The Naked Truth about the Christian Purity Movement

iStock_000017120141Small - chastity beltThe “Christian” Purity Movement is a focus on virginity prior to marriage.  It is a focus on “purity” and a focus on not doing sexual behaviors and not having sexual thoughts prior to marriage.  It promises if you do this that you will have a blissful marriage with an ecstatic sex life – at least this is what kids who grow up in this movement believe. The opposite is believed as well … if you screw up in any way … your marriage and sex life, if you have one, will be doomed.  In truth however, it does nothing to build the skills, attitudes or values needed to understand your core call as God’s beloved or the core call on your life to love as Christ.  These are the core ingredients of marriage where you are asked every day to love a radically valuable and radically imperfect other … and to let them love you. It does nothing to help you develop into an emotionally and relationally strong loving partner who can weather the trials and tribulations that come with a long 21st century urban marriage.  It also does nothing to help you develop the skills to know how to pick a person who has the emotional and relational wherewithal to weather a marriage with you! This is complex stuff!  This is the stuff we should be teaching!

But no, instead the evangelical Christian purity message wastes time telling kids what not to do and gives them instead nothing of value.  Telling them that if you do nothing and have nothing, you can write a column for CNN like a puffed up peacock claiming how your not yet lived marriage is so successful and how your years of nothing have amounted to something … of which has yet to be lived or tried … but will be … trust me!

This kind of arrogance … continues to give Christianity a bad name … and most offensively to me … the namesake of the faith … who tended to rage over arrogance like this!

RELATED TO THIS IS …

this kind of messaging from Richard Ross, Founder of True Love Waits … the organization responsible for purity pledges, purity rings, and forwarding the Purity Movement.  This is what propelled the significant increase in religious sexual shame beginning in the early 1990’s along with the Religious Right (See Frank Shaeffer’s book Sex, God and Mom) and what has come to be the most emotionally, sexually and relationally damaging era of the Christian church since the dawn of the 20th century.

Because of this movement millions of earnest young Christians now think of themselves as damaged goods because of their God-given gift of sexual desire …

The Purity Movement, the fundamental evangelical movement, and the message of the Religious Right has reinforced divisiveness, judgment of self and others, condemnation of self and others, self-righteousness, ignorance, shame and pain that has cut to the core of people, lives, marriages and homes … in short nothing that builds up one’s sense of belovedness in God or one’s ability to love another well or receive another’s love well.  In fact, it damages one’s ability to do any of these things …things that are core to any solid loving relationship or sense of self.  A love that is at its core, what Jesus died on the cross for people to experience.

Instead of protecting youth, the purity movement actually guarantees people will enter marriages naïve, ignorant, filled with assumptions about gender, their bodies, their partner’s body, their sexuality, informed about sex and gender by media in ways that objectify women and diminish men, fearful and confused about pleasure, ashamed about what they have done and not done, filled with secrets about what they have done, not done, thought and not thought, without knowledge, vocabulary or practice to discuss sex or sexuality, and judgmental about self and others.  In short, with emotional, relational, sexual and spiritual baggage to last the first decade of their marriage.  Want to watch an amazing documentary about this? Watch Give Me Sex Jesus!

 WHY HAS THE CHURCH PERPETUATED THIS NONSENSE?

Why have we continued to be so foolish?  Why have we in theological circles been so reluctant to look at the consequences of our unwillingness to teach about sex and relationships?  I just don’t get it … I really don’t!  The evidence of the lived experience of people’s lives is so clear.

But maybe it isn’t … maybe it is only clear to the therapists, lawyers and pastors that hear the real stories of real lives in the privacy of their offices, behind closed doors.   Maybe to everyone else … it isn’t clear at all.  People around them look so happy.  We are tempted to believe CNN articles like Steven Crowder’s perfect marriage … he hasn’t yet lived and judge it against the messy lives we are living.  But look at the stats … marriages are failing left and right.  Life is messy.  Marriage is tough stuff and it takes a lot of emotional, relational, spiritual and sexual maturity to pull it off in a happy and connected way over the long haul. Don’t ask someone like Steven Crowder who hasn’t done it yet … ask someone who has!!  It takes a load of skills … skills we should be teaching, modeling and living each day of a child’s life … skills Christ demonstrated each day of his ministry to each person regardless of race, gender, age, status.  LOVE. GRACE. FAITH. HOPE. PATIENCE. KINDNESS. SELF-CONTROL. YOU. GET. THE. PICTURE.

So many Christian’s who are living the pain of the lies of the purity movement have remained silent or have left the church.  In fact they are leaving in droves. We are losing our young people right and left – they are seeking more authenticity (can you blame them) as seen in this post by Rachel Held Evens.

Some are joining together to heal – like in the online community Thank God for Sex.org.  Here you can see videos and read stories. Similar to the ItGetsBetter.org Project, people tell their stories of what it was like to be impacted by the purity movement and how much work they have done in their lives to try and heal and come to a place where they now can see their bodies and sexuality as an awesome thing!  The group does community events, podcasts, has a blog with guest bloggers and a resource page for others whose sexual health was impacted by this acetic movement.

And some are leaving the faith all together as seen in these posts by Libbey Anne (this breaks my heart … it must break God’s too).

SO YOU ASK … IF DESPERATELY TRYING TO SHUT-DOWN AND SHUT-OFF DOESN’T GUARANTEE MARITAL HAPPINESS WHAT DOES?

Relational happiness flows out of a peace and contentment within. The more we understand that nothing, NOTHING, separates us from the love of God, the more we can rest in his love and let go of our fear that we are somehow not good enough, not worthy of God’s love, not worthy of our partner’s love.  The purity movement had millions of young earnest Christians believing that their sexual thoughts and experiences could separate them from God’s love.  This was the heart of the lie and the heart of the violence to sexual and relational health. This is the first place of healing.  NOTHING separates you from the love of God. Rom 8:38-39.

So if the Purity Movement, (while touting its ability to prepare you for a blissful marriage) in reality gives you nothing more than a suitcase filled with years of damaging baggage (that you will ultimately blame yourself for) … What should we be focusing our time, energy and teaching on to equip our kids for a loving, safe, sustainable partnership in their adult years?

  1. Love and treat them with respect at each age – knowing each age has its wisdom to offer us.
  2. Teach them about their body, mind, soul and all of God’s creation in detail – the names and purposes – the miracle of it all and how it fits and works together. Teach them about their role in caring for themselves and caring for others and creation.  Let this be taught overtly and through modeling so they see all of creation as a miraculous gift to be cared for and cherished.
  3. Provide age appropriate integrated relationship and sex education at each age from infancy through young adult in open ongoing safe conversations with open and safe adults at home, with extended family, at school, at church and with their primary care physician.
  4. Understand that relational, emotional and sexual health is learned through trial and error.  Help your child understand the limits of gender maturity in adolescence and the value of holding back some of what is most precious to them (emotionally, physically & spiritually) until a time of greater maturity and comittment. Yet also be prepared to provide grace as they learn and succeed and learn and are hurt.  Provide the grace and guidance to help them learn from their mistakes and keep figuring out what it means to love well and to be loved well as they grow and develop deep friendships and deep romantic relationships through adolescence and young adult life.

Be for them (and help them find other adults in their life who can be) who Jesus was to the woman at the well as they figure out what it is to be deeply loved and as they seek to deeply love others.  This will equip them to be loving partners and choose loving partners.  The rest is learned along the way.

I think God is much more concerned with us knowing how Beloved we are, how we are called to the task of love AND learning how to live this out each and every day in the places of deepest challenge, than he/she is whether we are a virgin when we say “I Do”.  It’s time to stop having the wrong conversation and start having the right one.

Oh … and here’s a shocker … If you do these things research shows that kids delay sexual involvement, are much wiser about their choices and describe being closer to their parents overall!  So guess what, you can worry less about whether they have sex before marriage … because they probably will!  The average age of marriage is now 26-32.  When kids are given the resources they need, there is a much greater likelihood they will choose loving relationships – whether they do or don’t marry the person.

11 Comments

cateiam

HI Tina,

Thank you for this article. I have a couple questions. How do I go about redeeming that part of my life at 27. I’m one of those who grew up with parents who felt that you didn’t date and somehow you would meet someone. And I haven’t. My therapists told me that I missed out on a key development stage so dating for me right now ill be bumpy. But I’m pushing in. I’m afraid, sad and angry though that I missed out. What advice can you give?

Sydney

Love this and totally agree! Thanks for posting. This is exactly the type of conversation I want to see happen more often in the church- a conversation about sexuality that is educational and positive. More about what we’re able to do and less about what we shouldn’t do. Focused more on bringing people into freedom and less on binding them in shame. I hope to spend my life doing this work and facilitating this dialogue. I wrote a brief post on the topic of purity a while ago, specifically about how I think evangelicals tend to idolize purity: http://wp.me/p2G82Y-4j

Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD

Hi Cate – Thanks for your questions. While not dating when you were younger may have kept you from experiencing some things that would have helped you learn about yourself and an other … not dating also, during those years, may have also saved you from some expeirences that were less than helpful. For example, in highschool and early college, we often lack the emotional and spiritual maturity we often have by our mid 20’s. So, while you missed some things, you also were saved from some things. You don’t need to have lived those years in a particular way to be whole or to live fully into your dating years now. While the poeple you date now, may have more dating experience than you, you can receive the coaching you need to navigate it. The important thing to know is that you are beloved, you are wonderful, you are not less than or defective for having not dated before, or for having not had certain experiences or for anything! You are who you are – and that is exactly right for right now. Anyone worth dating you, needs to come with a loving and open heart, curious to know the you that you are, willing to bring gentleness where you need gentleness, curiousity where you need curiosity, playfulness where you need playfulness and kindness where you need kindness … no matter what their particular history or experience has been. There ability to see and hear and understand you, reveals their capacity to love and see your belovedness. This is an important quality you will want to see in whoever you want to spend more time with. If they are critical, or judgmental of you, or your past experience or lack thereof, then maybe they aren’t worth your time. You are beloved and God wants you with people who can love you as beloved … just as he wants you to love others as beloved.

Micah J. Murray (@micahjmurray)

While I totally understand and agree with the critique of purity culture, there were a few things in this article that bothered me. Specifically:

“…the evangelical Christian purity message wastes time telling kids what not to do and gives them instead nothing of value.”

and this paragraph:

“…the purity movement actually guarantees people will enter marriages naïve, ignorant, filled with assumptions about gender, their bodies, their sexuality, informed about sex and gender by pornography and media in ways that objectify women and diminish men, fearful and confused about pleasure, ashamed about what they have done and not done, filled with secrets about what they have done, not done, thought and not thought, without knowledge, vocabulary or practice to discuss sex or sexuality, and judgmental about self and others. In short, with emotional, relational, sexual and spiritual baggage to last the first decade of their marriage.”

Here’s why those two statements bother me:

I was raised in the purity culture, as part of my experience in the conservative fundamentalist quiverfull homeschooling subculture of the 90’s. While I loudly object to some of the purity culture themes – especially the ideas of objectification, shame, and “damaged goods” – I don’t regret saving my virginity for marriage.

When my wife and I were married four years ago, we were both virgins. (By way of purity culture credentials, we were also both the only people that either of us had dated AND we saved our first kiss for the altar). In retrospect, the only-dating-each-other-part was clumsier than it should have been and the first-kiss-at-the-altar was a little bit dorky. But I don’t regret the virginity part. I’m glad we were both virgins when we were married. On the other hand, I’ve never written publicly about it (before now). I don’t brag about it to my friends. I don’t think I’m smug about it. I don’t even feel smug about it writing this paragraph now, and I hope that’s not how it comes across at all.

We’re now four years (and 2 kids) into our marriage, and we are doing fine. No, of course virginal honeymoon sex wasn’t as proficient as four-years-married sex is. Yes, we’ve had to unlearn unhealthy gender-role ideas along the way. Yes, we’ve had awkward moments. But I’m glad we were both virgins when we were married. In fact, I’m glad I never kissed any other girls either. Would it have been a sin to? No. Would it have ruined my present marriage? No. Would it have made me damaged goods? No. But on the other hand, now as a happily married man I don’t think “Man, I wish I could time-travel back and kiss those other girls. I’d be so much less smug and dysfunctional now.”

As virgin-until-married people, your paragraph I quoted almost feels insulting when it “guarantees” all sorts of baggage, judgmental attitudes, and dysfunctional attitudes in marriages such as ours. To critique purity culture is needed. But to that there’s “nothing of value” is not true either. My wife and I value our experience, which was influenced by purity culture. The broad stroke with which you describe virginity-until-marriage teachings seems to create a pretty bleak picture that ignores happy, healthy marriages such as ours that came from that background.

I want people to keep speaking out against the lies of purity culture. Hell, I do it myself on my blog. (http://redemptionpictures.com/2013/06/27/sex-robot/) But can we do that in a way that also creates space for those of us who followed purity culture and entered marriages that WEREN’T characterized as “ignorant”, “fearful and confused”, “ashamed”, and “judgmental”?

Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD

Hi Micah – Absolutely fair comment – and yes, I am on a bit of a rant. I am beyond glad that you and your beloved are doing well crafting your marriage and not finding yourself in the stark despairing forest I describe. There are some, like you and your wife, who find their way with much less baggage. The one salient factor that I have found in my clinical work that seems to mitigate this for many is if they had a trusted adult in their life who provided a safe ongoing open conversation about sexual health, or modeled healthy openness, or they found a way to access information about sexual health. This may or may not have been the case for you and your wife, but this is the one factor I have found has made a difference for those people who otherwise only had access to abstinence “education”, shame and silence. My rant however, while unfairly and unjustly silencing of your experience, none the less boils up in me after witnessing another fifty stories of lives nearly destroyed and marriages laying in bloody carnage because of this teaching that has been allowed to go on in the name of God unchecked for far too long. I appreciate your comment – your story needs to be told and not covered up as people like me scream STOP!!! from the top of the mountain. I will be more mindful to find a way to both not temper my message and be aware that there are always exceptions that sit along the riverbank as the torrent rushes through. I am glad you are speaking up against this too. I look forward to joining with you.

thebleedinghearts

Tina, I’m so curious if you have some resources for young couples who are untangling the web that the purity movement has left us in. Obviously therapy is probably the best investment, but if we’re in a place of needing to dip our toes in (since frankly, the whole prospect of unloading these values is so overwhelming), are there books you’d recommend? A seminar? A church denomination that is guiding these conversations in a healthy direction? Thanks for your wisdom, always.

Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD

Thanks for your comment! I am actually right in the middle of compiling a bunch of resources for single and partnered folks who have been caught at some point in the snares of the purity movement 1) A book that I have been writing for the last 7 years called Thank God for Sex – it will hopefully be available next year sometime http://tinaschermersellers.com/projects/; 2) In the next few months the site http://www.thankgodforsex.org will be up. This will be a site that will be similar to the itgetsbetter.org project. It will have videos of people who have survived the purity movement and who later were able to reintegrate and come to a place where they thank god for the gift of their sexuality, sexual desire and body. It is a place where people can tell a bit of their story and create a community of solidarity and support. There will also be guest bloggers offering their wisdom and a place for resources. This site is being populated right now. People that would like to contribute either a video or blog to the beta site – or if they have a resource they want listed – they can contact me directly and I can send them info on how to do that. After the site is live, anyone can submit a video or story – directions will be on the site about how to do that.
In addition to this, I would recommend the following list of books/articles/retreats to begin the process. It takes a lot of time and I recommend you do it within a small safe group of friends – a community. You are not alone. Sharing stories and encouraging each other is the most powerful and helpful way to begin to change your thinking from one of not being worthy of trust, love, and deep care because of all that is imperfect about you … to a place where you can believe that without changing a single thing about you … you are beloved of God … and God is your lover/creator/sustainer. Love … learning to receive and give love, begins here. This is where you lay down all the ‘not good enough’ burdens and lies and just be you. Learn to see, accept, love, claim, own, celebrate, cherish you … first. The more we can see ourselves through God’s eyes, the more we can see the image of God in others and be a conduit of love in the world.
McClintock, Karen. Sexual Shame – An Urgent Call to Healing
Fryholm, Amy. See Me Naked – Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity
Newell, Philip. Echo of the Soul: The Sacredness of the Human Body
Ryan, Thomas. Reclaiming The Body In Christian Spirituality
De La Torre, Miguel. A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality
Paris, Jenell Williams. The End of Sexual Idenity

Online Articles
Reuniting Sexuality and Spirituality by James B. Nelson
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=114
Christians Caught Between the Sheets by Tina Schermer Sellers
http://theotherjournal.com/2006/04/02/christians-caught-between-the-sheets-how-%e2%80%98abstinence-only%e2%80%99-ideology-hurts-us/
An Erotic God – A Response to All Sexed Up by Dan Rhodes by Tina Schermer Sellers http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=276

Check out tags in this blog for related articles: Sex and Christianity, God, Sex and Religion, Sacred Sexuality, God, etc.

Podcasts @ http://www.tinaschermersellers.com on conversations in the church, with youth and raising sexually and spiritually healthy children
iTunesU – Seattle Pacific University – Tina Schermer Sellers: Spirituality and Sexuality Forum
Couples Intimacy Retreats – http://tinaschermersellers.com/intimacy-retreats/

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