Commentary Religion

How We Teach Purity Culture Isn’t the Problem—Purity Culture Itself Is the Problem

Samantha Field

A preoccupation with purity is not a realistic approach to sexuality, and it does not empower us to make responsible, holistic decisions regarding sex.

When Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which argues that teenagers need to remain sexually and emotionally pure, arrived on the conservative Christian scene almost 20 years ago, he wasn’t saying much that was original. Nor was he alone. Lady in Waiting, by Jackie Kendall and Debby Jones, came out at the same time, and Elisabeth Elliot wrote Passion and Purity in 1984—more than a decade before I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published. What Harris did that was unique and propelled his book into evangelical stardom was that he offered a method for young Christians to maintain their purity: courtship or “dating with intention.” His argument was that it’s too hard for teenagers to remain pure if they “play the dating game,” and the solution is to opt out entirely until you’re ready to get married. Then, you only date someone you’re practically convinced you’re going to marry in the near future.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye really took off as millennials were coming of age in the early 2000s—when young Christians were inundated with True Love Waits pledge cards, purity rings, and father-daughter virginity balls. Harris’ book wasn’t solely responsible for this movement, but it did become, for better or worse, one of its most seminal books.

Although it’s likely that evangelicals have felt the effects of purity culture most deeply, it’s also wreaked havoc outside of evangelicalism—as Jessica Valenti notes in The Purity Myth, it’s even been thoroughly integrated into public schools. It’s had damaging consequences for many men, who were taught that they are sex-crazed monsters, and women, who were taught that they’re only valuable if they’re virginal. Most notably, it’s also been the direct cause behind women like me, who grew up being told that sexual purity was our only option, remaining in relationships with our abusers and rapists because we fully believed being assaulted made us worthless. Many of our stories have been recounted in places like LifeAfterIKDG.com and in tags such as #KissShameBye, #IKDGstories, and #StillPurityCulture.

Reactions to these criticisms—criticisms that have come in the form of books and documentaries, as well as the above social media campaigns—have varied. Some writers and leaders have doubled down, but others, like Harris did in this interview for NPR earlier this year, have grown reflective. Most seem to have taken a stance on purity culture similar to his: They’re not apologizing, but they do think it might be, at the very least, “weird.” Some have admitted that Christians have made virginity an idol, while others have argued that holding onto your virginity can be empowering. If they haven’t subtly altered their arguments, such as distancing themselves from concepts like virginity, they’ve restated them in what sounds like benign language: Rather than rooting their arguments in shame, they say that purity is a “positive change for our culture,” and purity culture creates a “safe space” when it is accompanied by a “strong message of grace.”

However, the framing of how we teach sexual purity isn’t the problem. Its proponents can try to create arguments based on how “empowering” purity is or attempt to teach the same ideology using friendlier, less degrading language. It doesn’t change that purity culture itself is the problem.

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In the current framing, the goal of purity culture is purity, not abstinence. Abstinence, while a necessary component of purity, was never enough; it has to be accompanied by a total, whole-person commitment to repressing every aspect of your sexuality. Some purity culture proponents have critiqued this, but with little practical effect. The impetus for this ideology in the first place is revulsion and disgust toward the impure, as Richard Beck highlights in his book on the subject, Unclean. Disgust is an ancient and powerful motivation not easily overridden by feeble attempts to change course.

Pursuing purity as the end goal frames human—especially female—sexuality as disposable. This is reflected in the common object lessons that appear in “sex-ed classes”: Having sex makes you a cup full of spit, a half-eaten candy bar, a destroyed rose, or packing tape covered in dirt and hair. A person begins life untouched, but the more one is touched, the more one is sullied. Not only does this make maintaining purity virtually impossible, it also creates the belief that this state is irreversible. Oh, God can forgive you, we’re assured, but we can never really go back. We can’t erase the memory of those experiences.

After all, in purity culture, that’s what really matters. A woman who reaches her wedding day a virgin has given her husband the “greatest gift” she could possibly bestow on him. On the other hand, the woman who isn’t a virgin on her wedding night will know that her husband is doomed to a lifetime of jealousy and insecurity. We’re told he’ll always be wondering if she’s thinking of that other man or if he’s a good enough partner.

Fear is the driving motivation behind purity culture. There’s the usual bogeyman of pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and broken hearts, but purity culture constructs even more frightening specters: One moment can destroy your future marriage, even your entire life. In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris teaches that merely dating is as dangerous as walking a “tightrope stretched over a gaping chasm.” One misstep, one kiss, one night, can result in an entire lifetime of not just regret, but actual “trauma,” knowing that a person had ruined themselves for their future spouse.

One of the dangers purity culture proponents continue to use to threaten women into taking a purity pledge is rape, but in a counterintuitive way. In the wider culture, the threat of rape is a tool used to control women and place boundaries on their choices—don’t wear that, don’t go there, don’t drink, don’t be outside after dark. All of that applies to women being raised in evangelical purity culture, with an added side helping of admonitions to obey your husband or father because he’s the only one who can protect your virginity from all those “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” However, purity culture also threatens women with the concept that if they’re raped, it’s because they weren’t pure enough.

In books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and on websites dedicated to evangelical millennials like Boundless, there’s the ubiquitous concept that once you’re aroused, stopping is as impossible as turning on rocket motors and then not “lifting off.” Harris’ metaphor is that there’s no possible exit off the expressway: Once you’re on, there’s no “off ramp.” Women are also told to repent for their supposed immodesty because it “incites lust,” and purity culture makes it clear that the woman is the one responsible for keeping them both pure. Men can’t help it—they’re simply “wired that way.” If she “allows” anything from flirting to kissing to “heavy petting,” then she’s put them on the expressway and there’s no way off. While figures like Harris have retreated somewhat from the absolutism of their arguments, beliefs like these—that human sexuality is a nearly uncontrollable beast once unleashed—go deep among others.

Harris and others may be trying to soften or shift their most extreme points of view. But these views aren’t so easily abandoned by those who were raised in them or those who continue to teach them. They led to three years of agony for me and eventually resulted in a complex post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. What has caused the most psychological damage to me is not the fact that I was raped repeatedly by my fiancé; it’s that it took me years to escape the lie that those rapes were entirely my fault. I must have dressed immodestly, I must have “let” those rapes happen somehow. I am not alone in this belief, and I’m not the only one to have suffered from it.

At its heart, purity culture is irredeemable because it is not compatible with teaching a healthy understanding of sexual relationships or consent. In a healthy approach to sex education, abstinence can be taught as one valid option among many. In a culture where the first sexual experience many girls have is a coerced one, teaching our children that there’s no reason that they must have sex could be an incredibly valuable idea. However, as noted above, purity is an entirely different concept from just abstinence, and in this model the only goal is to teach teenagers that they must always say no—until they’re (heterosexually) married, when they must always say yes.

This is not a realistic approach to sexuality, and it does not empower us to make responsible, holistic decisions regarding sex. Without understanding what consent is and how it is given, victims will not be able to distinguish between sex and rape—as I could not. I even repeated the word “no” and still believed for years afterward that simply being alone in a room with him was all he needed. It also ignores the reality of marital rape, which many Christian leaders flatly deny even exists.

Purity culture does not give us the room to understand our sexuality. There’s no time or space to explore what we want it to look like, how it would be healthy for us to use it. In purity culture, you refuse to recognize every part of yourself that’s sexual and spend years repressing everything about it, which has led to many women being diagnosed with vaginismus.

I want to be clear that I encourage those who believe that abstinence is the best option for them that they have every right not to be pressured or shamed into something they don’t want. Those choices should be respected. However, purity culture is not about presenting choices and honestly educating us about them: It’s about disgust, fear, and control, no matter how “empowering” it presents itself to be.

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