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Purity Culture Re-evaluated

The Evangelical world is coming to terms with the problems of “Purity culture” from the 1990’s and 2000’s, at least according to this article from the Christian Post. It’s about time! What did they say?

For evangelical Christian teens growing up in the 1990s-2000s, purity culture was ubiquitous. From purity rings to True Love Waits pledges, millions of adolescents across the country formally vowed to abstain from sex and save themselves for marriage.

But for some, the movement carried with it long-term, damaging implications.

Amid the rise of the #MeToo movement paired with reports of sex abuse within the Church, individuals whose lives were shaped by purity culture began to push back. They shared stories of how some of the more problematic aspects of the movement, though well-intentioned, caused them to have an unhealthy relationship with religion, relationships, and sex.

Purity culture took on the oversexualization of culture by doubling down on the traditional theology of sex only within marriage and adding to it no dating, purity rings, and the phenomenon of the stay-at-home daughters, among other things. The idea was to focus on chastity instead of sex. But, that’s really just a form of focusing on sex.

Add to that abstinence-only sex education, which provided little more than the basic mechanics of how sex works, but no information about contraception and you have a toxic mix. These kids ended up as young adults with few skills to navigate the complex world of relationships and sex.

She pointed out that purity teachings often place the onus disproportionately on adolescent girls and women: “As women, it was said it was also our job to ensure that we didn’t ‘inspire’ sexual thoughts or feelings in men by the way that they walked, talked or dressed,” she said. “In other words, girls grew up with the message that not only did we need to be pure, but it was our responsibility to ensure that the whole community was pure. That’s a lot of pressure for a young girl!”

Female modesty was a huge part of purity culture. Purity culture teaches that men are visually aroused and women are responsible for the men’s lust. This, despite some pretty clear words by Jesus in Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Female modesty also meant covering up and being out of the way. It was part of erasing young women.

The article ends with this:

“Teens need a God-centered perspective; they need to understand that sex is designed to be perfect and beautiful," he added. "It’s the way we engage with a specific human to experience a relationship. It’s designed by God for communication and oneness. We need role models to offer this hopeful perspective.”

Unfortunately, this God-centered perspective is short on details on how to change the mistakes of the past. And the mistakes have deep roots.

Purity culture didn’t just take things too far. It was based on bad theology. It was based on patriarchy. Young women were “owned” by their fathers until they were married when they became “owned” by their husbands. This isn’t Biblical; it’s cultural. This is the culture of the Old and New Testaments. But, whether ancient Palestine or first century Rome, women were property that were sold from father to husband.

In fact, there is a strong undercurrent throughout the Bible that challenges the culture of patriarchy, from Miriam’s song to Deborah as judge to Huldah as prophet, to the women who supported Jesus, to Lydia’s house church, to Junia the apostle. Patriarchy may have been the backdrop of the culture, but it wasn’t meant to be that way in the church. Now that women are becoming more equal to men in society (although we haven't reached full equality), it is time for the church to step up and let women reach our full potential.

Another bad theology at work in purity culture is fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 tell us “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” In purity culture, though, parents become very controlling of their teens and their dating (or courting) lives. Often this control is because of a fear-based parenting style. They want their children to have a great, Christian marriage with few bumps on the way. Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (which he has now taken out of circulation), said, “"Fear is never a good motive . . .Fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex."

While it appears that Evangelicals are trying to come to terms with the outcomes of purity culture, they haven’t really drilled down to the theological underpinnings. Until women are trusted to make their own life choices instead of being “owned” by the men in their lives and until parents can parent in a spirit of grace instead of fear, phenomenon like purity culture will happen again and again.


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