Is a “Purity Culture” Necessarily Bad?

I haven’t read the book this CT article summarizes, a book about dating on Christian college campuses, so I am making no comment on it other than that it looks wildly interesting and, surely, hits close to home. Dating culture on evangelical campuses—well, one in particular—consumed my life for basically ten years. I felt a bit jaded by that culture by the time I escaped the dating world (in a Subaru Outback with trailing cans). But I never could bring myself to blame anyone. After all, I won. No, I triumphed. When my family care physician asked me last week if I was ever depressed, I couldn’t help bursting out in a big smile and saying, “I’m happy!” The wife I found at that Christian college is the most important (human) reason for that fact.

There was one paragraph in the article that leapt out at me—because I fear it’s becoming the stock thing to say, and I think it comes perilously close to cant. The strategy in this argument du jour has reached the sloganeering stage—and here’s the slogan: “purity culture.” This “purity culture” is always bad; there’s always a sneer bubbling just under its transparent surface.

 It’s not the ideal of sexual purity, per se, that causes these challenges, but purity culture, a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments that presents perfection as the sole ideal. Students reported to [author Dana] Malone that sex talk on campus, in public forums, doesn’t reach the level of authenticity or honesty that they need. The purity imperative means that students sometimes misrepresent their sexual pasts to friends and partners, and this leaves them uncertain about the place of physical attraction in an intimate relationship moving toward marriage. Women suffer shame and guilt not just around sexual sin but around the sheer fact of living in a body.

Here’s what I wonder: is it possible to have a labeled, self-conscious group (such as “evangelicalism”) which holds an ideal (such as sexual purity) without a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments developing around it? Every group does this with its dearly held values, right? It’s a necessary factor of group-formation and maintenance. There can be no group cohesion unless people are both manning the barricades and doing some measure of internal policing. Patriots fans don’t let Eagles fans into their clubs, and they don’t permit one another to wear Eagles jerseys, either.

Maybe I’ve only succeeded in making “purity culture” sound even more unappealing than the above quotation. So let me put it in terminology that should feel more positive to my readers: we in the church have a duty borne of love to restore brothers in sin, to provoke one another to love and good works, to exhort one another while it’s called “today.” Even when we’re doing something as simple as singing, what we’re supposed to be doing is “teaching” and “admonishing” one another. Sin is a big deal, and that fact is supposed to become part of our culture of interactions within the church.

And let me make it personal: without the purity culture surrounding me in my Christian environs as a young man, I think I would not have just told my doctor I was happy. Christ forgives, yes. And so can people. Love can overlook, love can bear all things. But sin still has consequences. The promiscuous guy in Proverbs gets “to the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” What if I’d gotten a girl pregnant at 21—what would I be doing today? What would my place be in my Christian community? Would I have a wife and beautiful children? I just don’t know. I’m glad I had social pressure on me not to get into that state. I’m glad there was a sense of shame attached, culturally, to the sexual and relationship sins I was tempted to commit. I’m glad that a structure of first written and then informal expectations was placed around me regarding dating at my Christian college. In my case, they helped me make about the smoothest possible transition a rather immature redhead could make from adolescence to adulthood. I felt that they accurately reflected the Bible’s clarity about sexual sin and freed me to read my Bible and attain that clarity in my own conscience. (Please read Kenneth Woodward’s sage comments on this topic.) All of child-rearing is scaffolding toward a free-standing state. I’m not embarrassed to say that I needed such scaffolding past high school.

To be clear, I did things I’m not proud of during those ten years, things for which I have repented to God and to others. I sinned. But “purity culture” rallied around me, taking my sins seriously but believing ardently in the power of God’s grace to restore broken people—like every single member of the purity culture knew himself and herself to be, or was at least supposed to. I had a good—not perfect, not ideal, but good—experience in the very center of a strong, conservative purity culture.

I’m also not at all sure I would have liked sexual authenticity and honesty all around me during my college years. Some struggles with sin are properly kept discreet. I’m genuinely glad I didn’t even know about certain sexual deviancies until I was a grad student reading about them as part of my job at my Christian college library. Christian “purity culture” kept me from hearing the kinds of specific confessions from other guys that would themselves have become temptations for me.

I do need to get around, however, to some positives I see in the anti-purity-culture sloganeering. I do see some. Because when love and grace and God’s sovereignty and his Spirit and clear Bible get leached out of a purity culture, the culture can become imperious or Pharisaical. It can start to give the impression that sexual attraction is not a necessary part of marriage, when the Song of Songs rather says the opposite at book length. I’m sure it can put students in the awkward spot of feeling like they have to lie about their past sexual sin in order to preserve their friendships or campus leadership positions. I am no expert here (my wife kind of is), but I do tend to think that there ought to be a safe place for Christian college students to get pastoral counsel about what they’ve done in their sexual lives without necessarily having to risk their spot on the school newspaper staff. I have been told that my alma mater has worked to disentangle discipline from counseling. That’s out of my league, but it sounds right to me.

And there’s this comment from the article that rings more or less true:

Purity culture also creates a push toward marriage as a redemptive state that can “erase” sexual sins in a relationship.

I can’t say I saw much of this in my experience or in others’, but now that I see it named, I recognize the idea as one that floated around—and did go at least once through my own head. I can’t say the purity culture around me in college accepted it or promoted it, but I can see how that culture might have failed sufficiently to counter it.

But then the article resorts again to cant, to platitudes about how bad platitudes are:

Students described to Malone how they value traditional Christian morality but also want tensions and difficulties to be acknowledged and discussed on campus with informed, authentic dialogue, not platitudes or pat answers.

And I wonder: particularly in a mixed group of college students, how could this ever happen? Sex is so personal. Where is authentic but careful dialogue going to occur except in private settings? And how could it happen among a group which includes sheltered kids and not-so-sheltered kids? Dialogues “on campus” sound like faculty-led dialogues—which necessarily include many different students. Who isn’t going to aim for the least offense in a setting like that?

“Purity culture” is not inherently bad. A given Christian college campus, a given Christian church, a given group of Christian friends may have come to mix some bad ideas and values into their purity culture, but please don’t ever let my own children—or myself—fall into a group of Christians in which no such culture exists at all. I expect the Bible to have effects not just on individuals but on group dynamics, on shared norms of practice and virtue, on whether dads in a particular church feel encouraged to be involved in their children’s (particularly their daughters’) dating lives or are embarrassed to do so. As Jonathan Leeman so wisely pointed out when talking about other kinds of gender norms, we’re in the realm of “wisdom” here, not direct biblical command. But I sniff a little Western expressive individualism in the antipathy toward “purity culture,” and I’m not giving in to the bashfest. I needed that culture, and I will work to maintain and purify (!) it for the good of the children, teens, and college students I love.

I do think I know what the author of the article (and the book?) means in complaining about complete sexual purity as a “sole ideal”: I think she means that people who truly have repented from their sexual sins can come to feel that they are damaged goods who can’t have the truly happy marriages everybody else is promised. But there really is one sole ideal: sexual purity before (and after!) marriage. And we can’t give that up, because it’s in the Bible.

But one way to keep purity culture from becoming brittle and loveless and therefore harmful is to recognize that 1) not one of us has met the ideal, even men and women who never touched a member of the opposite sex until their wedding day. It is possible to be closer to the ideal and possible to be farther away from it; but it is not possible, I believe, to meet it unless you’re Jesus. We’re all damaged goods. And 2) none of us is guaranteed a happy marriage, no matter how close we’ve come to the ideal evangelical path toward it. There is an element of the laborers in the vineyard here: no one will get less than their due, but some in God’s gracious economy—he’s not a tame lion—will get more. Generally speaking, staying away from the forbidden woman (or man) of Proverbs is a better path to a good marriage, but God is allowed to call Hoseas to marry Gomers, and he’s allowed to cleanse and restore promiscuous people. “Such were some of you.”

Maybe I just need to read the book profiled in CT—again, I am not commenting directly on it, just on the article. But I’ve been thinking a lot about “purity culture” since Josh Harris’ readers were invited to write about their experience with his dating books a few years back. I thought someone ought to come out and defend it at least a little on an obscure blog where no harm can be done.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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