Commentary Religion

Purity Culture Doesn’t Prepare Teens for Healthy Sexual Exploration

Dianna Anderson

Many self-identified evangelicals have ceremonially promised to stay virgins until marriage. But there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the purity vows they made as teenagers.

When I was 13 years old, I pledged my virginity to God and my future husband. I remember walking into my eighth-grade homeroom and proudly showing my teacher my new ring. “This is nicer than my wedding ring!” she exclaimed, holding her left hand up for comparison. My tiny gold ring with diamond chips in it shone like a prism in the morning light. Throughout the next week, I consciously tilted my hand to make my ring more obvious as I spoke, with all the subtlety possible for an eighth-grader. When someone would ask about it, I’d point out that I was saving myself. For marriage!

Ten years later, a friend in graduate school asked me if I was engaged. I shook my head, looked down at the ring that had been my companion for a decade, and explained that it was a marker of a promise from when I was 13. “I don’t even really know why I wear it anymore,” I said. “Habit, I guess.” While I hadn’t “lost” my virginity by that point, the realization that I was still beholden to a vow made under social and religious pressure was becoming uncomfortable.

In my church, young men and women pledged to remain abstinent until they married a heterosexual spouse. And my experience was far from uncommon: The recent Ethics and Religious Liberty Conference on behalf of the Southern Baptist church indicates that saving oneself until marriage is a major tenet of evangelical belief. Many self-identified evangelicals, who comprise about one-third of the population, have ceremonially promised to stay “pure,” often receiving a ring, a necklace, or some kind of token to remind them of their resolution. Although young teenagers may be eager to show off their new pledge, like I was, there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the declarations they made—and the ramifications those oaths have had on their lives.

Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken to hundreds of evangelicals and former evangelicals about their perspectives on these vows. Many of them point out how young they had been when they made their promises. Sally, 23, told me, “I suppose the most concrete age I [made] a pledge was about 13, which is when I wrote down ‘Save my virginity for marriage’ as number two in the list of 100 things I wanted to do … in the back of my Teen’s Study Bible.” (Sally’s name, like the others in this story, has been changed to protect her privacy.)

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Lucy, a now-married mother of 35, says she made a pledge at 16. Avery, another woman, said she doesn’t recall her exact age, but “it was definitely high school.”

These promises frequently act as the only education about sexuality and sexual activity that young evangelicals receive. Even at school, abstinence-only education initiatives often simply reinforce the purity narrative or have pledge programs of their own. Many of these educators have ties to explicitly religious foundations, despite receiving federal funding.

Overall, the pledges tend to be ineffective in actually assuring that people remain abstinent. According to a comprehensive analysis conducted by John Santelli and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2006, abstinence-only education does not delay the age of first sexual activity. Statistically, those who make purity vows at a young age are just as likely to engage in sexual activity as those who don’t make a pledge. Additionally, pledgers who break their promises are actually more likely to have unprotected sex and contract sexually transmitted infections.

This disproportionate rate of STI contraction may be, in part, a result of the fact that in the evangelical community, a purity pledge is not an isolated event between a participant, their future spouse, and God. It also holds the teenagers accountable to their social groups, including their families. Adults in the church will remind the adolescents, both directly and through sermons, youth group meetings, and church events, about how much they owe their virginity to their future spouses, how their spouses will be disappointed if they don’t keep their promises, and how losing their purity before marriage will make their relationship more likely to end in divorce. And those who break the pledge early face ostracization from their religious community—especially if they are not repentant. This can mean that if teens do have questions about their sexuality, sexual health, or consent, they can feel as if they have no one to turn to.

This was the case with Kyle, a 26-year-old man who took the pledge as a teenager. He commented, “Highlighting premarital sex above all other sins makes it that much harder for teenagers, or adults, who struggle with sexuality to ask for help.”

Kyle’s point is a good one: Because purity hinges solely on whether or not someone is keeping their promise, any questions about sexuality are perceived as questioning the very holiness behind a virginity pledge. Asking questions, in of itself, is seen as a sin in this culture, where the only ethic is “no.”

This early equation of sexuality with moral transgressions means that many adult evangelicals still believe that remaining a virgin until marriage is a central mark of holiness. Their pledge has entwined this tenet into their lives—and making the decision to break it would be, in the eyes of the church, throwing away a gift from God.

When I asked these former pledgers why they are still saving themselves, their answers were almost always the same—because “these are my values.” Amelia, a 35-year-old straight woman, told me that her hope for finding someone who shares her purity values is dwindling, but that she doesn’t question them at all.

However, I also noticed that the people holding on to those principles were all straight and white. People of color and queer people were much more ambivalent about their vows and what they meant for them—perhaps because evangelicalism in America is particularly geared toward white, heterosexual, cisgender individuals. It is easier to notice the cracks in the system when you already exist outside of it.

One woman, Chloe, pledged to save herself in eighth grade, married at 22, and divorced her spouse a year and a half later when she came out as a lesbian. She told me that she now finds the entire concept of “saving herself” ridiculous.

“I hadn’t even developed an interest in sex; I had barely started my period; I didn’t even know what sex was. How can you ask a child in those circumstances to make a huge decision that’s going to impact the rest of their lives?” she wrote to me.

Because Chloe felt the pressure to marry a man without exploring her sexuality further, she had never truly considered the possibility that she might not be attracted to men at all. However, she realized a short time into a marriage that lacked physical intimacy that she was, indeed, gay.

Chloe has since returned to the faith and now works to educate young women about healthy sexual boundaries and sexual orientation. She doesn’t want young women to go through what she went through with the pressure to get involved in heterosexual marriage at a young age.

“It really upsets me that I lost so much time to such an unhappy marriage,” she wrote in an email. “A lot of pain could have been avoided if we had just slept together, and then decided that it hadn’t worked.”

Meanwhile, Sally, a woman who is beginning to question her sexual orientation, told me that she feels “ambivalent at best” about her promise. She no longer knows what a heterosexual marriage would mean for her now that she is grown. “It seems I share very little with my 13-year-old self. I’ve changed so much, as people do, and probably wouldn’t recognize the girl who wrote that pledge,” she said.

The testimonies of those who pledged their purity at a young age demonstrate a need for a deeper understanding of sexual ethics beyond just “stay away from sex.” Many critics of the purity movement, including myself, have pointed out that the purity movement’s “sexual ethic” is really the absence of one.

Such emphasis only on keeping an agreement, with no other expectations of fidelity, consent, or healthy sexual boundaries, fosters a dynamic in which the promise is the only guiding principle. This, in turn, creates a world where young, emotionally manipulated teenagers grow up and have no idea how to approach sex in a healthy, consensual, caring manner. They end up not knowing themselves or each other, because the pledge, for many, creates a barrier to comprehending sexuality on a basic human level.

Virginity itself isn’t shameful—and neither is an active sexual life. But the total lack of understanding these virginity pledges create in their participants is.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.