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”.

On treating survivors with respect | Trauma Tuesday

A message for those who have sexual trauma survivors in their lives 

Our boundaries were horribly violated by whoever it was that raped, molested, or sexually abused us. The last thing we need is for people to erode or violate our boundaries further — especially people who claim to care for us. A true ally will respect us, build us up, and encourage us to stand strong.

We don’t need fairytale knights in shining armor to swoop in and rescue us. We need real, genuine allies in our struggle, people who will have our backs and respect us for who we truly are — rather than treating us as damaged goods, or viewing us as weak and helpless damsels in distress.


Note: I fully recognize that not all rape survivors are women. However, since I am writing from that perspective, and since it is awkward to keep writing “he/she”, I will use mostly female pronouns and terms to refer to survivors.


I came across this in an article I read recently, called  “5 Reasons Shaming Survivors into Reporting Rape is Counter-Productive“:

Rape is an awful experience in which a person’s bodily autonomy is ignored and violated. It’s an act in which someone isn’t allowed to control what happens to their body.

For this reason, it’s vital that a survivor has control over their own healing process.

We need to accept the fact that the survivor themself is best equipped to make decisions about their own healing and how to deal with their own trauma…

While this article dealt with the issue of survivors being pressured or shamed into reporting their rapes to the police, it makes valid points about a broader issue: non-survivors presuming that they are in a better position to determine what would be the best course of action for a survivor. Often this is well-meaning protectiveness, with a wannabe ally honestly believing that his/her “rational”, non-traumatized thinking should be given far more credence than the survivor’s wishes, needs, and desire for safety. Sometimes the non-survivor is not a true ally at all, and has another agenda which — in his or her mind — trumps the well-being of the survivor.

I’ve lost count of the survivor stories I’ve heard and read in which the survivor was silenced out of someone else’s concern for the family, misguided loyalty to the perpetrators, or the desire to avoid a “scandal”. On the flip side of that are survivors whose stories were told and spread about against their will, for a variety of different reasons. Survivors I know have been accused of being “selfish” for wanting to control their own healing process, selfish for wanting desperately to regain a sense of agency and autonomy, selfish for desiring privacy, even selfish for wanting to manage their PTSD. Non-survivors simply do not understand how re-traumatizing it is when they show disregard for a survivor’s consent, and when they do not honor and help us strengthen our boundaries but seek to dismantle, ignore, or even ride roughshod over them.

I’m not talking about necessary crisis intervention or medical attention for a desperately injured woman who is crying, “Please leave me alone and let me die.” I’m talking about the sense of superiority some individuals feel merely because they have, thus far, not been raped — and they believe this somehow gives them a better perspective on how to negotiate the aftermath of sexual trauma. Worse, some seem to believe their status as non-survivors entitles them to ignore and even violate a survivor’s boundaries.

My words might sound harsh and overly condemning. That’s not my intent. I freely admit that I’m being blunt, and not mincing words, because I’ve discovered that the gentle, subtle and nuanced approach doesn’t tend to work well with those who have a tendency to push or cross boundaries. (A kinder, gentler resource for men — husbands, partners, and fathers — can be found here.) Some well-meaning people might honestly think they are trying to “help”, and that this justifies their attempts to control the survivor. It’s for her own good, they tell themselves. The reality, however, is that ignoring or violating the autonomy of a sexual trauma survivor is never in his or her best interests, except perhaps in a few extreme, life or death type situations.

Let’s look at a few of the far more common situations where non-survivors often add to the trauma of survivors by refusing to accept that the survivor herself is best equipped to make decisions about her own healing:

  • Telling others about the sexual trauma without the survivor’s consent. I understand that “secondary survivors” may feel a need for advice or a listening ear; however, this should be negotiated with the survivor. You do not own her, nor do you own her story. You should not get to decide who to tell or not tell. You do not get to decide or dictate her feelings in the matter. It doesn’t matter if you think you have all sorts of compelling reasons to tell her family, your family, your best buddies — or whoever it is that you feel the urge to tell — if you respect the survivor at all, you will honor her decision whether you agree with it or not. If you do not respect the survivor enough to allow her to determine who gets told and when, you are not her ally, nor are you a safe person for her. Period.
  • Pressing for details the survivor does not wish to tell you. It seems incredibly obvious to me that someone who genuinely cares for a survivor would respect their boundaries, yet I’m shocked at how many people don’t. Your curiosity does not justify intrusion.
  • Trying to pressure the survivor into a specific course of action. No, you don’t know better than she does. She knows what she can or can’t handle better than you do. (Read the article I referenced above.)
  • Insisting on being treated as an “ally”. Rape and sexual trauma violates — in a most terrible way — a person’s autonomy and moral agency. Having had sexual acts forced on her does not make it suddenly appropriate for a survivor to have other acts — including those you find “trivial” — and relationships forced upon her, no matter how much you may want to “be there” for her. True allies don’t pressure or insist. Instead, without a hint of coercion, they allow the survivor to approve the nature and extent of the relationship.

This includes spouses and significant others. You shouldn’t demand to be her “support person”, or to occupy a role she doesn’t want you to have. Unfortunately, I know of husbands, unable to accept this, who have gotten jealous of therapists and support group members who “knew more about the rape” than they did, and who felt they should be the survivor’s main confidante and source of emotional support. They only ended up proving themselves to be less safe and trustworthy, not more.

  • Attempting to choose a survivor’s allies for her. The husband of a survivor kept nagging his wife to “talk” to the wife of one of his buddies. “She got over her rape, and I bet she could really help you.” He dismissed as irrelevant that his wife barely knew this woman and had no desire to discuss with her the most traumatic, horrible experience of her life. That should be reason enough for a truly caring person to back off, but it took a lot of persuasion to finally convince this guy.
  • Trying to persuade or “guilt” a survivor into sharing more with her spouse or significant other than she is comfortable doing. Each person is different. Each marriage is different. Each survivor’s comfort level is different in terms of how much to tell other people in her life. Her comfort level should be honored, even if you think you would make entirely different decisions in her place.

Telling anyone about sexual trauma is difficult. Telling a male is usually even more so. Telling a spouse or significant other can be exponentially more difficult and frightening. Non-survivors tend not to grasp the enormity of this. If you care about a survivor, lay off the pressure and guilt tactics. The survivor’s boundaries should be encouraged and respected, not questioned and criticized.

Note of caution regarding marriage or “pastoral” counseling: It should go without saying that counselors should not attempt to guilt a survivor for “keeping secrets” about the rape from her husband, should not urge her to hand him her journals, should not recommend her husband have full access to her therapy records, and should not try to convince her that she “owes” her husband a detailed account of her rape. It should go without saying, but there are some counselors who simply do not understand the dynamics of sexual trauma, nor do they encourage appropriately healthy boundaries in either individuals or relationships. One would hope that a professional therapist would know better, but often lay or pastoral counselors may not have received training adequate to our needs. Sometimes their understanding of what constitutes a “healthy” marriage or spirituality does not take the realities of sexual trauma into account and would in fact be very unhealthy for a survivor.

  • Telling a survivor how to feel or react — thus invalidating her own experience. You don’t get to decide how she feels, nor do you get to map out her healing journey for her. Again, this is intrusive and can be a major setback for her. She may not act like you think a rape survivor should. Get over it. Her healing is not about reinforcing your stereotypes or making you feel comfortable.
  • Holding up other survivors’ reactions and healing journey as more appropriate or “better”. This is closely related to the previous point. Please give survivors the respect and dignity they deserve by accepting their individuality and autonomy. Not all of us have the same sexual trauma experience or the same recovery process.
  • Pressuring a survivor to trust someone she is not ready to trust. For many survivors, rape was a violation of trust. We need to be allowed to learn to trust again on our terms. We need to feel safe before we consider allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to another person. It can’t be rushed. Trust can’t be forced. It would be cruel, inhumane, and damaging not to allow a survivor to set her own pace.

The best way to earn our trust? Be trustworthy. And trust us— it’s a two-way street.

When complimenting women

I’ve been in a number of situations where various men, who I prefer to believe were clueless as opposed to ill-intentioned, complimented women in a way that obviously caused them to feel awkward and uncomfortable. I have also heard men complain that women can no longer “take a compliment”. So I offer the following to any man willing to listen.

This is not a “how to flirt” list, nor is it “how to compliment your wife”. Instead, it assumes a non-romantic relationship, although some of the suggestions would apply to any relationship, and to women as complimenters as well as men.

  1. Consider the relationship. Just because a man may notice something about me does not make it appropriate for him to comment on it.
  2. With non-relatives, be very cautious about giving complements you would never give to a man. You would never say something like, “You’re such a sweet little man and you always dress in the cutest clothes!” You might say, “I appreciate how kindly you treat others. And I like that jacket. It looks great.”
  3. Treat the object of your compliment as a person, first and foremost.  You don’t need to keep reminding her that she is a woman, or act as if you can’t get past her femaleness. (See #2. The way I adapt these guideline is by not complementing a non-relative male on any masculine attribute — which would most likely be inappropriate anyway — and by not adding the slightest hint of a sexual overtone by emphasizing his gender. I might say, “You have a unique musical talent,” but I won’t say, “You are such a talented man.”)
  4. Don’t use “compliments” as a means of embarrassing women and girls. Be succinct and make sure the compliment is welcome. Compliment something you honestly believe the recipient would want you to affirm. If not, apologize (“I’m sorry if I was out of line” or “I’m sorry for embarrassing you”) and then be quiet. 
  5. Don’t be effusive and don’t gush. That’s just creepy.
  6. Make sure there is an altruistic purpose to your compliments. As Christians, we should encourage one another, but we need to be careful that we are encouraging the right things in the right ways. The compliment should be for her benefit, not yours. Don’t use flattery to manipulate. Try to never put a woman in the awkward place of wondering about your interest or motives, or being creeped out by your attention.
  7. Be specific. “You’re terrific” or “you’re nice” can sound like insincere flattery or an attempt at flirting. If sincere, it communicates nothing of substance, other than “I like you” — and such declarations are usually, depending on the circumstances, unnecessary or best left unsaid. (See #1) If the compliment is to be meaningful and beneficial to the receiver (see #6) then it needs to be specific: “Your tireless work behind the scenes does not go unnoticed or unappreciated”; “I admire how you stood up to that guy — that took courage and grace”; “You have a way of making us all feel welcome, as if we are your personal guests”; “You are so patient with our son, and so encouraging”; “You have a way with words and a level of insight I appreciate — your latest article is just one example”; “You made the unpleasant ordeal of picking out a new washing machine not an ordeal at all! You were so good at sizing up our needs and wants, and helping us find the right machine. You made it easy, so easy it was almost fun! You have a great sense of humor — I had no idea laundry could be so hilarious.”
  8. Compliment only what you have observed to be true. This can include repeating a compliment you’ve heard/read, as in, “Wow, your play sure got rave reviews!” or “Your parents told me you did great!” But don’t offer meaningless speculation or assume anything about her character, experiences, beliefs, future plans, etc. You might end up looking like a fool or — far worse — might inadvertently make her feel terrible.
  9. Keep your compliments appropriate to the context. If it’s a professional setting, be professional. Affirm her professionalism, work, knowledge, skill, etc. but don’t intrude on her personal life or pretend to “know” other things about her. (See #7. I don’t know any woman who, in her professional life, wants some relative stranger to insist, “I can tell you’re the sort of person who…” especially if he them spouts meaningless flattery.)
  10. Unless she is about 6 years old or younger, avoid words like “cute” or “adorable” — unless you are describing her kitten. Condescending “compliments” are insulting. 
  11. Try to understand that not every woman has a need or even desire to be affirmed by random men. I know that men are often hurt when women — even complete strangers — don’t “appreciate” their compliments. But, except for the most insecure and desperate among us, we don’t need male validation from every Tom, Dick and Harry as much as some men seem to think we do. Having a guy who barely knows me pronounce his positive judgment on me doesn’t necessarily feel like a “compliment” as much as intrusive and nervy. His opinion of me doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to him; often I’d rather he have kept it to himself. So don’t assume women and girls will respond with grateful enthusiasm to your compliments, and try to understand if they act annoyed and put upon. Most of us have already had to endure too much of men judging us and it’s hard to be gracious about it. Plus, there can be a lot of anxiety there too, for good reason — a seemingly “harmless” compliment can suddenly go terribly, terribly bad. However, well-mannered, meaningful, succinct, specific, and appropriate compliments tend to be welcome by almost everyone, male or female.
  12. Avoid the “back-handed” compliment. This means you shouldn’t include any insult or sign of disrespect, no matter how cleverly worded, into your compliment. “You’re not like other girls” is not a compliment, nor is, “You think like a man”.
  13. If you mess up, apologize and drop it. Never berate a woman for not responding as you had hoped. The words “Can’t you take a compliment?” should never cross your lips.

Edited to add this:

14. Or maybe I should call this 1A. Consider the relationship before you address people. I realize that there are cultural differences regarding when terms of endearment are appropriate or not. But, it’s a safe bet that, if we’ve just met and have never been formally introduced, that it’s a bit premature in our “relationship” for us to be considering each other as “dear”, “honey”, and “sweetheart”. Perhaps we should reserve those “sweet nothings” until we get to know each other a bit better. Unless, of course, you’re just being an absent-minded mom of many kids, who doesn’t realize that she now calls everyone — her kids, her husband, the dog, the cat, the mailman, and her pastor — “sweetie” or “honey”…either that or something that sounds like, “Math-Mi-I-Ben-Dan-Jesse…oh, never mind!”