The Purity Culture’s Sins: Men Versus Women

purity culture ring

by John Ellis

Without any trace of shame, my friend turned on his barstool, looked me in the eyes, and complained, “I regret not having had sex before I got married. I only know what it’s like to have sex with one woman, and I feel like I’m missing out.”

In the aftermath of his confession, as I attempted to explain what was wrong with his thought process, I could tell he wasn’t listening. Not that it would’ve made a difference if he had heard me. His almost total worship of the god of Sex had consumed him, and his liturgy of lust was unassailable.

A couple of years later, an affair brought his marriage to an end.

I thought back to that conversation while reading The Cut’s article about Linda Kay Klein’s memoir Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Women and How I Broke Free.

Although he may have believed otherwise, with his words (and actions), my friend wasn’t demonstrating sexual liberation. With his confession, he was demonstrating some of the worst fruit of the purity culture. He was giving evidence that he believed that sex is primarily a consumer act and, as such, the worth of women, in large part, can be measured by their ability to grant sexual experiences to men. Sadly, that perspective mirrors the perspective experienced by the author of Pure and, I’m afraid, is a perspective that has been ingrained in many males who grew up in the purity culture.

The Cut explains the book as:

Part memoir and part journalism, Pure is a horrendous, granular, relentless, emotionally true account of how it feels to be taught  – by parents, neighbors, teachers, and pastors – from the youngest age that one’s sexuality (including organs, physical body, and sexual impulses) is disgusting, a mind-set that can only lead to one place: that deep inside, the girl is disgusting, too.

The writer of the piece, Lisa Miller, after detailing a little of her interaction with evangelicalism, explains of Klein’s book, “I have never seen anywhere a more intimate and heart-rending description of what it’s like to be 14 or 15 or 20 years old living under the expectations Evangelicals have about ‘purity’ – sexlessness, including virginity before marriage – and its antithesis.”

She then points out that many females raised in the purity culture suffer much angst and fear upon marriage and the expectation that they need to go immediately from pure virgin to, “accommodating tigress in bed.”

The article (and the book), of course, holds positions and beliefs that I do not. As a conservative Christian committed to adhering to the sexual ethics revealed in God’s Word, I believe that sex outside of the boundaries of marriage lies about who Jesus is and his relationship with his Bride. However, based on what the article reveals about Pure, the Klein’s memoir does shed some honest light on the tragic effects produced by the so-called purity movement that is unfortunately based on an anemic Biblical anthropology as well as a sexual ethic rooted in a consumer mindset.

Continuing her article, Miller lists some of the effects of the Purity culture:

With intimacy and sympathy, Klein tells stories that make your skin crawl: Of Christian youth pastors who teach about the filth of the human condition by making kids drink Mountain Dew and eat Tootsie rolls out of a baby potty; of kids passing around a lollipop and spitting or sucking on it in turn, and at the end being told that this “used” candy was like a girl who had given her virginity away; of a girl who discovered that if she slapped her own vulva repeatedly whenever she became aroused she could make the tingling feeling go away; of a teenager who, after being raped by her brother, found that her parents sided with him; … of young marrieds who had no idea how to make sex actually work — a situation that went on for decades; of woman after woman after woman who, after (or in the midst of) finally having sex, crumpled into a helpless ball of anxiety and shame.

Much of that rings true for me. I sat through many sermons that warped sex into a self-serving act for men. In groups of only males, we were warned about loose women; they would destroy our testimony. In contrast, good girls saved themselves for marriage and they were whom we should want to marry. There was a sense where we, the guys, were exonerated from having to face the worst consequences of impurity. An aspect of “boys will be boys” hung on the edges of the teaching. To be sure, while boys being boys wasn’t okay in that world, the cautions were delivered with a subtle wink.

So, while I don’t understand completely what it’s like to be a female and sit under this type of teaching, I know what it’s like to be a teenage boy with raging hormones sitting under this teaching. Sadly, my response, observation, and experience as a teenage boy confirms much of what The Cut highlights about Klein’s book.

We were taught that sex is the ultimate prize (the “Holy Grail” of sin), and that purity is the means by which we would ultimately maximize that prize’s payout. We were also taught that to protect our purity, we should commit to focusing our amorous attentions on “good” girls. Those females who would stand as a buttress of purity against our innate male urges – we needed help steering clear of the “boys being boys” impulses, after all.

Except, as teenage boys with raging hormones, a penchant for immediate gratification, and a complete lack of perspective on time – at sixteen, waiting for sex until marriage seemed like an eternity we couldn’t survive – all we really heard was that sex is the ultimate prize. And we didn’t need to be convinced on that point.

The thing was, if sex is the ultimate prize, which our lust deceitfully told us was true, then females were the enemy. I mean, from our perspective, females held the ability to dole out the ultimate prize. Ultimately, they were the ones keeping us from enjoying sex. The fact that they wouldn’t grant us access to the prize of sex meant they were our enemy. Unwittingly, we were taught to view our female counterparts in a harmful dualistic way. Who they were didn’t matter to us; what they could provide us became all important.

Shamefully, during my teenage years and into my twenties, much of my interaction with females was informed by that mindset: sex is the ultimate prize and getting past females’ defenses was my challenge. Sadly, most of the guys I grew up with, worked at Christian camp with, and attended a Christian university with me had very similar perspectives on sex and females. Even those guys who accepted the teaching and “faithfully” remained “pure” until marriage entered their honeymoon night with the self-serving, consumer belief that they had finally gained that prize. What their new bride could give was more important than the bride herself. The sad irony is that the purity movement unwittingly steers young men into an idolatrous, consumerist perspective of sex.

The purity culture hypocritically sits in the seat of judgment over secular culture. Decrying the objectification of women and the glorification of sex, the pastors, teachers, and parents who trumpet the purity culture’s talking points are blinded to the irony. They – the proponents of the purity movement – are guilty of objectifying women and glorifying sex as a self-serving, consumer act. Sheila Gregory and her Bare Marriage ministry does a commendable job of exposing the shame, guilt, and hurt that many women who were raised in the purity movement have had to suffer (Gregory also offers helpful resources, too). I’ve heard from hurting women who struggle in their marriage because their husband has had a lifetime of the purity movement catechizing him into the belief that women are objects and sex is the ultimate prize.

All of this, of course, raises the question of how and what should we be teaching our children about sex?

To begin with, Christian parents, pastors, and teachers need to focus more attention on teaching our youth about who God is and less attention on protecting our kids’ virginity.

Now, please don’t hear what I didn’t say. By all means, we should teach our children God’s sexual ethics as revealed in the Bible. Doing so, though – teaching God’s sexual ethics – will ultimately focus on who God is while avoiding the self-serving consumerist trap that the purity movement puts forward. 

Our main job as parents and pastors and teachers is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the youth under our authority and reflect who God is with both our words and actions. We need to teach our children to love God and then we need to teach them to love their neighbor. But how? Several paragraphs above, I linked to an article I wrote titled “Why Sex Outside of Marriage Is Sin”. I encourage you to read that article for a deeper theology of sex. For the purpose of this article, though, since it has been written from the male perspective, I’m going to focus the conclusion on how we should be teaching our boys to love their neighbors, specifically their neighbors who are females.

For starters, we need to make sure that our boys know and understand that girls are made in God’s image, too. Females fully image God as much as males do. The Bible teaches this in Genesis 1:27 when Moses writes, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Being made in God’s image means, among other things, that girls are deserving of respect and are to be treated with dignity. God demands that. Objectifying females is the exact opposite of what our Creator demands. Females do not exist to gratify the sexual urges of males, even within the context of marriage. And here’s something to think about, our young men can enter into marriage as virgins and still treat their bride with less respect and dignity than God expects.

Viewing sex as a consumer act steers our young men into a self-serving view of sex that, apart from the grace of God, they take with them into marriage. We shouldn’t teach sexual abstinence before marriage because doing so makes for a better sex life in marriage. For starters, that’s not necessarily true – in fact, often untrue. For another thing, and more importantly, we don’t abstain from sex outside of the bounds of marriage because of how it improves our sex lives; we do so because sex outside of marriage lies about Jesus.

When we teach our young men that sex is the ultimate prize that will be maximized if they wait until marriage to enjoy, we are encouraging their innate idolatry of sex and encouraging them to view women as objects who exist to reward them the ultimate prize or as enemies who are preventing them from enjoying that prize. Instead we should be echoing the Apostle Paul who commanded us to treat, “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity (1 Timothy 5:2).”

There is nothing in the Bible that allows men to view women in objectifying and demeaning ways. There is nothing in the Bible that allows men to view women through the lens of self-gratifying sex. Instead, the Bible teaches us that we are to love God and to love our female neighbors by honoring them and treating them as our mother or as our sister. And in the context or marriage, males should view the act of sex as a way to serve and demonstrate love for their bride. Sex is supposed to be a selfless act. The purity movement teaches that sex is a selfish act. The excesses and abuses coming out of the purity movement, while sad and often tragic, shouldn’t surprise anyone.

By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we should commit to doing a better job of teaching our children who God is, what He expects, and how we can bring Him glory by serving each other. Our boys should be taught to serve girls and to not view them as sexual prizes to win through a commitment to purity before marriage.

Soli Deo Gloria

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