Everything I Didn’t Learn from Purity Culture
By Rebecca Moody
Last night my husband and I snuggled down and watched I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It’s not a perfect documentary, but it’s very heartfelt, and it provided us both with some insight about our time as two teens in a very enthusiastic evangelical youth group.
We have a very atypical story (for the 21st century). We met when we were ten years old, and started dating when we were fourteen. Then, we didn’t kiss until we were seventeen.
Why? In our youth group dating was strictly forbidden. The rise of Purity Culture, helped to prominence by books like Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, touted courtship as the only way to find relationship happiness. In his book, Harris encourages couples to delay physical intimacy as long as possible — he didn’t kiss his wife until his wedding day. Because we were so young, my then boyfriend and I couldn’t possibly expect to get married, and – in the views of our youth group and many of our parents – there was no point in dating if you weren’t going to get married.
This was accompanied by the idea that any form of physical contact between boys and girls was one step away from intercourse. I distinctly recall a sermon in which we were told that touching pinkies leads to sex. At church camp, we were warned against Purple: the mixing of boys (blue) and girls (pink). (This was the same church camp where the girls were pulled aside and given a lecture about how we should dress in a way that doesn’t tempt our “brothers in Christ.” We were told that even baggy t-shirts could cause young men to lust after us, which was apparently our problem, but I digress).
My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I even signed a contract as part of a Sunday school class in which we promised not to date for the duration of the course.
The thing is, I was (and still am) entirely smitten and crazy in love with my husband. So we just went on ahead and dated, somewhat secretively, and definitely full of fear that – though it felt wonderful and healthy to us – what we were doing was actually immoral and lust-driven and wrong. Mostly, our high school years were passed really happily, but it was an incredibly painful experience to hear our very normal teenage behavior demonized routinely at church.
After graduating from high school we attended the University of the South: Sewanee. It is a decidedly not evangelical institution, and one that encourages free thought and grappling with texts, even (or maybe especially) sacred ones. The tight hold of Purity Culture and Conservative Christianity began to lose its grip on us. As it did, we saw more and more evidence that many people were happy to date without marriage as an end goal, that premarital sex could be a responsible and healthy expression of love, and that many wonderful marriages resulted from people who had had premarital sex.
This was the exact opposite of what we had been taught in youth group. According to Purity culture, having sex outside of marriage was presented as the surest way to doom your relationship. Meanwhile, if you remained virgins until your wedding night you were guaranteed a lifetime of amazing sex. As Joshua Harris explores in the documentary, Evangelical Christians are just as likely as mainstream culture to glorify sex, to put it on an unhealthy pedestal as the ultimate marker of a successful marriage or life.
In our junior and senior years of college, my husband and I had loads of conversations about all of this. My husband, who grew up in a much more conservative household, was unwilling to have sex before marriage, in part because he felt like this would dishonor his parents (and dishonoring your parents is also a primo sin if you’re raised in a dogmatic church). I, on the other hand, have very liberal parents who had stopped attending our evangelical church by the time I was in college. I was ready for sex! Not only that, I wanted to have sex before marriage, as a way to close the chapter on the damage of purity culture. There were many painful conversations, and we came the closest we ever came to breaking up in our eight years of dating. In the end, I decided that I wanted my husband more than anything: more than sex, more than marriage, more than sticking it to purity culture.
So when we got married after graduating from college at the age of twenty-two, we were both virgins. We were also crazy in love, crazy compatible, and had similar dreams and aspirations for what our future together would look like. Eight years of marriage later and I’m pleased to say we have one of the happiest and healthiest marriages I’ve ever been around: we communicate well, we argue well, we reconcile well, we have lots of sex, we have two beautiful sons, and more importantly, we still feel like we wouldn’t change a thing. We’re more in love than ever.
But we tend to both agree that this is in spite of purity culture rather than because of it. We’re now at the age where a lot of our friends from youth group who got married young are having marriage troubles, and we’re starting to see the first rounds of divorce. Holding off on sex until marriage guarantees nothing, and getting married in order to have sex is a recipe for disaster. Marriage will always require work and communication, and learning to put each other first each and every day.
Youth groups and churches do an incredible disservice to young people when they tout waiting until marriage for sex as the only path for a moral union. This has led to unimaginable heartbreak for so many couples, who find that one or both of them are unable to magically view sex as acceptable once they’re married. This is outlined in painful detail in Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein. Klein provides example after example of the difficulties women face in marriage: having viewed their sexuality as a flaw for most of their lives, many have a very hard time switching on this part of themselves in marriage without still perceiving it – unintentionally – as sinful or wrong.
I was able to avoid this horrible consequence of Purity Culture in large part thanks to my parent’s healthy and frank discussions with me about sex. I also attended a very secular high school that encouraged sexual positivity. Still, sometimes I think I am less physically demonstrative with friends and family than I would have been had I not been told as an impressionable youth that pinkie touching is sexual.
Many couples find that, once married, they aren’t sexually compatible, or are disappointed that as with every other aspect of life, good sex requires practice and just because you’re married doesn’t make you great at it. Other couples realize that wanting to have sex is not enough of a reason to get married and find themselves without the foundation necessary for a successful future.
I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult and painful it must be to grow up as an LGBTQIA member of a church that holds heteronormative marital sex as the only godly option : I know of many couples whose evangelical marriages ended in divorce after one of them realized that heterosexual marriage wasn’t going to change their homosexuality. I know of other people who will never get married because they have been shamed into believing that homosexuality is sinful.
It is time for the church to do better. It is time to stop demonizing normal human sexuality. It is time for them to stop acting like virginity is the only requisite for having a happy marriage.
In the meantime, it’s important for those who grow up in Purity Culture to shout our stories, so here’s mine again in summation: I was a virgin when I got married, but I didn’t get married for sex, I got married because I wanted to begin my shared life with my husband. Through lots of (sometimes difficult) conversations, my husband and I made sure we were getting married for the right reasons. Being a virgin when I got married didn’t make my wedding better or my marriage easier, and it definitely didn’t make me more godly. I wish 14-year-old-me knew that there was nothing wrong with her for wanting to date. I wish 20-year-old-me knew that there was nothing wrong with her for wanting to have sex.
And that’s what I wish for anyone reading this who is still in the midst of Purity Culture or recovering from it. You are not bad. Your body is not bad. Your sexuality is not bad. There are many ways to love, and there are many paths to having a happy marriage. So go ahead and date, rub pinkies, and think critically whenever someone tries to control you and your sexuality.
Trust that there is no magic formula for happiness or morality. Trust that with communication and commitment, true love can and does win.