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I kissed purity culture goodbye: the church’s progression toward a sex-positive gospel

Sitting in the cushioned seat at an annual purity conference, 13-year-old Abby Stewart watched as a cup of pure water sat in the hands of the conference leader. The women passed the water around the room, and each student added dirt, beads and even spit to the glass. As the cup made its way back to the front, dirty remnants settled to the bottom. “Would you want to drink this water?” the conference leader asked. Stewart and the other students mumbled a unanimous, vigorous “No!” The leader warned them that, if they compromised their sexual purity, they too would end up like the dirt filled glass of water: unclean and undesirable.

Now 21 years old, Stewart recognizes the trauma and shame she had to shed to overcome the purity culture she grew up in and reclaim confidence in herself: “I don’t remember ever feeling confident about my body because of something the church taught me. I do remember feeling deep shame, guilt and responsibility for the instincts of men. It has taken me years to come to terms with my body.”

Stewart is not the only person whom the purity culture has affected deeply and negatively.

In 1981, as title XX of the Public Health Service Act, Congress introduced The Adolescent Family Life Act, also known as the chastity law. The purpose of the act was to empower the government to stop the spike in unintended pregnancies and curb the spread of HIV/Aids. The program has received $125 million tax dollars to date, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. Federal funding for abstinence-only education wasn’t defunded until the Obama Administration in 2009, and many schools still use it. When the AFLA was introduced in 1981, many churches took advantage of the promotion of chastity, thus beginning what is now referred to as the “purity culture” within the Evangelical church.

Richard Ross, a professor at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and Jimmy Hester—who worked for LifeWay before he died in 2011—were on the forefront of the early stages of purity culture, founding the True Love Waits movement. It introduced Christian sex education into churches (which changed to abstinence only mentality). Marches and conferences were organized all over the country, though the most notable march was in Washington D.C. in 1994. According to Ross’s website, “210,000 [purity commitment] cards displayed on the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument; 25,000 youth attend rally.” True Love Waits is still a part of LifeWay’s brand and the ministry still seeks to gain signatures from youths expressing their commitment to wait until marriage for sex.

In a study by Hannah Brückner of Yale and Peter Bearman of Columbia reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 88 percent of purity pledgers had premarital intercourse. This 2001 study was a follow up to their earlier report on surveys they conducted between 1994 and 1996, at the height of the purity pledge movement. Responses revealed that, while pledges delayed sexual initiation in younger teens by 34 percent, once they did engage, they were one-third less likely to use protection. The study also found that those who had signed purity pledges and those who did not had an equal rate of contracting STDs. Additionally, women who were purity pledgers got married earlier than those who were not.

Popular literature in the 1990s permeated purity culture, most notably “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris. The book, published by Focus on the Family, sold 1.2 million copies since 1997. The author recently discontinued the book. This apology marked a turning point in the larger conversation on purity culture within the church and the sexual shame it has inflicted on Christians.

In December of 2017, Harris issued a full apology on the unintended damages and pain his book caused some who read it. He also helped produce and starred in a documentary entitled “I Survived ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’” diving into his choice behind writing the book and the choice behind asking for its discontinuation.

After the emergence of the #ChurchToo movement in February of 2018, women specifically came forward with their stories of sexual abuse within the church and many said that the purity culture and their ideas about sexuality kept them silent for years, which, brought the purity culture’s effectiveness and potential damage to the limelight.

Don’t cause your fellow youth group member to stumble

Often, purity culture uses Romans 14:13 to emphasize modesty and chastity. The verse said, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” The church typically directs this verse toward women, encouraging them to meet certain modesty standards so as to protect their male peers.

Eugene Hung, former violence prevention coordinator at the University of California Irvine, said that one problem with the purity culture is its harshness toward women: “Women are expected to protect themselves as well as men from sexual sin, keeping them from ‘stumbling.’ Women also have to deal with clothing and body-policing; for example, many teenage Christian girls who are physically more curvy have been made to feel super-conscious about how their bodies can be instruments of temptation for guys. That’s really damaging!”

Stewart said that, in her background, “Women were 100 percent held to a higher standard. No skirts or shorts above the knee, knees can be a stumbling block. Same with shoulders, and collarbones, and cleavage, and hips, and stomachs and the list goes on.  In recent years, there has been a theme within the church here that women hold more responsibility because they are to be aids, not distractions, to men.”

“The idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to make sure men do not fall into lust, based on what they wear or how they act, is honestly repulsive. This is a total double standard, in that the same pressure is not put on men,” John Brown University senior Karlee Arnold said. “In every youth group pool party I attended, women were required to wear one-piece suits or a t-shirt, while men were allowed to be shirtless. It has always infuriated me. Why is my ribcage any more sexual than a man’s? I think this comes from a place of misogyny within the church. Misogyny and sexism is deeply rooted into our society, but it is still especially prevalent within certain church cultures.”

Hannah Keener, a 23-year-old who grew up in a Baptist and non-denominational background, said she agrees with Arnold that misogyny in the church may be at the root of the negative aspects of the purity culture. “What I took away was that girls were made to pleasure men. You support them, you answer to them, not like you do whatever they want … but almost. You’re purpose in life is to serve a man. Whether that’s physically, sexually, mentally or emotionally, you’re there, created for them. It’s not healthy. While I was always encouraged to have my own dreams, it was almost that I was going to get married and have kids … and not just one or two, a lot of kids. Kind of that mentality that your body and your life are not your own. I think I realized a couple years ago … not sure I agree with that.”

Michael Hidalgo, senior pastor at Denver Community Church, said that he hopes to see the modest rhetoric change in the church. “I hesitate to ever tell women how to dress. The fact that women are constantly having to assess how they’re dressing, what their hair is like, if they have the right amount of makeup on … if it’s too much or too little, their body type, all of those things have been so oppressive and so damaging.”

Hidalgo continued, “Once women are able to embrace that idea and their identity fully, I think the whole issue of modesty and clothing and what’s too low-cut or not, all of that can take care of itself. Given the history of what men in leadership positions like mine have said and done, I would say to a woman: you are a beloved daughter of the almighty God, you’re an image bearer. You are loved no matter how you look.”

Thou shalt protect thy thought life

The purity culture sometimes holds men to a different standard, but Hung said it is equally damaging to them and targets them in different ways. “I think for men, standards can be harsh in terms of maintaining a pure “thought life”; many teenage Christian guys end up believing that all sexual thoughts are inherently sinful, leading to a lot of needless guilt and shame.”

Max Bryan, 25-year-old JBU alumni grew up as a pastor’s kid. Bryan said the ideology of the purity culture could potentially be a crutch for men and an excuse to look at and treat women without respect. “That’s setting the expectation that guys don’t know how to exercise self-control. Look at how much Jesus calls men to be adults and have self-control. People totally forget that, they just write all that off. I think it’s probably because we don’t have as many women voices in the church. In a lot of churches, you don’t even hear from the other side because it’s a very patriarchal structure. Women aren’t allowed to speak, and I think that’s ridiculous.”

Zeke Wilcox, a 23-year-old JBU alumni, said, “I remember I was young, I think I was probably seven or eight, and I was in church, and my grandpa was preaching. I don’t remember the exact context, but I remember sex was mentioned. I remember people squirming in their seats and this tension in the air. My mom and my grandma were sitting right next to me, and I remember my mom leaning over and whispering, ‘Why is he talking about this in church?’”

Wilcox said that he often felt as if the church gave men pass to look at or treat women a certain way because of the rhetoric used in the church. “Unfortunately, men are excused far more often than they should be. I do think that there is much more demand on women to appear modest and act a certain way than there is on men. The whole ‘modesty is hottesty’ is so dumb. I do think to some very small degree that girls should be careful in what they wear around guys, but ultimately, guys are responsible for where their eyes go and how they think and how they respond to what girls wear. It’s a rule to go by so it’s easier for guys. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Bryan said, the purity culture “Seemed so restrictive. It felt like a straight-jacket. Ok, how do people get married, if you’re telling me all these things, how the hell do people even end up together. It felt like a disconnect. All these people are in relationships, yet I’m learning all these things and I can’t see any correlation between the two.” The main aspect that still has a negative effect on Bryan today is that “Asking people out still is so scary. I never really got to do it growing up. I always push the idea away whenever it comes around. That’s how it has affected me the most.”

Hidalgo said, “Titled in the favor of men…men are the stronger gender, male headship, men lead in marriage, and yet men are absolutely powerless when it comes to sex. So, there’s a huge contradiction there. Men then have to throw all of this, as I see it, put all of that onto women, because if men are strong, then this is our kryptonite. One thing I have learned a lot is that men are terrified of things that we can’t control, and we do everything we can to suppress that. Women oftentimes become something that men are fearful of and don’t’ know how to control. Throwing guilt on them, blaming them for sexual indiscretion, all of that is a part of it. What I’m interested in is seeing men stop blaming women and, secondly, before we talk about who’s responsible for what, we need to apologize for the choices we’ve made to perpetuate this myth that we are in fact the sum of our urges.”

Hidalgo continued, “When a man says to a woman you need to be modest because I’m aroused visually, you’re failing to engage what’s happening under the surface that’s causing you to go to an unhealthy place by looking at a woman. That’s stifled women and been traumatic to women in a way it hasn’t to men by telling women that. It reinforces the idea that women are objects to behold. I don’t think that’s healthy at all. If anything, for the next season, the way forward is to place a larger responsibility on men because we are the ones responsible for creating the negative sex culture because we’ve been the ones in the position of power and leadership in churches that continue to perpetuate purity culture.”

Holding abstinence and sex positivity in one hand

“Can we just agree that the way the church has talked about sex for the past 70 years has proved unsuccessful?” Hidalgo said.

The church may not be ready to join the sex positivity movement quite yet, but Hidalgo argues that people in the church should receive empowerment from church leaders to embrace the fact that sexuality and being a sexual being is a part of who they are. “I would say one of the things that’s important is the idea of being a sexual being is not in any way shape or form the same thing as saying we need to go have sex. Everyone feels terrible when this comes up in the church because we’ve relegated sexuality down to only the act of intercourse. It is so much more than that. How do we begin first to understand that we are wired sexually in the sense of our gender?”

Hidalgo continued, “Our genders, our desires, our feelings … we were knit together in our mother’s womb, so tell me, why are we given parts of our bodies that are literally created for pleasure? What we’ve tried to do is sweep it all off the counter and say the act of sex is bad, wait until marriage. But there’s a whole education that needs to happen with young men and young women about when they grow into their bodies and they have these desires, desires that I do believe are God given. There is an impulse in human beings to connect with one another. I think trying to help people understand that this is a lot bigger of a conversation than just talking about intercourse is what a lot of the purity culture is obsessed with is just that one single act and they’ve ignored the larger, broader conversation.”

Pat Callahan, senior pastor at Community Christian Fellowship in Siloam Springs agrees that the church often stigmatizes sex, and said he is worried of the negative repercussions that could carry for Christian couples in marriage: “When you stigmatize sex, that’s going to create a challenge for when you get married as a Christian couple. You’ve said this is a really bad thing, and now it’s a good thing, that’s probably not a very accurate way to look at it. You should say, ‘here’s a really great thing that’s meant to be enjoyed in this context.’”

Purely grace

Keener said the purity culture movement started with pure intentions, “but when it was carried out, it sent a wrong message to girls. I think it can be harmful and it can get out of control.” Keener said. “I would like to see girls taught that they are beautiful, and they have so much more worth and value than they could ever imagine. They don’t belong to a man, they never should. Even in marriage, it’s a partnership. I would like to see that message shared more, especially with young women.”

Also, Keener hopes the church will better reflect the differences God created in men and women and talk about, “why he created man and female, and why they complement each other. We’re reflecting different facets of God’s nature and how our bodies and sexuality compliments each other. If young people could start out with that knowledge, they might be more confident in themselves. It might help girls be more confident and not be walked all over and guys to be more respective. It would just be a healthy understanding of sex and what it’s for. Please don’t push the skirts.”

Callahan said he is “mixed” on throwing out the purity culture completely, but he said it is time to put much of the ideology behind us and find a healthier way to communicate purity, because the church is equating sexual impurity with shame. Callahan said, “It’s shame based. If it’s shame based, it’s not Jesus based.”

Callahan said, to start, the church can stop elevating sexual impurity as a hierarchal sin. “I think when we focus on any one thing and elevate it, we miss the picture of what true Christianity looks like because one of the last things Jesus said before he goes to the cross is ‘I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in me,’” Callahan said. “Abiding isn’t just sexual purity. Abiding isn’t just having a quiet time. It’s not just sharing your faith. It’s your whole life. We’re better off just talking about what that looks like to abide and what a relationship with Christ effects every area of our lives. How we speak, how we love each other, how we are compassionate toward a person in need. You can have people elevate the purity culture that couldn’t give a rip about hunger. We’re supposed to be involved in all of it.”

Hidalgo said he hopes the church will focus on grace over punishment in the purity culture conversation. “I think when we can back away from punishment and God is angry with me and if you have had sex you are somehow broken and terrible, all of a sudden now … the best you can do with darkness is shed a little light on it. How do we bring grace into it … we’re gonna talk about it. We’re all going to do something wrong, make a choice that’s unhealthy. When we can talk about it and bring it out into the light, when we can bring our full selves into this conversation, now when we name it, we actually open up opportunity for grace. If we are dishonest, grace has no place in our lives. If we are honest, we actually become candidates for grace. Until we demythologize the anger, we’re not going to move the needle on it.”