Purity Culture – How Did the Church Get it So Wrong?

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

Purity Culture- how did the church get it so wrong?

By Tori Martin 

Growing up as a ‘luke-warm’ Christian teenager in the UK, ‘Purity Culture’ was something I wasn’t familiar with—let alone ever experienced! If I cast my mind back to my adolescence, and think really hard about it, I do recall being made aware of the word “purity.” I scanned my way through another mind-numbing celebrity gossip magazine and saw that The Jonas Brothers were all wearing purity rings as a declaration of walking in purity and saving themselves for marriage, but that’s as deep as it went. No thoughts. No opinions. Maybe a little, ‘that’s cute.’ End of story. 

Back to the present day, I started to research and dig a little deeper into this “cute” culture and it became quickly apparent that this movement was anything but cute. Purity culture unraveled itself before me as something quite dark and devastating. Not quite as beautiful and pure as I first had imagined. I believe and understand that to walk a life of purity is a form of worship to our precious King Jesus, yet this was anything but. This was straight-up legalism—the Pharisees would have been proud. 

The purity culture movement affected millions of evangelical Christian teens growing up in the 1900s-2000s. These teens vowed to abstain from sex before marriage. God’s will for our lives, right? Right. But it doesn’t stay right for long. It gets totally twisted, with one of the main shocks (and there were many) being the heavy weight of this responsibility appearing to be put on the tiny young shoulders of the girls. This is where it goes terribly wrong. These girls were raised up in this movement by their parents with the rules going a little something like this; no discussion or questions about puberty and the changes it brings to your body, no discussions or questions about sex or your sexual feelings, don’t wear makeup, dress in loose baggy clothes and if you don’t, you will be shamed. And after the release of the incredibly popular book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris, casual dating was a big no-no. Then came the formal pledges and prearranged marriages. The results were heartbreaking. Thousands of girls started to disconnect from their own bodies, sexuality, and questions leading to a dysfunctional view of sex. Many who are now married have admitted that they struggle to have a healthy and enjoyable sex life with their husbands. And even more devastating, many have walked away from their faith altogether. 

How on earth could the church get this so wrong and what could they have done differently? To start, these teens were just told, “no sex before marriage”, period. To not give any explanation of why God calls us to a life of purity, to save sex until marriage and the benefits of it is just outright bonkers! If these teens had been told the why together with the reminder that God did actually create sex and that inside of marriage sex is good, amazing and something to look forward to, we could have had a completely different story on our hands. I also have to ask, where was the encouragement of using this season of being young and single to go deeper into their relationship with Jesus? When we have a good foundation of who He is, what He has done for us, and how much He loves us; we want to follow Him. He wants us to live His way knowing everything He instructs us to do is out of an original purpose and plan for our lives, a design from love. If the church could have started with even just these small yet significant steps together with support, accountability, and prayer we could have seen healthy, Godly, thriving, owning it girls stepping into their marriages with hearts full of Jesus, confidence, and excitement instead of women who feel numb, resentful and traumatized mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

This movement may have started with all good intentions, after all, God has called us to a life set apart, but He did not call us to a life of shame and destruction.