*Disclaimer* I talk about rape/sexual assault and I mention sex in a way that could be considered graphic.
It started on New Year’s Eve; 2015 going into 2016. I won’t ever forget it.
My friends and I were staying the night at a hotel. We were hyped up on sparkling grape juice and cookies, like the good Christian women we are. We celebrated the New Year at midnight with our wine glasses of juice and cheesy Instagram photos. Like most people, we stayed up way past midnight reminiscing and making goals for the next 365 days.
We all sat on the same king sized bed and slowly our conversation changed. We had shared every highlight, but we couldn’t ignore the low lights. A lot of things had happened that year. Things we had never told each other, or anyone else.
Each woman had something to share about how they “went too far” with a man. They told me about sending nudes. About orgasms. About sleeping with them. About being naked around them. About touching them.
And the whole conversation ended with, “But at least I’m still a virgin.”
I sat there and listened. Me, who had never even kissed a guy. Who had only ever liked two guys in the past. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say what I was thinking. I couldn’t tell them I know that most people say you lose your virginity when you are vaginally penetrated, and that Western Christianity teaches not to have sex outside of marriage based on that definition, but the Bible says to be holy as Christ is holy (1 Peter 1:15.) and somehow my friends were able to call themselves virgins even after having oral sex.
And that was when I realized that purity culture makes absolutely no sense.
So you’re allowed to be fingered and still call yourself a virgin? You’re allowed to make out with a guy naked and still be a virgin? You’re allowed to give him a blowjob and still be a virgin? But if his penis goes inside you, then you’re “unclean”? As long as you don't cross that one line, you get to consider yourself pure.
So I spent the next year listening to stories of Christian girls who had “done things” with guys. Those conversations were almost always filled with tears and hurt. Almost always the girls said they felt dirty. Almost always they wondered if they were used up pieces of gum now (1). Almost always did they wonder why they couldn’t stay “pure.” Almost always did they say that they felt like a hypocrite in church.
It was like a veil had been lifted.
I didn’t realize how destructive purity culture really was until that year, and it was a tough pill to swallow. It’s hard to see the ways in which Christian purity culture hurt us. But once you do, you can’t un-see it. It shames women, ignores rape victims, creates a system where virgins are “good girls” and everyone else are “bad girls” (or sluts or whores.) It makes women who have had sex feel like they have nothing to offer their future husbands, because their only value is found in being “pure.” It supports a double standard because women are to be the gatekeepers of purity, while men just get a free pass. It’s disgusting because people of authority in the church have used it to silence those they have assaulted. (Just check out the #ChurchToo.) It’s awful because it makes sex out to be a terrible thing. I’ve heard horror stories of women who feel disgusting after having sex with their husbands, because they have lost a part of themselves. It’s harmful because young Christians are not told about contraceptives, or even much about sex at all, because the only sex ed they need is “don’t have sex.” (Which, spoiler alert, doesn’t work.) It’s dangerous because I have never heard the word “consent” spoken at church; because you shouldn’t be having sex anyway. It’s destructive because not only are women expected to be physically pure, we are also expected to be emotionally pure, which causes us to suppress God given emotions. (2) (Also, just Google the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy.)
We have set virginity on this pedestal, and we cannot keep it there anymore.
I know what you’re thinking.
“But the Bible tells us not to have sex outside of marriage.”
The Bible calls us to be holy, which means “set apart for a purpose.” My sexual activity does not take away or add to my purpose. The Bible talks about marriage, but what was marriage? Some Greco-Roman model where women were the property of men? Assuming marriage was the same thing is an error, and so we can’t even draw proper conclusions. The Bible says to stay away from sexual sin, but the word for that is the Greek “porneia” which means, “illicit sexual intercourse.” Which is pretty vague. (It goes back to my first point, how far is too far? At what point does human contact become sinful? What is “illicit sexual intercourse?) Some writers have come to the conclusion that all of these illusions to sex outside of marriage were about non-consensual sex, sex trafficking, and temple prostitution that were happening at the time. (3) The Bible speaking out against the horrific sexual crimes that have happened and are happening makes a lot more sense in light of Jesus Christ. But the debates are endless.
Our only clear way of looking at the issue is to read the Bible as a whole, and find the big pictures, such as loving one another and honoring God.
I don’t believe purity culture is either of those things.
I think it supports false purity. It's about the appearance of purity, not purity itself. Those are two very different things. I know people who have had sex outside of marriage, who are pure individuals; I also know some impure virgins.
But we can argue back and forth whether it’s okay to have premarital sex all day. You have your stance and I have mine. Let’s throw that argument out the window altogether. Because the real issue isn’t whether or not premarital sex it right or wrong; my point is that setting up a standards that sets some people higher than others is harmful. I believe in absolute truth, yes; but I don't believe in creating a culture that thrives on shaming women. Especially not in the church. Especially if you claim that all believers are saved by grace through faith. For some reason, sexuality has been so hyped up in the church. We don’t judge someone for having anger issues, but if someone has sex or identifies as something other than heterosexual, suddenly our grace has run out.
I have cried with too many rape victims, struggled with too many people sexually assaulted by family members, hurt with too many LGBTQ Christians, mourned with too many girls in Walgreens aisles buying pregnancy tests, heard too many confessions of girls who let boys touch them, and written too many journal entries asking God if I was a slut for wanting to have sex, I’ve been through too much to support an idea that is breaking people I love.
Sexuality is not the most important thing. We get so angry with the hypersexualization in media, but we’re fine with our purity obsession? Because the truth is, it’s the same thing. Mainstream culture is obsessed with who’s having sex, and Christian culture is obsessed with who isn’t. In either case, our sexuality is made to be the most interesting thing about us.
Don’t get me wrong, sex is awesome. But if I have or haven’t had sex is probably most boring, uninteresting thing about me.
So what do we do about it?
We could get educated. Believe me, I did not make up any of this stuff. I learned from countless articles, books, websites, and personal testimonies. It starts with being willing to listen. We need to be able to admit to being wrong. Even Josh Harris, who wrote the most influential books on purity culture, admitted he was wrong (4). We need to change the way we talk about sex in our churches, especially in our youth groups. (In 2014, 41% of surveyed teens said they were having sex. (5) We can’t keep pretending that everyone who comes into church is a virgin. It’s not cutting it.) We can stop making people feel like they are less than other people because of their sexual history, because if we shame people for having sex, we could make the critical error of assuming it was consensual, and now you have crossed a line to victim blaming people who have been raped. You, as an individual, can begin to change the tide in your own communities, your own church. Let’s start talking about these serious issues instead pretending like they aren’t there. Now is the time, in light of everything that is happening with #MeToo, let church be place where it’s okay to talk about these things. After all, we are called to be a refuge for those who are broken and hurting.
Of course, the only way to end this is with my favorite Bible story, found in John 8.
When the Pharisees brought Jesus a women caught in adultery, they said that the law of Moses said to stone her. Yet He replied, “He who is without sin can be the first to throw a stone.” And once everyone had left, it was just Him and the woman. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She shook her head, and He responded, “Then neither do I.”
And if Jesus didn’t condemn her, than neither do I and neither should you.
(Bonus: amazing resources for anyone interested in learning more about this subject:
My Story, Elizabeth Smart
Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein
The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti
“Is It Possible To Be A Sex Positive Christian?” Samantha Fields http://samanthapfield.com/
“I Kissed My Humanity Goodbye: how the evangelical purity culture dehumanizes women.” Elizabeth Esther, http://www.elizabethesther.com/
“What’s Purity Culture Got To Do With It?” Emily Joy, http://emilyjoypoetry.com
1. The Damaging Effects of Shame-Based Sex Education: Lessons From Elizabeth Smart, Huffington Post, Kristen Howerton.
2. "I Kissed My Humanity Goodbye: how the evangelical purity culture dehumanizes women" Elizabeth Esther.
3. "Is It Possible To Be A Sex Positive Christian?" Samantha Field
4. "Strong Enough To Be Wrong." TED Talk, Josh Harris
5. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance." Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 10, 2016.