Like most twentysomethings bred in a conservative, evangelical part of the country, I was steadily guided by Purity Culture during my teenage years. I internalized the idea that unwed sexual experiences would ruin my soul and my potential for healthy marriage; that a pubescent boy’s lustful eye was undoubtedly my fault; that every time I held hands with a boy, I was permanently jettisoning a piece of my heart; and that honeymoon sex—by virtue of being within wedlock—would be hotter and more fun.
It’s time to find a way forward—past the Purity Movement—that helps us fuse what we know about sex with what we know about God and how he wants us to live.A decade or more later, we Purity Movement survivors have collectively shirked off the naiveté that our youth pastors thought would carry us to a white wedding. We now realize that God forgives all sin, that people still want to marry us even if we aren’t virgins, that people should repent of their own transgressions, that love is unending. We’ve been waiting for marriage far longer than we thought we would. We’ve been disappointed on our honeymoons or felt liberated upon not bursting into a ball of flames during premarital sex. We’ve found the line between virgin and not-virgin to be blurrier than our middle school selves imagined.
Though we’ve reached a more adult understanding of sex, we’ve also fallen prey to a lie: the belief that these realizations have somehow made us less confused about sexuality and biblical sexual ethics. We’ve believed that because the mores we were taught ended up failing us, the underlying principles must have been hogwash too. And we’ve shamed the cultures we grew up in for teaching us such harmful “backward” theology. One writer who grew up in a Christian house wrote about how she nixed everything she was taught in church and learned about sex from Bob Dylan instead. Her pastor taught that people who have had premarital sex are no better than used bubble gum. But he also told her that chastity is a worthy and biblical Christian virtue—something I’m pretty sure that Bob Dylan, though an incredible artist, did not teach her.
The Purity Movement failed in part because a biblical sexual ethic cannot be summed up in a “purity ring” or an image of chewing gum. But it’s high time that we forgave our well-meaning parents and pastors for their mistakes. Often forgotten is that authors like Joshua “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” Harris did not necessarily set out to ruin a whole crop of teenage girls.
The National Association of Evangelicals found that while 77% of Millennial evangelicals opposed nonmarital sex in principle, 44% of unmarried evangelicals in the age 18–29 demographic had had sex anyway. It seems we don’t know how to integrate Christian teachings about sex with the world in which we find ourselves. It would be presumptuous of us to reject an entire Christian teaching because its communication and application were not well executed by fallible people. It’s time to find a way forward—past the Purity Movement—that helps us fuse what we know about sex with what we know about God and how he wants us to live.
Two Steps Back
We need an ethic that doesn’t treat sex as an action depending wholly on our own personal experiences and opinions. Dianna E. Anderson’s book Damaged Goods, published in 2015, is among the most recent attempts to communicate a Christian sexual ethic while rejecting the constructs of the Purity Movement. The book was praised by various Christian authors (such as Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Paul Turner, and others) as insightful commentary on the issue at hand. By the end of Anderson’s book, she concludes only two key guiding principles that Christians should cling to in relation to their sex lives: everything must be consensual and participants must “feel ready.”
Anderson rejects the entire notion that Christians should be chaste. Throughout her book she attempts to exegete various Scripture passages about sex and marriage. Her conclusions tend to be: See, it doesn’t really say that sex is only for marriage. It doesn’t explicitly say that marriage is to be between one man and one woman.
Anderson’s exegesis implies that from the outset of her analysis she is looking for a clear “thou shalt not,” and when she doesn’t find it, she abandons church teaching. She rightfully rejects harmful effects of Purity Movement teachings (unhealthy guilt about lustful thoughts, a disconnectedness from one’s own body). However, her larger conclusions are not biblical because they don’t correspond with greater biblical narratives about human nature, God’s love, and the Christian story of redemption.
Many young Christians I know have adopted Anderson’s line of thinking without reading her book. When true-love-waits theology didn’t match our experience with the real world, and when our experience with Scripture didn’t match what our pastors told us, we booted a biblical sexual ethic in lieu of an un-Christian idea: as long as everyone is ready and consenting, we can do whatever we want. But how is it possible to have a complete biblical articulation about what this kind of “ready” means? And since when are virtuous Christian decisions rooted solely in personal preference?
One of the unforeseen results of the Purity Movement is that young adult Christians, unable to discern our way through Scripture, have ended up with no biblical sexual values at all.
A Way Forward
I don’t have all the answers, but I have found a book that is helping me take steps in a more biblical direction. Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity was published by Lauren Winner back in 2005. (When I was still in middle school! Why didn’t anyone tell me?) I’ve not been able to find this book at any Christian bookstore, but it’s the brazen honesty about sex and Christian chastity that I’ve been seeking for years. Winner’s conclusions about biblical sexuality bring with them a deep examination of the nature of biblical ritual, the order of creation, the complexity of biblical covenants, and how these boil down to, for example, physicality with boyfriends at the end of date nights.
Winner deconstructs the Purity Movement’s legalistic teachings by digging deeper into Scripture, not retreating from it. Her conclusions are open to implications that may be difficult or explicitly unexciting. She is not looking for a “thou shalt not.” From the beginning she acknowledges that proof-texting Scripture for rules about sex does not work (whether for the Purity Movement’s explanations to teenagers or for Anderson’s explanation to young adults, in my opinion) because “an isolated verse from 1 Thessalonians [is] about the easiest thing in the world to ignore” (31).
Instead, Winner demonstrates how sex in any context outside of a marriage (pornography, masturbation, premarital intercourse) is only a “partial truth” in comparison to unified fullness for which it was created. She writes, “Like idolatry, fornication is a wrong reflection of a right creational impulse. We were made for sex. And so premarital sex tells a partial truth; that’s why it resonates with something. But partial truths are destructive. They push us to created good wrongly lived” (121).
Winner’s thoughts about what it means to be a sexually active Christian are embedded in biblical narratives about having a Christian body, living in a Christian community as part of the Church, and nurturing Christian virtues. These explanations are more likely to form and instruct teenagers theologically than comparisons to old gum or encouragement toward sexual free-for-alls. The arguments presented in Winner’s book are also more holistically biblical than both the legalistic constructs of the Purity Movement and the secular ideology we’ve adopted instead.
Winner concludes what we’ve known all along: Christians should not engage in sex outside of wedlock. But Winner’s analysis does not ignore the questions that are not eradicated by this single rule. The vast chasm between holding hands and intercourse is not lost on her exegesis. And her concluding ideas maintain that God cares about our actions every step of the way.
Let’s Talk about Sex
Even after the damage we’ve suffered from Purity Movement legalism, we should learn to be open to the teachings and history of the church, the blunt reality of Scripture, and all the consequences for our lives to which those things may amount. Instead, many of us have rejected a fundamental Christian teaching that is millennia old and created an opposing one in its place. Mea Culpa, we should all sigh together.
Not only do we need a collective attitude adjustment, but we need more frequent and frank dialogue—among peers, pastoral leadership, biblical scholars, etc.—about this touchy subject. I can’t count the number of people who have told me they feel stalled in their understanding of this matter because it’s a taboo conversation to start in a church.
And the conversations will also serve as a path to forgiving our ill-advised and ill-prepared youth pastors for their mistakes. How were they to know that their metaphors would haunt us so deeply and lead us to distorted understandings of ourselves and Christian doctrine? As cliché as it sounds, most of them were probably only doing what they thought was best. It’s time we all stopped wallowing and moved on.
The first thing we need in order to start these difficult conversations is a change in disposition. We should be more open to ways in which God might ask us to live—even if we prefer another way. Even if they bring up old baggage from awkward youth camps and misguided teachings we received at younger ages. Even if—especially if—it means forgiving people who may have wronged us in the past.