Does the purity culture movement do more harm than good?

Last week I wrote a three part series on vaginismus, when you experience pain during intercourse. And in that series we ended up discussing the purity culture in modern Christianity, and its potentially harmful effects. It seems as if women who grew up in homes where the purity culture was paramount are far more likely to experience vaginismus.

By purity movement I don’t mean a home that believes that sex before marriage should be avoided. That’s just a basic Christian tenet.

But the purity culture has extra-biblical rules attached to it: dating is wrong; one should always court; parents must chaperone; parents should set kids’ boundaries; kissing before marriage is wrong; clothing should be stringently monitored and modesty enforced; girls who aren’t pure are “chipped teacups” or “stained napkins” (those are analogies that are often used in rallies).

The purity movement is a cultural movement far more than just a moral one, because one can certainly believe in purity but not hold to all of those trappings.

I wonder if this purity culture has taken over because most of us are scared to contradict it. It’s the purity movement that we see on shows like the Duggars and on so much Christian media. And if we dare to say, “I don’t mind if my adult kids hang out at each other’s homes unchaperoned” or “I kissed my husband before our wedding and I’m glad I did!”, or “I don’t think wearing fashionable jeans is a sin!”, we feel like we’re somehow LESS Christian, because those with firmer rules always look more Christian.

Almost every Christian I know who saved sex for marriage also kissed before their wedding day. Almost NO Christians that I know who saved sex for marriage had their parents chaperoning them. And yet somehow we have allowed the purity culture to claim that it is mainstream Christianity.

But my reservations are not just that people think it’s more common that it is; it’s that I believe that many parents who join the purity culture movement with the absolute best of intentions may inadvertently be doing some harm.

So today, on Top 10 Tuesday, I’d like to start dispelling the myth that all of these trappings of the purity culture movement are good and necessary, and instead look at 10 things that actually scare me. Now a parent doesn’t have to actually believe these things for the kids to pick up on it. Most parents, I think, would totally reject all 10 of these things. Yet by stressing purity the way that we do, with balls and pledges and even the language that we use, these are the messages we give kids, even if we do so unintentionally:

10 Things That Make Me Uncomfortable about the Purity Movement--and how I raised kids to wait until marriage WITHOUT all the purity culture trappings!

1. The Purity Movement focuses on girls’ purity far more than boys’ purity

It is girls who go to “purity balls” with their dads. It is girls who wear purity rings.

Boys may go to boys’ events, but they’re called something different: “Being a Man of God” for instance. The word purity is used primarily in the female context, even though both boys and girls EQUALLY are called to be pure. This can give a distorted view that girls’ worth is in their bodies.

2. To stress “Purity” as being about one’s sexual behaviour creates a works-based theology

Let’s be clear: we are pure because of the blood of Jesus, not because of what we do with our bodies. By saying that purity is something that can be “lost”, we imply that what we do, or don’t do, makes us acceptable or dirty in God’s eyes.

We are all sinners. We are all in need of a Saviour. Let’s never make people think that they can somehow do enough to get right with God–or, even worse, that they can do something to make them forever “tainted”.

3. Stressing “purity” harms abuse victims

If purity is something you can lose because of sexual activity, then those who are abused or raped are no longer pure. What a burden to put on abuse survivors!

Even if your children haven’t been abused or raped, those around you very well may be, and if you are spreading the purity culture, then they are picking up on this message. Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon girl who was kidnapped, has talked about this at length, and the effect that “losing her purity” had on her. She had to recover and heal from feeling as if she was not worth anything anymore since she was no longer a virgin.

4. Saying “Stay Pure Until You’re Married” implies that you lose your purity at marriage

We don’t stay pure until we’re married. We stay pure. Period. I’m married and I’m pure. And yet the way that we phrase it makes it sound as if you lose your purity the moment you have sex–even if sex is with your husband.

5. The Purity Culture idolizes the young, innocent virgin

The pinnacle of purity is the young girl who is past puberty but who hasn’t engaged in any sexual activity.

Of course we want our kids to remain virgins until marriage, but that is not the pinnacle of everything they can be. God has also given them gifts and talents and personalities and ambitions, and He wants those girls to use them! The young, innocent girl who stays at home is lovely, but she is not the only manifestation of Christ that the kingdom of God needs. We also need girls who are actively reaching others for Christ.

It’s the whole picture that counts, not just the virginity. Let’s not make a woman’s worth in the kingdom only about what she does with her body, instead of also her mind and her energy.

6. The Purity Culture can make women afraid of sex

If sex makes one lose one’s purity, then sex is something bad. I have heard from countless women on this blog who found it difficult to enjoy sex because they had been taught their whole lives to flee from it–and that the ideal woman was one who had not had sex. To have sex, then, is a letdown and a failure. This seriously impacts the marriage!

I want to stress, too, that most parents NEVER explicitly taught this. In fact, they’d be appalled if they realized that this is how their message had been interpreted! But when we frame purity like this, then this is the message that often gets picked up, whether we realize it or not.

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So many women who grew up in the purity culture entered marriage really intimidated, and unsure how to embrace their sexual side (or even if they SHOULD have a sexual side!)

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7. The Purity Culture makes women (and girls) responsible for men’s thoughts and sins

By stressing modesty so much, the purity culture makes women the gatekeepers of men’s sins and thoughts. Woman after woman on this blog has written something like,

I spent my teenage years wearing XL T-shirts on my tiny frame so that men may not see my curves, and they still noticed. I’d feel so ashamed. I started avoiding being in public because I didn’t want men to see my dirty body.

I’ve written more about the modesty culture here, and about the “don’t be a stumbling block” argument here.

8. The Purity Culture creates an “all-or-nothing” mentality about sex

Ironically, studies have shown that Christian teens steeped in the purity culture are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour than Christian teens who are not, and it’s likely because of the “all or nothing” mentality. If kids feel that kissing is an absolute sin, then if they’ve kissed, they’re horribly ashamed of themselves. They’ve already “gone too far”. And because purity is lost in an instant, it’s too late now. So what’s the point in turning back?

9. The Purity Culture doesn’t encourage young people to rely on God

To go along with that point, the purity culture uses rules to control behaviour–no kissing, hand holding only after engagement (or other commitment), chaperoning, parents’ permission, no being alone, etc. etc. But rules can’t control people’s behaviour. Only the Holy Spirit can. We can live according to the law or according to the Spirit–it’s your choice. You can’t have both. And if you expect your kids to make good decisions, you need to teach them to rely on God, not just to have rules that keep you safe.

I’m not saying guidelines aren’t a good idea; but ultimately the only way to withstand temptation is because of a personal relationship with God. If they have that personal relationship, they don’t need the chaperoning. They really don’t.

10. The Purity Movement treats adults as if they’re still children

Do you want your children to get married and start a life of their own without ever making decisions for themselves, relying on God during difficult times, figuring out their calling, or learning to withstand temptation? Probably not. Some of these things can be learned under a parent’s roof, but ultimately a child needs to learn them and claim them on their own. That’s an important part of growing up.

If adults still need parents to chaperone, then they aren’t really adults. A 19-year-old has the Holy Spirit as much as you do, if you both believe. Trust God with your kids. He’s got it. He really does.

So how would I raise kids WITHOUT the purity culture?

I’ve raised two girls who are now college-aged and living away from home. One is now married. Both have believed in purity and both committed to saving sex for marriage.

And yet in all their years growing up I don’t think I ever used the word “purity”. I asked them over the weekend if they could remember me saying it, and they couldn’t. We just didn’t phrase it that way. We simply talked about loving Jesus and following Jesus and making Jesus real in their lives. We talked a ton about sex and why God wants us to wait for marriage. We talked about what to do when you’re tempted–whatever the temptation is.

I did say no dating until 16, because until then, their brains just aren’t necessarily ready. But after that it was entirely their choice.

And I encouraged them to run hard after the areas of ministry that God was calling them to.

In other words, you can raise kids to wait until marriage without purity balls, purity rings, chaperoning, and rules. You can raise kids who love God wholeheartedly without these trappings.

It’s about authenticity in your own relationship with God, and then authenticity (and lots of talking!) in your own relationship with your kids. That’s what ultimately matters.

Personally, the older I get the more I think that most rules are antithetical to the gospel. If it were honestly about rules, we wouldn’t need to “walk by the Spirit”. If rules were all that it took to achieve purity, then we wouldn’t need Jesus!

But if we have to walk by the Spirit WITHOUT rules, then we must also live with this uncomfortable truth: God may call other Christians to live in a different way than He calls you, because they have different backgrounds, different temptations, and different personalities. That’s why the Spirit will convict us in different ways about different things. And that’s perfectly okay! So let’s not assume that because a family doesn’t follow the “purity culture” or doesn’t believe that kissing is always wrong that this means that they are somehow lesser Christians. We all serve God; let’s stick to the heart of the gospel, and let our kids do the same.

Now let me know in the comments: Did you grow up in the purity movement? What do you think is the best way to encourage our kids towards “purity”?

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