This past month, I’ve been part of a pre-launch group for She Deserves Better. The group dialogue has led me to reflect on my own complex history with purity culture.
I have a complex relationship with purity culture. (Purity culture is a catch-all phrase to describe the popular teachings surrounding dating/sex/marriage in modern white evangelicism). In my teens, I benefited from popular Christian dating books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion & Purity. I know and understand these books are harmful and have hurt so many people, so please bear with me.
I grew up in the 80s/90s. Everything—books, movies, magazines, songs, clothes—in the larger culture was sexualizing girls. My parents didn’t convert to Christianity until I was about five. The only sex advice they ever really gave me was “don’t do it the way we did.” It wasn’t bad advice, but that meant I mostly looked to pop culture and my peers to figure out how to navigate puberty. I remember having a boyfriend in fifth grade and feeling extreme pressure to kiss. I wasn’t ready to kiss, and he never tried, but I believed I was supposed to respond if he did. My childhood best friend was having sex by middle school. Most of the kids in my neighborhood youth group were dating. (A few more years passed before the homeschool/purity culture movement entrenched in mainstream evangelicism.) I honestly thought I was a freak at 14 because I’d never been kissed. Enter purity culture. Joshua Harris’ newly published I Kissed Dating Goodbye was handed to me in 8th grade by a school peer. It was a life raft. Passion & Purity quickly followed. I had been reading Seventeen magazine for several years when my mom decided to gift me Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine for teenage girls. Both magazines offered deeply problematic advice for young girls, but they helped balance each other. I remember my jaw hitting the floor when a popular twenty-one-year-old Christian musician shared she had never been kissed. I had never heard of such a thing. I never became convinced that kissing was something to save until marriage, but I felt relief it didn’t have to happen anytime in the near future. Personally, purity culture helped balance some of the extreme pressure I was facing from hook-up culture.
Purity culture didn’t arise in a vacuum – it was partly a backlash to the pornification of sex happening at the turn of the century. For me, resources like I Kissed Dating Goodbye took some of the pressure of dating and sex off the table as a fourteen-year old and provided some good counterbalancing guidelines to navigate hook-up culture during the dating years of my teens and twenties at a public university. I’m thankful.
My personal take-aways were that the purpose of dating was to find a good marriage partner (but okay to date liberally until I did), that I shouldn’t be romantically involved with a person if I knew with certainty I didn’t want to marry them, and that I shouldn’t have intercourse with a person if I wasn’t ready to risk pregnancy. I think there’s still wisdom to be found in these principles, and I plan to pass this advice down to my own children as advice. I do not plan on spiritualizing these principles. I hope to teach my kids to love God, love neighbor, and learn to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit as they navigate this complexly beautiful, broken world.
Purity culture messages landed differently for different people depending on life circumstances and personality. I mostly benefited from purity culture during my dating years, but I realize many did not have the same experience as me. I have spent the last year following Sheila Gregoire on her Bare Marriage website and social media, and spent the last month in a private facebook group screening She Deserves Better. I have read the accounts of hundreds of women and men sharing their painful stories of growing up in purity culture. My heart has broken again and again and again.
For me, the damaging effects of purity culture didn’t really show up until several years after I was married. It wasn’t until my late 30s when my husband read Gregoire’s The Great Sex Rescue that I finally started to understand the lies I had believed and absorbed from the church, such as men need sex in a way women will never understand, a good wife never says no, and saving sex until marriage will grant you sexual utopia in marriage. I share more about my journey of recognizing harmful teachings in the Church regarding sex in my post Sex Idol: Where Evangelicals Worship & Women are Sacrificed. Understanding the lies I had absorbed from church teachings on sex has been key to my journey towards healing in my marriage.
Ultimately, I’ve come to realize Porn Culture & Purity Culture are two sides of the same Patriarchal coin.
Pornified culture taught girls to flaunt their female curves (for the male gaze); purity culture taught girls to hide their female curves (from the male gaze). Both taught that men were unbridled horny animals. Hook-up culture encouraged women to join the men (the movie Grease, anyone?). Purity culture taught women to gatekeep until marriage and keep their legs spread after marriage. Neither was teaching men to practice self-control. Hook-up culture demonized motherhood; purity culture idolized it. Both idolized sex—hook-up culture said whenever with whomever, and purity culture limited it to heterosexual monogamous marriage—but both taught sex as the ultimate fulfillment in life.
The main difference? Purity culture spiritualized it.
Purity culture took God’s name in vain and the consequences have been devastating.
I wish everyone that supports purity culture would wander over to Sheila Gregoire’s Bare Marriage website or Facebook page and spend time reading through the comments sections and sitting with the stories of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual abuse that have taken place under the guise of Biblical authority.
Please. Sit and listen to the stories, and keep in mind, this is what women are willing to share publicly. It’s the tip of the iceberg. Patriarchy (male leadership/female submission) hurts women (and men). I’m thankful for Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, Joanna Sawatsky, and the many other women and men who are trying to change the conversation.
We all deserve better,
and that’s not going to happen until we realize
She Deserves Better.
I recommend She Deserves Better to anyone who has been raised in Christian culture or is currently raising children in the church. This book is also a great resource for church leaders, youth leaders, and counselors.
When we compare the common words in the New Testament with the common words in Christian books aimed at girls, we notice a big discrepancy…In the New Testament, we read about the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God, and the gospel much more than we do sex, modesty, lust, or even temptation. But the inverse is true for our girls’ resources. Ironically, the girls’ resources that are so focused on warnings against sin don’t prioritize the same dangers that the Bible does – the lure of wealth is far more emphasized in Scripture than in our resources. It’s concerning to us that the bestselling evangelical books aimed at teenage girls have revolved around boys, relationship, and sex. Simply put, we could not identify any bestselling Christian books for teen girls that don’t lead with sexual purity as the primary marker of their faith.She Deserves Better (41-42)
The book is intended to be read by the parent and then questions are provided to discuss with children. Chapters in She Deserves Better cover emotional health (emotions are good), self-respect (healthy boundaries), dating guidelines (not commandments), recognizing danger (red flags), sexual education (including female orgasm & consent, which has often tragically been left out of the Christian conversation), modesty (female existence is not a threat), and the mutuality of men and women in Christ (not a hierarchal one-way submission of women to men).
They say hindsight is 20/20. Many teachings around gender roles/dating/marriage/sex in the church were well intentioned, but we got it wrong. It’s time to repent.
Let’s raise our daughters with the discernment to resist toxic teachings. Because she deserves better than a faith that keeps her small.Sheila Gregoire
Sexual Healing in the Song of Songs – Specific ways I found sexual healing in Scripture as a woman raised in a Christian culture that overwhelming focuses on male sexual desire.
Sex Idol: Where Evangelicals Worship & Women are Sacrificed – After my husband went to counseling and noticeably began to heal, many of our issues in the bedroom didn’t go away, and I had to face the reality that I was part of the problem. Though we both recognized I had some baggage of my own, the sources of my unhealthy thinking patterns and emotionally extreme outbursts felt more ambiguous. Most of the obvious suspects were missing. I came from a relatively healthy family, I was never sexually abused, and I was an evangelical poster child when it came to my sexual history. Eventually, we realized my evangelical religion was the problem.
The Prude or Slut Conundrum in Evangelical Spaces – Did God design women to be less sexual than men? Or do we live in a culture that shames women to behave like prudes?
The Christian Couple’s Guide When He’s Not Up To It – The sexually higher-drive woman/lower-drive man dynamic in marriage is often painfully overlooked, especially in evangelical resources.
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