This article was written by a female and will be followed by an article from a male perspective about purity culture.
My experience with purity culture
This past summer, I watched a horror movie on Hulu titled Pure. It is the story of two girls and their father at a retreat focused on dads and daughters spending time together and learning about the importance of sexual purity, as well as participating in a purity ball. At these purity balls, daughters are encouraged to pledge abstinence until marriage by giving this “special gift” of abstinence to their fathers to keep until they are married.
Especially disturbing was the scene where Pastor Seth, the leader of the retreat likens girls who aren’t virgins to chewed-up pieces of gum, who “you wouldn’t want to put in your mouth.” In the movie, Pastor Seth refers to the chewed-up gum as unwanted: “Nobody wants that, because it’s been used. It is a requirement of God that you remain untouched.”
This movie was eerie yet disturbingly familiar. The messages of this movie reminded me of pieces of my childhood, along with what those around me have been taught both growing up and at Cedarville.
Pure on Hulu is a disturbing yet familiar depiction of what purity culture can look like
Growing up, I was taught that I needed to keep my special gift for my husband on our wedding night. Of course, this special gift was the most sacred thing a good Christian girl can give to her husband: her virginity. It was, of course, assumed that I would eventually get married.
Some of the books I read growing up included “The Princess and the Kiss” by Jennie Bishop, which explained to young girls how they needed to save their kiss (they used this ‘kiss’ as a metaphor for virginity) for their future prince. In return, they would be rewarded with many blessings. Girls were told to reject men who simply weren’t good enough for their sacred gift and to allow only their future prince to have it. They were to protect this “kiss” at all costs, as well as to let their parents, or the king and queen, help them to protect it. I also worked through the workbook that came separately and encouraged self-reflection and discussion with parents.
Jennie Bishop wrote this book about sexual purity for young girls
I also read the book, “Before you meet Prince Charming: A Guide to Radiant Purity” by Sarah Mally, a conservative fundamentalist, with my dad. This book had some very concerning messages. Foremost among these messages was that modern dating was forbidden and that God will quite literally send you a prince in the form of a “godly young man.”
I’d like to make a side note here that Vision Forum, the organization headed by Doug Phillips, a proponent of Christian patriarchalism, sold this book. Doug Phillips had an affair and his organization shut down due to his sexual grooming of an underage girl. (are we surprised?)
This classic knight in shining armor promised Christian girls a happy ending
This book instructed young girls to keep their hearts protected at all costs, which included not “obsessing” over boys or even having lengthy conversations with them. This book encouraged a Duggar-like courtship where a young man would first get to know the young ladies’ father. The first chapter of the book introduces a little cartoon with the words beneath it, “To be rescued, one must first be a princess.” (Mally, 2006)
Ms. Mally encouraged girls to wait for their spouse, and secondly, allow their parents to be involved in her courtship process. There is nothing wrong with wanting your parents to be involved in approving your partner, especially if you are close to getting married, however, it is troubling that she felt the need to write, “I don’t have to date, flirt, or be searching for a husband. The Lord is more than able to arrange my marriage without my help.” (Mall, 2006)
Mally fully expected God to drop her husband out of the blue while doing jack squat—except for being involved in ministry, of course. Ms. Mally believed that there was no need to get to know a young man unless it was for the express purpose of marriage. This was the perspective of many young fundamentalist women who believed that a young man would fully pursue them by first gaining approval from her father, without her necessarily expressing interest in that young man.
This book presented the perspective that you must save yourselves for your future spouse and not give “pieces of your heart away.” Quite troubling is the message presented to young women that they will not be respected if they are at all physical with young men. “Young men do not respect girls they can take advantage of – and they do not as easily take advantage of girls they respect.” (Mally, 2006)
Sarah Mally is now Sarah Hancock. She married her prince Andrew in 2020 at the age of 41
More troubling is the allegory in the book given about a girl being like a rose. According to the king, or father, in the book, a girl’s beauty is damaged by physical handling:
“They are handled and played with by too many a fellow. Their heart is opened prematurely. The fragrance and beauty that was intended for the perfect time is lost or damaged forever.” (Mally, 2006)
The indication that those who are “handled” are damaged forever is disturbing and harmful for young girls. Mally also encourages young girls to avoid spending any time alone or having conversations with young men until they find the ”right one” (plot twist: at the time she wrote this book in her 30s, Sarah had still not found her prince).
Even at the young age of 12 or 13, I remember thinking that these standards were pretty unrealistic. I wondered how I would ever get married if I couldn’t enjoy talking to people of the opposite sex or if I had to vanquish any thoughts of boys.
I was also involved in BRIGHT Lights, a program designed by Sarah Mally for young pre-teen and teen girls, to guide them to “Be Radiant in Godliness Holiness and Testimony”(BRIGHT). This program focused on different topics to train young girls in the way of God’s word, which included “‘Being Strong for the Lord in Your Youth,’ ‘Developing a Love for God’s Word,’ ‘Giving Your Heart to Your Parents,’ and ‘Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends.’” (tomorowsforefathers.com) This program also included the topic of purity, but I don’t remember much about that topic, aside from reading that crushes were bad and that I needed to guard my heart. (patheos.com)
Purity culture impacted my view of modesty and my body. I believed, as I was taught by my mother, that I was a stumbling block for men, that my growing teenage body would distract boys, and that I shouldn’t wear tight pants if I wanted to honor God. I also wore bathing suits that were essentially long dresses with leggings under them. My parents also openly shamed girls who were wearing bikinis.
The bathing suit I wore as a pre-teen and young teen was almost identical to this one.
I was also forbidden from wearing “form-fitting” jeans along with high-heeled boots because they were too sexually provocative.
An example of the kinds of boots I wasn’t permitted to wear, because they were sexually provocative.
My parents encouraged me to save my first kiss until marriage. I was in high school when I was “deceitful” with my parents and did not follow these instructions. I was grounded, removed from my relationship with that person, and told that I had been putting myself in a potentially dangerous situation.
As a teenager, I was very upset when this young man I had been seeing, who attended an extremely fundamentalist university that is much more conservative than Cedarville, wrote a letter apologizing to my father for how he had “taken advantage of me”(in a fully consensual encounter, by the way) and betrayed my father’s trust.
After this experience, my parents suggested that I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris (more on that later).
I know that many Cedarville students have similar experiences with purity culture, where we were told growing up to abstain from any form of sexual thought, action, or intimate moment, including kissing until marriage. To this day, my parents praise people I know who have saved their first kiss till marriage, as if they are morally superior to those who have not.
The History of Purity Culture
I recently began to ask myself what exactly is purity culture and where did it come from? Modern purity culture or the “purity movement” is the American conservative Christian fundamentalist movement that focuses on modesty, courting, and sexual purity, AKA abstinence until marriage. The focus of the purity movement is on young women, although men are certainly affected by it as well. Of course, women have been told to “stay pure” for their husbands for centuries, but modern evangelicals have been promoting and idolizing this message more and more in recent years.
Purity culture has its modern roots in the late 1980s. Interestingly, it did not begin as a female-focused movement. The Christian Sex Education project coordinated by Jimmy Hester began in 1987. In 1992, True Love Waits, a theme developed by Richard Ross, was presented to “Lifeway Christian Resources management for consideration as part of the Christian Sex Education plan.”(read more)
In 1993, a youth group at a baptist church in Tennessee signed the first “True Love Waits” commitment cards, pledging abstinence until marriage. (lifeway.com) By June of that same year, they reached their goal of 100,000 signed commitment cards and presented these to the “messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, Houston, Texas.”(lifeway.com)
The True Love Waits movement didn’t really seem to propagate any harmful messages, because it focused on individual young people making their own personal choice to commit to purity, without the pressure of their parents. However, this movement could be deemed the beginning of purity culture.
One of the original True Love Waits commitment cards
In the scholarly work, To Cover Our Daughters: A Modern Chastity Ritual in Evangelical America, Harmony Philips writes,
“Within ten years, an estimated one million commitment cards had been signed and displayed at events and places including the National Mall, Georgia Dome, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The movement continued to gain momentum into the new millennium by offering events internationally, including Uganda, Australia, and the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece. During this time, however, the movement received a facelift which included a more active role by the parents of youth, suggesting a move conservative move towards resembling Gothard’s Biblical Courtship.” (Philips, 2009)
Bill Gothard is the founder of the fundamentalist organization, IBLP, or Institue for Basic Life Principles, a group that the Duggars were connected with (remember the infamous pedophile Josh Duggar?). Bill Gothard argued for his so-called biblical courtship, which included moral purity, or nothing physical before marriage. (Philips, 2009) Bill Gothard sexually abused women who worked for him, so his actions speak for themselves. You can read more about IBLP courtship here.
Randy Wilson, who worked for James Dobson,(founder of Focus on the Family), founded the Purity Ball in the late 1990s. These purity balls are extravagant events that involve little girls and young women dressing up in white dresses and pledging their abstinence to their fathers.
“Many fathers then give the daughters purity rings, placing them on the daughter’s left ring finger, and some daughters are given necklaces or bracelets with lockets that are locked into place. The key kept by the father, is to be given to the daughter’s husband at the time of their marriage (Gibbs, 2008).”(Philips, 2009)
In her 2010 book The Purity Myth, the feminist writer Jessica Valenti reported that “’more than 1,400 purity balls’ were held in 2006….Ms. Valenti writes, ‘The message is clear and direct: It’s up to men to control young women’s sexuality.’”(nytimes.com)
Purity balls are creepy rituals that are a mix between a wedding and a prom-like ceremony.
Purity balls are focused on daughters feeling special “like a princess” along with submitting to the headship of their father.
“The Purity Ball community, using one aspect of a girl’s identity, namely sexuality, is addressing a larger issue of societal concern: the place of women and men in social structure. The sexuality of the adolescent girl is one of the commodities controlled by the authority; first, it is withheld by the father, then it is handed to the husband, who maintains control..”(Philips, 2009).
A central point of purity culture is that sexuality is something that is something that should be controlled. Another premise of purity culture for girls is the idea of being a princess. As the books that I read growing up suggested and romanticized, girls were princesses who needed to stay pure for their prince. This begs the question: what if a girl never finds her “prince”?
Purity rings were sometimes a part of and other times separate from the purity ball ritual. These purity rings were given to young girls and boys to be an indication of the promise they had made to save themselves for marriage. I remember begging my parents to give me one because some of my friends had them and they were popular at the time. Celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers, and Demi Lovato also wore purity rings at one time. Purity rings were a physical representation of one’s commitment to abstinence.
Purity rings were extremely popular among Christians in the early 2000s and mid- 2010s.
Joshua Harris and his infamous book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, written in 1997, was a massive part of the purity movement in the early 2000s. This book left a huge impact on many people. This book essentially discouraged relationships that are not headed directly into marriage, along with sex or any sort of physical intimacy outside of marriage.
Harris saved his kiss with his wife until the altar. They are now divorced. Since the writing and promotion of his book, he has apologized for how it may have hurt many people and has also stopped its publication. (relevantmagazine.com)
The part of the book that scarred me the most was the first chapter, which describes a bride being sadly disappointed to see all of her husband’s ex-lovers lined up on their wedding day. Her soon-to-be husband explains that he has given a “piece of his heart” to each of these girls.
“’They’re girls from my past…they don’t mean anything to me now… but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them. ‘I thought your heart was mine,’ she said. ‘It is, it is.’ he pleaded. ‘Everything that’s left is yours.’’’(Harris, 1997)
This book had an impact on an entire generation of young Christians
This narrative tells us that anyone who has had former partners, whether they were sexual partners or not, has given pieces of their heart away. They seemingly have less love to give to their future spouse. This narrative is not only disturbing and inherently degrading but also extremely untrue. You do not give pieces of yourself away in a relationship. That is, you do not have less of a heart afterward. You learn, and you may get hurt, but you do not become less.
Cedarville’s Purity Culture
It goes without saying that Cedarville subscribes to purity culture. Along with forbidding homosexuality and bisexuality, it forbids any kind of sexual impurity before marriage, including sexual acts leading up to the act of intercourse. Because Cedarville forbids sexual activity, many couples are rushed into marriages so they can express their sexuality. We all know the feeling of opening Instagram and seeing multiple engagement posts in one weekend. Couples know that sex is promised to them in marriage, therefore marriage becomes more attractive. Purity culture pushes people to get married younger, and have shorter engagements so that they will stay pure for marriage.
This is not to say getting married young is necessarily bad, however, couples who are rushing to become engaged after less than a year of dating may be subscribing to purity culture. Of course, this is not always the case. However, the rate of divorce may be higher for those who date for less than a year.
“One 2015 study in the journal Economic Inquiry, for example, found that couples who dated for one to two years were 20 percent less likely to later get a divorce than those who dated less than a year, and couples who dated for three years or longer were 39 percent less likely.” (thecut.com) Additionally, couples who marry under the age of 25 are much more likely to divorce than couples who are older- but not too old.” 60 percent of couples married between the age of 20 -25 will end in divorce.”(wflawyers.com)
Young marriages are encouraged and praised in the Cedarville community
How does purity culture harm us?
“For women especially, virginity has become the easy answer- the morality quick fix. You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a ‘good’ (i.e. ‘moral’) girl and therefore worthy of praise.” (Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth, 2006)
Purity culture taught us that if we saved ourselves for marriage, everything would be wonderful, beautiful, and blessed by God. Purity culture promised us amazing sex if we saved ourselves wholly and completely till marriage. Purity culture fostered the prosperity gospel in the hearts and minds of young people, which told them that as long as they followed God’s plan for sexuality, they would be blessed.
Purity culture failed to teach us proper and comprehensive sexual education. Purity culture called young people “dirty” and “used” if they had multiple partners, dated around, had sex before marriage, or even kissed people. Metaphors included comparing girls to chewed-up pieces of gum and roses without petals, propagating shame.
Purity culture is fundamentally harmful to both women and men.
Purity culture does not teach proper and comprehensive sexual education. Purity culture centers around abstinence. It does not prepare young adults for when they will eventually have sex, whether that is within the confines of marriage or not. Purity culture does not encourage the use of contraceptives, birth control, or safe sexual practices. In fact, those who make a commitment to abstinence are more likely to get pregnant out of wedlock.
In a study done by Anthony Paik, a sociologist at the University of Massachusets, he discovered that those who make abstinence pledges are more likely to contract HPV and become pregnant before marriage. He “explains this in part through the phenomenon of ‘cultural lag’ —the idea that people might reject certain values faster than they update the actions supporting those values. In this case, the pledge breakers abandoned the idea that they should be virgins until marriage, but unlike people who never made the pledges, they didn’t use birth control and condoms, Paik theorized. (Many sex-ed programs and cultures that promote abstinence-only until marriage also teach that contraceptives are ineffective.)”(theatlantic.com)
However, those who are genuinely serious and devout about keeping their pledge may succeed, the article explains.
Purity culture ultimately encourages shame. Women are especially to be ashamed of any sexual experiences, whether consensual or not. They are told they are dirty and tainted if they are raped or abused, or if they engage in any sexual activities, including kissing, before marriage. They are given labels.
If they sin sexually, they are seen as “giving themselves away.” This message of sex making you dirty is especially difficult if someone who has grown up in a purity culture gets married. They may struggle with feelings of being dirty or used because they have been taught that sex is bad, and now they have to retrain their brain to believe sex is good within the context of marriage.
Joanna Sawatsky, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Sheila Wray Gregoire write in their book, The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended, “Evangelical culture primes women to repress their sexuality but then turns around and chastises them when they are married for doing that very thing.” (2021)
According to purity culture, this is what you look like if you have sex or even kiss before marriage
Similarly, purity culture can actually create physical problems and pain during sex.
“The body can and will physically react to psychological issues. One example of this is vaginismus, an automatic tightening of [the] pelvic floor muscles in the event of penetration. A possible explanation of this condition can be explained by the constant teachings to withhold sexual feelings or urges, and the immense shame felt if those feelings are acted upon. Another example of how purity culture affects pelvic health is people in today’s age commonly experiencing dyspareunia. This term means painful intercourse; occurring before, during, or after intercourse. Again, this is often stemming from shame and suppression of sexual desires.” (laurameihofer.com)
Vaginismus can result from abuse, fear, and shame that has surrounded sexual behavior, making sex difficult and painful for women, even within the context of marriage.
Additionally, Sheila Wray Gregoire shares on her website, “In our research of over 20,000 women, we found that certain evangelical teachings about sex lead to statistically significant decreases…women’s overall marital and sexual satisfaction. In fact, we found that some beliefs can even increase rates of primary sexual pain (pain not related to childbirth).” (baremarriage.com)
One thing is clear: the messages of purity culture do not end when marriage begins. In fact, they remain rooted deep into the hearer’s mind years later.
Lastly, purity culture perpetuates misogyny. It tells young girls and women that first their father needs to own their purity, and then they need to give it to their husband. It tells young girls that they are responsible for the purity of men and that their bodies are stumbling blocks.
“Making women the sexual gatekeepers and telling men they just can’t help themselves not only drives home the point that women’s sexuality is unnatural, but also sets up a disturbing dynamic in which women are expected to be responsible for men’s sexual behavior.” (The Purity Myth, Valenti, 2009) I have had to unlearn the message that men will always be looking at me and objectifying my body, and I have also had to understand that it truly does not matter what I am wearing if someone is genuinely perverted. It is interesting to note that male leaders who were proponents of the purity movement were sexually abusive and unfaithful to their wives.
Purity culture teaches young women that they can’t say no in marriage because they owe their husbands something. If they are married, they are their husband’s only sexual outlet: “As Doug Wilson recently said, wives are the only lawful sexual outlet. This is common teaching in the evangelical world–that the wife is the only proper place to put your lusts. So Every Man’s Battle teaches women that when he quits porn, you need to provide all the sexual release he needs so he doesn’t sin. You become methadone for him. In this mindset, him using his wife prevents sin.” (baremarriage.com)
Women are responsible for both preventing men’s lust and simultaneously giving them what they “need,” even at their own expense. This can additionally propagate marital rape(more about this on baremarriage.com).
Sheila and her husband Keith are passionate about helping men and women to recover from the harmful messages evangelical culture has taught us about sex.
I want to make the note here that often the people who teach us purity culture do not always have malicious intentions. My parents did their best to raise me and I love them. However, some of the messages that they taught me were harmful. Purity culture is harmful but the people who have preached it to us are not necessarily evil. They may even have been taught these harmful messages themselves.
Purity culture is very detrimental, especially to young girls and women. I want to encourage you that you are not chewed up gum. You are not a torn-apart rose without petals. You are beautiful and whole no matter what. If purity culture is still affecting your life and your thoughts, I encourage you to reach out to someone trustworthy. Purity culture is something that can take years to recover from. We have to unlearn the harmful messages it has taught us.
Helpful resources for understanding and deconstructing purity culture include the Bare Marriage podcast by Sheila Wray Gregoire, The Great Sex Rescue, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye Documentary, and the BITE model by Steven Hassan.