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:
- Waiting for marriage to have sex means a person can give a “pure” gift to their spouses on their wedding night
- Waiting until marriage for sex will mean a great sex life between spouses
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. What is Purity?
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?