The problem with “purity culture” is not purity

She was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian homeschooling family, with loving but legalistic parents. Or maybe they were more protective than legalistic; as an adult, she is still trying to puzzle that out. There is no doubt in her mind that they loved her and meant well.

The circles in which they traveled, especially as she approached her teens, emphasized — among other things — purity. Although her brothers got what came across to her as somewhat of a token, “Oh, by the way, boys and men need to stay pure also”, the real targets of the “purity message” were the girls. Whether or not her parents, pastors, youth leaders, and the authors of the books and articles she read intended to teach her the following, this is what she came to believe:

  • Purity is defined exclusively in sexual terms. Sexual deeds make you impure. Thoughts do too, but to a much lesser extent.
  • The single most important and valuable thing about a girl is her purity. It is the most precious gift she can give her husband, yet it is also owed him to the extent that she is robbing him should she squander her purity on anyone else.
  • Boys and men have many other things that are important and valuable about them, and many other things to offer their future wives. Their purity is of lesser value, does not define their worth, and is not the most important thing about them.
  • The most valuable thing about a girl or woman is her sexuality. It might be the only thing of value about her, unless she marries a man who also appreciates her homemaking skills. However, even the most amazing domestic talents and abilities will never make up for being sexually impure, broken, or lacking.
  • Men are far more valuable than women, because they are not judged and defined solely by their sexuality.
  • While it’s nice if your future husband does not have a sexual past, he does not owe you his purity. You have no right to be judgmental or unforgiving of anything he might have done. His past, if he has repented of it, should no longer matter.
  • A girl is not only responsible for guarding her own purity, but the purity of everyone who encounters her. She needs to scrutinize her actions and appearance at all times in order to make sure she is not causing anyone to stumble.
  • It is impossible for boys and men to maintain purity in their thought lives. In fact, there is no such thing. Males are wired in such a way as to be on the verge of sexually explicit thoughts and desires at all times, and thus the most seemingly innocent thing can set them off. For example, if a boy sees a girl with wet hair, he cannot help imagining her naked in a shower, begging him to have sex with her.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman that they want to have sex with. This would seem like a problem in marriage but, while it’s important for an unmarried woman to gain the respect of men, wives supposedly no longer need respect. Only husbands do.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman who has lost her purity. It’s kind of debatable whether the sex act in marriage causes a woman to lose her purity or not. After all, the fact that she “gives” her purity (as the greatest gift she could possibly give) to her husband implies that she no longer possesses it. Luckily she only needs love from her husband and not respect. Marriage apparently mysteriously transforms a woman that way.
  • Once a girl or woman loses her purity before marriage, she is ruined forever. She can repent and be forgiven by God, but her purity is gone, never to be regained. She has robbed and cheated her husband out of the only thing of real value about her.

The young woman I am writing about is not the only one to believe these things. Not by a long shot.

I would hope that readers would see this as a problematic message. Whether or not this is the intention of the proponents of “purity culture”, it is what many young women are learning in homes, churches, youth groups, books, articles, blog posts, homeschooling conferences, etc., often with heartbreaking and disastrous consequences. One need not search very hard on the internet to find tragic story after story. Some young women who were harmed by growing up with these pervasive messages are now speaking out quite strongly against not only “purity culture” itself, but the very idea of remaining sexually pure until marriage.

The problems with “purity culture” are legion, but I will address only three of them for now:

1. It sexualizes women and girls — even very young girls — and repeats our media-saturated culture’s false message that women’s value is measured by sexuality and little or nothing else.

I mentioned the creepy sexualization of little girls when I wrote about “Purity Balls” on my old blog. In many ways, “purity culture” robs little girls of their innocence by forcing them to view themselves as sexual beings when they should be running and playing and learning — free of concerns about their future wedding nights. We should be teaching them what it means to be a follower of Jesus now, as wonderful little girls, and how they are of infinitely more value to Him, and more beloved, than they could ever imagine.

We need to tell girls and women that their worth rests in far, far more than their sexuality. The most valuable, precious gift a woman can give her husband is herself, in all her fullness and complexity. Sexuality is a part of that, yes, but I must emphasize again that her worth is in her personhood — who she is in the totality of her being, her talents and abilities, her personality and character, her knowledge and wisdom, her life experiences, her accomplishments, her relationship with God, her morals and values, her thoughts and opinions, her hopes and dreams — all that and more makes her uniquely who she is — and that’s what she brings into marriage.

Her sexuality is not a commodity that she sells in exchange for a wedding ring, or that her father sells on her behalf. Marriage is neither prostitution nor domestic service. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Any teaching or belief that even hints that it might be, or that virginity is owed as part of the transaction, is ungodly. Any boy who does not truly understand what is most precious about any woman — far, far more precious than her virginity — is not ready to be a husband…or at least not a very good one.

2. “Purity culture” has no idea what purity really is. Purity is not some treasure that girls are born with and that they need to guard desperately and fearfully until the day that they give it to their husbands. No one need weep on her wedding night, as one distraught “purity culture” young woman did, over the loss of what once defined and gave her worth.

Purity is not an intact hymen. It is not virginity. It is not a lack of sexual experience. It is not even saving your first kiss for the wedding. Purity is not a “thing” that you can give away or that someone can steal from you.

More times than I care to count, I’ve been told heartbreaking accounts of young girls being sexually abused, molested, and raped, often by people they loved and trusted. Such despicable evil perpetrated against a child damages and wounds his or her soul in a way that is indescribable.

It is all the more devastating if you believe that the most important thing about you, the precious gift you owe your future husband, has been stolen forever, obliterated and destroyed. Your body may heal. The deep wounds no one sees may heal as well. But your purity is gone forever. And, if you are a girl, so is most of your worth.

Of course that is a lie, an evil lie, from the very pit of hell itself. Unfortunately, it is one that many deeply hurting young girls have learned from “purity culture”.

Old Testament Jewish law had a lot of perplexing and burdensome commandments about cleanliness and purity. The good news is that, as followers of Jesus, we are no longer under that system of law. In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus declared all foods clean, teaching that what a person eats does not defile him or her. He was doing more than lifting the dietary law; he was teaching what makes a person defiled or impure:

Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from the outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart…That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.

To be very graphic, when a rapist invades the body of his victim, she may feel defiled, but she is not. He may have robbed her of her innocence, by the horrible evil he has inflicted upon her, but he has not robbed her of purity. He has defiled himself — long before he committed the sin of rape — not her.

The Bible talks about different kinds of purity: of heart, of devotion, of doctrine, and more. No one is born with pure devotion and pure doctrine, and then needs to avoid giving those forms of purity away prematurely to the wrong person. We would laugh if someone taught, “Save your doctrinal purity for your spouse, because it’s the most valuable gift you can give him or her!” No man except a lunatic would say, “Well, she started believing some really messed up stuff there for awhile, some actual heresies, and she lost her doctrinal purity. Thankfully, she repented and has seen the error of her ways but I’m sorry, I want to marry a woman who saved her doctrinal purity for me.”

I’m not making light of the fact that sexual pasts can invade the present. I firmly believe that avoiding sexual sin is a good, righteous, and important thing, but it is something that should be undertaken to obey God, not to avoid “losing the most precious thing one can give to one’s spouse”. Also, if we are going to emphasize purity, we need to emphasize true purity, in all its forms, and not just female virginity. We need to make sure those of us who are teaching purity are pursuing it as well — in our thoughts and our actions.

I would also argue that it is a sign of impurity when a father looks at his sweet, innocent little girl and becomes overly concerned about her hymen, as if it belongs to him until he turns it over — hopefully still intact — to another man. I would argue that it is a sign of impurity when a man buys his little girl a beautiful dress and takes her out to a fancy ball, the fulfillment of her sweet childish princess dreams — and then makes it all about sex. It takes a certain amount of impurity for a man to begin teaching his little girl that a fancy night out with a man always has strings attached, this time that she must promise him, “I pledge to remain sexually pure…until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband…”

The lack of understanding of true purity is because of my next point.

3. “Purity culture” lacks a real understanding of the gospel.

In Isaiah 1:18, God says, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow.” In other words…pure as the driven snow…

In 1 Corinthians 6, we read a list of all the sorts of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God, followed by these words:

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

That’s the part of the gospel that the “purity culture” people seem to be overlooking. When God forgives our sins, He washes them away and we become pure. We negate the work of the Cross, the tremendous sacrifice our Savior paid, when we act as if purity has some source other than Him, and when we act as if the stain of sexual sin is so deep that God’s grace is insufficient to purify it.

Many of us who grew up in the church memorized 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Unfortunately, proponents of “purity culture” do not really believe that verse. If they did, more husbands would be honest in admitting, “I feel jealous and insecure because my wife had sex with other men in her past, and I’m having a hard time not holding it against her” — instead of maligning both the gospel and the character of their repentant wife by saying, “She was not pure when I married her.” To hear some men talk, one would think their wives had gone straight from working in a brothel to the wedding, without even bothering to take a shower in between. It doesn’t matter how long ago a woman’s sexual past may have been, or how fervently she pursued righteousness in the meantime, or how pure her devotion to Jesus — her husband still sees her as impure. The gospel means so little to him.

The irony is that few of these same men want a truly pure wife. What they want is a “whitewashed sepulchre”, all clean and beautiful on the outside but not so much on the inside. They want a wife who is pure in body but not necessarily in heart, a wife with a virginal body who will somehow automatically know how to fulfill her husband’s porn-driven masturbatory fantasies. Too much purity of conscience, too much innocence, too much devotion to God might get in the way of that.

As for the young woman at the beginning of this post…according to “purity culture”, she lost her purity, first because of what someone did to her against her will and then later by her own choice. After a few years living as a prodigal (I love prodigals!) she returned, not quite to the faith of her youth but to a new, more life-giving, fervent, simple yet profound, intimate faith. She eventually met a man who recognized her purity — along with many of her other wonderful qualities, including her approach to Christianity — and fell in love with her. Last I heard, they are living out their own happily ever after story, as far removed as possible from the false teachings of “purity culture”, and instead pursuing together what 2 Corinthians 11:3 refers to as “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.