Growing up in the purity culture people can learn the wrong lessons about sex–and God. Here are 7 things one woman had to unlearn once she married:
How can we raise our kids to have a healthy view of sex–and not perpetuate some of the unhealthy aspects of the Purity Culture?
Last week was a super heavy one on this blog–I decided it was time to attack the main argument of the “every man’s battle” group and say that lustful thoughts are not universal among men. Boy did that lead to some heated discussion!
And it seems like I’ve had a lot of that lately. Last month one of the biggest posts on this blog was when I shared my daughter Katie’s video on how the purity culture teaches sex wrong.
It really resonated with so many of you! I think we need to start listening to millennials who grew up in the purity culture movement, because so many parents have tried to teach their kids to wait for marriage to have sex, and have inadvertently shared some dangerous messages that they never intended to. I spelled these out in my post 10 things that scare me about the purity culture.
When I was talking about this on Twitter recently, Rebecca Lemke, aka New Crunchy Mom, came to my attention. She’s just written a book on the purity culture called The Scarlet Virgins: When sex replaces salvation. (It’s awesome!) And she has a really important message!
So today I asked her to share a few of her insights with us. Instead of talking about what the purity culture taught wrong, she’s instead going to talk about the things that she’ll be teaching her son about sex–that she never heard when she was growing up.
Let’s get back to putting sex and salvation in their rightful places–and teaching about both in a healthy manner!
I grew up in Christian Purity Culture.
The kind that said any crush I had before my husband was an “emotional STD” and meant that I had “given my heart away.” The kind where kissing, hugging, and hand-holding were viewed as gateway drugs to sex (and obviously forbidden before marriage).
In this environment, sexuality was treated as unequivocally dangerous. As a result, my friends and I found ourselves suppressing our own sexuality during our most formative years.
I was taught that “purity” was a central part of my identity. Dare I say, even more central than my faith in Jesus.
Fast-forward to my marriage after a two-year courtship with my husband, when I began to suffer the after-effects of growing up in Purity Culture. Despite the fact that all of my sexual activity had been reserved for marriage, I still experienced suppression, trauma, and shame from the teachings of Purity Culture. As I worked through the false doctrine endemic to the movement, my eyes began to open to many things – like the way bad analogies hurt sexually abused individuals – and I felt I could not stay silent.
My vocal criticism of Purity Culture, combined with my insistence that the marriage bed is indeed to be kept pure, has led many to ask what I plan to teach my son about purity and sex.
After careful introspection, I know what I want to impress upon him and what I will avoid at all costs. In an effort to prevent my son from growing up with the dangerous misconceptions I did, while simultaneously avoiding giving him license to sin, I am teaching him these seven things about sex.
1. Sex isn’t dirty.
The message I received in Purity Culture was that sex was inherently “dirty.” Through the desperate attempts to keep my generation’s youth from giving their virginity away or becoming “impure,” thought leaders in the purity movement used rhetoric that either outright said “sex is bad” or implied it through the language and catchphrases they used. Analogies like “chewed gum,” “spit in water,” and “de-petaled flower” were oft-cited to teach us that if we shared any form of physical affection with the opposite sex (even simply holding hands), we were used and dirty.
I am teaching my son the truth: that sex is a beautiful and powerful thing. He will know that powerful things should be handled with responsibility. If he falls short, he can repent and ask for forgiveness.
As powerful as sex is, sin in this area is not more powerful than God’s grace.
2. Woman are sexual.
The misconception that women aren’t sexual or that women “just take it” is something that I believe hurts us all in a very real way.
There are so many women out there who believe that they are in the wrong for enjoying sex, so they suppress their enjoyment in favor of being icy. Purity Culture pushed the narrative that feminine sexual enjoyment is abnormal to keep us in line, despite the fact that it is grossly incorrect.
Internalizing this error caused us to be unable to connect with our husbands, even when we wanted to. It crushed our healthy sexuality in order to produce the “result” of virginity.
I know now that sex isn’t meant to be a one-sided activity, and teaching my son the truth will ensure that he doesn’t internalize this rank misinformation.
3. Men aren’t just “visual.”
“Men are visual” is one of the many phrases that I find particularly damaging to men and their relationships with women. It is used to justify the unacceptable behaviors of predators and downplay their responsibility to act like civilized human beings. This has the effect of stigmatizing one perfectly natural form of sexual stimulation and paints a picture of men that is not holistic. Sexuality for both men and women is more than just one form of stimulation.
There is another reason why this phrase upsets me as well.
Growing up I was told that since men are visual, it was my responsibility as a woman to take care of their consciences because they couldn’t help themselves. I always thought it was odd that I was expected to wear long sleeves and jeans to swim, while the same parents that asked that of me let their own sons swim shirtless. At that young age, I was already aware of the fact that women are also visual.
As a society, we often think of the sexuality of men and women in terms of how they display it. The societal trope is that men express their sexuality through visual means like pornography, while women do so through emotional affairs within erotica novels. I don’t believe that either of these views paint the whole picture.
Women are clearly visual as well, otherwise I don’t know how to explain the horde of women I know who went to Magic Mike just to see the shirtless men. In like manner, men enjoy emotional fantasies in their sexual lives, which is not just “visual.”
I won’t be teaching my son this false notion that men are one thing and women are another when it comes to sexual stimulation. He will know that he is not strange or different if he does not fit into this stereotype and that he is accountable for his actions no matter whether he was “visually stimulated” or not.
4. Consent matters.
When I was a child, there were a few families in my community that experienced the pain of affairs. In the wake of such affairs, the discussion always turned to what the wife could have done better. People speculated that she had been sexually depriving her husband, going so far as to say that it was her fault that her husband strayed.
This led to lectures for the girls about how we should never turn our husbands down for sex because “the Bible says so.” Many of us went into marriage having never been introduced to the concepts of consent, coercion, or sexual assault within marriage.
Thankfully, my husband has always presented me with real choices so that I knew I wouldn’t encounter push back if I truly didn’t want to do anything sexually at any given time. Because of my husband’s respect and love, I am confident in impressing upon my son that he and his future wife can both say no to each other whenever they feel they want or need to.
5. Performance is overrated.
I’ve heard so many people who claim, “If you wait until you are married to have sex, it will be amazing, passionate sex.” Over and over Purity Culture leaders promised things like this, asserting that it would be “worth the wait.”
Men already have to deal with the pressure to perform sexually without this narrative, so it only adds fuel to the fire.
The truth is that sex is a learning process, and when you don’t know your own anatomy because sex education has been withheld from you, it is even more difficult to figure out. It can take people years to learn how to have fulfilling sex with their spouse, even if they don’t have the emotional and spiritual baggage of Purity Culture.
What this prosperity gospel promise also fails to consider is that we should not wait until marriage so that we can have “great sex.” Marriage is not just about sex anyways, but this motivation is completely off. I will be teaching my son that sex is a learning process and does not guarantee smoldering honeymoon sex.
6. True empowerment comes from the right motivation.
The motivations we have when it comes to sexual purity are often misplaced. Some people bought purity rings simply because they were cool or because all of their friends were doing it. Occasionally they served as a self-righteous status symbol to distinguish between “real Christians” and “fake Christians” (yes, I really have seen that happen). And, as I mentioned before, sometimes waiting for marriage to have sex is a decision prompted by the promise of amazing honeymoon sex.
All of these motivations are incorrect. We are inspired to follow God’s commands because of Jesus. All of these motivations distract from Him. His love empowers us to strive for purity, even when we fall short. My son will learn that any benefits to waiting outside of because God says to are “extra” and not meant to be the real motivation.
7. Don’t find your worth in your sexuality.
My friends and I found our worth in our virginity and purity because that is what we were taught to do. The ramifications of this teaching have yet to be fully realized, but include tendencies towards self-harm, addictions, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, and spiritual apostasy. While many brush this off because Purity Culture “had good intentions,” these things are not child’s play. These are serious emotional, physical, and spiritual injuries brought about by focusing on the wrong thing.
Our worth should have never been found in what we had and had not done sexually. Even without Purity Culture’s standards, we would likely fall short. This should point us to Christ and His sacrifice for us, but instead it pointed to behavioral modifications on how we could fix the problem ourselves.
God wants us – my son included – to be defined as His children, not by our own actions. He has shown us our worth through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus, and I think it is about high time that we finally open our eyes and see that.
Rebecca has written a book entitled The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation about her experience with legalism, spiritual abuse, and Purity Culture.
(Sheila here: This book is really awesome! If you’ve been struggling with things you were taught about sexuality growing up in a hyper-purity movement, Rebecca explains the effects so well here, and points us to a better way!)
She also releases podcasts on the same subjects at scarletvirgins.com. Rebecca now lives with her husband and toddler, enjoying the simple things in life with them, like root beer and bacon.