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Why Purity Culture Misses the Mark

Recent events have lit up news and social media feeds with concerns about the mess that “purity culture” has made of people’s perceptions of sex.

I don’t know enough about what does and doesn’t constitute “purity culture” to address that formally here, but I do know that many Christians have approached the topics of sex, desire, and marriage in ways that may be well-meaning, but in the end are…well, un-Christian.

I’d say these mistakes have been especially made by parents and youth group leaders trying to encourage kids to abstain from sex until marriage, but they’ve also been present in larger Christian circles as well.

Three ideas that have been part of these approaches are the following:

  1. Waiting for marriage to have sex means a person can give a “pure” gift to their spouses on their wedding night
  2. Waiting until marriage for sex will mean a great sex life between spouses
  3. To this end, women and girls should dress modestly so men and boys don’t “stumble”

Let’s start here: Christianity does teach unapologetically that God’s followers are to reserve sex for marriage between one man and one woman for life, and that sex is a gift from God designed to unite husband and wife as “one flesh,” procreate, and serve as a sacred symbol of Christ and His church. On a practical level, this promotes the safest emotional-relational-sexual environment for both partners and it sets the course for children to grow up with both their mother and father. 

But the three ideas above miss the mark on shepherding people into a godly embrace of God’s vision for human sexuality. 

Waiting Does Not Make a Person a “Pure” Gift
Christianity doesn’t teach that purity is something you have until you lose it, but that all of us need to be cleansed from our sin through the cross and resurrection of Christ. To depart from this central tenant of our faith in the name of encouraging virginity is a departure from our faith.

But there are additional problems as well. For one, the way this idea is often presented it gives the impression that sex itself is the problem. For example, one popular purity campaign encouraged adolescent and pre-adolescent kids to pledge (and this is an exact quote) to “be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage” (italics added). Words matter and this suggests that sex within marriage is an impure act. (The subtext would also suggest that for some reason God gives married couples a pass when it comes to doing something so “dirty.”)

Another problem here is how significantly it strikes at the inherent worth of anyone who hasn’t abstained from sex before marriage. I cringed as, some years ago, I listened to a youth group speaker tell me about an illustration he’d used to help kids understand why waiting is so important. He’d ask the group if anyone wanted a piece of gum, and when a hand would go up, he’d unwrap the gum, pop it in his mouth, chew it, and then take it out and offer it to one of the kids. What message is he sending to those kids, especially the ones with a less-than-stellar sexual history? And how much I’d love for those kids to hear of the many noble Christians throughout history who also didn’t wait for marriage to have sex—the great St. Augustine wrote very honestly about this part of his life. I’d add here that giving oneself to another in marriage is a huge gift—one that neither spouse could ever deserve. And this is true no matter what your sexual past may be.

Waiting Does Not Automatically Lead to Great Sex in Marriage

While there are reasons why sexual activity before marriage can negatively impact sex within marriage, this does not automatically mean that abstaining from sex before marriage guarantees a pain-free, wonderful sexual relationship within marriage. Plenty of couples who have waited have also struggled with physical pain, differing sex drives, and infertility just to name a few.

I believe this teaching can also communicate a faulty concept of what sex is meant to be. “Great sex in marriage” treats sex as something that just happens, like a WiFi connection or a pumpkin pie recipe. In truth, sex is about relationship, and like every other part of a marriage relationship (communication, understanding, play, cleaning, finances, parenting, time management, chores, rest, worship, etc.), it will take loving work. Christianity understands that we all need to keep growing in the virtue of love, and so we can assume that sex as a unique expression of love between husband and wife will be a part of that process as well.

Modesty Is Not a Cure or Catch-all

I do believe dressing modestly is valuable for both men and women. But the idea that women should dress modestly so men don’t lust has several significant problems:

  1. It communicates that men are not responsible for their actions. In essence, it suggests that another person’s body is the source of temptation, but Scripture teaches that one’s own lust is the source (James 1:13). It also communicates that men cannot (and need not) learn to master their own impulses.
  2. It communicates that women’s bodies are shameful—the source of temptation. I’ve not always been aware of this until I listened to a number of women who expressed their embarrassment and shame about this. Christianity teaches clearly that our bodies as God designed them are a part of God’s very good creation, and in fact, they image God (see Genesis 1:27). That sends a very different message to the hearts of women and men alike.
  3. It ignores the reality that both men and women can struggle with lust and that not all lust is toward people of the opposite sex. For girls in these youth groups who struggle with lust or guys who struggle with same-sex attraction, what’s the message to them?

Conversations about sex, abstinence, and Christian purity are too important to leave to a hyper-moralism that neglects the deeper matters of grace, beauty, sanctification, and love.

I’d love to hear from you. Which of the three faulty messages listed above did or do you hear in Christian conversations about sex, about “purity culture”? What ideas do you have or a better message?

For you,

Josh

8 thoughts on “Why Purity Culture Misses the Mark”

  1. Thanks for these ideas.
    All of then provoke one to think about God and His ways.
    Most of us arrive at marriage damaged in many areas. Waiting to be intimate before marriage, being pure before marriage, dressing modestly are all good things but as you point out do not guarantee the results we are going for automatically. I think when we love God with with all our heart and put Him first, we are doing the best we can and He can bless is. Because God gives everyone free volition, there are no linear orderly answers. It is not a perfect world so even if I do everything right, there are no guarantees. What I do know is that God will not bless disobedience and will bless obedience. Eventually I will reap what I sow. What have I planted?
    These are good ideas to implement as guard rails on highways are, but there will always be exceptions. A solid truth and moral compass is that God never changes. He is waiting to be known by us. He did not put is on earth without a manual~ His Word. So a wise person will read it and live what they read in His power.; expecting from Him and not leaning on people for our source.

    1. Yes, Cathy, you’re putting your finger on important points here. I think especially striking to me today is the reality that we live in a fallen world, so even where we do trust and obey God, we very well may still encounter real difficulties; and that even so, God is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Bless you.

  2. The faulty message i heard most was “Waiting until marriage for sex will mean a great sex life between spouses.” What really happened was i married a spouse with almost no libido and who thought sex was unnecessary unless you were actively trying to have kids. Sex happens once every couple of years with the reminder that “I’m only doing this for you” which of course totally kills it and turns even that meager crumb it into an act of obligation. The lie was that sex would be great, while at the same time i heard that from the pulpit too, quoting Paul to fulfill your obligation, leaving in a morally neutral area where its all about your obligation to engage in marital sex as lust management lest something worse befall you.

    1. Thanks for your vulnerability, Lee. You bring up some important nuances to this conversation. I also want to say that you are not alone in your experience of your marriage bed itself being a space where there is distance between husband and wife. So difficult.

  3. Wow! Thank you, Josh. Well said! I heard this “purity teaching” as a young believer. In some ways it was helpful, but in many of the ways you described, it was very damaging. (What about survivors of sexual abuse? Are they “impure”?!? These issues are far too complex to reduce to: “Don’t do it! But once you’re married, go for it!” Too often, our desire to obey God degenerates to a new Law, a new yoke of slavery. Galatians teaches us that Christ has set us free! May we fix our eyes on Jesus, live by the Spirit, and allow His presence and power to transform our hearts, minds, bodies, and relationships.

    1. Jill, thank you for brining up these important points. Your point about survivors of sexual abuse is so true and breaks my heart. And your comment about our desire to obey God degenerating into a new law is so well said. Joining with you in fixing our eyes on Jesus. Thank you, sister.

  4. I’ve hear fairly consistently to of course wait for marriage to have sex! This I can understand but it’s certainly frustrating at times as a single believer but possible for sure. I’ve also heard from some of my brothers, it’s no guarantee your sex life will be that good either.I believe the issue is my heart.Whether single or married, my heart needs to be pure before God.Thanks Josh!

    1. Thanks, Paul. I love that you bring up the lack of talking with kids/adults about sexual desire as it relates to singles! So important and so often missed in this conversation.

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