Where are my fellow geriatric millennial/Xennial mamas who grew up in evangelical churches? If this is you, chances are you heard about and likely participated in the program True Love Waits. True Love Waits was (and apparently still is) a Christian program most popular in the 1990s, at the height of the “Purity Movement”. The program, most often sponsored by local churches, challenged teenagers to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. There were ceremonies, rings and promises that frankly, most teenagers and young adults didn’t keep.
As an insecure rule follower who deeply internalized the messages that sex outside of marriage is destructive, sinful and would completely ruin my future marriage, I did keep the promise symbolized by that James Avery purity ring on my finger.
Nearly three decades later, I can definitively say that the most destructive force in my adolescence was not sex itself, but the way sex was framed and used as a source of shame and control.
I no longer identify as a Christian, at least in the traditional sense. And with religion no longer framing my value system, I struggle with how and what I’m going to teach my children about sex, especially sex outside of marriage. The values I want them to embrace are going to look a lot different than the ones I clung to to remain “pure”. I want to raise children who are body and sex positive, and who are able to demand respect and mutual consent as they mature sexually and enter into relationships.
I have no doubt that the adults who counseled me did not mean any harm to me or the other teenagers they were leading. But impact is greater than intent, and now, as an adult, I feel responsible to speak out against the destructive rhetoric of the purity culture in which I was raised. I find this kind of teaching problematic for several reasons::
Purity Culture emphasizes girls’ purity over boys’ purity.
Girls are taught from a very young age that their sexuality is a “precious gift” that is meant only for their future husbands. I was taught that if I wasn’t a virgin on my wedding day, I was shortchanging my husband for life. I would be tarnished, dirty, and not whole. I have never once met a man who was given the same message about his wife. Growing up, I went to any number of church camps and mission trips where female modesty was emphasized. Girls were required to wear long shorts and one piece swim suits. Why? So as not to tempt the teenage boys and cause them to “stumble”. Did they not realize that teenage girls have just as many hormones and are looking at the shirtless boys as well?
The phrase Why would he buy the cow when he can get the milk for free? completely infuriates me. It frames sex as purely transactional, instead of mutually relational. It implies a woman’s sexuality is the only thing worth investing in- never mind she might have more to offer in terms of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy in the relationship.
Not only does this unequal emphasis on girls’ purity harm individual girls and women, it harms our society as well. Rape culture and slut shaming are so prevalent in our society. They point to the fact that repressing and shaming female sexuality while giving men a pass (boys will be boys) is destructive and damaging to both men and women.
Purity Culture makes sex horribly wrong…until it’s beautiful and sacred.
Most religious abstinence education teaches that sex in different contexts means very different things. It completely disregards that sex and sexuality is a healthy, normal part of the human experience (yes, even to those who aren’t married). By teaching our teenagers to view their normal sexual development as bad or wrong until they say “I Do” is incredibly shaming and can lead to lifelong sexual issues. It’s insane to expect a person who has been conditioned to believe that sex is sinful and dirty her whole life (and for many, this didn’t mean just intercourse) to suddenly see it as beautiful and sacred, just because she now has a ring on her finger. It just doesn’t work that way. It can take some people years and years to overcome those mixed messages.
Also, in keeping with the theme that her sexuality is a “gift”, women are also taught that after years of saying “No” (and let’s face it, it’s usually on the girls to turn down the boys), they now have an obligation to their husbands to give him as much sex as he desires. Again, this sudden shift can often be disorienting and lead to a lot of resentment. It makes no room for discussion about “bad sex” in the context of a marriage relationship.
Purity Culture does not teach consent.
In purity culture, you are either a virgin or you are not (and therefore, are pure or you are not). Those who have experienced sexual abuse can be deeply hurt and shamed by this message. And even if a sexual experience wasn’t “abuse” but happened through pressure or coercion, it can leave girls feeling worthless, damaged and beyond redemption. This teaching also doesn’t teach the basics of consent, whether giving or receiving it. In Purity Culture, it’s all or nothing, which is not how a healthy sexual relationship should work.
By teaching girls that they are responsible for boys’ thoughts and actions, girls aren’t empowered to make healthy choices about their own sexuality. They may be scared to speak up about what they do and do not like in their marriages, because this teaching says that consent doesn’t matter or apply to marriage relationships. In fact, consent should be of upmost importance to people entering into a lifelong monogamous sexual relationship.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how I am going to teach my children about sex and my personal values surrounding it. Of course, my greatest hope is that they are able to have loving, fulfilling sexual relationships one day, absent of any shame and stress. My religious upbringing is still quite ingrained in me, and I haven’t quite reconciled what that means now that I am a parent. I am certain, however, that having or not having pre-marital sex should not be the benchmark of a young person’s worth.
Did you grow up in Purity Culture? How has this impacted the way you teach or plan to teach your children about sexual relationships?