around them. This made girls’ bodies into a weapon against men, rather than seeing that if a boy or a man is lusting after a girl, she is actually the real victim because she is being objectified.
Purity culture objectified all girls and called it holy.
It told girls as young as eight that their bellies were intoxicating and caused grown men to get out of control. It told girls that all men will always see you as a sexual object, and declared that God made it this way, so it wasn’t okay to complain if boys or men were creepy. If they were, it was on you because of what you wore.
Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine called girls “walking temptations to be used by Satan.” Think of the long-term effects of that! (We studied them!)
9. Purity culture used fear tactics and bribes rather than information
When purity culture talked about why you should wait for marriage for sex, it used fear-based messages. It warned against pregnancy, STDs, and death, sharing stats that were simply untrue (while condoms aren’t 100% effective, they are very, very effective, yet purity culture materials told kids that condoms wouldn’t work).
It told kids that if they had sex before marriage, they would never experience real intimacy in marriage. They would ruin their chances for it.
It told kids that they created soul ties with everyone they had sex with (or with everyone who had abused them), and these ties would remain and would make it harder to bond with the person you marry.
We talked with many women who married their rapists because they thought they were bonded to them anyway and didn’t have a choice.
The problem with fear tactics? If your main reason for saving sex for marriage is that all of these bad things will happen, and then you have friends having sex without these bad things seeming to happen, people will no longer believe you.
But it wasn’t just fear tactics. It was also bribes: If you wait for marriage for sex, you’ll have the best sex ever! But sex isn’t necessarily that great for women right off of the bat, especially if you haven’t been taught properly about sex. Many new brides found sex bewildering and disappointing, and never recovered from that.
10. Purity culture treated information as dangerous
In our survey, it was astounding the lack of sex ed knowledge that millennial women had compared with previous generations. On graduating high school, they were less likely to know:
- The names for girls’ body parts
- The definitions of consent and date rape
- The mechanics of how sex worked
- that female orgasms existed
Purity culture stopped teaching sex ed and replaced it with fear based messages about “don’t do it.” This set women up for bad sex in the future, and made all the bribes meaningless.
Purity culture was so much more than just saying “wait for marriage.”
It was a fear-based system of control and rules rather than teaching discipleship and self-control.
Instead of giving teens information and teaching them to cling to Jesus, so that waiting for marriage was a natural expression of their love for God, their relationship with God, and the way they saw themselves, waiting for marriage became the way of showing your faith.
We got everything backwards.
Our hope with She Deserves Better is that we can reclaim faith.
Let’s point our girls to an actual living faith with Christ, rather than a rules-based, shame-based life.
Too much damage has been done. It’s time to do this right, because we all deserved better than this!
What do you think? Is there a #11 that I missed? Let’s talk in the comments!
All About She Deserves Better!
Podcasts about She Deserves Better:
- Do Girls Talk Too Much?
- Should We Kiss Dating Goodbye? What Dating Rules Work Best
- How Did Modesty Messages Affect Teen Girls Long Term?
- Why Are Women Supporting the Modesty Messages? Plus How Youth Groups Handle Date Rape
- Trauma, EMDR, and "Himpathy" (and why we sympathize with abusers)
- "Nice Guy Syndrome" and Boundaries
- What We're Fighting For: A Glimpse 20 Years Down the Road
- Pink and Blue Faith: Plus We Take a Submission Quiz!
Posts about She Deserves Better:
- 10 Defining Features of Purity Culture We Need to Eliminate
- How did we think calling 8-year-old girls' bellies "intoxicating" was okay?
- The data on why we need to stop calling girls "stumbling blocks"
- Feeling responsible for her own Sexual Assault: A Youth Group Case Study
- What do the toxic teachings have in common?
- Are we giving our daughters only half the gospel?
- 32 Things Your Daughter Deserves to Know
- 3 Things That Make it More Likely Your Daughter Will Marry an Abuser