Undoing the damage caused by “purity culture”

I follow a group called Thank God for Sex on Twitter (it’s not what you think). Recently they posed this question for their followers: “When was the first time you can remember learning about purity culture?”

Some Twitter users wrote that they first started hearing these messages – the idea that physical purity is the truest measure of (mostly female) worth – as early as age 2 or 3 (!). For me, it was much later. My parents are secular Jewish liberals; none of those lessons were taught in my house (or in my reformed synagogue, for that matter).

No, the first time I was introduced to “purity culture” was in early high school at a seminar called Silver Ring Thing. Oddly enough, in a small conservative town like mine, an event like this was a must-see. All my friends were Christians, and I was enough of an oddball already, so I didn’t hesitate about saying yes when I got invited to attend.

You see, I was a very strange little girl. Despite being raised in a liberal home, and despite being Jewish, with no interest in Christianity whatsoever, I was still interested in Christian ideals like purity. I had picture books about saints like Joan of Arc to really drive the purity message home: what you do with your body matters. Sex matters.

By the time I was old enough to properly date, I believed in saving sex for marriage. What I saw at the SRT seminar reinforced those beliefs, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I started carefully deconstructing those messages, and the damage hiding beneath them (don’t take my word for it: check out SRT’s gift shop, and take note of the ‘Don’t Contaminate Your Life’ sticker).

I still remember the seminar very clearly. In an attempt to be hip and relevant, Silver Ring Thing’s messages were delivered through skits, comedy acts, and personal testimonies. The skit that stands out most in my memory is one where a girl carries a cardboard heart, offering pieces of it to different boys in her class (always a girl doing this, mind you). But these pieces of her ‘heart’ weren’t just accepted casually – stuffed in a pocket or stored elsewhere. No, they were destroyed. One guy brought out – I kid you not – a blowtorch to burn this poor girl’s ‘heart,’ so by the time she’s standing at the altar, all she has left to offer her husband is a small, charred splinter.


But wait! There’s hope! If anyone in the audience already had sex, they could still achieve ‘honorary purity’ by asking God’s forgiveness and ‘starting over.’

I have no doubt that God can redeem anything. It’s just a little problematic to spend so much time making sex look evil, the damage so traumatizing, for an almost thirty-minute skit…only to squeeze the redemption message within the last two minutes of the show.

Which message do you really think is going to resonate more? Nearly ten years later, I still remember the blowtorch.

Students who experienced sexual abuse were included in the presentation, too, with the same reminder of redemption. But I wish the speakers had devoted more time to advising counseling, reporting the abuse to the proper authorities, and most importantly, the fact that rape does not equal loss of virginity. Rape has nothing to do with purity, and the ‘giving up’ of one’s virginity is a personal choice (the exact definition of “virginity,” and whether it even exists, is a subject for another post).

As a Christian, I believe sex should be reserved for marriage. I don’t fundamentally disagree with the message that society would be better off – less STDs, single parenthood, less heartbreak – if everyone saved sex for marriage. Obviously, that’s not the reality we live in. There has to be a better way to communicate abstinence than what I witnessed, since the odds of today’s teenagers waiting until marriage are not in their favor: the average American gets married in their late twenties (as fate would have it, I’ll be married at the exact average age an American woman is predicted to marry: 26).

As an adult, I’m having a great deal of trouble defining “purity” in a way that doesn’t reap shame and condemnation for those who didn’t follow the path of abstinence. Surely there is more to the worth of a person than how they express their sexuality? Surely there is more to offer a spouse than an intact hymen (if you’re even born with one), because sex alone does not a great marriage make: marriage is built on trust, respect, fidelity…qualities I value far more in my fiancé than what he did or didn’t do with prior girlfriends before he even met me.

If you’ve been taught that sex can make you as undesirable as a charred piece of cardboard, what miracle occurs on the wedding night that suddenly makes it okay?

Chances are, the teens that don’t keep their virginity till marriage may find the act of sex to be anything but shameful and damaging. If that message from their trusted church leaders is proven false, perhaps they’ll start to wonder what else the church might be lying to them about.


8 thoughts on “Undoing the damage caused by “purity culture”

  1. Pingback: It was never about bathrooms, or protecting women and children – Sarahbeth Caplin

  2. Bravo young lady!!! I hope more church leaders will read this and understand. The message should be focused on both sexes and not single out girls for shaming. Women have enough to deal with in our male dominated society as it is.


  3. Pingback: #TreasuryofSmallBlogs for July 2014 | Elizabeth Esther

  4. Looking back on when i was a Youth Pastor and I used to teach the “True Love Waits” material to students, it never even crossed my mind how I was being unfair to women regarding “purity.” I even used a rose illustration explaining to girls that if they sleep aruond, they wont have a rose to give to their future spouse. I never intended to communicate what I indirectly did. Now, however, I prefer to use the phrase “sexual faithfulness.” I think it has a better ring to it and is applicable;e to both males and females–and it doesn’t carry the baggage that sexual purity unfortunately does nowadays. Thanks for your post!


    • I’m willing to bet most pastors/church leaders using similar analogies don’t realize the extent of what they’re saying, either. But that’s good you are able to recognize it now!


    • I think you’re onto something by emphasizing “faithfulness” instead of purity. The entire purity idea is so wretched and such a history of baggage – long before purity rings, it even reinforced racism because brown skin is “dirty.”


  5. Beth,

    Mazel Tov ! (I hope you don’t mind me using that phrase? 🙂 ).

    One is tempted to say ‘ no sex please, we’re British’ and stick to the stiff upper lip.

    But that just won’t do, so :

    As for sex , my own faith’s (Sephardi Orthodox Judaism) view is that I agree sexual intercourse is best left to be within marriage, but that sex is a good thing to be encouraged e.g. sex with one’s spouse is encouraged on the Sabbath & you should continue to have sex as a couple even after the capacity to have children has gone.

    On the other hand, I personally think you do have to be realistic about these matters and I’d also say that what a 34 year old adult bloke and his girlfriend, who are both in a committed relationship (I stress that word) , do or don’t ‘get up to’ is no-one’s business but their own & if you believe in a deity between the two of you and him . A kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell attitude’, on the broad assumption such a relationship leads to marriage.

    For the rest of society, I am just not bothered with the sex lives of other people; it isn’t my business & or that of the state (with a few circumstances which need not detain us here). It is like when people automatically assume my gay sister ( I think you’ve said hello on another forum) is in a sexual relationship with her girlfriend. It isn’t my assumption to make and it isn’t my business to know.

    Contradictory I know, but hey that is I all told.


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