Where Purity Culture Got It Wrong, Let’s Get It Right

Last week, I asked if Purity Culture or simply bad messages about sexual purity have contributed to struggles you’ve had in your marriage bed. Today, we’ll address some of the specific myths and come up with better, biblical truths.

First, however, the recent Atlanta shooting brought the issue of purity culture out in the news, and I briefly discussed that fact in my prior post. However, a reader contacted me with more information about the gunman and his concern that I left a wrong impression. I appreciated his insight and inserted this note in that last post:

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.

Moving on to the issue at hand!

What is purity culture?

Let’s quickly revisit that Purity Culture as a concept largely began with the True Love Waits curriculum launched by Lifeway in 1993. That turned into a movement with pledge cards, purity rings, conferences, books, and more—all emphasizing the importance of sexual abstinence before marriage.

Some of the messages were biblical, but too many were extrabiblical and/or dismissive of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. Other forms of godly purity were not given sufficient coverage while this one aspect was elevated and at times treated as determinative of one’s standing in the kingdom.

Yes, God is concerned about our sexuality, but as an outgrowth of our hearts and souls.

Yes, God is concerned about our sexuality, but as an outgrowth of our hearts and souls. #Christiansex #purityculture #marriage Click To Tweet

Let’s do some myth-busting.

Again, I want to say that not all of the messages were bad. Some attacks on Purity Culture want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But y’all are too smart for that. ~wink~

We can keep the good and filter out the bad and not-quite-right. Let’s take on a few prominent myths.

Courtship, not dating.

The Bible does say, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14), and God repeatedly tells His people to choose a mate from among their own—not referring to race, ethnicity, or nationality, but to their faith. So yes, we shouldn’t choose a marriage partner who doesn’t share our devotion to Christ.

(To those already in that situation, please understand there’s no condemnation for that! See 1 Corinthians 7:13-14.)

But is going out on a date being “yoked”? And is courtship—”the time when people have a romantic relationship with the intention of getting married“—from the beginning the best or only way?

Actually, the Bible shows a number of ways people ended up with their mate. Some were matched by their parents, some found and pursued their love interest, some were rewarded a wife for heroic deeds (sigh…it was the culture then), some fulfilled a family duty, some made a great first impression, and so on.

Moreover, I know Christians who dated, Christians who courted, one couple who dated everyone else in their social circle before they finally courted, Christians who met in person, Christians who met online, and Christians who [fill in the blank] and ended up with solid, godly marriages.

Conclusions

  • If possible, God wants us married to (“yoked” with) a fellow believer.
  • Being in a relationship that could lead to marriage with someone who isn’t a believer is unwise.
  • Though dating could lead to a relationship, a date isn’t the equivalent of a relationship.
  • God accepts a variety of paths from meet to marry—including courtship, but not only courtship.
  • God wants to bless your marriage however you got there.

Waiting ensures good sex in marriage.

Yes, God’s initial and ideal design is a single sexual partner (one man, one woman), and physical intimacy after a God-blessed, witnessed commitment (husband and wife).

Benefits of waiting include the security of that commitment underlying a very vulnerable experience, the joy of discovering and exploring sexual pleasure and connection together, no pop-up-window comparisons in your mind to prior lovers or worry that you’re being compared, a high unlikelihood of sexually transmitted infections, and the structure of a family for children if/when conception occurs.

Hey, I wish I’d waited. I wish my husband had been my only lover. I wish I hadn’t entered marriage with that particular baggage or added baggage for my previous lovers to take into their marriage. But EVERYONE enters marriage with baggage, whether it’s inaccurate theology, past experiences, erroneous expectations, etc.

And if you didn’t have any of those challenges, give it time. Somewhere in your marriage, something will crop up to challenge your sexual intimacy.

We need to stop guaranteeing something God didn’t guarantee: an easy life. Sure, Christ promised His disciples such beautiful things as salvation, peace, joy, wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. But He also said that the world will hate His disciples, we will be persecuted, and we have to carry our cross.

Conclusions

  • God’s design is for sex to happen in the covenant relationship of marriage.
  • Waiting until marriage comes with certain benefits to oneself and for the marriage.
  • Both those who waited and those who didn’t will have problems to resolve.
  • I beg your pardon, God didn’t promise you a rose garden* here on earth. We get glimpses of Eden, but not Eden itself, yet.
  • Good sexual intimacy is God’s desire for every married couple, whatever their background. (It’s worth the effort.)
Intimacy Revealed Ad

Modest is hottest.

That slogan was on t-shirts during the height of Purity Culture. You would have had to pay young adult me a whole lot of money to wear one. (I was a little busy back then pushing the boundaries of my Christian university’s overly strict dress code. ~grin~)

But that isn’t just a slogan. Rather, there’s an entire subgenre of books and resources all about how a women should dress modestly so that men won’t be tempted to lust. Yes, sometimes it went the other way—with men encouraged to be modest—but not often. Rather, the primary modesty message fell on girls, while the don’t-lust message fell on boys.

What’s true about this is that we should consider how our appearance does or does not reflect Christian values. For instance, the one passage where modest attire is addressed is this one:

Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

1 Timothy 2:9-10

But notice that’s not about how much skin is showing, but rather not displaying one’s wealth. Moreover, let’s discuss the Greek word translated as modesty here. It’s aidos, and it means “a sense of shame or honour, modesty, bashfulness, reverence, regard for others, respect.” It doesn’t mean “cover yourself up, girlfriend!”

Sure, you can make a case that honor, regard for others, and respect means dressing in a way that doesn’t tempt or distract, but really this is about dressing in a way that doesn’t offend or detract. In fact, I think this translation captures the meaning a bit better:

And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.

1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NLT)

Now if you turn to the passages about lust, not one of them blames the target of lust. Not. One. (I searched.) Indeed, when Job makes his covenant, he holds himself responsible for his choice.

I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman.

Job 31:1

In Proverbs, the father tells his son:

Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes.

Proverbs 6:25

And Jesus warns:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:28

And while I’m at it, none of those passages tell you to “bounce your eyes.” I fully respect the intention here, but constantly avoiding women doesn’t deal with the underlying issue and conveys to women that they are the issue.

I honestly used to believe “bounce your eyes” was a good idea, but when I started to look at the Word of God for what it said, the closest you can come are the next two verses: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

It would seem that looking away is better, or at least less painful, than gouging out your eye. But unless you’re at the level of addiction or compulsion—where avoidance is your only way of gaining control—then the approach should be not to look away but to look deeper. That’s what Jesus did (see On “Pigs,” Good Men, and the Difference).

Christ encountered women likely dressed in ways conveyed immodesty (see Luke 7:36-50, John 4:1-26, and John 8:2-11), yet treated them with kindness and respect.

Conclusions

  • Modesty is about acting in ways that do not offend or detract from the good works we do as Christians.
  • Dressing appropriately—whatever that looks like in your culture—can be part of modesty, but a mature Christian chooses that out of reverence for Christ, not demands by others or the fear of being ogled.
  • (By the way, there are passages that make the case for not being naked or close to naked in public—both men and women—but the modesty verses aren’t it.)
  • Scripture never blames the target of lust for the sin of lust. It’s the person lusting who’s responsible.
  • Most people who struggle with lust don’t need to look away but to look deeper—that is, to see others as a whole person and a child of God rather than the culmination of attractive body parts.

And a quick word about object lessons.

Long before I had a sex blog, I worked in children’s ministry. I’ve done a lot of object lessons! Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like explaining the resurrection of Christ with a matchstick that you blow out and then watch spark back to life. The kids literally oohed and aahed.

So I understand the power of a great object lesson. But I’m perplexed by some I’ve heard being used to explain the importance of sexual integrity to youth. For example:

  • Taking the petals off a flower one by one to show how each sexual experience removes something from you that can never be put back.
  • Sticking two pieces of duct tape together and claiming that’s how it is with your first sexual partner, no matter what—you cannot be pulled apart without ripping.
  • Asking people to take a bite of or spit on food and then offering it to a volunteer who refuses, to show that no one wants something or someone used by others.

Good heavens! First off, that’s all focused on our behavior more than the heart and faith from which actions flow. Second, every one of those situations is well within God’s power to fix. Seriously, if God can bring dead plants back to life (Ezekiel 17:24), if He can pull the sea apart into two pieces (Exodus 14:21-22), and He can create fresh food for thousands from scraps (Matthew 14:19-21), don’t you think He can handle torn flowers, duct tape stickiness, and spoiled food? And yes, our mess-ups in the sexual arena too.

For too long, I didn’t believe He would. Maybe I thought God could, but I didn’t think He would. Now I think: Balderdash! I think too much of myself and too little of God if I cannot accept His forgiveness for the past, believe in His ability to heal, and embrace the blessings He wants to bestow on my marriage.

I really hope these damaged-goods lessons are not still happening. It’s fine to let singles know that sexual integrity matters, but God matters far more. If I’d understood God’s true love for me, maybe I would have waited. It certainly would have been easier.

What is sexual purity?

Sexual purity is about following God’s design for sex, which is holy and healthy sexuality within the covenant of marriage. Yes, that includes waiting until marriage, and we should teach and practice that, because it’s always better not to have sinned than to have sinned!

But you’re not irrevocably damaged or impure if you messed up. Christ purifies us!

[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:14

And you’re not guaranteed ease and first-in-line through the pearly gates if you kept your V-card until your wedding night. We live in a fallen world that comes with trouble.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

The question teens and singles tend to ask is “How far is too far”? I long ago concluded that was the wrong question. The right question is “How can I honor God with my body and my life?”

The question teens and singles tend to ask is "How far is too far"? I long ago concluded that was the wrong question. The right question is "How can I honor God with my body and my life?" #Christiansex #purityculture Click To Tweet

Within marriage, it’s honoring to God to pursue mutually satisfying physical intimacy with your spouse. Whatever you were taught, whatever your history, that should be your present and it can be your future.

23 thoughts on “Where Purity Culture Got It Wrong, Let’s Get It Right”

  1. Pingback: Is Purity Culture to Blame? | Hot, Holy & Humorous

  2. I love your perspective of not throwing out all the teaching of the purity culture, etc, but how important it is to make the wrongs there were right!!
    I appreciate how balanced you have been about all this – so many fly hard to one side or the other. We have several daughters, and I struggle with finding appropriate books and articles for them that teach what the Bible actually says without made up rules, or “guarantees” of how things will turn out if they follow xyz.
    Thank you, J, for your passion about this subject and your compassion as you write (and respond to questions and comments). For studying through hard passages, and sharing your gleanings with the rest of us. You are a blessing to me and to our marriage, and I’m thankful for you.

    1. Aw, thank you! I appreciate the encouragement.

      And you know, with a mom like you, I suspect your daughters will be fine. Just be honest and talk about values and how you’re there if/when they need you. By being calm and open, my kids felt free to ask questions, and we ended up having some great conversations. Still…praying for your wisdom! ♥

  3. Another area is where Purity Culture went off the rails – it began to define what is right and wrong in the bedroom. It became somewhat Victorian in its scope.

    It led to a fair amount of frustration and unwillingness to even discuss sexual growth – because that’s not what God wants. We’ve grown beyond a lot of that nonsense – and guess what? God does want us to grow sexually. Little secret, He created the orgasm. Shock.

  4. I loved this!! As always, you are fair, balanced and looking to God’s word for answers! I love how you gleaned what was good in the purity culture and exposed (through scripture) what was bad. So true: “EVERYONE enters marriage with baggage, whether it’s inaccurate theology, past experiences, erroneous expectations, etc.”

    I really am so thankful for you and your writing–wise and winsome!

  5. Great article. It is balanced and focused on the “why” of scripture rather than just the behaviors we should or shouldn’t do. I would love to say that I waited until marriage, but we all make decisions that can’t be undone. However, God is the one that can restore our lives. His grace covers a multitude of sin. There is nothing He cannot forgive and anything I try to do to be good enough is still fall short. But Jesus has me covered.

      1. ❤️

        Hope you have a fantastic weekend. I really do appreciate the effort you put into your articles and into encouraging marriages.

  6. Great articles and I always learn something from your post!
    I’m a man in his 50’s and on his second marriage. I understand the Christian principles of waiting for marriage as I do agree that is the best.
    Alternate Argument About Waiting: In my life journey, I now believe that there are some people that are NOT sexually compatible with each other, physically. Not to get to detailed, but sometimes the man is to large to fit into the women. My first wife and I had pre-marital sex (she had numerous partners before me) and in hindsight I should have known that we were never going to have long term sexual compatibility. After 20 years of a sexless marriage, and due to other reasons, I got divorced and have now found a women that fits me like a glove.
    If you wait until marriage, what do you do if you are not physically compatible?

    1. I simply reject the concept of “sexual compatibility.” I understand what’s meant by that, but even the situation you name, there are plenty of ways to address that fit issue (dilators, other sexual activities, etc.). And if you married someone you deemed beforehand to be entirely sexually compatible, so many factors could change that in the future and you’d have struggles you couldn’t have imagined at first. Resolvable struggles, but still.

      Sexual compatibility is best addressed through values compatibility. That is, do you both understand going into the marriage what God’s design for sex in marriage is? Do you each see the benefit of mutual pleasure and connection above self-focused satisfaction? Are the sort who will commit to communicating, making an effort, and seeking help if needed to pursue holy and healthy sexual intimacy? Those are all issues that can be addressed before marriage, particularly with quality premarital counseling and/or resources on that topic.

      I’m sad that your first marriage didn’t work out and glad you are happy with your current wife. But I suspect you could have discovered much of that before marriage, especially if/when you have the resources and support to learn all that. Blessings!

  7. Fantastic part 2, and conclusion, to the previous post on Purity Culture. Your faith in God and his ability to save and purify us no matter the past baggage is unbelievably encouraging. We have little faith if we believe our baggage is “too great” for God. Or at the very least he is unwilling to purify us because of it. I also appreciated your point that even those who have waited until marriage still certainly bring in some other form of baggage into the marriage as well. The permeation of sin in our world effects us all.

  8. I can’t say that I grasp everything you’ve written here as a) I didn’t grow up in “purity culture” per se but in the ’80s, although “waiting until marriage” was certainly among the messages preached to us in youth group; and b) as a teen/young woman I didn’t struggle with sexual temptation as many apparently did, for a combination of reasons, e.g., being self-conscious/dissatisfied with my body, being very focused on academics, a jaded(?) view of young men being interested ONLY in girls’ physical packages, and the whole idea of sex being kind of “eww”. Plus I just wasn’t popular and didn’t date much, apart from guys I considered friends. That said, in retrospect I admittedly might have agreed with several of the points made in the purity movement.

    The topic of modesty seems to have been in society’s crosshairs recently, portrayed as simply a means to “control women” (in the same vein of “taking choices away from women”) and suppress their right to self-expression. I agree that modesty is culturally-defined, and I hadn’t considered (or heard of) the idea that biblical modesty is more about behavior than mode of dress, but after going back to read over your blogs on modesty, it seems that a few points are worth reiterating. Beyond just “causing” men to lust (which I agree is to a large extent their problem), how we present ourselves publicly conveys how we view ourselves, respect ourselves (or not) and how we expect others to view and treat us. How we dress can either convey the message that “This is all there is, so take a good look,” or “I respect myself; therefore you will respect me.”

    Even more, the devaluation of physical modesty, I really think, has led to an erosion of our autonomy over our own bodies. During the “naked scanner” controversy with the TSA, the message seemed to be, “What’s the big deal if strangers see you naked? We’ve evolved past this whole ‘modesty/privacy’ thing. This is purely a safety issue.” In other words, if some or most people didn’t think this was a big deal (which apparently most DID as this system was ultimately replaced with a more generic form), then I shouldn’t either. Another example is an incident I read about recently of a young woman whose bikini top was untied *while she was driving a car*, by the young man sitting behind her. Of course a crash resulted as she tried to cover herself, and while the guy behind her was killed(!) the other male passenger tried to sue her for his injuries, claiming that she should have pulled over on the interstate and stopped before covering herself. The jury sided with the driver (thankfully) but apart from the “visual” rape of this young woman (i.e., being forcibly undressed at a time when she could do little about it) the media seemed to take a cavalier attitude toward her right to modesty vs the safety of those who had forced her into this situation. This is likely an extreme example but it seems that in exercising our “right” to show off our bodies we may be giving away our say in who sees them and what happens to them. I suppose my point is that modesty IS largely a physical issue imo, and given that males are by and large so much more visually-oriented than females it’s natural that a larger portion of the modesty message would fall on the ladies.

    Also just briefly on the topic of dating non-Christians…I agree that a date is not the same as courtship or being “yoked”, but why open the door to a romantic relationship with a non-believer? The message to us back in the day was that we don’t know who we might fall in love with, and I still agree that this is true. I refused dates with at least one guy in high school who I knew wasn’t a Christian, partly for this reason and also because I didn’t want to encourage him by even dating as friends. Jesus admonished Peter to “watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation,” knowing Peter’s weaknesses and that in a few hours he would deny even knowing Jesus. Young (and older) people need to keep a realistic view of our likelihood to fall in love and to rationalize that we can lead the other person to Christ within the context of a romantic relationship or marriage.

    1. I really like how you phrased this: “How we dress can either convey the message that…’I respect myself; therefore you will respect me.'” Whether someone chooses to treat us appropriately is beyond our control, but dress is one piece of overall behavior that signals what treatment we expect from others.

      As for the modesty message falling more on women, I’m not sure about that. Modesty is important for both men and women; it just might look a little different for each. That is, perhaps dress is more a part of a woman’s consideration of how she presents herself, while men need to be careful not to flaunt other stuff, like their riches or strength or whatever. God is concerned that all of His children act in appropriate ways to avoid offense and envy and stumbling blocks, but the way that comes out in the moment may be different according to gender, culture, etc.

      As for not dating someone who isn’t a Christian because “we don’t know who we might fall in love with,” it may indeed be unwise to go out with someone who isn’t a Christian. But if we did a better job of teaching that falling in love isn’t the same as choosing someone to commit to for life, then maybe we would have fewer issues overall. My husband is not the first guy I fell in love with, but I’m glad I didn’t marry those other blokes. I waited for someone I could build a life with. That said, I admit that I’m glad my older son fell in love once with a girl worth committing to—a lovely Christian woman.

      1. It’s a good point you make about modesty looking different for each gender, with clothing being a larger part of women’s presentation of themselves and men not lording their accomplishments over other men, perhaps. This idea makes me think of my husband who has done well building up his company as a natural leader but is an unassuming guy otherwise, and keeps a separate account for supporting missionaries and giving to organizations like Samaritan’s Purse. In my college Latin class we were told that the only “acceptable” way of showing off one’s wealth in Roman (and Greek) society was in sponsoring public works such as art, fountains, the theater etc. We see this done more by corporations today than by individuals, but in our individualistic culture this different way of thinking is certainly a page we could take from a pagan playbook.

    2. Terry, I grew up hearing a lot of modesty messages. I think the damage is often how it is often talked about behind closed doors—it isn’t done at all in a way that is edifying to women/girls. The girls aren’t the only audience though—-their brothers are hearing these messages as well.
      I grew up going to a Catholic school wearing a uniform as part of a dress code that was much more restrictive for girls than boys.
      You infer that by dressing modestly that gives the message to others that they should respect us—-but that isn’t always the way it works out. I have no idea of how the Duggar daughters were taught about modesty—-but they weren’t protected from their brother Josh. I could tell you stories about how being modest didn’t protect me or the young women I went to school with from disrespectful treatment. And even when everyone in a group is wearing the prescribed modest uniform—there is always someone who will be perceived as less modest.

  9. Denise…I agree that how girls and women dress is not a guarantee of respect from others, and I’m truly sorry for any inappropriate treatment you received as a young woman. I meant mainly to counter the idea that the modesty message somehow keeps females under the control of their fathers and husbands as though we were their “property”. Rather imo it is intended – even if the message is not well-taken by the opposite sex – to convey the idea that we value our physical persons such that we will not give them away, visually or otherwise, to just anyone. Again standards are culturally-defined and even within cultures there are spectrums, but the point is one of self-respect rather than seeing how much we can get away with.

  10. Pingback: Top 10 Things To Teach Teens About Sex | Hot, Holy & Humorous

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