What is the Christian purity culture?

Sheila is a columnist for Faith Today magazine, Canada’s premier evangelical magazine, which publishes six times a year. Here’s her column for May on the Christian purity culture.

Four Duggar girls–teens from the homeschooling reality show family 19 Kids and Counting–have just released their first book. Garnering the most press attention is the little tidbit that they will save not just sex, but also their first kiss, for their marriage.

I have several friends who have saved the smooching for the ceremony, and they’re very glad they did. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, though the thought of hundreds of people watching me kiss for the first time is more intimidating than romantic. But I still find the whole Christian purity culture a little perplexing.

My mother grew up in a very conservative rural Manitoba community. They kept the Sabbath sacred; they didn’t wear makeup; they certainly didn’t dance. But kissing, at least when you were engaged, was fine. Today, though, large swaths of Christianity are more conservative than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were.

What’s going on?

I think it all started with Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Good-Bye. That book spread like wildfire through the church, and all of a sudden dating, which had been one of the main attractions of youth groups for decades, became an anathema.

Yet while I agree there’s little benefit to high school relationships (an opinion I am so glad my teenage daughters shared), Boy Meets Girl, Harris’ follow-up book about courtship, still left me a little uneasy. He and his now-wife didn’t kiss until they were married. They really only did that famous “Christian side hug” that every evangelical teen has perfected. And Harris has a list of strict guidelines they followed so as to not feed lust.

Are Christian teenage girls growing up ashamed of their sexuality?

Lust is a real battle, yet this movement to grab lust by the throat and throttle it until it’s dead seems a little like overkill. We have purity ceremonies where we ask girls to stand with their dads and pledge not to have sex until marriage. We give endless talks on modesty, discussing hemlines and cleavage and how high T-shirts should be (two finger widths below the clavicle, apparently). I do believe in modesty; the world would be a much better place if everyone agreed that leggings are not pants. But in our eagerness combat the sexual revolution are we doing more harm than good?

That’s the question Amanda Barbee asked recently in her viral article “Naked and Ashamed.” She says that the evangelical church has made teenage girls ashamed of their sexuality, and this causes much sexual dysfunction later. As a sex and marriage author, I certainly see where she’s coming from. We spend so much time telling girls, “Don’t do it! Don’t even think about it!” And then they get married and suddenly some switch is supposed to go off that lets them see sex as a positive thing.

There IS a better way to talk about sex!

God made sex to be MUTUAL–it’s not all about the guy. It’s for women, too.

And it’s supposed to be intimate not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

If you’ve never heard a healthy message, check out the book!

What makes it especially problematic, though, is the way we frame the whole issue. “Boys are walking hormones who will lust all over anyone in a tight sweater. It’s your job to keep him from lusting!” Girls’ sex drives are barely mentioned, while boys are presented as testosterone-induced drones, rendered helpless by cleavage. Girls become responsible not just for their own purity, but for boys’ purity, too, and sex becomes something boys want but girls have to fight against. No wonder so many girls grow up ambivalent about sex!

Unfortunately, Barbee didn’t offer an alternate approach. Yes, we’re shaming girls too much, but purity is important, and sex before marriage damages you both spiritually and emotionally. We do need to teach our kids to wait.

Or do we? Maybe that’s the fundamental problem with our current approach. My teenage girls’ biggest complaint about youth events is that they always centre around three messages: don’t have sex; don’t drink; and don’t cut yourself or starve yourself. But if we really want kids to make good choices, maybe we should stop teaching them to do the right thing and start introducing them to Jesus.

I was recently talking with a 19-year-old young woman who didn’t date in high school, but is now in quite a serious relationship at university. When she and her boyfriend were first discussing boundaries, they decided not to define “how far they should go” because as soon as you draw a line, you immediately rush to that line and start flirting with it. Instead, they decided that they would start every time that they’re together by focusing on Jesus. Make Jesus the centre, and the rest will follow.

We have become so scared that teens will have sex that we have created a purity culture that is centred around rules and shame rather than centred around Jesus. Yes, we should be modest, and yes, we should be pure. But we’ll achieve that much faster by having a relationship with Christ than by memorizing a bunch of rules.

I’m convinced that Christian kids often rebel because we put too much energy into teaching rules and not enough into showing them how to love Jesus. Rules don’t win people to God; Jesus does. And He’s the only one who can help us create a purity culture anyway.

For more on the Purity Culture debate:
Jessica at The Beggar’s Daughter linked up a great post this week on exactly this subject that I wanted to show you! She’s a young, single woman who writes a lot about purity. And in her post “Kissing is not Sex“, she says this:

If you listen to some teachings today it would seem as if letting a man wrap his arm around you is just as bad as letting him sleep with you.  It would seem that being alone with a man will automatically lead to fogged windows out on Lover’s Lane.

What happens when we take young women from this sex-obsessed approach to purity (because that is exactly what this is), and we brush them up against a guy and nothing happens? When holding his hand does not lead to petting or when having coffee does not lead to a slumber party? If a girl has grown up believing these are boundaries and that all roads lead to sex, the temptation is going to be to throw all of her ‘boundaries’ out the window.

Nothing happened when she held his hand, so why should anything happen when they snuggle? Nothing happened when they were alone for coffee, so what’s the big deal if she rides in his car?  She starts thinking, “What’s the big deal?” and that is the last thing you want her thinking! What we need to be doing, instead, is encouraging young women to establish their boundaries and to come up with guidelines that help them.

Great point! Read the whole thing.

Has the Christian Purity Culture gone too far with rules?

Now tell me: how do we set boundaries and maintain purity WITHOUT shaming girls or becoming legalistic? I’ve been exploring this on the blog all week, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Christian purity culture.

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