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.


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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