The sin-stained lessons of “purity culture” were a dreadfully misguided marketing effort evangelical leaders in the 1990s created to dissuade teens from sex before marriage. I was a plum demographic target at the time, and suffered the psychological consequences of the legalistic, shame-based tactics put upon me as a vulnerable teen.
Unlike some, I haven’t sworn off my evangelical upbringing or embraced sex as a brazen act of personal autonomy. I still believe the concept of chastity — something Christians are called to before and within marriage — should be taught the right way. Even as we culturally deconstruct how wayward purity teachings impaled a generation with sexual anxiety, it’s important to recognize that the root belief was good. As happens too often, fallible humans completely garbled the message.
It’s vital now, for me at least, to recognize and process the trauma that purity culture wrought. The past week has brought this issue to the forefront due to the divorce announcement and faith departure from Joshua Harris, arguably the face of purity culture. His 1998 book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was published and distributed en masse to church-going teens on the heels of a nationwide evangelical campaign called “True Love Waits.”
Several years ago, Harris apologized for his book, which he wrote as a single man at the age of 21, even participating in a documentary about it, but the consequences remain. Those imprinted by the ethos of purity culture have often experienced devastating psychological issues as a result of guilt, shame, and false promises they were taught.
We Can Deal With Sin Better Than This
The worst aspects of purity culture included a hyper-focus on legalism, identity-based sin, and highlighting women’s bodies specifically as a source of temptation. This messaging was severely and sinfully misguided. Christian leaders weaponized God’s beautiful gift of sexuality against us, ultimately creating an evangelical version of Me Too for our sexual histories, or lack thereof, when we finally entered marriage.
In the mid-’90s, I had nearly perfect youth group attendance and signed a “purity pledge” at a sexual purity festival called Youthfest held in my home town each year. It featured the hottest Christian rock bands, face painting, Slip ‘N Slides, mud pits, bounce houses — and grave warnings about the dangers of sex outside of marriage.
The message was clear: There will be severe personal and spiritual consequences if you get this one wrong. Just sign your dreams of marriage and motherhood on the dotted line and exchange it when you’re ready (as if you could just choose when and who to marry so easily.)
I signed the pledge at 12 and again at 13. That was good enough for my parents, and other evangelical families, who breathed a sigh of relief that purity culture teachings gave them an out on the sex talk. Parents across the country opted out of vital conversations that might have reframed the truth about sex: that our sexual sin doesn’t define us any more than other sins — which is to say, it doesn’t at all.
There is no formula or reward system for the perfect romance that wishful girls like me dreamed of while reading love stories or watching movies. Parental absence in this conversation, leaving the church to guide their children on sexual morality, amplified the effects of purity culture on a generation.
The pledges didn’t hold in the long run for most. A 2009 study reports that sexual activity for signers was on par with nonsigners just five years later. Legalism and willpower aren’t a lasting combination for teens told one sexual escapade will ruin them evermore. On top of that, when they weren’t married by age 30, many were left wondering: Where is my reward?
Long-Term Effects for Sexual Intimacy
The consequences of the “pledge” weren’t just a forgotten piece of paper or silly relic from the past. A lasting shame related to sexual intimacy would linger indefinitely in our lives, in my life. Hand-holding caused irrational anxiety, first kisses weren’t the magical moments they might have been, and underlying fears related to physical touch strangled dating relationships.
When marriage, that magic line of sexual permission, arrived, things didn’t always improve. It’s not unlike what victims of sexual assault experience with intimacy in the aftermath of their attacks. Tina Schermer Sellers, director of the Medical Family Therapy program at Seattle Pacific University, had this to say about her research on the subject: “The self-loathing that people were feeling and describing about themselves really paralleled the kind of self-loathing that you often see with somebody who’s experienced childhood sexual assault.”
I spoke with a psychologist friend who confirmed this line of thinking, saying that anxiety as a result of any kind of trauma can manifest itself in similar ways even if the specific trauma was different in nature.
Yes, Avoid Sin. But When You Do Sin, There’s Still Hope
It didn’t have to be that way. We know now that purity culture was just a distorted facade, a sin-focused marketing campaign that put legalism, instead of Jesus, front and center. As National Review’s David French put it: “In its effect (if not its intent), it reversed the gospel message, teaching Christian kids that they risked being defined by their sins, not by Christ.”
While faith-based writers such as Nadia Bolz-Weber reject God’s call to chastity completely, I urge people not to denigrate the faith of their youth over those who got it all wrong. The shame, guilt, and sin-bearing identity tack is the opposite of Christianity, and it’s painful to see people walk away from faith on the false belief that this wrong message is the heart of it.
I’m quite sure the youth leaders and teachers at my church camp had no intention of harming me, and many may feel deep sorrow that they participated in it. Clearly, Harris has felt it and, in my opinion, unfairly. He was a 21-year-old kid when that book was published. Can you imagine if all the wisdom you thought you had at 21 turned into a national best-seller that followed you for the rest of your life? I’m extremely sad to hear he has denounced his faith, but the pressure over these past years must have been unbearable, and I’m sorry for him.
As for me, I admit my struggle continues at times, but I pray that one day soon, I will be completely free of the anxiety that has followed me all these years. I often feel alone, but I know I’m not, and if nothing else, this conversation about purity culture has helped me find a better understanding of myself. Blame isn’t really helpful — it’s simply time to heal and grow. We know better, so let’s do better.