For the most part, I haven’t talked about Purity Culture on my website. Rather, I’ve talked about bad messages about purity and correcting the record.
Why? Because I largely missed the whole movement. If you’d asked Teen Me fill in the blank for “True Love ____,” I wouldn’t have answered, “Waits.” I’d have started singing, “True love, you’re the one I’m thinking of…” (the lyrics of “True Blue” by Madonna, a song that released the year I graduated from high school). I was married the year before the release of the sexual abstinence curriculum largely credited with launching the Purity Culture movement.
Purity culture is in the news.
If I was a savvier influencer, I’d have written an article the hours or days after the heartbreaking Atlanta shootings, using the gunman’s fundamentalist upbringing to highlight the problems with bad purity messaging. But while I drafted some ideas, my first stab at the topic felt false to me somehow. Yes, the shooter received messages that made him believe sexual sin was both uniquely horrible and insurmountable, but Purity Culture alone does not explain killing people.
I waited, read others’ takes (some of which were good, like Why the Atlanta Massacre Triggered a Conversation About Purity Culture by David French), asked Facebook followers their own definition of purity, and mulled longer.
Eventually, I concluded that I don’t have much to say about the kind of person who ignores “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out” (Mark 9:47), and “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and decides instead to destroy eight other lives and their families. That’s not a normal response to even the worst purity messaging.
Added Note: Others have used this opportunity to discuss purity teaching in the church, but I don’t know the shooter’s motives or what he was taught. Please do not take anything in this post as knowledge of the shooter’s history or reasoning.
Yet, Purity Culture has hurt many spouses and marriages. Normal responses include:
- believing that sexual feelings are wrong
- avoiding the opposite sex when they’re seen as “temptation”
- struggling to flip the switch from abstinence to sexual intimacy after marriage
- suppressing sexual desire, even for your spouse
- experiencing guilt over sexual pleasure
- tensing up during sexual encounters and thus not enjoying them
- having difficulty even discussing sex with your spouse
What is purity culture anyway?
The origin of Purity Culture is often identified as True Love Waits, a curriculum devised by two youth ministry specialists at LifeWay resources, the educational arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. From my research, it appears to have been a well-intended effort to encourage youth to wait until marriage for sexual intimacy. But well-intended doesn’t mean well-done.
The curriculum became a movement that involved purity events, paraphernalia, and a pledge:
Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.Taking The Pledge – CBS News
Presumably 2.5 million+ young people took that pledge. Some even wore “True Love Waits” rings, possibly with 1 Timothy 4:12 engraved on the silver:
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.
How many kept their pledge? Well, you probably won’t be surprised to discover that at least 60% didn’t follow through. And too many came away with distorted view of God’s perspective on sexuality.
Among those distortions:
- A call to “court” rather than date; that is, only dating someone you’d like to marry and often putting off physical affection until engagement or even marriage.
- A persistent recommendation that men “bounce their eyes,” meaning that if a woman in their sight is alluring, they should look away to avoid temptation.
- A focus on a young woman’s appearance and shaming her if she didn’t live up the modesty standards that would presumably protect a young man from the sin of lust.
- A belief that if you have sex before marriage, you can be forgiven, but you still ruined it—both your marriage and your sexual partner’s marriage. (This was oddly demonstrated by things like passing around a new penny and a used penny, comparing “pure” to “handled.” But, um, it’s not that hard to clean a penny.)
- A promise that God will reward your waiting for sex by providing the right mate and a simple and satisfying sex life once married.
- A bottom line that purity—defined here as sexual abstinence before marriage—is a measure of your worth before and loyalty to God.
Where did we go wrong?
Purity Culture was hardly the first time the Church got sex wrong.
I didn’t grow up with True Love Waits. In fact, when the curriculum and events came out, I was actually a bit jealous that adults were talking aloud about sex! Even if it was off, it was something—as opposed to adults shutting down conversation when the subject was brought up or just saying “Don’t.”
People from the generations before me have shared their own tales of learning nothing or:
- being warned that a girl could get pregnant from kissing
- being advised to keep your knees together enough to pinch a penny
- being told that sex after marriage was a husband’s right—his timing, his way, his demands
So yeah, Christendom does not have stellar history addressing the topic of sex! Sad, but true.
I get the attempts to push back against immorality in the culture, pornography in our midst, and sexual impurity in young people’s lives. Those are all good things.
But amid our desire to remain unspoiled, we often lose what God’s Word says about sin and redemption:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.1 John 1:8-10, 2:1-2
Our purity does not come from our behavior, but rather God’s mercy! It is Christ and His sacrifice that purifies us.Our purity does not come from our behavior, but rather God's mercy! It is Christ and His sacrifice that purifies us. #purityculture #Christiansex Click To Tweet
And it’s from that place that we pursue holiness, knowing that one failure or many failures do not keep us from God’s love. He is faithful, justice, forgiving, and will purify us from all unrighteousness.
Is Purity Culture to blame for your struggles?
Perhaps you were among those wounded by erroneous messages before or during Purity Culture. Perhaps you were scarred by teaching outside that culture but from the church. Perhaps you didn’t hear it from the church but other Christians who got it oh-so-wrong.
And your marital sex life has suffered.
It’s been challenging to overcome the baggage of your past and the messages ingrained in your head and your heart. You want to replace them with God’s truth. But it’s an uphill climb.
Moreover, you’re rightfully angry: The very people from whom you should have been able to get biblical answers about how to be a sexual being who honors God screwed up. They trashed the place, and you’re left with the mess!
I hear that. It happened to me too. Maybe less or more than you, but I understand at least some. It took me a while to understand a few things:
- My bad teachers usually weren’t trying to hurt me. They were trying to help me, but they didn’t know better themselves. Given what they believed, their own sex lives probably weren’t great.
- Ignorance is an explanation but not an excuse. That is, it’s incumbent on us as Christians to do our best representing God’s Word in all things, including sex. I can forgive “for they know not what they do,” but we should and must do better.
- Nearly everyone has baggage. If it isn’t Purity Culture, it’s secular culture or past experiences or body image or whatever. It’s a fallen world with flawed people, and stuff happens.
- God’s redemption is for all. He wants you to have every blessing of sexual intimacy and pleasure in your marriage that He intended, no matter what your history or what stupid something you were taught!
- Example matters as much or more than rhetoric. Tell me to avoid sex before marriage, and I might. Show me a couple with both sexual integrity and passion in their marriage, and I’m much more likely to want that too.
All that to say, I’m sad how often the Church has gotten sex wrong. It’s one reason why I do what I do! But another reason for my ministry is that I believe we’re the ones who can turn it around.
We are the generation that can have sexual integrity, regardless of our upbringing or past, and pass that on to the next generation. We can show the way of purity begins not with our own virginity but with a risen Christ.
Next time, I’ll address Purity Culture myths and better, biblical truths about sex. (Part 2: Where Purity Culture Got It Wrong, Let’s Get It Right | Hot, Holy & Humorous)