Is Purity Culture to Blame?

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
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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.

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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.
God 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! #marriage #Christiansex Click To Tweet

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)

Related post: What I Wish I Had Been Taught Instead of Purity Culture with Rebecca Lemke

22 thoughts on “Is Purity Culture to Blame?”

  1. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools for 12 years. I wasn’t taught Purity Culture but I received a lot of the same messages, and they could be damaging.

    I wore a modest school uniform for 12 years. The underpinnings of modesty teachings are often a “less than” view of women. People talk about dressing modestly as if it will protect you from harmful behaviors from boys and men–it does not, at all. In fact when these boys see that their sisters are “less than” they are more likely to treat them poorly. Baggy sweatpants and a hideous uniform don’t protect you from “lust”. And to the extent some people think we must teach about modesty please refrain from teaching young women (in some cases five year olds) they could be causing their dads or grandpas to stumble.

    This may have been taught by secular parents as well—but my sister and I clearly knew that almost our entire worth resided in not losing our virginity and not having an out of wedlock pregnancy–as in we would be thrown out or disowned by our parents.

    Regarding bad teachers not trying to hurt us—maybe true sometimes. But to the extent a lot of this comes from a “less than” view of women—I believe many of the teachers clearly wanted girls and women to be put into their place. It is especially sad when these teachers are women.

    I’m a woman–but I believe this sort of culture is harmful to boys/men as well. It paints them as very one dimensional.

    1. Yep, and modesty in the Bible is almost entirely about behavior, not dress!

      I actually believe women should dress appropriately, but as part of self-respect and godliness. Not to mention that modesty isn’t covering up everything that makes you feminine or attractive or even problematic to someone who hasn’t dealt with their own sinful lust issues (that’s their problem). I talked about this somewhat in Do Our Yoga Pants Make Men Sin? and even more in On “Pigs,” Good Men, and the Difference. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I personally feel the core issue is balance. God does want us to wait for marriage, but not to prove our worth or our faithfulness. He wants this because He knows it is for our best. When what we do becomes focused on becoming good enough for God, we miss out on the reality that it is Jesus who makes us good enough for God the moment we trust Him. And the opposite end of the spectrum tells young people that they should just do whatever feels good, which also leaves emotional baggage. The church needs a balanced message that focuses on God’s grace and wisdom, how He has our absolute best for us by following His plan. Unfortunately, balance is hard.

    1. I agree, Chris. And I feel sometimes like we’re living in this world where everyone wants simple answers and black-and-white perspectives. Maybe it’s always been that way, but it seems more intense now, perhaps because of media or something.

      Yet when my own life has improved, when my own marriage has been strengthened, when my own faith has been deepened, it’s been more about the daily challenges of applying God’s will to my life while recognizing that Christ alone is my true salvation. Balance, as you say.

  3. A few more thoughts about purity culture type messages:

    I think as churches moved toward formal purity culture curriculums or similar programs have crowded out other messages of what it means to be a Christian. For me growing up as a Catholic before churches started adopting more formal curriculums, there was still space for other important teachings. One message that is PROFOUNDLY important for me is Matthew 25:35-45. That might be a debate for another blog, but I feel passionately about this point. Like sometimes people who are profoundly invested in purity type messages don’t seem to get other Biblical messages. As the other commenter said—there needs to be balance. Having kids spend countless hours studying purity or modesty means they aren’t likely learning other important things.

    The second point which you address is flipping the switch. In some ways because of my age I feel like I had it easier. Now new brides who were taught the marriage bed was something special have to contend with the “anything goes” type expectations after their wedding day because so many have been damaged by porn. To the extent some Christians seem to encourage these anything goes expectations for women, it is truly a no win situation for these young brides. How does anyone think that can work?

    As for modesty–yes I think there is a place for discussion about it. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge the struggle that comes with these messages–I am big busted so it can be a challenge. So often it is discussed in such a way that it can only backfire. I have a daughter who is a young adult–she dresses in a way that is mostly modest. I also have a son that is a young adult. Messages like “An open letter from the mom of a teenage son to the girl in the overly revealing prom dress”—you probably know the kind I mean–do nothing to edify either of my children. I myself prefer not to wear yoga pants–but I have enough to concentrate on in my Christian walk that I shouldn’t be demonizing a woman in yoga pants at the mall trying to make my husband stumble. But my husband doesn’t ever talk about this or that women trying to make him stumble as seems common for some Christians.

    1. Actually, Denise, I think it’s a great point that we should not emphasize acts of self-control (i.e., what we abstain from or moderate) to the exclusion of acts of compassion and outreach. The scripture passage you cite is an excellent example.

      To anyone reading this comment, I encourage you to open your Bible and check out the whole passage Denise cites, but it’s the one about people being hungry, thirsty, needing clothes, sick, or in prison and Jesus’s saying, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” Not only is that the right thing we should do regardless, our Christian witness fares so much better when we are seen as FOR good things and not merely AGAINST bad things.

      I’m not saying we shouldn’t be against bad things. Of course we should! But if we’re just the people who don’t drink, don’t dance (my denomination growing up, but that has changed), don’t have sex, don’t use bad words, don’t, don’t, don’t, then we lose sight of all the things God wants us to DO and BE in this world! We are to be a shining city on a hill, salt of the earth, a lamp that shows the way, and reflections of Christ Himself.

  4. I was in college in the early seventies and ran around with those in a fundamentalist parachurch organization where courting was encouraged over dating. You were not to be intimate ( kissing, hugging) with your “ sisters “ as they were probably someone else’s right woman ( wife-to-be). Dress was modest and boys were expected to be real gentlemen.

    I became engaged to a Christian girl from the group and we did Christian premarital counseling. We both saved ourselves for the wedding night in order to be pure and get His blessing. Both our courtship and wedding honored God.
    Sex starting out was new and OK but unimaginative. My wife didn’t really enjoy it and was interested in it only to get pregnant. It was always a messy chore done out of duty. We’ve been married 45 years, sexless the first 30 with no sex at all the last 15. I entered marriage wanting a normal sex life but have been disappointed for a long time. I often wonder how much of my experience was due to “ the purity culture”?

    1. If you got married before the late 1990s or so, you didn’t really experience the full “purity culture,” as it’s defined. However, the messaging was common, in fundamentalist circles in particular. I even heard of other church camps—not the one I attended—where teen couples couldn’t hold hands, but instead held opposite ends of the same stick to show both their togetherness and their propriety. What?! Jesus let a strange woman wash his feet with her hair! I think we can touch each other’s hands. And how on earth is a woman supposed to go from THAT to full penetration on her wedding night? That would be tough.

      I wish I could offer far more encouragement for you, but given the 45 years, I wonder what could click with your wife. What could make her see that the messages she received have kept her from embracing God’s full blessings in marriage? Honestly, my blog isn’t the place to send a wife like that (I’m a bit much at times), but maybe Lori Byerly’s site or Gaye Christmus’s blogs? They address a wider array of topics many wives are interested in (health, marriage, good living) with some great sex yet not-too-specific sex advice sprinkled in. If you think that might help and she’d look at it: Lori’s at The Generous Wife and Gaye’s at Calm.Healthy.Sexy.

  5. My wife and I have talked about this a lot. When we were first married, for about the first six years our sex life was pathetic. We might have been intimate about twice a month.
    She was coming out of the purity culture and the more we learned how to talk, I mean really communicate with each other I learned that she had been taught that for her to have a sexual side whatsoever was wrong. So when we were married she saw sex as something a woman had to do, not something she wanted to do. And because a woman’s body follows her mind in sexual things she didn’t see sex as something she could go after.
    I am so glad we were able to take through all of that. Now we’ll be married twenty four years this year and our sex life is awesome.

    1. I’m so glad y’all confronted that head on and replaced those myths with biblical truth! Yes, we can change the errors in our thinking—that self-talk, wherever it comes from—that keeps us from experiencing God’s full blessing of intimacy in marriage. It takes intentionality, effort, and love, but it can be done…as you demonstrated. Thanks for sharing your story!

  6. Purity Culture assumes that everyone will be married by their early to mid 20’s. It’s easy to sell an abstinence message to 16 year olds, but it is a much harder sell for 30 year olds.
    When you’re older and not married you begin to wonder what you’re still waiting for. You aren’t a child anymore, so what’s the point?

    Purity Culture has no answers for those that didn’t have the chance to marry young, for whom marriage is not in their near feature, who are tired of waiting, and tired of being told to hate and suppress their sexuality.

    1. Purity Culture may not have answers for that, but the Bible does. Something being difficult doesn’t mean God doesn’t expect it, and sexual integrity does still matter. I agree, however, that the messaging often comes across as not compassionate to those struggling or wondering why, and waiting shouldn’t be about suppressing your sexuality but rather what you do with that sexuality.

      1. The Bible doesn’t have any answers either. The Bible was written in a context where people married young and married for economic reasons. Marriage for love is less than 200 years old. Dating is even more recent.
        Every time the Bible mentions sex or marriage it does so with the assumption that marriage is based on economics and that a person could easily get married if they wanted to.
        There was no hyper-competitive dating market in biblical times.

        1. Nope, not true! Just because there were arranged marriages doesn’t mean people didn’t fall in love. Marriage for love has existed since nearly the beginning, and the Bible absolutely talks about it.

          Jacob fell in love with Rachel before they married.
          Samson fell in love with Timnah.
          King Xerxes fell in love with Esther (in a less than ideal situation, for sure, but it’s there in the passage).

          Those are just three off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

          Honestly, Raphael, what you said is exactly the kind of stuff I told myself during my premarital promiscuous past, as I was looking for rationalization on why God’s Word about sexual purity didn’t apply to me. But I was wrong. God’s design for sex applied then, and it applies now.

  7. My lovely wife and I have been married for two years now. We met in high school in 2015. It was a small private Christian school. We spent a lot of time recalling the abstinence messages that we both received and I was disheartened by the message given to the girls. The message was that pre-marital sex caused STD’s and pregnancy 100% of the time and that the boys in the school were constantly trying to picture them naked. It painted a terrible, frightening picture of sex for the girls, and a terrible picture of the boys. Our teachings on Biblical sex encompassed about one week of class time during our freshman year and then none at all for the next four years. Being young still and coming through a Christian high school in the mid 2010’s I actually fear that the response to the Purity Culture even in a lot of Christians schools has been an overcorrection. As in, besides that one week of class, our school just avoided the topic of sex altogether. Unfortunately, my wife and I made the decision to have sex prior to marriage and both recognize all of the damage that caused to our expression of proper, Biblical sex. We blame no one but ourselves for that sin. However, I feel that more positive messages of the incredible joy that is found in Biblical sexual expression would have helped encourage us to wait. I feel like our school could have brought in a little more “Purity Culture” for us along with more positive messages about sex. There was no balance. Unfortunately, the main stream Christian culture has not yet found a productive and effective way to help our youth combat the allure of sexual sin that drowns American culture.

    1. Well said. And I pray that you can embrace all that God wants your marriage to have in the intimacy department, and beyond.

  8. I was in high school in the 90s during the height of the purity culture but I was in college before the whole courting thing really hit. Thankfully, I think the message to wait, while not well explained, was still healthy for me. And there wasn’t a ton of damage done. Although, guilt wasn’t uncommon if you didn’t follow the rules exactly. Still my parents never made sex within marital boundaries seem bad. On the other hand my husband’s parents didn’t talk to them at all about sex except to say, “Sex is bad. Don’t do it … before you’re married.” Thankfully, my husband wasn’t damaged by this message, but it’s a very unhealthy view and sadly, not an uncommon one amongst those I grew up with.

    1. Great! It sounds like you had other good sources of biblical truth as well. And of course, I agree that we should teach and practice waiting until marriage. That’s part of God’s design!

      But we shouldn’t add burdensome requirements that aren’t in the Bible, we should focus more on a godly foundation from which to make good decisions, and we should be clear about redemption and grace for those who didn’t wait. Perhaps most importantly, we should share how much God wants to bless marital unions regardless of our past. May God fully bless your union!

  9. Pingback: Where Purity Culture Got It Wrong, Let's Get It Right | Hot, Holy & Humorous

  10. archie Davis Jr

    Great insight. I agree with you said. Could part of the problem be some be rushing to get Married an not prepared to handle life issues that it will bring. A few years ago a Christian Marriage Blogger shame me because I got married at 35 years old and my whole thing was I had some issues in my life like debt and getting alot of that paid off. I got one two bills left to pay. Most dont talk about this debt can kill a marriage before it starts. Also growing up some of the churches who had good solid teaching would not let me in their churches so I had to get people get me sermons to help me grow. I am wary of Christian Marriage Bloggers because come off as a know it all and to me you are a good blogger who seems humble. Keep up the great work you do.

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