why purity culture doesn't teach consent

cherry blossoms

[This is part one of a two-part series. You can find part two here.]

I’m a Star Trek fan, and yes– it’s related. I grew up watching Star Trek loyally, and I’m pretty sure Captain Kathryn Janeway is one of the few reasons why I managed to be somewhat normal. So, when Enterprise began airing, I watched every single episode, and Phlox, a Denobulan doctor, quickly became one of my favorites. “The Breach” is one of the few episodes dedicated to his character, and it explores an ethical dilemma: he has been ordered by the captain to treat a patient even though this patient has repeatedly refused to be treated. To the human captain, it’s a simple matter of saving a life, but to Phlox, it was far more complicated.

As I was watching the episode, I realized there was something rather awesome about Denobulan culture: it is based entirely on consent. To treat a patient without his or her consent would violate everything Phlox believed about ethics and morality. I turned to my partner and announced that we were moving to Denobula, physics and reality be damned.

If there is a single idea that I desperately want to communicate to every single last person on the planet, it’s this one: Consent.

Western culture understands consent inside a few limited contexts– but even in most of those contexts, consent can be overruled if the circumstances are right. One of the areas where consent seems to completely fly out the window is when we’re talking about The Sex, although that is very, very slowly improving. However, in environments that encourage Purity in the form of Virginity, consent . . . just doesn’t show up. The only time I’ve heard consent mentioned has been to mock the very idea– “the world says that sex is fine as long as it’s “consensual”– but we know better than that, don’t we?” complete with obligatory scare quotes around “consensual.”

I’ve been struggling, trying to figure out why it seems so difficult for evangelical purity advocates to talk about consent, why the idea is mocked when it’s presented, and why no one seems to care about consent when it seems, at least to me, absolutely foundational when it comes to sexual interactions. Why does it seem to be more typical for those who teach purity to advocate for the opposite of consent? Why do some of them actively pursue the idea that marital rape is impossible– that being married is automatic consent? Or, if they’re not intentionally teaching against consent, why does it never seem to get mentioned?

Well, and I’m positive I’m not the first person to think of this, but I had an epiphany this morning.

They don’t teach consent because teaching consent would undermine one of their basic assumptions about people. Namely, the assumption that every single last person– most especially men, but also women– are basically nymphos who are straining at their leashes every single second of every single day and if you let that sex-crazed beast out for even just a moment then BAM it’s all over and you’re not a virgin anymore and that’s horrible because now you’re a half-eaten candybar or a cup full of spit.

This is why the “how far is too far?” question is almost unanimously answered with “you can’t do anything that might get your motor going, because the second you’re aroused– at all– there’s virtually nothing you’ll be able to do to stop yourself from having sex.”

To them, consent is always guaranteed. There’s no such thing as a person who would say no to an opportunity to have sex. Ever. The only thing you have to do to give consent is be alive.

If you start walking around teaching the idea that some people may not want to have sex with you and you need to ask first, it completely undoes everything they’re teaching about human sexuality. If you remove the ominous boogeyman of your inner sexual demons, then suddenly it might be ok to start exploring your pants-feelings. Because you can decide whether or not you want to do . . . well, whatever you want to do. Or not.

And it’s the “or not” part that would render most of what they teach almost completely useless. If people are capable of saying no, I don’t want to have sex with you, then teaching people that they cannot ever be alone with someone is sort of pointless. So are all the ridiculous conversations about hand holding and kissing and (God forbid) “heavy petting.”

Purity culture actually strips away empowerment, and agency, and autonomy. And the most horrifying thing about this understanding of human sexuality is that it makes rape non-existent. No one can be raped because we all want it all of the time.

Continue on to part two.

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  • You raise an excellent point, and I appreciate your observation. The lack of education about consent means that there tends to be a similar lack of emphasis on self-discipline. As you say, the only tactic taught is to not engage anything anywhere close to sex (how does the joke go, no dancing because it leads to holding hands which leads to sex?), but when we avoid dialogue about the matter, we’re doing no one any favours.

    And the sad outcome is problems with teen pregnancy and rape, among others. You can’t be on the pill, or carry contraception, because then you’re practically planning to have sex. But sex can’t be planned–it’s a sin that only happens when we fail. So we either fail and are doomed, or we don’t fail and we don’t need to talk about contraception or preventing STDs. The same message–that sex happens due to unbridled lust–results in a disheartening number of rapes. The message is translated that we have no control over our actions, so it’s not actually our fault that this terrible crime was committed. And more often than not, it is blamed on the woman for tempting the man.

    I’m active at a large gaming convention and in a few other gaming circles, and I love the Consent movement of the last few years (notably, Cosplay != Consent). This is a topic we need to talk so much more about. We need to remind each other about it, and expand the discussion, and take it to everyone.

    • Peter

      The joke I’ve heard is that sex is forbidden because it could lead to dancing or hand-holding.

    • victoria

      There’s a great scene in the Documentary *Let’s Talk About Sex* where the filmmakers ask Dutch and American teenagers how they’d feel if they found out their date carried condoms in their wallet.

      The Dutch teens responded with things like, “They’re responsible.” “They take care of their health.” “They don’t take stupid risks.” “Of course they do, who doesn’t?”

      The Americans all responded with statements like, “They’re sex-obsessed.” “They’re players.” “They’re sluts.”

      Striking, that.

  • Elmo

    I continually recall a line from a book I read as an undergraduate as part of a course called “Cultures of India”. It said that it is a man’s duty to keep his wife fulfilled or she would copulate with any dwarf, leper or cripple she happened to meet on the road.

    • Heh….the start sounds like a sex positive thing and then it all goes quickly downhill.
      Anyway how old was this book?

    • K240

      I guess that means if you’re a dwarf, leper, or cripple, it’s advantageous to just hang out on the roads….

  • This is one of those things that I’d never thought of before, but seems terribly obvious now that I’ve seen someone make the connections.

  • Douglas

    “…why no one seems to care about consent when it seems, at least to me, absolutely foundational when it comes to sexual interactions.”
    Wow, you absolutely articulated something I’ve been trying to say for a while. Thank you.

  • Erin

    This also explains some of the rampant individual homophobia you encounter in a lot of conservative Christians. If everyone wants to have sex all the time with everyone they ever meet, then all the gay people must, of course, want to have sex with everyone as well. I have had conversations with violent homophobes that seemed genuinely surprised at the idea that the gay people they encounter might not be interested in sleeping with them.

    • It really does.

    • Gary Eddy

      I have heard the same thing from guys who consider themselves real “ladies” men. They think that if they are in a group of men talking about sexual promiscuity that if there are gay guys in the group they fear (are you kidding me) that they will be hit on. I believe it’s the inflated egos. They are usually put in their place when they find out that gay guys and most women aren’t really attracted to them.

    • Tever

      My SO and I were discussing this very thing a few weeks ago, actually. She’s Catholic, and I raised fundamentalist, and she is continually surprised by some of the things I say and that I think are normal. I pointed out that a big part of the fear might be coming from the idea that straight men might be obligated and forced to have sex with gay men because of how they treat women, that it’s not possible to say no.

    • Harmony

      I have something that’s kind of on the tip of my tongue about this article (and its follow-up in part 2), but I’m not sure how to fit it together.
      I got in an argument with my friend about the Grammy awards, with Macklemore and everything, and she led into the old “slippery slope into bestiality and pedophilia” argument, and I told her “NO. Homosexuality and those two are completely different. Bestiality and pedophilia will never be permitted because they are issues of consent- animals cannot consent to sex, and children cannot consent to sex.”
      So I read these two articles, and I was like, YES, this is why she didn’t get it! But it’s been a few days, and I’ve kind of lost the threads holding them together. What are everyone’s thoughts?

  • Denobulan marriage is also distinctly not based on purity concepts but on mutual consent between all four parties.

    (I’m a fellow Trekkie; I joke that Picard saved my life; TNG was my only TV show during a fundamentalist baptist/ACE childhood. I met Patrick Stewart last year. He’s awesome.)

  • Then top it off with the Phyllis Schlafly types who believe that once you say I do, you don’t have the right to say no to your husband. Therefore it’s impossible to raped if you’re married. Have we totally left Planet Sanity yet?

  • cm

    Yes it does…but not just in that way but in many ways negates their teachings. it goes against the modesty teachings ….you know how girls were warned against being one of those girls who write blank sexual checks to anyone who even *looks* at them ….but if dressing like that *isnt* giving consent…Then how will we know who is?
    And since unlimited sex is basically the only reason to marry a weaker vessel and lesser like a woman (and we are all entitled to a beautiful sexualservant because we have met God s requirements of “biblical manhood”…what would happen if wives could say no ….wouldnt they start wondering about the true purpose of marriage and doubting their God given role? And clearly consent is not biblical…look at david and bathsheba!

  • You’d think more people raised into the idea that people can’t control their lust at all would realize something was off though because their own experience tells them something different. Because they don’t have this uncontrollable desire to have sex, that respecting other people’s boundaries is actually fairly easy if you only try, and sometimes even respecting your own is necessary…

    • Except, they believe that sexual attraction all on its own- something that is actually an uncontrollable autonomic function– is sin. not just lust, but anything that most ordinary people would ignore.

    • However, there are so many sexual scandals among conservative Christians that many of them do have uncontrollable urges. Perhaps these urges are intensified precisely because purity doctrine focuses so much on wrong sex and makes it more tempting as a forbidden pleasure.

  • I remember being in a church and having the male leaders explain to me very earnestly that girls participating in activities such as figure skating and gymnastics is a sin because of the leotards/costumes they wear, and that they, of course, lust after those girls. They couldn’t conceive of just how creepy and ridiculous they were being that grown men could not control their sexual urges while watching 13 or 14 yo girls on a balance beam or ice skates! And that it wasn’t the girls who were sinning, but them! They espoused that if they lusted after those girls, it was the girls’ faults.

    You are right. Consent would undermine everything. I never considered that before, but again, you have put words to a concept I have thought about but have never been able to define.

    • Isn’t that, like, directly and blatantly unbiblical? No less an authority than one Jesus of Nazareth said the sin is thers, not the girls’. “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) And these creepy men are church “leaders?”

      • I’ve heard the argument that the “with” in that sentence makes it her fault, too.

      • Of course, if by showing a bit of leg you cause a man to lust, then you are equally as responsible for their sin…

        You know, that’s why churches use grape juice, so they don’t cause alcoholics to sin.

      • Gary Eddy

        Good comment and very true. It’s the same thing with burkas. But for a counter point. The bible foes ask us to dress modestly

  • Excellent point….In my mind, consent is one of the cornerstones of morality and healthy relationships.

    As for purity culture, there is so much about it that is wrong, that I might have to write my on post just to go it justice….

  • “Namely, the assumption that every single last person– most especially men, but also women– are basically nymphos who are straining at their leashes every single second of every single day”

    Isn’t “She wanted it,” what rapists say?

  • Het

    The basic idea is that your decisions are already made for you – the church, society, culture or whatever has already decided what is good and what is bad. To want sex is bad so why even talk about wanting it? If people stopped pushing their values of what is good or bad on others we would have less of a problem.

  • Gary Eddy

    Very good. I read it twice to understand it better. Something I have not thought about as I have always thought my wife and I were all about consent when it comes to sex and other matters. I am sharing this with her and then we are going to talk about it.

  • Well Sam, time for a little tough love: Your choices in Trek spin offs are terrible. DS9 is where it’s at! 😛

    Now that I got that out of the way — great article. Really hits the nail on the head. I don’t remember ever even hearing about the concept of consent until college.

    • DS9– you mean the one where everyone is stuck on a silly space station and they rarely ever go anywhere? That one? Nope. Voyager is clearly where it’s at.

  • Snap! Yeah, that’s the one … the one with character development, story arcs, and not hitting the reset button after each episode. 😉 Oh, counter-burn!

  • I must be the old geezer here, because I grew up on the Original Series re-runs. (I’m having fun discovering the other series now, though.) Further proof for the doubters that SciFi isn’t escapist fluff, but where much of the important thought on ethical and moral issues took place in the last century.

    • Seriously– I think I got more of my morals from Star Trek than I did from the (fundamentalist interpretation of the) Bible. Good thing, too.

    • You are an old geezer, Fiddlrts? I saw the original series in its original release; what does that make me?

      By the way, I watched all the series and my favorite is Next Generation, followed by Voyager and Enterprise. However, I loved them all! They did teach me a lot about ethics and morality.

  • I think another reason might be that if you are only having sex within marriage and as a woman its your duty to keep your husband sexually fulfilled, what room is there for consent? It doesn’t fit into the context at all.

  • We were taught that sex was ‘unleashing the tiger’. When I grew up and got married, and discovered that sometimes (well, quite often actually), the tiger was moribund, I immediately assumed there was Something Wrong with Me. A lot of Evangelical women (and men) assume there must be something wrong with them that day when they are allowed to have sex, but actually don’t fancy it. How ironic that along with ‘purity’ they seem to teach that once you’re married, sex is a duty – the ultimate passion killer! It took me a long, long time to realise the sex was up to me and that if I didn’t want it, that was fine and if I wanted it, that was fine too, although I could only act on that desire if my partner wanted it. I tell my kids that sex is great, but often over rated 😉

  • YES!!! This is so well-said. Purity culture teaches that you shouldn’t do anything romantic alone with someone of the opposite sex, because you could get carried away and SUDDENLY ACCIDENTALLY HAVE SEX! Sometimes people would use phrases like “we stumbled.”

    When I started reading feminist blogs and came across the idea that a woman could tell a guy to stop, even if she had consented to making out or whatever, and the guy MUST stop or else it’s rape and that yes everyone is fully capable of stopping, I was shocked.

    • The_L

      I love that whole “we stumbled” or “it just happened.” Yup, they were just walking along, minding their own business, when suddenly he tripped and fell in just such a way that Tab A fell into Slot B.

      Because that is totally something that could happen in the real world.