The Elephant in the Closet: A Male Perspective on Purity Culture

I still remember the image. It’s burned into my mind. I was fourteen when my dad called me into his room. On the bed were two sheets of blank paper and a bottle of Elmer’s glue. He sat me down to talk to me about the dangers of relationships.

There was no talk of the blessings of love and affection, the sense of belonging and purpose, or the excitement of growing together with someone that dating can bring.

Instead, he told me to pick up a piece of paper and put six dots of glue on it. I did, and he told me to press both pieces together. We waited for a few minutes as the glue dried. He told me to try to separate the pieces of paper. As I did, the page tore in six places.

“This is what happens when you date someone you don’t end up marrying. Every time you give your heart to a girl, a little bit is taken away from the person you’ll one day marry.”

Free public domain CC0 image.

The image terrified me. I suddenly became afraid of liking a girl, much less dating her. I saw the contents of my heart as a lump sum, a quantity that could decrease if I made the mistake of loving the wrong person. This perspective destroyed my confidence and twisted my perception of relationships. Dating could not be about getting to know someone and figuring out if they are the right person. Instead, dating (a word frowned upon in my upbringing and often replaced with “courting”) was a one-way road to marriage with no exits along the way.

The purity culture I was entrenched in growing up demonized relationships. Loving someone was a stumbling block and merely threatened to plunge me into a world of lust. My image of love, sex, and relationships was skewed from day one.

After a lot of research and thought surrounding my personal experience, I realized that the enforcement of purity culture by parents in particular often stems from the belief that parents’ personal convictions are equal to God’s law and any deviation from or disobedience of parents’ unreasonable standards is a direct sin against God. So I decided to take a slight detour to look at the parenting methods that many of our parents were exposed to and used to justify purity culture.

My entire upbringing was incredibly strict, with books such as Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp and Growing Kids God’s Way by Gary Ezzo (a member of John MacArthur’s church, which has since dropped its endorsement of GKGW) influencing my parents’ beliefs in authoritarian obedience and discipline. We already know from the last article that purity culture began in the 80s and 90s, so when these parenting books came out, they were merely the icing on the cake for many young parents who were experiencing this anti-sexual revolution.

The Teachings: Growing Kids God’s Way

Growing Kids God’s Way’s title immediately portrays Ezzo’s disciplinary style as the definitive godly method of parenting, dismissing other forms of parenting whether intentionally or not. This book has some redeeming qualities, such as condemning legalism and verbal abuse. However, it ironically contains very legalistic perspectives and abusive parenting techniques. The book goes as far as to recommend corporal punishment (typically using some sort of tool such as a paddle) to children as young as six months old (there is also a discussion of using rubber tubing to whip an 18-month-old) and “training” babies not to cry by leaving them unattended in their cribs and refusing to give them milk to “train” them against using crying to “manipulate” the parents, something babies are cognitively incapable of. Babies must be fed, napped, and played with on a strict schedule and ignored at first when they start to cry. It is recommended to “gently admonish” your child for “minor offenses” such as spilling water.

Parents are described as arbiters of God’s wrath against their sinful children. Children are intentionally held to unreasonable standards and punished for their failure to obey even when it is not possible for them to do so. If children wish to go against any of their parents’ commands, they are instructed to ask, “May I make an appeal?”

The focus of this method was on the parents, not the children. As the executors of authority and discipline, the parents are portrayed as divine vessels appointed by God. Therefore, well-disciplined children who are quiet and obey immediately are testaments to the fortitude of their faith. Having this type of emotionally lobotomized children was a status symbol in my church community.

Dr. Barbara Francis, a psychologist and member of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, writes of the Ezzo method, “In all areas, babies are taught to obey at levels that are not consistent with their capabilities. This skewed perspective results in what could be dangerous interpretations of a child’s behavior.”

Ezzo’s recommendations for a strict feeding schedule, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “has raised concern among pediatricians because it outlines an infant feeding program that has been associated with failure to thrive (FTT), poor weight gain, dehydration, breast milk supply failure, and involuntary early weaning.” Establishing authority is prioritized over the medical wellbeing of the child.

As far as crying, AAP neonatologist Dr. Lillian Blackmon points out, “trust is the major emotional attachment task of the infant, trusting the adults in the environment to respond to their needs. And the infant has a limited repertoire of ways to bring those needs to the attention of the adults. Initially, it’s only crying.”

Dr. Francis decries Ezzo’s model by saying, “Babies are taught from the day of birth not to be demanding, and yet the parents are encouraged to be extremely demanding of their child’s behavior. Children are not allowed immediate gratification (even as newborns), yet parents are given the right to have immediate gratification of every request. (“first time, every time”)…Time after time, babies and children are expected to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their God-designed level of development in order to satisfy the (often-arbitrary) comfort of the parents…Age-appropriate, God-given needs are labeled as sinful.”

“Teach him [your child] to obey according to the character of true obedience-immediately, completely, without challenge, and without complaint.” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 169)

Why does the Growing Kids God’s Way model of parenting matter in a discussion about purity culture? Because it taught parents who were coming off the tail end of the conception of purity culture that their personal beliefs were equal to God’s authority. In other words, their beliefs in unrealistic purity standards were validated as commands from God for their children—commands their children must be strictly disciplined into obeying and even emotionally manipulated into believing. It also raised a generation of children who were punished into a state of fear for their parents. They were never able to form their own opinions or understand concepts of relationships and sex while they were busy avoiding a paddle.

As a sidebar, Ezzo responded to questions about his methods by saying, “who are the critics? What are their families like? Are they sought after by young parents as role models to be emulated?” In other words, Ezzo is looked up to by other Christians. He is admired. His discipline is blessed by God. Any questions are simply dismissed as anti-Biblical nonsense.

The Teachings: Shepherding a Child’s Heart

Tedd Tripp starts off strong by pointing out that most parents’ focus is on reacting to and preventing bad behaviors. Too many parents forget to win their children’s hearts and guide them to fulfilling lives.

But the problems arise quickly. He argues that children must be held to standards that are impossible to achieve. He writes: “The alternative is to reduce the standard to what may be fairly expected of your children without the grace of God. The alternative is to give them a law they can keep. The alternative is a lesser standard that does not require grace and does not cast them on Christ, but rather on their own resources.” (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, pg. 123)

This mindset opens the door for parents to hold their children to unrealistic standards of purity and consider it an offense against God if their children stray from their parent’s convictions which are seen as equivalent to God’s law. Purity is not a pursuit or an intention. It is an unbreakable and unnuanced command.

But isn’t parenthood meant to be a reflection of our relationship with God? Does God merely establish his dominance over us and give us a list of rules to follow? No, God gives us commands to follow but we simultaneously find comfort in his grace and forgiveness. We find the blessings of friendship, security, and free will.

Credit: Psychology Today

Of course, Tripp also mandates physical punishment as the only Biblical form of discipline. Spanking is not just an option, it is the exclusive acceptable method of punishment. But this physical pain is used to enforce the all-important authority of parents which, he argues, is the most important parental virtue. Parents must establish dominance and superiority so that their children are obedient and pliable–of course, so that they can be guided to the Gospel, not so they can be guided along a path of legalism, abuse, and stunted emotional growth…right?

The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children published a report on corporal punishment (i.e. spanking) finding that, in summary, “Corporal punishment, even the “light” variety, is associated with poor outcomes in terms of mental health, cognitive development, aggression, and antisocial behavior, and education achievement.”

This form of discipline has been proven many times to be detrimental to children’s growth and has no Biblical foundation. Tripp uses Proverbs’ vague statements about “the rod” (none of which are commands or specific references to literal tools used to beat children) and Hebrews 12:11 (which simply says all forms of discipline are painful at the moment with no specific reference to corporal punishment) to mandate spanking. Tedd, just because Christians have done it for forever does not mean it is Biblical.

Tripp promulgated the concept of hyper-authoritarian parenting that subjected children to painful punishment so they could be scared into being “shepherded” along their parents’ perfect paths–or wait was it God’s perfect path? Who knows. By the end of the book, the line is conveniently blurred beyond recognition.

This is the danger of books such as these. Striking fear in your children’s hearts is not godly parenthood. It leaves children stunted in their growth and emotionally repressed. They can’t explore the emotional nuance of important topics like purity because they are afraid to express emotions that could go against mommy and daddy’s perfect plan and lead to getting hit.

The Teachings: I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Josh Harris’ notorious critique of dating culture certainly played a role in my upbringing. I could go on for hours about the damaging teachings in this book which Harris has since recanted, but the main problems with this book were its extrabiblical total dismissal of dating and kissing before marriage as well as its implication that following this method would result in a happily-ever-after marriage.

It taught that every relationship before marriage was a betrayal. Kissing was sexual immorality. Dating was described as an attack on God’s perfect plan. Paired with the authoritarian parenting books many parents read, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was added to the lengthy repertoire of legalistic doctrines, aka their parents’ opinion, children were expected to accept as God’s law.

The Teachings: Passport 2 Purity (aka Sex Education)

One of the strangest experiences of my life was the sex education weekend I did with my dad using the curriculum Passport 2 Purity. The concept isn’t bad: take your kid away for a weekend and talk to them about sex, its consequences, and what the Bible has to say about it. However, the problem is that P2P was two-fold. First of all, it did a poor job of informing its readers/listeners how sex actually works leaving kids to try to figure things out for themselves. This course taught that the climax of the sexual experience was the male orgasm—specifically unprotected ejaculation (can you say breeding kink?). After the audio explanation of “intercourse,” I was super confused. I asked my dad for clarification and still managed to leave thinking that sex was basically peeing in a girl. Not good at all.

The notorious “Wait-to-Date” Contract from P2P

The other problem with P2P is that it fell in line with all of the parenting techniques of GKGW and Shepherding a Child’s Heart by placing the parent at the focal point of the discussion. At the end of the course, children are forced to sign a “binding” contract promising to wait to date until their parents allowed them to. For my parents, that meant waiting until I was 22, graduated from college, and had a full-time job (and I had to be interested in a girl they approved of, of course). The manipulative portrayal of sex as male-focused is pretty disgusting. But most disgusting is the emotional manipulation behind tying “purity” to parental obedience. If you are “impure,” you have sinned against God, yourself, and also your parents.

The Results: Modesty and Friendships

Purity culture emerged in response to the hyper-sexuality that dominated culture during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Sexual experimentation, diversion, and publicity were met with rigidity, abstinence, and shame. The pendulum swung completely. This played out for me not only in how sex was presented to me but also in how I was allowed to dress and interact with girls. When I went swimming, I had to wear both shorts and a swim shirt because being shirtless was immodest. I could only wear dark-colored jeans and shorts that extended all the way to the knee. Tank tops were out of the question. I was ushered away from girls in public wearing clothes deemed immodest by my parents. These rules and practices left me constantly struggling with self-image issues. I was torn between taking care of myself, trying to dress well, or being friendly and being “pure” by not trying to be attractive at all physically or platonically.

Modest is Oddest

S*x was a four-letter word and anything that could possibly be interpreted as physically attractive was deemed perverse and impure. My sister couldn’t even wear shorts until late in high school after an intense battle of wills with my parents. When I talked to any girl, I was told to keep it short and concise and could never develop a real friendship with them. Even female acquaintances were questioned.

For example, when I was 15, a girl I knew asked me to help her lead music for Vacation Bible School at her church. My parents immediately asked, “Why? Does this girl have an interest in you?” and no matter how much I assured them she did not, they refused to let me lead worship at VBS because it was a girl who asked me to.

Sex was feared rather than respected, forbidden rather than cherished. Because of this, sex became a focal point of shame. It was the focus but could never be openly discussed. It was the ultimate elephant in the room—an elephant that was forced into every room just to be shoved into a locked closet. It’s difficult to put into words, but anyone who grew up under the pretense of purity culture understands the feeling. It all begs the question, where is the Biblical justification?

The Results: Relationships and Marriage

Purity culture taught me that watching porn in my teenage years meant I had cheated for years on a spouse I didn’t even have yet. It left me socially inept. It left me feeling inadequate because I could never be perfect. It caused me to objectify women as sexual objects to be feared rather than valuable people to be respected and admired. It forced me to look to terrible sources for sex education because it was feared so much that it was never fully explained.

When I told my parents that I liked someone, the response was always immediate disapproval. When I was fifteen, I expressed interest in a girl I knew and they logged into my accounts to inform her that they had “set a boundary” and that I was not allowed to speak to her. I was heartbroken, but deep down I knew it was coming. That’s how I had been raised. My future spouse had to be approved before my parents before I ever expressed interest to her. Any girl I made the mistake of dating before my wife was portrayed as an affair. That’s right, anything I gave to a girl that did not become my wife was cheating.

My upbringing affected me deeply in my first relationship. I was terrified of physical contact. I ran from anything remotely sexual. I was committed to saving myself for marriage, and I did. But when I did inevitably get married to the first person I dated—as I believed was the godly way—I faced serious issues with intimacy and came to the frightening realization that I had forced things. While I stayed firm to my commitment until the end, so many challenges I faced could have been avoided had I not been so hyper-focused on shoving the elephant in the closet.

It took me years to overcome the guilt of “betraying” my parents and “breaking” the contract I had signed as a young teenager by dating without their permission. I can’t entirely blame purity culture for the failure of my marriage because there were other issues, but sexuality incompatibility certainly came into the mix. Expectations were muddled by abstinence and sexual repression.

When I went through the divorce, the image of those pieces of torn paper made me question if I could ever love or be loved the same way ever again. I had expended so much of my heart for so many years and I didn’t know how I could recover it.

The Results: What I Believe Now

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Elephant in the Room,” used to describe something everyone sees but is ignored. For many people, this is how sex was presented. It was a big, scary object that should not be recognized or discussed. For me, this elephant was locked away in a closet where it could not only be unaddressed but also unseen. Every effort had to be made to avoid and denounce anything remotely sexual.

Purity culture left me broken. But as I grew and matured I found hope in what I discovered. Perfection is impossible, and that’s okay. Relationships can be about getting to know someone before you decide to marry them. Sexual things don’t always have to be shied away from. When we can openly discuss matters of sex and purity, the potential dangers of sexual relationships decreases drastically. Your past does not define you.

Purity culture is a cancerous product of legalism enabled by hyper-authoritarian parenting. There is nothing wrong with valuing sexual discipline and choosing abstinence. That is a decision everyone has to make for themselves. The problem comes when purity is set on a pedestal and used as the primary indicator of faith.

Your purity does not define the solidity of your faith. Love and sex are not things to be feared but instead things to be cherished. Your love is not a lump sum depleted by your relationships. If or when we find the right person one day, time grants us a full refund of what our hearts may have lost in the past.

Purity culture has done profound damage to our generation, but by understanding its roots and dispelling its discrepancies we can turn the tide against its legalism and shame. It starts when we stop believing what we were taught simply because it’s what we’ve always known. Do your research. Form your own opinions. Own your beliefs.

Stop believing the lies of purity culture. Live in freedom.