“Purity culture” in the evangelical church can be harmful, not by supporting and advocating for chastity but by weaponizing it. This school of thought disproportionately and negatively impacts women. Purity culture emphasizes virginity until marriage and often implies that a woman’s worth is found in her purity. Purity culture claims that women’s bodies and clothing can cause men to “stumble” with lust. Rather than placing the responsibility for sexual thoughts or actions on the man or boy who enacts them, purity culture places the responsibility on the woman or girl being looked at and lusted after.
If women’s bodies are blamed for lust — if the church claims that they need to be covered up for the sake of men — this inevitably leads to shame. Jesus tells men who lust after women to gouge out their eyes. He does not tell the women to dress more modestly or to not cause the men to stumble. Of the adulterer, the committer of a sexual sin, Jesus says he who is without sin cast the first stone. Sexual purity is just as much the responsibility of the man as the woman.
At a Christian college in a majority-Christian environment, it can be really easy to fall into the assumption that everyone has the same values of purity of you or even the same definition of purity as you, but that is not the case. Think about what purity means to you and realize that it may not mean the same thing to your roommate or friend. Don’t judge someone else based on your idea of purity.
Christians teaching sexual purity is a good thing and something the Bible tells Christians to adhere to, but purity culture does not necessarily advocate for seeking biblical wisdom. Instead, it advocates for a one-size-fits-all model for handling dating and affection. It is a lazy, convenience-based solution to a complex spiritual problem, one that has cost many their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. “Purity,” both physical and emotional, isn’t about outer expressions or actions; it is about the true intent and spirit behind someone’s actions. Someone may be subscribing to evangelical “purity culture” and not having sex until marriage because that is what they have been taught, but if that person is looking at porn, having lustful thoughts and committing other sexual sins instead, that is not “purity.”
Violating any “rules” of purity culture is often seen to make a person the spiritual and sexual equivalent of “a de-petaled flower.” If you commit any kind of sexual impurity by the movement’s definition, purity culture labels you “damaged goods.” Purity culture can especially harm survivors of sexual assault and rape; it can teach women to keep their experience of abuse silent because it makes them “less pure” or less desirable to men, even “damaged.”
Being the victim of sexual assault is not a sin, ever. It does not affect your “virginity” or “purity.”
There is sexual sin and it is something we need to talk about and Christians should avoid, but it is also the same as any other sin within that faith and can be forgiven. It is not the “end all be all” of sins.
In 1997, then 21-year-old Joshua Harris wrote a book called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” The book quickly became a staple in the evangelical community, selling over a million copies. His book became a cornerstone for “purity culture” in the evangelical church. In his book, Harris condemned contemporary dating and proposed “biblical courtship.” Harris urged Christian singles to commit to “purposeful singleness,” as romantic relationships should exist only as a means to preparing for marriage. He encouraged Christians who were in a relationship to wait until their wedding day to kiss. He teaches “emotional purity” as well as physical purity and that in every romantic relationship you have, you are “giving pieces of your heart away.” He uses the example of a bride walking down the aisle on her wedding day to find her husband standing next to a string of women. When she asks who they are, he explained that these are women he has dated and therefore given pieces of his heart to and that he can only give the small pieces left to his wife.
Last week, Harris announced he is stopping publication of his book and apologized to those who were hurt by it.
“To those who read my book and were misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by it, I am sincerely sorry. I never intended to hurt you. I know this apology doesn’t change anything for you, and it’s coming too late, but I want you to hear that I regret any way that my ideas restricted you, hurt you, or gave you a less-than-biblical view of yourself, your sexuality, your relationships, and God,” Harris said in a statement.
Harris acknowledged that many things he was teaching and advocating for were not biblically supported in any way.
“I didn’t leave room for the idea that dating could be a healthy way of learning what you’re looking for in a long-term relationship, that it could be a part of growing personally,” he said. “I gave the impression that there was one formula that you could follow, and if you followed that, you’d be happily married, God would bless you, and you’d have a great sex life and marriage.”
That sentiment is obviously not true. There is more to leading a life of sexual purity than waiting until your wedding night to have sex.
The church can and should advocate for and teach about sexual purity, but not at the expense of anyone’s worth.
Purity culture dismisses one life-changing truth: We aren’t pure because of anything we do. We are pure because Christ made us so in his death and resurrection. Our worth and purity is not found in what we have done, but in what he has done for us.