Purity culture is back in the limelight because of some recent high-visibility literature (Kay Klein’s “Pure”) and the release of a film on the subject (Jessica Wyngaard’s “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye”). Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan to make a vagina statue out of purity rings has added spice to the newsworthiness of the subject. Here’s some background and perspective on the treacherous terrain laid by the fallout of purity culture.
For the uninitiated, purity culture was an untested social corrective that rose up in response to rising promiscuity and, thus, rising teen pregnancy rates. Christian companies served this niche by selling rings, peddling purity pledges, and holding events for concerned parents who wanted to set their children on the right path. This method of encouraging abstinence was an experimental one, as reactionary movements usually are, but it was put forward to a generation of young people as God’s design.
Purity culture is a bit of a misnomer that leads many to believe that the issue with the movement is purity itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Purity––sexual and otherwise––is something the Christian is called to by God. The issues with purity culture are multifaceted, but by and large have to do with scripture, sexuality, and the nature of God being twisted and misrepresented.
For example, sexual purity is often something that is talked about as an asset that is lost upon getting married, thereby conflating purity with virginity (which led to rape victims being told they were impure). In reality, we are called to be sexually pure both inside and outside marriage. The movement also employs a form of prosperity gospel, using the promise of amazing marital sex, which they claim is a biblical promise, as though it were a proverbial carrot dangled in front of youth to incentivize waiting.
This movement holds a heavy Gnostic influence, that is, the idea that the material (bodily) is bad, and thus paints a picture contrary to Song of Songs about sex––a double-minded endeavor, given the prosperity gospel promise. As my friend Nick Peters is fond of quoting from his experience with the movement, “Sex is dirty, so you should save it for someone you love.”
The Strange Dynamics Purity Culture Breeds
Perhaps the most defining aspect of the movement was the fundamental question it asked: “How far is too far physically and emotionally?” What can we get away with and still call ourselves “pure”? In light of that backdrop, purity culture sought to create a set of modern-day pharisaical rules and twisted scripture out of context to justify this.
Moralism packaged as divine decree has a way of being found out, often leaving its adherents cynical and bitter. As a result, many alumni of purity culture reacted to the reaction that was purity culture, swinging the pendulum back to the left in the process.
Because of this, it’s important to note that the conversation about purity culture was initially largely dominated by leftists. Loosely defined, this means those who prefer to join with the sexual revolution rather than offer healthy alternatives to anything-goes sexual mores, on the one hand, and restrictive legalism on the other.
Since those who fled to the left were the first to talk about purity culture critically in any significant numbers, this meant leftists developed much of the vocabulary for it. This has caused no end of confusion, as Christians who seek to point out the disaster that was purity culture are often accused of serving a liberal agenda––all because we share some overlapping vernacular! In reality, the distinguishing mark is not the language, per se, but the focus and nature of the criticism.
Divergent Criticism From Different Groups
For instance, leftists define the errors within purity culture by appealing to the allegedly abusive categories of “cis-normative” or “forced monogamy.” Christian writers tend to focus on the errors in terms of the extra-biblical rules that were passed off as God’s commands, the conflation of earthly social standing and temporal consequences with how we stand before God and the spiritual consequences of our actions (known as the coram mundo and coram Deo distinction), and the notion that our virginity is the foundation of our identity.
Now, some further observations about the movement, its aftermath, and the biggest danger for those seeking to escape and find safe harbor. While the exact methods of the purity culture movement differed based on geographical region and favored thought leaders, the gist was an overall Gnostic bent on sexuality and attraction. It was a lucrative “solution” to sin that sold well. Over two million youth were estimated to have signed purity pledges in the 2000s.
But just like pills meant to fix certain ailments, purity culture came with its own set of side effects. So much so that many believe it was complete poison through and through. Now that the children of the movement are grown up, we are seeing the deconstruction of purity culture take place. The lucky have a family of their own and are examining in hindsight because they want to do better for their children. This is not unlike what happened with Joshua Harris and his journey in reevaluating the book that made him, as he puts it, “Christian famous.”
But for many former children of purity culture, marriage and children of their own are quickly fading from a potential reality to a heart-wrenching unlikelihood. The courtship doctrine, purity culture’s ugly step-sister, made it nearly impossible for some men who grew up in this movement to pair up with a Christian woman, as it placed a veritable (and non-scriptural) gauntlet of trials in the path of any interested suitor.
Among women, the “Jesus is my boyfriend” culture derived from courtship is still pervasive, and many are only now beginning to question whether it may be the reason for their persistent singleness. That’s particularly because any potential mates inevitably fall short of the high standard required by a “daughter of the Most High King,” as they were taught to think of themselves.
False Notions of God-Approved Relationships
Many women still seem to cling to the notion that God-approved relationships only happen when God drops a man in your lap who will get to know you as a best friend first, without having any romantic intentions until the time is “right.” Pragmatically, however, the opportunity cost incurred by any man who would cultivate friendships with women for whom he felt no initial attraction is a steep price to ask. Many men would rather dip out of the marriage marketplace altogether than try to navigate the awkward social minefield of purity culture.
Indeed, Men Going Their Own Way (or MGTOW, as it is more commonly known) is looking pretty good for a significant number of Christian men, who have been told that their right to prefer a spousal candidate who has followed God’s precepts for premarital sexual liaisons over one who has not is, paradoxically, “unChristlike.” No matter how the dysfunction manifests, it cannot be denied that the mating market for purity culture graduates is tricky and largely unproductive.
Because of the pervasiveness of the deconstruction of purity culture, a variety of communities exist to, whether in part or in whole, help guide people on their journey out of its legalism. The operative word there being “out.” The focus is largely on leaving a bad thing, rather than moving toward a healthy new life.
Because of this imbalanced approach, many people, myself included, have found that recovery communities for victims of spiritual abuse and legalism can be toxic. Often, they are built on the foundation of four unhealthy cornerstones: cult of personality (with accompanying psychological abuse by those in power), poor boundaries, tribalism, and the origin fallacy.
Abuse Rife Within Purity Culture Rebound Groups
People who have been abused are often weary. It is hard to be on guard for everything when you haven’t fully healed. Despite our best intentions, factors at play put us at risk for walking into a situation that looks different, but is not unlike the ones we’ve come from. Some folks manage to escape the frying pan only to end up in the fire. This is definitely the case when going from a legalistic community (or cult, in extreme cases) to a recovery community run by a cult of personality.
I have experienced the destructiveness of personality cults in recovery communities. These individuals, often narcissists, will rally people around themselves and their stories of trauma. They will paint their own narrative as one of a savior. A survivor cannot question them or any dangerous behaviors they may see without being gaslit (a psychological abuse tactic that, unlike cross-examination, seeks to muddle the mind of the victim and cause them to be less sure of reality), ostracized, or subject to trauma-comparison in order for the leader to make an argument from authority (which is invalid, as it is a logical fallacy).
When a survivor is first introduced to these communities, someone is usually assigned to them to begin grooming them. Because of the nature of abuse, many abuse victims do not know where natural boundaries should lie, so when someone is put forward as being on their side, the abuse survivor may gaslight themselves, essentially, by shutting off instincts warning them about the person. As you might imagine, this can lead to some nefarious things, including emotional affairs with minors, sexual coercion, and a whole host of other immoral and illegal activity.
In some cases, the groomer will plant seeds of tribalism and paranoia in the mind of their victim, making them believe that the group is the only segment of the population to understand them. And, in fact, no one else can, even if they were to try. This isolates the victim. The groomer then begins to discredit folks who are physically present in the person’s life, labeling them as “them” in the us vs. them paradigm of tribalism. Because of the leftist bent of many such groups (as alluded to above), the “them” is usually Christians, regardless of whether the victim is still Christian.
A non-insignificant portion of individuals in recovery communities I have been in have been minors. This makes it all the more concerning then, that a portion of these communities regularly influences these young minds by inappropriately legitimizing the origin fallacy. That is, teaching these children that ideas and concepts can be thrown out because of who says them, rather than letting them sink or stand on their own validity and argumentation.
This is intentionally used in some cases to pit children against their parents and Christians in general. If the individual who is being groomed resists, the groomer may employ underhanded tactics like equivocation of words, blurring the distinction of the “Two Kinds of Righteousness” in the opposite way that purity culture did, and blatant lies to keep the individual under their thumb.
Tribalism and Logical Fallacies Over Intellectual Honesty
Because of the propensity for tribalism over and against discernment and intellectual honesty, it is difficult to progress beyond moving from one place to another, trying to find somewhere to belong and relax. This is certainly an understandable impulse for an exhausted individual looking for a place to land, but it doesn’t lead to healing.
Humans are drawn toward easy answers and lists of things we can do to succeed. That’s why purity culture took off in the first place! And that nature doesn’t change just because we’ve been burned by convenient solutions in the past. Our consumption as a society is a testament to that.
We will not find peace and healing until we recognize that we would all be damaged in some way even if we hadn’t gone through purity culture. Humans have the propensity to jump from idol to idol no matter what. For those who grew up under purity culture, these just happen to be sexual purity and, subsequently, sex positivity or status as a victim. No matter what the idol is, or what sort of trauma you’ve been exposed to, the answer is always the same: Jesus.
As far as abuses go, if anyone is going to understand, it is Christ. The man was beaten, bruised, stripped naked, and killed — as an innocent. His blood is what makes us pure. There is nothing we can do to cleanse ourselves of any sin. We must rely on his sacrifice. And resting in him allows us the peace to know our journey to healing will not be perfect.
We will make mistakes, but he has us covered. Resting in that, his nature, who he is, and what he has done for us, is the first step to reframing ourselves, our sexuality as God designed it, and our world.