Feminism

why purity culture doesn't teach consent, part two

wedding dress

I occasionally subject my partner to readings of my posts– when I first started, it was nearly every day, but now it’s only when I feel that I’ve been particularly brilliant. Yesterday was just such a post, but, thankfully, I’m married to someone equally brilliant, and he had a few ideas that I didn’t talk about yesterday but need to be said.

There isn’t any one single reason why those who advocate for purity/virginity ignore consent. I think it’s important to talk about the underpinning ideas, the assumptions and presuppositions that drive purity culture, but it’s just as important to talk about the things that purity advocates would openly admit if you asked them about it.

My partner suggested that if you asked someone who wants everyone to stay a virgin until they’re married why they don’t teach consent, one of the possible answers you might get is because it doesn’t matter.

That … struck me. I sat there and stared at him with my jaw hanging open because it took me a second to wrap my brain around it. What do you mean it DOESN’T MATTER?! This is the matter-ing-est idea of ALL TIME! But then I realized he was right, because for the people who are teaching that everyone must save their virginity for their, of course, heterosexual marriage– consent is for people who aren’t married.

Der.

I obviously disagree with that sentiment– violently disagree, in fact– but it is quite common for Christians to talk about sex in marriage as a guarantee, or a requirement. There’s a whole gamut of views on this. There’s Debi Pearl telling women that it is our duty to have sex whenever he wants it, and if we don’t he’s going to watch porn or cheat on you, and no, there isn’t a legitimate reason to refuse. Then there’s Mark Driscoll who explicitly says that women are biblically required to perform any and all sex acts, no matter if we find it personally degrading or uncomfortable. In fact, we should “repent” of our lack of interest and get down to the business of servicing him.

The middle ground view is probably that getting married means you’re consenting to have sex with that person– and, no, you don’t have to have sex just because the other person wants it and you can say no sometimes, but you should be extremely careful about how and when you say no. So careful, in fact, that it’s probably better just to never say no. Just to be safe. Because who knows what could happen if you say no! Sex is an essential part of any healthy marriage, and it’s just something the husband needs. Women, you may not need sex the way he does, but, really, it’s the only real way he knows how to say “I love you.” Men are going to feel emasculated and unloved if you don’t have sex with them.

So, while the “middle of the road” people would probably say of course you can say no! it comes with so many threatscautions that it makes it almost impossible for anyone to say no and feel ok about it. This, friends, is a huge problem because it contributes to something called coercion. If you are allowing someone to have sex with you not because you want to have sex because yay sex is fantastic! and instead because if I don’t then I’m responsible for my husband’s sin or what if he leaves me or this is my obligation then what’s happening isn’t enthusiastic consent, it’s coercion.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that every single time someone has sex with their partner even though they’re not enthusiastic it’s rape. I’m not arguing that. However, the standard we should be pursuing is enthusiastic consent, and accepting anything less should make you uncomfortable. Why have sex with someone who doesn’t really want it, but is willing to tolerate it because of X reason?

And for anyone who isn’t married . . . well, you’re not supposed to have sex. Period. End of story. No consent for you. You are a sex-crazed beast, but you’re not supposed to be having sex with anyone and talking about consent is just going to muddy the whole thing up. Why bother teaching an idea that’s not necessary?

To me, the biggest reason why it’s important to teach consent and sexual agency is so that people of all genders can recognize the difference between consensual sex acts and sexual assault or rape. I had no clue for almost three years that I had been raped because I believed in the myths that purity culture had taught me– that “men will only go as far as you let them” and that men are tempted by women being impure– dressing immodestly, behaving sensually . . . that I must have done something to tell him that I was willing to have sex with him, or he wouldn’t have done it, even though I was begging him to stop and telling him that he was hurting me the entire time.

Concepts like bodily autonomy are important for a whole host of reasons, and they are absent in many areas of Christian culture. Children are forced to hug or kiss people even though they do not want to; they’re taught that nearly all of their wants and needs are subject to the whims of “authority.” They don’t have the basic rights to think for themselves, to hold opinions on their own in contradiction to their community, to have things that they want to do for no other reason than they want to do it. Young adults struggle to find themselves, and are forced into the cookie-cutter molds of their church’s or parent’s expectations for their morals and beliefs. This isn’t universal, of course, but it’s common. Common enough, at least.

Consent should not only be the cornerstone of how we have sex, but how we engage with our children, our parents, our communities, and our churches.

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  • The thing is that this:

    “Women, you may not need sex the way he does, but, really, it’s the only real way he knows how to say “I love you.” Men are going to feel emasculated and unloved if you don’t have sex with them.”

    And this:

    “You are a sex-crazed beast, but you’re not supposed to be having sex with anyone and talking about consent is just going to muddy the whole thing up.”

    Do not easily co-exist.

    So, am I to conclude that women are only sex-crazed beasts who will do it with anyone who stands still long enough (what was it that the person said yesterday in the comments: any dwarf, leper or cripple) until they get married, at which point they become sexless beings who have to be biblically guilted into having sex with their husbands using the threat that he will leave them, cheat, or use porn.

    That makes no sense. Right?

    • I think it’s just a matter of degree– men are MORE interested in sex than women, regardless of stage of life. Also, they typically only talk about abstinence/virginity/purity when they’re talking to teenagers/young adults, who have uncontrollable hormones, apparently. They typically ignore the reality that many older adults are single and abstinent.

      • rstantonscott

        You don’t know the same women – or men, for that matter – that I know.

  • Well, again, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I really lucked out in that the dark end of purity culture never caught up to me the way it did for you. I really admire your ability to face all that head on.

    No, in my case, the result it had was blessedly more funny than sad. My girlfriend at the time, in college, would call me up: “Hey, my roommmates are out of town for the weekend… want to come and … spend some time here?” Me: “Eh. I gotta work. Catch you after class next week though.” We weren’t married, see, so even then on my way out of all that, it just was beyond my ability to comprehend that someone (especially a goil!) might want that sort of thing.

  • When I was in premarital counseling, I was actually encouraged to do “maintenance sex,” a.k.a. “have sex with him even if you aren’t feeling it just so that he’s happy.” Shortly following our marriage, one of the pastors in our church (another woman) basically told women that they were responsible for keeping sex interesting and exciting because “you wouldn’t serve the same meal for dinner every night!” UGH. NO. Consent is so very important! Mutual responsibility in sexual intimacy is important!

  • Angela

    I was actually told in church that “there is no such thing as consent.” The argument was that we are not our own which means that we don’t have the right to grant consent. Basically we are all God’s property so He is the only one who can grant consent (and obviously He only grants it for married, heterosexual couples).

  • Shai-Hulud

    “Concepts like bodily autonomy are important for a whole host of reasons, and they are absent in many areas of Christian culture.”
    Is ‘Purity culture’ related to their reticence towards sex education and even HPV vaccinations (which are protective against certain cervical cancers)?

    • Yes, it is.

    • MyOwnPerson

      Yes. I was discussing this with a strongly purity-oriented person and she doesn’t believe in sex-ed or unmarried couples using birth control. She believed that pregnancy is a “natural consequence” of sex, and so it would be sinful for anyone to try and relieve the natural consequences of sin. The welfare of the children of such conceptions wasn’t her concern, because all she had to do was make it harder for people to sin, the rest is in God’s hands.

      • Because thinking about babies as “the consequences of sin” isn’t horrifying at all.

    • The_L

      Oh, definitely. *puts on fundie-hat*

      You can’t get HPV unless one or both of you was fooling around before marriage, so getting the vaccine is just another way of saying that you’re easy and want to go fool around with everybody.

      If kids know about contraceptives and non-baby-making forms of sex, they’ll immediately run off and do the deed right then and there. And those anatomical diagrams will be used with as masturbatory aids, mark my words!

      *fundie-hat off*

      (I still don’t get how those diagrams could be seen as pornographic. A picture of the inside of a penis, with its cross-section of the testes and everything else in that general area, isn’t remotely sexy to me. I’m more attracted to the outside of the genitals, and only when they’re attached to a person I’m attracted to. A disembodied penis, or a diagram of the uterus, just plain isn’t sexy!)

      I have such severe PMDD that I would be bedridden once a month, every month, if I weren’t on the Pill. But if I hadn’t deconverted before it got to that point, I would have been horrified at my mother’s insistence that “This is not normal and you need to go on the Pill. We’re going to the gynecologist as soon as you’re up to it, today or tomorrow.” I was actually bemused that my Catholic mother was even suggesting the Pill, even for health reasons, even though I knew she was on it too. Because it had been drilled into my head that contraceptives of any kind were EVIL, and that if you had any of them in your possession before you were married, that meant you were planning to double-sin (once by having premarital sex, and again by “thwarting God’s will” with a contraceptive). In fact, condoms would have made it a triple-sin, because your genitals wouldn’t be directly touching each other, and this “interferes with the natural unitive function of sex, just as the contraceptive aspect interferes with the natural procreative function of sex.” Yes, this is the Vatican’s official position.

      Catholic fundies can be just as horrifying about sex as Protestant fundies, and in about the same direction.

      • I had never heard that about the condoms before…sheesh…

  • I hope it’s okay to put this here, I posted something similar on an earlier post but it fits here too…

    How do you progressive Christians, who care about women’s rights, take Jesus’ words on lust in the Beatitudes? You know, “if you look at someone and lust after them in your heart, you have already committed adultery with them.”

    I think Sam has written about this before. You talk about how purity culture shames women for how they dress, blames them for causing men ‘to stumble’, and that goes back to these words of Jesus. It seems like I remember you talking about the horrible, unfair guilt this can plant in young people…since they feel like adulterers just for having feelings they can’t really control.

    Does this impede healthy thinking on consent, too? It seems to me if you believe “thinking about sex” is morally equal to “having sex” and both are bad…well, doesn’t that minimize sex? If sex is sin, thinking about sex is sin, and coercing someone into having sex with you is sin…doesn’t that put all those things in about the same category?

    I’ve heard people say that intentions can’t excuse actions; you don’t get a pass on committing harmful actions just because you had good intentions. Shouldn’t it be the same here? You shouldn’t be shamed for a thought, feeling or intention, when you don’t actually act on that intention? If you want to have sex with someone, but don’t pursue them, or don’t try to coerce them–isn’t that quite a bit different from if you want to have sex and act on it? And do Jesus’ words leave room for it to be different?

    And how do you take those words of Jesus if, like some progressive Christians, you don’t believe the literal truth of every word in the Bible, but still think the words of Jesus are vitally important? Am I just misinterpreting Jesus? Or was Jesus actually wrong in saying this? Or what do you think?

    • I would be interested in hearing thoughts on this also. I was reading something recently about a family who taught their son to “avert his eyes” when he saw something that might be arousing – like a woman modeling underwear in an ad. Then one day he was walking around a department store and bumping into things. Turned out he was looking down because he didn’t want to see some ads they had up. Asked a family member about this and she said her hubby doesn’t like to see stuff like that because of “the way it effects him.” Seemed on further discussion that she felt it wasn’t a sin to be aroused but it could be if you continued to dwell on the thoughts. It turned out that the trick, in her view is to fall back on the forgiving grace of God. But I feel like I don’t want to put that kind of guilt on my sons. I’m hoping there’s a difference between attraction and lust.

    • Finding someone sexually attractive is an perfectly normal uncontrollable impulse. What matters is what you do with that impulse. For example, mentally undressing and sexing the person you find attractive is not okay.

    • I think this has to do with our modern, evangelical definition of lust. According to the church, lust is simply finding someone attractive and wanting, even for a minute, to be with them physically. However, other faith traditions view lust as a form of covetousness, an obsessive desire that breeds discontent for what one already possesses. If you consider the context in which Jesus spoke these words (i.e., divorce and remarriage), this view makes total sense.

      • As has been discussed plenty of times elsewhere and here, evangelicalism expects people to be totally devoid of sexuality until marriage, at which point they should turn into sex machines.

    • Talle

      How do you progressive Christians, who care about women’s rights, take Jesus’ words on lust in the Beatitudes? You know, “if you look at someone and lust after them in your heart, you have already committed adultery with them.”

      As a Seventh-day Adventist kid (I don’t know if that’s particularly progressive), I was repeatedly taught that in this instance, it’s important to remember that Jesus was speaking to and about Pharisees, not just regular everyday parishioners. He begins that speech with “You have heard it said, You shall not commit adultery” but keep in mind that the penalty in those days for adultery was DEATH. Therefore when he says “If you look at a woman with lust in your heart” he’s saying that the Pharisees, who were big on outward purity, were not actually better than the people they were all fired hot to start stoning to death — the takeaway being not so much “guess what, sin has an even bigger and more inescapable boundary now, ha ha” but more “stop stoning people and learn some forgiveness, because you’re not so perfect yourselves.”

      Everyone is going to slip up to varying degrees, but forgiveness and starting over is supposed to be a thing you can have (due to Christ’s sacrifice).

    • Talle

      (I meant to say “the Pharisees, who were big on extremely complicated and exaggerated outward purity.” It’s along the same lines as when Jesus told people not to pray ostentatiously in the streets so everyone would look at them and think they were holy, but to go home and pray in private, concentrating on the praying, so that they would actually BE holy.)

      • The_L

        You don’t need a comma after Pharisees, since it was those particular Pharisees Jesus was addressing, not Pharisees in general. Bear in mind that the Pharisaic tradition is the only surviving Judaic denomination from that time. 😉

    • Meghan

      My husband and I talk about that verse and we talk about lust in general in terms of consent. (We’re Catholics who are doing PhDs so you can probably assume we’re “progressive” like all other librul intellectuals.) To me, lust isn’t about physical desire (spousal love must not be lustful, for example) but about objectifying – i.e., dehumanizing – the other person. Projecting one’s fantasies onto another person ignores their actual assenting to the fantasy. It makes those words of Jesus seem harsher, even, since a modern understanding of women’s sexual autonomy suggests that “adultery” may not be the best expression of the idea, which is … kinda rapey. In other words, my husband struggles with that verse because, as he puts it: that undergrad with the “underbutt” *is* guilty of terrible fashion taste, but probably isn’t guilty of thinking, “I’d like to consent to adultery with that married 28-yr-old grad student with the neckbeard today!”

    • The_L

      I was taught that “lust” is deliberately fostering and encouraging sexual thoughts when they arise. In other words, it was OK to think about sex, as long as you immediately turned your thoughts to something else. Thus, a man who happens to see a scantily-clad woman isn’t doing anything wrong, but if he stares at her (his eyes “causing him to sin” by dwelling on her sexuality), or comes up with elaborate sexual fantasies in his mind, THEN he is committing lust. Seeing that someone else happens to be naked? OK. Being given a bait-and-switch Internet link that sent you to creepy porn instead of the wholesome site you thought it was*? Their fault, not yours. Deliberately going to a porn site, or buying a Playboy? LUST.

      This is still somewhat conservative by Catholic standards (like the Vatican’s official teachings generally are), but compared to the fundie viewpoint, it’s dangerously liberal.

      * Yes, this has happened to me. Some people think it’s funny to find something that offends or disturbs you, then encourage you to look at it.

  • I was thinking that a young man growing up in this culture gets the message that men are only real men if they can’t control the way women “affect” them, and if they are not barely able to control themselves if a girl “lets them” touch them, etc.. It almost gives boys permission to blame women for “making them stumble.” Or worse, it gives them permission to use pornography, have affairs, or even rape if either their wife isn’t “meeting his needs” or in order to prove that he is a “real man”. Its abuse culture all the way around.

    • Anonymous

      Hardly. Christianity is more about teaching control of these urges. Now, that being said, I do believe many men hold that idea try to use the Chrsitian faith as a shield against their actions, but their actions and justification are completely against what the Bible says.

  • Oh! Oh, dear. That was me. I was stuck in a marriage where the husband thought he had every right to take what he wanted, even when I said no. I told my parents, and my own mother said, “Well, there’s no such thing as rape in a marriage.” WTF? My husband (now ex-husband) would frequently say our marriage vows were all the consent needed.

    I’m sad it took me so long to come to my senses and leave.

    • Bri

      It breaks my heart and makes me sick that a mother would say such a thing to her own daughter. How dare she.

  • JunieGrrl

    I so appreciate that you wrote this:

    Concepts like bodily autonomy are important for a whole host of reasons, and they are absent in many areas of Christian culture. Children are forced to hug or kiss people even though they do not want to; they’re taught that nearly all of their wants and needs are subject to the whims of “authority.”

    When I was a (horrendously shy) child, my mother forced me to hug and kiss my aunts when we visited them. Fortunately, she didn’t make me touch strangers, but it was still so violating to me to basically be told that it didn’t matter what I wanted to do with my body, I had to do what I was told. So many years later, when my extremely shy nephew was born, my brother would want him to give us hugs and kisses. I always told him no, don’t make him do it. I didn’t want him to grow up to resent me the way I resented my aunts.

    In retrospect, I know why they wanted to give me affection–they loved me, and they meant no harm. However, recognizing the autonomy of a child is such a rare thing in this world! Now, I have a perfectly normal relationship with my nephew, and he voluntarily gives and receives affection when I see him. I am so happy that I respected his boundaries early on so he always knew his personal autonomy was safe with me.

  • Anonymous

    This is entire article is awfully stereotypical. I would expect more from someone trying to disparage fundamentalist doctrine, someone trying to break the mold of a particular culture. Christian based sex education is flawed, just about as much as any other sex education program. We don’t discuss sex in enough depth with our children and it’s largely a taboo subject, admittedly. That should change. But, in my experience, abstinence is all about consent. It’s about waiting for that perfect moment, a perfect, dedicated love. You don’t settle for less and consent to just anyone. You wait for marriage and don’t worry about consent because your marriage is supposed to be based on the love of God, your love and dedication to one another, and respect. That is how we believe God intends it to be. Because you respect and love one another, a man (or woman, because again with the stereotyping, a man CAN actually be the one who turns down a woman, and a woman can be likewise tempted) will respect that his wife is not currently interested in having sex. And there is nothing wrong with that, and it’s no one’s duty to constantly please one’s spouse.

    • Bri

      Teaching abstinence is not about consent at all. It’s about teaching that sex before marriage is sinful whether it’s consensual or not. No distinction is made between the sinfulness of sex acts that are consensually committed by both people and the sinfulness of sex acts that are done by one person to another without consent. Teaching children that they must not consent to just anyone does not even come close to actual education about consent, not even if that word is used. Granted, an author/pastor/teacher will *occasionally* throw in a disclaimer that victims of assault haven’t sinned by being assaulted, but that also teaches nothing about what consent is.

      And there’s a huge contradiction in a marriage that is based on love yet doesn’t worry about consent. Consent cannot be ignored or taken for granted, in any context. Both mainstream culture and Christian culture are so fraught with harmful ideas that diminish or negate consent, that in order to counter them we must talk openly and often about what consent is and how to honor it. It’s not enough to teach married couples that they must love and honor each other, because Mark Driscoll says the same thing while shamelessly promoting a marital rape culture. We must explicitly denounce what leaders like him teach, and we must teach the truth in its place.

  • Patrick Prescott

    I know a man whose wife was injured in an accident which left her brain damaged in a nursing home for twelve years. He raised his two daughters and had a loving family relationship with his wife and their mother until she passed away. He’s now remarried and helped his second wife finish raising her three children, all are now out of college, married and he keeps getting a new grandchild nearly every year. There is so much more to marriage than sex, and not all men leave women once sex is out of the equation.

  • rae

    For me this forceful hatred of the idea of consent began as a child. I couldn’t tell my siblings not to come in my room because it belonged to god, not me. I had to share my toys because they were gods, not mine. Everything I had or was was from god (every gift comes from above) and since he shared so generously with me I *had* to share with everyone else, I had not one single right to refuse demands on my things or myself. If something bad happened (like the sexual assault i experienced) then either it was my own fault or else god allowed it to happen. Either way, consent was not in the picture. Either way, it was soul suckingly depressing.

  • jumpylee

    Wait wait wait… There are people who think women are obligated to have sex with their husbands? What the hell?

    As a Christian I can say I’ve never heard such idiocy. Of course you should only have sex when both want it. Why the hell would you want it otherwise and how the hell could you justify anything else?

    Saying this has anything to do with the “purity” movement is ridiculous. Purity is simply the idea that sex before marriage is sin.

    • Then you’re incredibly fortunate. I have about a dozen Christian marriage advice books on my shelf that say exactly that quite explicitly.

      But I do agree with you– anything else besides consent is unjustifiable.

      However, the “purity movement” or “purity culture” is much larger than just that one concept. It’s a phrase that encompasses American Christian teachings about sex, which tends to focus on the “sin of pre-marital sex,” but isn’t limited to only that.