Purity Culture Itself is the Problem

I got back from my short jaunt to  seminary this weekend, and I have my first massive paper of seminary due tomorrow, so that’s been what’s keeping me occupied. I did take Redeeming Love with me and was able to read a little of it, but I was somewhat preoccupied with an article I was writing for Rewire, which went up today!

It’s titled “How We Teaching Purity Culture isn’t the Problem: Purity Culture Itself is the Problem,” and I’m pretty excited about it. As always, if you think this is valuable reading, please share it generously with your social media circles.

This weekend is my big Halloween bash, so after that life should settle back down to something resembling more routine and I hope to return to at least a weekly blogging schedule. For now, enjoy my post over at Rewire and you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook ranting about things.

Photo by Noee
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  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    My daughter recently wrote an essay about The Scarlett Letter in her 11th grade English class, and in part of the essay she detailed the shaming she endured in youth group. Her female youth group leader brought a big baggy pair of long basketball shorts to meetings, and any girl whose shorts were too short had to wear the basketball shorts over her own. They were not allowed to go home and change, they had to wear the Shorts Of Shame.The leader also threatened the girls that if she saw them anywhere in town at any time wearing something immodest, she would reprimand them right there.

    • That is completely horrifying.

    • Michael

      The shame shorts are more than bad enough. If some person from church reprimanded my (hypothetical) kids in public, I don’t what I would do.

      • I think I might reprimand them right back for thinking about my teenage child in a sexual manner and tell them how deeply inappropriate it is.

        • Michael

          That’s the appropriate response for sure. I’m just like “who is this person accosting teens in public?” Like, get outta here.

        • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

          She does not go to that youth group anymore. Yes, highly inappropriate.

        • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

          My daughter didn’t tell me about how bad the purity culture stuff was until she had been out of the group for 2 years. She had told me some things, but I had no idea how deeply the experience effected her until recently. I think this is one of the problems with purity culture – the most vulnerable don’t feel safe balking it, or they even cooperate with it. I think it took her time to process how threatening the whole experience was.

    • Not allowed to go home and change?! That’s really awful.

      What frustrates me the most about modesty is how it’s not a consistent definition; it’s completely dependent on current fashion trends of the times. Leggings worn with a sweater long enough to cover your butt may be considered modest here, but not in the Middle East. Makes me think modesty isn’t the issue so much as sexualizing every little thing about women’s bodies. Why else do people freak out when they see a woman breast feeding in public?

  • BrendenP

    Samantha, so where do you distinguish between the virtue of purity and purity culture? I don’t think I’ve experienced the toxic purity culture you describe in any church I’ve ever attended, but I have a difficult time understanding how someone could read a book like Passion & Purity and come away with a view of purity that leads to toxic purity culture.

    Granted, I haven’t read I Kissed Dating Goodbye (or any book mentioned in your article other than Passion & Purity) but what is the root of toxic purity culture? In your view, are these books simply being misunderstood from a legalistic perspective? (i.e. fear and shame as toxic motivators that need to be changed). Or is there some other deficiency (theological or otherwise) underneath the surface?

    • Samantha might have her own response, but just in case it’s helpful: I personally find the entire concept of purity to be toxic. I think there is no virtue in purity at all. Richard Beck’s book “Unclean” is quite good on this (Samantha mentions it in the article). Yes, it’s a concept that occurs throughout the Bible….but the most transcendent moments (especially but not exclusively in the New Testament) tend to be about overcoming purity boundaries.

      Purity is a completely negative concept, even just in the dictionary definition. It is always about absences– about being without mixing, without pollution, without blemish. This inherent passivity robs it of any real moral force (a sacrificial animal that was unblemished was “pure” but not moral.) And the minute something is mixed, polluted, blemished, etc., there’s no going back. It is thus impossible to use purity as a concept, especially in relation to people, without slipping into metaphors involving trash, etc. I’m also finding its racist resonances more and more unacceptable (that is, that language of pollution and taint has SO often been used about whiteness vs. people of color).

    • Shaina

      I can’t speak for Samantha, and I have no theological training myself. However, I do have personal experiences with purity culture.

      In my experience, the problem with purity culture was, for one, the theology itself, but also simply an insistence on purity over personal choice. From a very young age, I had it drilled into my head that purity was a high virtue. That sex was beautiful and good, but only designed for one context. All of the church leaders and adults I spoke to tried very hard to emphasize that sex was basically good and that one shouldn’t feel fear or shame from sinning. However, while they were telling me those things, they were also telling me that my sin (and my sin was primarily lustful) was wrong. So, despite the best efforts of all involved, I felt fear and shame anyway. Who wouldn’t feel fear or shame on being told they were doing something that could condemn them to eternal separation from God? Purity culture hurt me even when it was framed in a positive way, because purity culture was still made up of people telling me that my fundamental urges were as morally wrong as adultery or rape.

      Purity culture also sought to remove my personal choice from all sexual matters. There was no gray area, no room for me to make decisions involving my theological interpretations and my libido. If I had been raised in a faith culture that encouraged me to think about what I was being taught and come to my own conclusions, perhaps I could have shed the harmful self-imposed boundaries that were shoved unto me. But purity culture taught me that my sexual thoughts and actions were unequivocally wrong, and it taught me that I was “ruining myself” for a future spouse.

      As for your own question about the value of purity, I don’t see anything wrong with choosing to abstain from sex yourself, as long as it’s your choice and you don’t hurt yourself or others over it. It is, however, difficult to choose what you think when you are raised in a culture that by its very nature denies you a choice in what to think.

      • I’m working on a seminary paper so I can’t really get into things too deeply yet, but I’d like to reiterate a point I made in the article: demanding sexual purity and abstaining from sex are not even remotely the same thing. They’re not even in the same ballpark.

        Abstinence is a choice that can be made for a variety of complicated reasons. Sexual purity requires a person to totally cut themselves off from their sexuality until they’re heterosexually married, when they’re just supposed to flip some magic switch. Sexual repression is unhealthy, and that’s what “purity” teachings demand.

        • BrendenP

          Well I agree that abstinence and purity are not the same thing. But where are we getting the idea that sexual purity requires a person to cut themselves off from their sexuality? Surely there are key distinctions between healthy sexuality/desire, lust, and sexual activity outside marriage.

          It seems to me that sexual purity (i.e. more than simple abstinence) is what Christ asks of us in the scriptures in the sermon on the mount. Plus there are plenty of passages where Paul talks about sexual purity:

          “But among you, as is proper among the saints, there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality or impurity” (Ephesians 5:3)

          Personal choice isn’t really the issue — you can choose what to think, but that doesn’t change what Jesus and Paul are saying. If scripture is saying “not even a hint of sexual impurity,” sexual purity seems to be what is commanded.

          Rather, the core issue appears to be the culture of purity itself — the culture of using shame and fear to ostracize and condemn. For example, making someone feel their self-worth is diminished or lost in the eyes of God because of sin. Or by extension, mistreating a person (made in the image of God) as though they are lesser because of sin or suffering. This culture is toxic and wrong and it doesn’t come from scripture.

          However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever lament or feel fear/shame before God. Disobedience is serious and the Bible is full of warnings against sin. Just look at the book of Psalms or Proverbs — there are songs where David laments his sexual sin, and wisdom literature warning against sexual temptation.

          • Beroli

            “More than simply abstinence” isn’t a definition–it only says what what you’re referring to is not. I think if you actually defined “purity” as you’re using it here, it would be helpful for communication.

            David is a bad example of there being virtue in “purity” because he had plenty to lament without bringing purity into it (i.e., he was a rapist).

          • Ysolde

            I’m thinking this comment is due to his actions with Bethsheba. I haven’t read the bible in a very long time so is that right? Are you saying that he raped Bethsheba or is it that by sending her husband to the front to get killed it was on the order of rape?

          • The prophet Nathan sets up a pretty clear metaphor, in my opinion. When he describes Bathsheba’s relationship with her husband in the sheep/owner analogy, he says that the owner loved his sheep and treated her gently. The thief in the metaphor *eats* the sheep. He didn’t take the sheep and also treat her gently. The thief in the story devours her and destroys her.

            I don’t think what Nathan is describing could be anything remotely consensual.

          • Ysolde

            Thank you, I didn’t remember that analogy.

          • Amanda

            A theological point – Purity and holiness are not the same concept to the biblical writers, though they are often considered the same thing today. As Melissa mentioned in an earlier comment, much of the New Testament is about ‘overcoming purity boundaries’. You may want to look into what ‘sexual immorality’ would have meant to the writers. I began questioning current interpretations of it because I realized that, with one possible exception (though it’s still not equivalent to modern definitions) ‘sexual immorality’ is not defined the way it is today. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from it or develop a sexual ethic on its basis, but this requires more careful consideration than ‘Paul said x’.

            A practical point – Related to your point about a distinction between healthy sexuality/desire vs lust vs sex outside of marriage. If your ethic is ‘don’t have sex outside of marriage’ and you frame it in terms of verses like ‘don’t have a hint of sexual immorality’ and the sermon on the mount, there’s actually no practical way to make the distinction you want to make (there is a distinction, but not on the basis you have cited). By far the most common distinction between healthy desire and lust that people give as a result of this theology (I could give references if you want, but you’ve probably read them too) is the following:

            Healthy desire – ‘that person is attractive.’

            Lust – ‘omg that person has an amazing six-pack! Wow they are ridiculously attractive!’

            One is left thinking the distinction between desire and lust is….enthusiasm? There’s no substantive difference between these two things. It minimizes the seriousness of lust while framing healthy desire as a sin (‘lust’ in the example I just gave is also healthy desire).

          • My extremely truncated response to the question of “what’s lust” is that “lust” involves sexual objectification. Sexual attraction is pretty close to an autonomic response– we can’t really help what we’re attracted to, or what we’re aroused by.

            However, I think lust is a problem because it takes the wonder and wholeness of a person and reduces them down to “collection of body parts I’m going to jack off to.”

            Conflating sexual objectification/lust with a perfectly normal, even automatic physical reaction like arousal is what I have a problem with, and that’s what happens in purity culture.

            If your particular religious environment makes this distinction, then it’s not really the problem I’m critiquing.

          • keefanda

            Please define how you use the term “lust”, since by how I use the term it has nothing to do with whether or not I negate the wonder and wholeness of a person when I “lust”. This talk that “lust” is evil bothers me, but maybe it’s just a reflection of the fact that how we define terms is almost everything. As I think of the term, “lust” is good, not evil, since, as I think of the term, it is an inescapable part of strong sexual arousal, which I think is good, not evil: I think of lust as simply strong sexual desire, and gratifying that lust such that no one is hurt as good, not evil, period. For me this includes partners enjoying visual stimulation together. And yes, I absolutely reject any notion that sex or sexuality is evil if it is not immediately part of some love relationship. Note that this covers masturbation, especially for singles. Please do not forget that there are many people out there with strong sex drives who a number of times go for years without sexual partners even though they would love to have partners. Please take care that the liberal, progressive response to any of what I just said and especially the just-mentioned plight of having no sexual outlet with another person is not just some liberal, progressive tweak of the fundamentalist answer that imposes guilt and shame. I think this can happen with some definitions of “lust”, and so I think these definitions are morally wrong. And please see the linked-to articles below – and the linked-to articles they give – for what the original languages terms translated “lust” actually mean. Their meanings do not fit the fundamentalist narrative.

            Liberal, progressive religion should be about casting off all chains (and this includes the chains of sexual repression), about complete liberation (including sexual liberation), save the chains or restriction that we should not hurt others or ourselves. Love covers the whole law, since it never hurts. Grace expressed as simply not being hurtful covers the whole law. I think that is what Jesus said and what Paul later said. Assuming the falsity of the Pharisee-like rants we still see in even some of the New Testament, this allows us to totally embrace Pleasure as a gift from God in all joy with no guilt as long as no one is hurt. I say this because we are sexual beings, and I believe that the idea itself that “lust” is somehow evil in and of itself is hurtful.

            It even inevitably leads to many people turning themselves into basket cases from trying to not “lust after” what they are attracted to, even their sexual partners, and even when being in the throes of orgasm with them. This mantra “lust is sin” in the subconscious mind repeatedly pounds in the ever increasing guilt. I was one who was in such chains. I finally started getting liberated from this wrong thinking that “lusting” is bad a quarter century ago when I was still an evangelical from (of all things) an agnostic Freudian psychologist who well understood sexuality. I want to never be bound by those chains again. I should have realized that at least some of the Bible was telling me that it is wrong thinking. Depending on the translation, the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs) has some rather lusty and pornographically suggestive language speaking of body parts – usually the woman’s body parts. The whole of chapter 4 is this sort of thing. It even suggestively celebrates giving oral sex to a woman (take that you fundamentalists who preach that it is a sin!)!. The New Living Translation says in 4:13, “Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates with rare spices -…”. Ever seen what a pomegranate looks like after it’s opened up? And it’s a delicious, wet, and juicy fruit inside. (I apologize to all who are offended by all this, but hey, it’s the Bible with some of its implications!)

            And, by the way, on the Greek term translated “lust” in that infamous passage where Jesus is interpreted by fundamentalists to mean that it is evil for men to “lust” after women (even their wives if married!) and by extension evil for anyone to “lust”, period: It simply means “strong desire” or even better, “covet”, it has no sexual connotation, it’s used many times throughout the Bible (including the Greek translation of the Old Testament) such that positive uses outnumber negative uses 2 to 1 (strongly desiring or coveting is usually good, believe it or not), and it’s the same Greek term used in Luke 22:15 where Jesus said that he “longed” to be with his disciples. So if the term translated “lust” or “longing” in and of itself is a sin, then Jesus was a sinning sinner, since it says he “lusted” or “longed” to be with his disciples. And on the term translated “woman” in that infamous passage: There is no separate Greek term for “wife”. Since the passage is about adultery, it should have been translated “wife of another man”. So yeah, it’s reasonable that it’s a sin for a man to covet the wife of another man. That is worlds apart from the fundamentalist interpretation.

            Rather than go on saying what I think, here are some articles saying what I think is relevant (the first one by a university professor of religious studies):

            “Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust”: Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1″

            “Christian Myths: Lust”


            “To me, God was becoming a tyrant….. like someone who forces an alcoholic to sit at a table full of beer all day and then tells him he better not even think about drinking…….
            So for those of you who are struggling with this burden, please read the link I attached. It’s a much more in depth exegesis of Matthew 5:28 and it will set you free from this chain if you are ready to receive it.”

          • Amanda

            Not sure if you were responding to Brenden or me, but I agree. I was attempting to point out (to Brenden) that the distinction he wants to make can’t be made by the theology around purity culture, but maybe I wasn’t clear.

      • Stephanie Gertsch

        I had similar experiences, which make it hard for me to relate to a lot of the backlash against “purity culture” only. (Although Samantha is one of the few bloggers I agree with on sexuality.)

        My church and family were perfectly sex positive until I actually became sexually active. Then it was sin, sin, sin. I keep pretending to be a virgin around my old church friends, and my parents who do know constantly try to undermine my relationships.

        No rings, no vows, no shredded roses. Just pure toxicity. So that’s why it’s abstinence, not purity that rings so harshly in my ears. For me it’s never held the connotation “voluntarily.” Its about making rules for what other people can and can’t experience without “sinning.”

        • Shaina

          I’m sorry to hear that that happened to you. Thank you for posting this comment, though, you’ve managed to express really succinctly and accurately everything I was trying to say.

        • Stephanie Rice

          I totally understand pretending to be a virgin with church friends. My now-husband and I made a perfectly sane decision to have premarital sex (we were and still are Christians). We were both absolutely fine with that decision but actively kept it a secret from Christian friends because of the backlash we knew would come.

          • Stephanie Gertsch

            Makes sense. It’s really none of people’s business anyway. At one of my old churches there was a very TMI couple that made things awkward by oversharing about their sexual “struggles” (really his misogyny and their internalized shame).

  • Ysolde

    I find much of this very fascinating. When I was younger I lived in Texas and then Oklahoma and at the time I was identified as a boy. The culture where I grew up though was basically purity culture and I had no experience as a woman from within it. My experience of it was from a very confused male perspective one uncomfortable with her gender and who finally told her father she was a girl and ended up getting thrown out of the house at 17 to end up living in New Jersey. It was in NJ that I grew into the woman I would become though and have never experienced purity culture from the female perspective.

    So, thank you for showing me glimpses into a world I was part of, but never saw from the perspective of a woman.

  • Morrow

    Wonderful article, Samantha, and very timely! It helped me understand my reaction to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Birthday of the World,” which I recently started reading. I was shocked when the first story in the collection – a reflection on coming of age and discovering sexuality – nearly brought me to tears. It made me realize that my own “coming of age” was a time of becoming more and more dehumanized. My maturing body was seen as nothing but a potential source of danger and evil. As a result I spent well over a decade completely detached from my own body and from any kind of sexual thought or feeling. My teen years were a time of saying goodbye to my self. I’m recovering now, but I don’t know if I will ever stop grieving for the years I spent working so hard to be less than human.

  • Kellyanne Fitzgerald

    I spent all last night and this morning going through your blog. I can’t even begin to explain how freeing and enlightening it has been to me. I am a nineteen year old who was homeschooled through high school in a conservative / fundamentalist Christian environment, and although I have occasionally encountered moments where my values / what I want to do/believe clash with what is ingrained in me from my upbringing, I had never really considered all the ways that being raised fundamentalist Christian hurt me. When I was sexually assaulted I was afraid to tell my own father because of the things I had heard him say about rape and assault victims, and in terms of family background, I still think I really got off easy, because my parents love and support me, for the most part, while so many from the fundamentalist crowd do not. I’m just starting to realize how twisted my perceptions of purity, what it means to be a “good Christian”, and feminism really are, and I think I’m only at the tip of an iceberg. But what I’m trying to say is I really appreciate your blog. I have seen blogs / books by people who were raised fundamentalist and are no longer Christian, but I could never fully relate to them because even though I don’t have the same beliefs as I did when I was fifteen, I am still Christian- I’m just trying to figure out how to be a Christian who loves like Jesus does, and not in an isolating, “other” hating kind of way. I’m following the links to the blogs and books that you link to throughout your blog, and I’m trying to learn where my blind spots are, where I’ve been hurt, and how to move forward from here. I guess in short: thank you. You’ve helped me.