Purity Culture

Trigger warning: this is about purity culture so it may be overwhelming for readers raised in purity culture environments.

In my own definition, purity culture was a Christian movement in the 90’s (with a start even in the 70’s/80’s) that continued into the early 2000’s, possibly beyond. It was meant to protect young people’s sexual purity by minimizing casual dating/breaking up, refusing romantic physical touch before marriage and stopping all reckless sexual behavior/exploration in unsupervised young people. For me, the two biggest names that come to mind behind this movement are Joshua Harris and Bill Gothard, although there are many, many others. (This is an overall statement against the movement in general, not necessarily specific people.)

What I experienced of this purity culture is only my story to tell. There are countless other people, mostly women, who’ve experienced purity culture as extremely negative and we all have something to bring to the table. I mean no disrespect to my parents in how they taught me and brought me up. They were simply doing their best to serve God and raise me in the most Christlike way possible. However, what I can now say in looking back on this movement is that it was and still is highly extreme. I believe extremes are very dangerous, confusing and in many cases destructive emotionally, spiritually and physically. (I know from personal experience.)

I saw many effects of purity culture on my friends when we were growing up but since their families were far more conservative than mine, I really thought I had been spared. Now I’m not so sure. I too have a very complicated and intricate story (regarding purity culture) to tell, which has taken me years to process, heal from and come to terms with. Purity culture is confusing to talk about, because on the outside it boasts of Christian ethics and moral standards, many of which are seemingly Biblical. However, even pure and righteous intentions, pursued in the wrong ways and taken in the wrong directions become twisted, burdensome and ungodly as seen in the rotten fruit that comes from it.

Purity culture is hard to explain since many of us who grew up in it were isolated in our own subculture religious families and small churches/homeschool groups. This was also before the internet became widely used and smart phones were only just starting to be sold. I signed up for a Facebook account in 2007. By that time, I had just graduated from my homeschool group with a high school degree while I simultaneously completed college credits at a nearby junior college.

What I remember most about purity culture are phrases; things I heard growing up from other women in the church or my mom or friends’ moms or acquaintances. Things I heard in women’s ministry or Bible study. Things talked about at women’s retreats or religious conferences (aka Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles.) It’s hard to say exactly when and where I heard these things, but I can never unhear them. I heard things like “men are only visual so you must protect their hearts by covering up your skin and showing no curves, underwear lines or bra straps.” “Be modest and don’t adorn yourself, which is what 1 Peter 3:3-4 says.” “Don’t go on dates alone as this tempts promiscuous behavior; rather only pursue courtship in groups and supervised settings.” (See Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye.) “Men are the head of the household and since they represent Christ and you represent the church, total submission is the only thing you must do when married.”

Contradictions abounded when I also heard: “Your godly character and gentle and quiet spirit are what really matter.” (Except that I was also told men only look at my outward appearance, which would be a stumbling block if I wasn’t modest enough.) “Men can never just be friends.” (Except that I was told I couldn’t date so friendship was supposedly my only option of interacting with the opposite sex.) “You’re under the headship of your father until you marry and then you submit to your husband.” (Never mind the verses about the Holy Spirit leading all Christians, all believers submitting to one another and in Christ there is neither male nor female.) “Your greatest calling as a woman is to be a wife and mother.” (Except that in the Bible’s New Testament we’re called to make disciples of all the nations, not be fruitful and multiply as seen in the Old Testament’s command to Israel.) “Don’t let fleshly desire, romantic affection and sexual drive rule you.” (Except that those things are good, made by God and that self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit.)

There are far more harmful ramifications to these phrases than I can even say. But believe me, I live with the effects daily and I’m still untangling the mess. They all influenced my view of myself and women in general. I was always feeling that I was less than men. As a less “feminine”-dressing woman (because of personal preference and comfort,) I was always feeling less than other more “feminine”-dressing women. I was always feeling less than for wanting a college degree and career first instead of getting married young and becoming pregnant.

I grew up feeling a lack of self-worth. I grew up thinking I could never be valued for my own unique self, as I fully am. I grew up thinking I was not pretty. I grew up thinking I should never look beautiful or appealing because that would cause a man to stumble, which would be my fault for making him sin. I grew up believing my female body was sinful because I had to cover up most of it and conceal its natural shape in order to be modest. I grew up believing I’d never have a say in my potential future marriage because my husband would have God on his side, making it okay for him to order me around and I’d have to obey. I grew up believing all my emotions and desires for relationships and human connection before marriage were bad. (Forget about the fact that getting married without some sort of a premarital relationship with someone you deeply connect with is highly unwise and in many cases a recipe for divorce. But I digress.)

Even farther-reaching negative consequences have been seen in denying women roles in church leadership, condemning queer people and criticizing those who wish to remain unmarried or childless. But those are different topics for different days.

To sum up my honest story, I’d like to make some passionate pleas to Christians today. Please examine purity culture and its effects upon those of us who were raised in it. Take responsibility if you had a part in this and apologize where appropriate. In the present day, please do not push extreme ideals. Purity culture prioritized perfectionistic standards instead of pursuing wisdom. It valued legalistic rules instead of discernment. It over-corrected instead of providing healthy instructions for relationships. It abused exaggeration and control instead of relying on trust and faith in God. I won’t go on, but you get the idea. I wish moderation had been integrated into all this instead of unattainable black and white absolutes.

Of course, boundaries are a good and necessary part of any healthy family, especially one with adolescents. I would affirm that every teenager should be given parental guidance and proper instruction regarding hormones, romantic relationships and sex. However, shame should never be a part of the equation. Shame is neither healthy nor godly. (If you haven’t read Brené Brown’s research on shame, please do. It is the best I’ve seen on this topic and has greatly benefited my life.)

What I experienced most from purity culture more than anything else is shame. Shame from my female body, appearance, sexual feelings, sexuality and desire for romantic connection. Shame is not of God. Shame was used as a tool of manipulation by a fearful generation. I’d venture to say it was even used as a weapon by an overwhelmingly power-hungry male church leadership across America for at least a decade, if not two or three decades or more.

In conclusion to all of this, please help me make a change in our Christian circles today. Please leave shame out of our lives and our influence on others. Seek purity but not at the devastating price of causing self-hatred and agony over failure to keep man-made rules and regulations. Please do not use the Bible to control people. Please do not use peer pressure to bully people. Please do not forget that the Holy Spirit is actually influencing our daily lives as Christians. And ultimately, please trust God to take care of our whole being, which is an intricate living experience with interconnected spiritual, physical, emotional and mental capacities. I’m sure God knew what God was doing when we were created. God doesn’t need us to reinvent the wheel. As believers, we have the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, in addition to the wisdom of the Word of God. Please let us learn from our past and not bury, ignore or repeat it in other extreme ways.