The guest speaker stands behind the podium.
A clear pitcher of water sits on a stool at his side.
Our youth group listens with rapt attention.
The guest speaker is talking about sex.
He invites three boys to the front and tells them to spit into the water pitcher.
Like, really spit. To make it gross.
The three adolescent boys line up and enthusiastically comply.
Then he invites a fourth boy up to the podium
and tells him to drink the entire pitcher of water.
Cue laughter and groans of disgust from the audience.
The fourth boy, of course, refuses to drink from the pitcher.
We lean forward in our seats as the guest speaker reaches his point.
“I want all of you girls to know that every time you have sex with a guy before marriage, it’s like having someone spit in this water pitcher,” he says. “Don’t you want to give your husband a clean pitcher of water on your wedding night?”
And then, a couple of rows behind me, a young girl begins to cry.
The Purity Movement began in earnest when a group of Southern Baptist ministers met together in 1992 to create a curriculum in response to rising rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The curriculum and campaign became known as “True Love Waits.”
After a surge of popularity with the publication of books like Lady in Waiting and I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the Purity Movement became its own cottage industry in the Evangelical culture with the creation of Bible studies, books, films, clothing, jewelry, and events (like “Purity Balls” and “Abstinence Pledge Nights”).
You could even buy abstinence-themed study Bibles.
The foundation of the Purity Movement was simple: Because God created sex for marriage, it’s important to abstain from any sexual contact prior to your wedding night.
In and of itself, this was nothing new or earth-shattering. Evangelicalism has never really been known for its casual and carefree attitude toward sex.
But the Purity Movement doubled (or tripled) down on the dogma. Not only should premarital sexual activity be avoided, but any and all forms of sexual expression that existed beyond the confines of a Christian marriage should not be entertained or tolerated.
This meant no masturbation or “lustful thoughts.” No alone time with your boyfriend or girlfriend (courtship made a big comeback). And women should avoid clothing that would make them a “stumbling block” to Godly men in the church.
And some took this a step further: Any kiss, hug, or intimate caress you shared with your significant other was a gift you were taking from your future spouse (or stealing from their future spouse).
The stakes were high, but the reward was great: If you both remained sexually pure prior to your wedding night, God would bless your marriage with an incredible, guilt-free sex life.
Through Purity Culture, modern evangelicalism successfully created and proselytized a Sexual Prosperity Gospel.
I heard testimonies of couples who waited to kiss before marriage, listened to pastors brag about their “smokin’ hot wives,” and say things like “If it’s not for sale, don’t put it on the menu” in reference to female modesty.
A speaker once held an open box of donuts at chest level and leaned over to illustrate the allure of cleavage.
(I know, I know – at this point, a lot of you probably just want to burn the whole enterprise down.)
Thankfully, in recent years, several prominent voices of the Purity Culture movement have walked back their rhetoric and apologized for the hurt they inadvertently caused.
I’ve also noticed several subtle shifts in how the Church is handling the purity conversation (especially in the wake of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements regarding sexual abuse and assault).
To top it all off, research has shown that abstinence-only sex education isn’t even effective at preventing sexual activity prior to marriage and actually increases the risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
However, for many of us who grew up at the height of the Purity Movement, it can feel like too little, too late. We still have these thoughts, experiences, stories, and scars that we’re not sure what to do with anymore.
And that’s why I believe this conversation still matters.
The Cost of Purity
One of the most destructive aspects of purity culture is how it equates a person’s worth and intimacy with God to how well they resist sexual temptation. And, in the way the Church frames the purity conversation, it hits women – especially young women – the hardest.
While I was taught that lust and sexual desire should be mitigated or suppressed prior to marriage, my “struggles” were still considered a normal and natural part of my masculinity.
In other words, it would’ve been weird if I – as a man – didn’t struggle with lust.
However, the purity movement’s strategy to combat female sexual desire was to pretend like it didn’t exist. And that’s probably because, throughout history, the Church has been dominated by male voices and perspectives – and a lot of those dudes didn’t know how to talk about female sexuality without getting uncomfortable.
In Purity Is Possible, Helen Thorne writes,
“Few of us feel we can admit to it, because no one ever talks about it. Churches certainly don’t. Not for us. Women’s struggles in this area are hardly every mentioned, preached about, or made the focus of a conference.”
While a man’s fight against lust is depicted as a valiant struggle against his powerful nature (usually accompanied by warfare allusions and Braveheart quotes), women with similar struggles are treated as outliers or anomalies to the norm.
And because a man’s struggle with lust is framed as a battle, losses and setbacks are acceptable. But the language we use to reinforce female sexuality is not as forgiving.
In other words, a man is taught to contain his sexuality, while a woman is told to suppress her sexuality.
Any purity illustration I heard from the pulpit – dirty water, chewed-up bubblegum, a plucked rose, a piece of tape that’s no longer sticky, or a rubber band that’s lost its elasticity – were all directed at women and women’s bodies.
And, within this narrative, the responsibility and consequences of sexual activity are placed on the woman.
In Pure, Linda Kay Klein writes,
“The cornerstone of the purity myth is the expectation that girls and women, in particular, will be utterly and absolutely nonsexual until the day they marry a man, at which point they will naturally and easily become his sexual satisfier, ensuring the couple will have children and never divorce: one man, one woman, in marriage, forever.”
Speaking as a male who grew up in the midst of the Evangelical Purity Movement, I can attest that women are often portrayed as the root cause (or catalyst) for men’s deviant sexual behavior – from porn addiction to sexual assault.
It was not, for example, uncommon for me to hear the story of King David seeing Bathsheba bathing on her roof as an attempt by Bathsheba to intentionally flaunt her naked body to seduce the King.
In an attempt to “honor” women, some aspects of Purity Culture have the inadvertent side-effect of over-sexualizing every aspect of a woman’s appearance and personality. Depending on a number of factors, Purity Culture equips men with the framework to categorize women as “sources of temptation” (or, sex objects) by the way they dress, speak, or act in public – even if they bear no intent to arouse sexual interest or attention.
From personal experience, I can assure you that constantly framing “men’s struggles” within the context of women’s personal decisions only serves to make men hyper-aware of seemingly innocuous details – like the length of someone’s shorts or the tightness of her shirt. It is possible to fetishize modesty.
These biases are by no means limited to religious circles, but the Purity Movement raised the stakes by claiming to speak from the highest possible authority – God.
After all, if God doesn’t want you to masturbate, wear spaghetti straps, or kiss your partner before marriage, who are you to challenge divine authority (or your youth pastor)?
As one can imagine, this form of “divine sexual authoritarianism” can have significant impacts on someone’s mental health – especially during the formative teen years.
Also, I don’t mean to imply men aren’t affected by the Purity Movement – far from it. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “If you look at a woman lustfully, you’ve committed adultery in your heart.” Though the verse is a thought-provoking condemnation of sexual dehumanization, its literal application in evangelical circles leaves a lot to be desired.
Because, while I didn’t look at pornography, I was shamefully masturbating during my adolescence. During high school and most of college, the health of my relationship with Jesus was directly correlated with how long it’d been since the last time I masturbated.
Though masturbation is considered a natural part of sexual development for both sexes, it’s a topic rarely (if ever) addressed in conservative evangelicalism (which is crazy because every single guy I know regularly masturbated during this part of their life and most young women admit to doing so, as well). And even if masturbation is addressed, it’s always in a negative light and spoken about in the same breath as Jesus’s warnings about lust in Matthew.
Consequently, as a teenage boy navigating puberty and an influx of sexually-charged hormones, I felt as if I was committing adultery multiple times per day by merely thinking about sex. As a result, more often than not, I’d masturbate to alleviate the lust that only got worse the longer I went without masturbating. And while this solution granted temporary relief, I’d inevitably spiral into an inescapable cycle of shame.
During a men’s Bible study about purity for high schoolers, the group leader (who was married) told us that instead of masturbating, we should wait on “nocturnal emissions” (or, wet dreams) to remedy our sexual frustrations. He called them “God’s natural release valve” and assured us they weren’t sinful because God wouldn’t hold us accountable for our dreams.
(This “advice” led to a period in my life where I’d pray for sex dreams to avoid masturbating. It didn’t work).
The Purity Movement’s modus operandi is designed to infect someone with the sickness of shame while simultaneously offering the antidote of Jesus.
And this leads to an interesting conundrum: The people most likely to believe Jesus can take their away shame often become the ones most likely to be crippled by their shame.
In Daring Greatly, research professor Brene Brown writes,
“When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. When we’re hurting, either full of shame or even just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack and shame others. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.”
In the creation myth, the first thing Adam and Eve experience after taking a bite of the forbidden fruit is the shame of their own bodies.
According to Brown, shame is the fear of disconnection.
And sexual shame creates a disconnect between the self and one’s own body.
It creates feedback loops in the brain in which we victimize ourselves with guilt and humiliation.
And this cycle of self-victimization can extend much further than we anticipate.
Even those of us who stuck close to the purity script find ourselves harboring a time-delayed shame bomb, primed to detonate whenever we “crossed the line” alone or with a partner.
And, unlike most armaments, this bomb resets itself after every detonation.
The Night Of
The culmination of the Purity Culture narrative is the wedding night.
The “ideal Christian woman” is depicted as one who remains pure and chaste until her wedding night, at which point she becomes sexually ravenous for her husband. A woman’s virginity is portrayed as “the best gift a wife can give her husband.”
Listen, I know several Christian couples who have vibrant and adventurous sex lives. But I also know just as many (if not more) couples who struggled through this transition and/or are still mired in sexual dysfunction months or years after their wedding night.
Even our rhetoric of “remaining pure for marriage” implies impurity after the deed is done. In extreme cases, Purity Culture can actually induce a fear of one’s own sexuality. If the core of your identity becomes entangled with your virginity and “remaining pure,” then anything that threatens that part of your identity – sexual feelings, pleasure, intimate touches, etc – can generate extreme anxiety and avoidance, leading one’s body to “shut down” at the first hint of sexual arousal.
Left unprocessed (or untangled by a professional therapist), the marriage “gift” someone gives their spouse can end up being a view of sex that can charitably be described as “reluctant obedience,” a joyless chore one performs to appease their partner that inevitably generates resentment between both parties.
Another disquieting consequence I’ve stumbled upon through conversation and research is the prevailing attitude among many Christian couples that fooling around prior to marriage was more thrilling and sexually charged than their actual sex lives after a few months of marriage.
Philosopher Peter Rollins would call this a consequence of a “prohibition that generates excessive attachment.”
In The Divine Magician, Rollins writes,
“What was previously only of passing interest now becomes infused with a seductive power. The prohibition can make a mundane subject appear sacred, i.e., as something that has the power to satisfy us and render our existence meaningful.”
Parents trying to discipline a toddler know this well (“Don’t go in that room!”), as do partying young adults whose desire to drink diminishes after they turn 21 – the prohibition makes something appear more desirable.
And this is because violating the prohibition inherently makes the act more enjoyable and exciting.
The allure of post-wedding sex becomes a “sacred object,” or idol. And what happens after we finally obtain our idol?
In her viral blog post “I Waited Until My Wedding Night To Lose My Virginity and I Wish I Hadn’t,” Samantha Pugsley recounts how she grew up within a conservative church, signed a purity pledge at age 10, and “remained pure” until her wedding night.
“[…]Waiting didn’t give me a happily ever after. Instead, it controlled my identity for over a decade, landed me in therapy, and left me a stranger in my own skin. I was so completely ashamed of my body and my sexuality that it made sex a demoralizing experience.“
I wish Samantha’s story was an isolated case. But a quick Google search will reveal hundreds of testimonies from men and women who found themselves disillusioned by the Purity Culture’s promises about sex and marriage.
In my personal life, I’ve listened to stories from Christian friends and acquaintances of wives sobbing on their wedding night, sexless honeymoon vacations, and frustrated admissions that sex “wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
I’m not suggesting that waiting for sex before marriage is wrong. I firmly believe sex is best enjoyed within the context of a loving, safe, and monogamous relationship.
But we’re going to have to reconcile with the fact that front-loading the Church’s conversations about sex with shame, repression, and false expectations within marriage is a recipe for disaster.
In Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, Christian therapist and professor, Tina Sellers writes,
“Instead of protecting youth, the Purity Movement actually guarantees people will enter marriages naïve, ignorant, filled with assumptions about gender, their bodies, their partner’s body, their sexuality, informed about sex and gender by media in ways that objectify women and diminish men, fearful and confused about pleasure, ashamed about what they have done and not done, filled with secrets about what they have done, not done, thought and not thought, without knowledge, vocabulary or practice to discuss sex or sexuality, and judgmental about self and others.”
And here’s what’s really confusing: If you spend time at any youth group, college ministry, or young singles Bible study, I guarantee you’ll hear a sermon series on “Sex and Dating” within four months.
Purity Culture loves talking to unmarried singles about sex, but when it comes to talking about sex with actual married couples, the silence is deafening.
The Prostitute and the Perfume
There’s a story in the Bible where a prostitute crashes a dinner party Jesus and his disciples are attending.
The party is being hosted by Simon, a local religious leader, and Jesus is Simon’s guest of honor. Simon’s home would’ve been packed full of other rabbis and students of the Torah asking Jesus all sorts of questions about his controversial teachings.
And in the midst of the dinner, a “woman of ill repute” walks into the living room, kneels down, and begins washing Jesus’s feet with her hair and a bottle of perfume.
In this culture, a woman’s hair and perfume were sexually-charged symbols and considered highly erotic.
And she’s sobbing, her tears wetting the feet of the man she’s come to serve.
Simon and his guests are shocked and offended.
In their eyes, this woman is damaged goods, dirty water, a plucked rose, chewed-up bubblegum.
And, quite possibly, a woman they would visit under the cover of night, but would never consider marrying.
Amid the clamor, Jesus quietly asks,
“Do you see this woman?”
Which is an odd question, right?
Of course, they see the sobbing prostitute washing the guest of honor’s feet with her hair. It’s hard to miss.
But when Jesus asks,
“Do you see this woman?,”
what he is really asking is,
“Do you see this woman as I do?”
In a room filled with religious leaders, young disciples, and curious onlookers, Jesus had every right and justification under Old Testament law to shame, rebuke, and condemn this crying woman.
I still get angry when I think about that night at youth group with the guest speaker and his water pitcher.
I’m angry because he didn’t bring Heaven down into that room that night.
He brought pain.
He brought shame.
He brought anti-Gospel.
He brought Hell into a safe and sacred space.
He didn’t aim his barbed message at the boys, who had actually done the spitting, but at the girls.
But most of all, I’m angry because he didn’t even get the illustration right.
If he wanted to do it right, he should have taken the pitcher by the handle and drank the whole damn thing.
Water, spit, mucus and all.
And then, to take the illustration even further, he should have refilled the pitcher with clear, pure, and filtered water.
Because that’s the Jesus I know.
The Jesus I know meets us at ground zero – the bone, blood, and gristle of everyday life.
And, yes, that includes our sexuality.
The Jesus I know meets us in the middle of the mess, disappointment, and heartbreak of our reckless decisions and the broken expectations of our lives.
Gospel is believing and living in the reality that the water pitcher has already been refilled. It means walking in the truth that there’s nothing you can do that can make God stop loving you.
And for many of us who grew up in the midst of purity culture, this can be the most difficult truth to accept.
The story of Jesus, the prostitute, and the perfume is a story about the collision between the sacred and the profane.
Sexuality is a dazzling interplay between the physical and the spiritual,
the carnal and the divine,
the body and the soul,
desire and need.
We don’t know what happened to the unnamed prostitute that drenched Jesus’s feet in perfume and tears.
We don’t know if she returned to the brothel, or if she walked away and tried to start over somewhere else.
She’s just a side character, a supporting cast member in a much bigger story.
We’re not told what happened to her because where she ended up isn’t important.
And I mean that in the most beautiful way possible.
The road to sexual shame and self-destruction is paved with good intentions and bullshit illustrations.
And none of that has any place in the Kingdom Jesus is building.
Addendum I: Gouged-Out Eyes and Severed Limbs
In one of Jesus’s famous sermons, he talks about gouging out eyes and chopping off limbs that cause you to sin.
Thank God this is one of the Bible passages that Christians don’t take literally. But it’s one of the popular passages the Purity Movement points to and uses to justify their message and mission.
But there’s another way to approach this passage.
In The Divine Conspiracy, theologian Dallas Willard writes,
“In [the Pharisees’] view, the law could be satisfied, and thus goodness attained, if you avoided sinning…You could avoid sinning if you simply eliminated the bodily parts that make sinful actions possible. Then you would roll into heaven a mutilated stump…. But so far from suggesting that any advantage could actually be gained in this way, Jesus’ teaching in this passage is exactly the opposite. The mutilated stump could still have a wicked heart…Eliminating bodily parts will not change that.”
In other words, Jesus is making a joke at the expense of the religious leaders in the audience.
Listen, I’m not calling for an abolition of Christian sexual ethics. I’ve written extensively on the dangers of pornography and I believe shallow sex leads to a less fulfilling sex life.
I’m just asking that we create a space for a lot more grace and understanding in the conversation.
And we need to stop letting men off the hook and punishing women for their sexuality.
And we need to stop weaponizing shame in an effort to control people’s bodies.
And we need to talk as much (if not more) about mutual responsibility and shared pleasure as we do risk and consequence.
I was raised in the midst of the Purity Movement and didn’t turn out a complete weirdo primarily because my parents talked openly and honestly about sex. But a lot of people didn’t have that luxury.
But I believe our generation can do better.
We have to do better.
Addendum II: Caveats
I’m not a psychologist, sociologist, or theologian.
And I don’t want people to assume I believe Purity Culture is to blame for all of our country’s sexual dysfunctions.
Human sexuality is incredibly complex. I’m merely using my personal experience to explore a much bigger cultural issue.
If you are or have experienced sexual shame, I highly recommend you reach out to a trusted friend and seek healing through counseling.
Additionally, though I didn’t address it in the article, Purity Culture can intensify and compound the trauma and shame experienced by survivors of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, I strongly recommend seeking out counseling and therapy. The wounds incurred by sexual trauma are deep and long-lasting, but professional help can open up space for healing and peace.
5 thoughts on “Dispatches From Purity Culture: How Sexual Shame Overtook a Generation”
So needed. So relevant. Thank you.