How Purity Culture Failed a Generation
This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
I didn’t believe my mother when she said that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my home state, was using the COVID-19 crisis to promote sexual deviance. It was the kind of thing I’d heard for decades: how there was a grand conspiracy to undermine traditional sexual ethics and that Christians must stand against it. Most recently, I’d seen it bundled with the claim that limits on public gatherings were state-sponsored persecution and mask mandates were an infringement of individual liberty. So I didn’t believe her until I read it for myself.
As part of a larger initiative to educate the public, the Pennsylvania Department of Health provides a list of safety protocols including “Safer Sex and COVID-19.” Officially recognizing that “sex, which may include oral, vaginal or anal sex is a normal part of life and should always be with the consent of all parties involved,” the PA DOH offers “risk reduction strategies to protect your health and the health of your sex partner(s).”
And while gatherings in Pennsylvania are currently limited to ten people, the Commonwealth understands how important sex is to life—dare we even say “essential”—and recommends that “if you attend a large gathering where you might end up having sex, [there] are tips to reduce your risk of spreading or getting COVID-19 through sex”:
- Limit the number of partners.
- Try to identify a consistent sex partner.
- Wear a face covering, avoid kissing, and do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
That’s right, in the middle of a global pandemic that has shuttered schools and curtailed religious gatherings, in which businesses and families alike have gone under, that has us masked and socially distanced, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has your… umm… back. Have no fear. The state will ensure that you are properly educated in how to practice safe orgic sex in the time of COVID-19.
And this presents a simple and natural question: Have we lost our ever-loving minds?
Given such a prime and public example of sexual absurdity, one can understand the stance of the American evangelical church over the last several decades. Warning of such brazen godlessness, evangelicals dedicated themselves to promoting “purity culture,” a movement comprised of different practices and artifacts—from books that promote courtship (Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye) to purity rings and purity pledges—whose primary goal was promoting sexual abstinence before marriage. As Rachel Joy Welcher describes it in her recently released book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, purity culture was “an earnest response to the age-old problem of immorality and the modern crisis of STDs and teenage pregnancy” (9–10). And so successful was this movement that it outgrew evangelical boundaries, allowing evangelicals to champion abstinence through federally funded programs like Silver Ring Thing and enlist mainstream celebrities like Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Selena Gomez in the cause. The only catch is that purity culture hasn’t exactly delivered on its promises, leaving in its wake broken pledges, sexual confusion, and leaders (from Josh Harris to all of the names listed above) repudiating it.When secular society framed sex as a need or right, purity culture said the same thing—at least to men—and taught a generation of women that they existed to fulfill this need.
Or consider this: Just weeks after the Pennsylvania Department of Health released guidelines to help us safely practice hooking up, the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), the eponymous ministry of the deceased evangelist, apologist, and international evangelical superstar, announced that an independent investigation has confirmed Zacharias engaged in not only extramarital sex, but also the sexual harassment and abuse of female employees. The report comes after months and years of both Zacharias and the RZIM board denying rumors to the effect and intimidating those trying to bring truth to light.
Still, one scandal does not a pattern make. This could well be an isolated incident, the failures of one flawed human being. And it might be possible to think this until you remember that only a month earlier mega-church pastor Carl Lentz was removed from his position at Hillsong NYC for extramarital affairs, something that church members say was an open secret for years. And then of course, you only have to go a few months back to August when Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki, resigned from the leadership of Liberty University after reports of sexual misconduct emerged. All this within the span of four months.
In fact, in her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, historian Kristin Kobes du Mez devotes an entire chapter to chronicling the major sexual “mulligans” of evangelicals in recent years. High-profile leader after high-profile leader whose professed sexual ethics did not translate into practice: Ted Haggard, Joe White, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, Josh Duggar, Jack Schapp, Bill Hybels, and on and on. And that’s nothing to speak of the countless accounts of sexual abuse within evangelicalism brought to light through the #Churchtoo movement.
It would seem that secularists are not the only ones swimming in the pool of sexual absurdity. And this presents a simple and natural question: Have we lost our ever-loving minds?
Whither Purity Culture
When one considers the sheer amount of time and resources that evangelicals have devoted to sexual ethics, the question naturally emerges: Why hasn’t it changed the lives of her own leaders? Certainly, you may object that faithful leaders outweigh the unfaithful, that those living quiet lives of sexual fidelity never make the headlines. And you’d have a point. Except for this question: How is that the most faithless also become the most powerful? What kind of culture is ostensibly devoted to sexual purity but can’t identify and deal with sexual abusers?
Given the near continual cycle of scandal, you might be tempted to think that the culprit is Christian teaching on sex itself. That the real culprit is an ethic that expects the impossible, that asks human beings to deny their most basic urges. Such is the conclusion of some within the American church. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the author of Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, pushes against the notion of total sexual abstinence outside of traditional marriage, insisting that “when two loving individuals, two bearers of God’s image, are unified in an erotic embrace, there is space for something holy” (19–20).
And indeed, Welcher herself highlights the significant ways in which purity culture is flawed and thus fails. She identifies these as “the idolization of virginity; marriage and sex as the reward for chastity; men as lust machines, and women as responsible for the purity of men” (16) and concludes that purity culture doesn’t sufficiently interrogate cultural assumptions of sex, identity, power, and consumption.
After all, when secular society framed the pursuit of sexual pleasure as the highest human good, purity culture said the same thing, offering “smoking hot [married] sex” as a reward to those who deferred. When secular society framed sex as a need or right, purity culture said the same thing—at least to men—and taught a generation of women that they existed to fulfill this need. When secular society suggested that one could not live a meaningful life without sexual activity, purity culture said the same thing but went the extra step of dooming countless unmarried, celibate Christians to second-tier status. Not for being unfaithful to traditional Christian sexual ethics, but because their status made them unfaithful to marriage and thus sex itself.
In this respect, the irony of purity culture is that it does not significantly vary from the sexual ethic of secular society. As Welcher puts it, “Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative but that it is too worldly. Sex is not about self, and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging” (179).
Marriage Is Honorable
Thankfully, the failures of both secular society and purity culture do not indict a faithful Christian sexual ethic. They illuminate it. Indeed, Welcher offers orthodox Christian teaching as the answer to both the woes of purity culture and the kind of society that allocates state funds to determining how we can continue to hook up in a time of masking and social distance. The answer to both is putting sex in its proper place.When one considers the sheer amount of time and resources that evangelicals have devoted to sexual ethics, the question naturally emerges: Why hasn’t it changed the lives of her own leaders?
In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul tells us that those who “burn with desire” should marry if they cannot control themselves. Upon first reading, this might sound like the message of purity culture: “Want to have sex? Get married.” The difference is that Paul has a very distinct view of marriage and sex in mind—one that differs radically from both secular culture and purity culture. Only a few verses prior, Paul gives this advice to married couples:
“Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband. A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another—except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer…. I wish that all people were as I am [celibate]. But each has his own gift from God, one person has this gift, another has that.”
Rather than being a question of individual rights, Paul frames sex as a question of service and giving to one’s spouse. But there’s more. While married sex may fulfill certain needs, those needs can also be left unfulfilled to our spiritual benefit. In other words, sex is good, but it is not ultimate.
And with this, the Scripture reveals the Achilles’ heel of purity culture: Sexual lust cannot be satiated by marriage alone, especially if that marriage is itself built on lust, consumption, and control. Instead, only a particular kind of marriage can satisfy lust: one in which both parties lay down their rights and submit to God and each other. The only way to deal with lust is to deal with lust.
What to Tell the Children
Near the end of her book, Welcher asks the question, “What will we tell our children?” It’s a necessary question for two reasons. First, purity culture is almost exclusively directed toward young people, its primary goal preserving virginity before marriage. But second, and perhaps more interestingly, children cannot be separated from sex. It is sex, after all, that creates them. Sex is their origin story—our own origin story. And so it’s entirely natural that we would tell children where they came from, how they were made, and what brought them into the world.
The absurdity of both secular culture and purity culture is the degree to which they attempt to uncouple sexual activity and children. Within secular culture, “sexual education” is synonymous with birth control, and “safe sex” includes both preventing STDs and pregnancy. Correspondingly, purity culture often limits sexual education to abstinence alone and frames unwed pregnancy as the shameful consequence of pre-marital sex, the public proof of impurity and a ruined life. In both cases, children—the natural and good gift of sex—are framed as a kind of failure.
So what do we tell our children—those those flesh and blood beings whose existence begins when two bodies couple? What do my husband and I tell our own children about where they came from and how we made them? Probably too much if I’m entirely honest.
Given our own lack of sexual self-awareness upon entering marriage, my husband and I have opted for open, clear, direct communication about sex—both in a general and a particular sense. Our children know where they came from, how babies are made, and the potential of their own bodies. We use anatomically correct language, and mom and dad don’t hesitate to raise eyebrows at the dinner table. We celebrate and rejoice and laugh at the absurdity of it—that God could make something both so beautiful and so ridiculous all at once.
We also have the hard conversations. Like the one when my daughter was twelve and a friend came out as transgender. The one where the Christian kids bullied him on social media while others accepted without question that this vulnerable child—who was not old enough to drive, smoke, drink, or legally engage in sex—could assert such a truth. We talk about the importance of our bodies and where identity comes from and the failures of both the church and society. We talk about charting a different way, of being strangers and pilgrims whose choices will probably offend in both directions.
But more than anything, we talk about love when we talk about sex. We talk about love for God and love for neighbor. We talk about not using other people’s bodies for our own pleasure and how marriage and family builds homes. We talk about the continuing self-sacrifice necessary to ensure that you don’t bring those homes down on those inside them.
I do not know how I’m warping my children. I assume I am, and I won’t be surprised if one day, my daughter doesn’t believe me when I tell her that the state is promoting sexual deviance. I also assume that my children, like me, will have their own set of sexual failings, questions, and confusion. So our conversation also includes significant doses of grace and forgiveness and the understanding that no matter what, home will always be home. If only because the ties of sex, marriage, and begottenness are stronger than any of us truly understand. But even more, I want my children to know that God’s love for them is stronger and fiercer than any they might experience with another human being. I want them to know that unlike human love, this love has no end and with him, new beginnings are inexhaustible.
Rachel Joy Welcher’s book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.