I read a quote on Instagram recently about purity culture that really resonated with my experiences as a teenager and even now.
“Purity culture models and even baptizes an immature masculine expression of sexuality as normal or just ‘part of being male’. We have trained a generation of Christian men to view themselves as victims of their own out of control sexual desire. Thus, the conversations around sexual sin in many churches have been dominated by “strategies” for avoiding temptation…Really these strategies amount to avoiding women. The result has been a radical dehumanization of women, who are viewed as either a threat that could compromise either a mans faithfulness/career or (in marriage) as a God given “outlet” for a man’s animalistic sexual desire. ” Zachary Wagner
Wow. I feel that. Deeply. I have read extensively about the purity culture, in addition to living it myself as a teen. While I think at it’s core it was meant to be a way to keep kids from engaging in sexual sin as teens the result was devastating to my generation and the one that has come after me and unfortunately is still being touted even today in some churches. If you aren’t familiar with the purity culture movement it happened in the late 90s and early 2000s in mainstream evangelical churches. It taught, in short, that men were more sexual than women and couldn’t help themselves so they should avoid women if possible but if they struggled with lust, which was expected, then they shouldn’t worry to much about it because it was “normal”. They should just manage that desire as best as they could until they got married and could they exercise their God given rights to express their ever present desire with their wives in any way they saw fit. This led to a lot of sin management, instead of heart change. And obviously some serious issues after they got married as well.
For women, we were taught our bodies were dangerous to men and we should dress in appropriate ways so as to prevent men from lusting after us. We were to guard our purity at all costs, because ultimately that was the picture of our worth as women. We were to be the brakes in our relationship with men and not “allow” them to push our boundaries in a physical sexual relationship. We were given purity rings to seal our commitment to remaining pure, but if we should somehow not remain pure, we were damaged goods and not as worthy as those who did remain pure. Even if we had been sexually assaulted, which many leaders have stated “must be because of something we were wearing”.
Now most of this was not stated explicitly, but inferred through examples of toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube or water having dirt put into it. Teens are very perceptive and that leaves one to understand their worth is only in how they act or what they do or don’t do for God in a performative way.
As one can imagine this was damaging and continues to have ripple effects on people and marriages years later including my own. There was a point in my own teenage story that I was in an unhealthy dating relationship. The boy was much older than me and a leader in our church group. Lines were pushed and I was put into situations I would rather have not been in. He was doing what he was taught. No one expected better of him and no one helped him understand he had deep issues that needed to be addressed. No one was holding him accountable and I was left in the fall out. I felt like damaged goods but would never admit that to anyone because according to the purity message I had failed and was not worth as much as someone else who had followed all the rules. And so I stayed in an unhealthy relationship for years because I was convinced that was my only option.
Now as an adult, much older than that 15 year old girl, I can see the damage. I can tell her that it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t something she said or wore that made that happen and that someone should have told her that. She should have heard about consent and that what you say matters. But it’s taken 20 some odd years to come to grips with that. I deserved better and so do the boys I am raising. Not only was this message damaging to girls but also to boys.
When we tell boys they can’t help themselves and that lust and sexual sin is normal for men to struggle with we deprive them of their autonomy. They assume they are victims of their own bodies and minds instead of taking every thought captive. We teach them to treat women as objects instead of people. We expect less of them and they live up to those expectations. We expect women to be their mothers instead of equal partners and that is emasculating. You see influencers like Andrew Tate who tell men to take back their power from the feminists and then use that “power” to view and treat women as objects for conquest. And a whole generation of boys are listening to that garbage and some church leaders are encouraging it. I don’t think men need other men telling them to not let their women boss them around and a church telling them the same when the church is partly responsible for this lack of ownership of manhood. The church told these men they were victims not feminism. You wonder why they stopped trying and don’t step up as men, maybe it’s because you told them they were nothing more than sexual animals and not capable of better. Maybe it’s because you told them they didn’t need to take responsibility for their actions with women and that bled over into the rest of their lives. Maybe it’s because you steeped them in shame for sexual sin and just told them to “stop” but didn’t give them any tools for how to. Maybe it’s because you told them sexual sin was expected behavior and now 50% (probably much more if they were really honest) are addicted to pornography and it’s tearing their lives apart and they feel defeated and aren’t being given the tools with which to change because we as a church are about sin management not heart change.
I recently sat down with my teenage boys and told them about purity culture and it’s damage. I told them they are responsible for their own choices, regardless of what other people do. Women are not the enemy, they aren’t scary, they aren’t to be avoided. They are to be seen as God’s beautiful creations and respected for the person they are. They are not to be objectified, even if you are kidding. They are not in competition with you, they are equal and partners in life with you. Porn is dangerous and will ruin your life and the lives of those around you, but if you fall into that we are here for you and will get you appropriate help to overcome it, which does not include sin management but actual heart change. There is no need for shame. Purity is great but it isn’t everything in life. You are not less than for any mistake in your life. There is such a thing as consent and you are responsible for asking about boundaries and maintaining those, you don’t get a pass because you are male. (insert eye roll emoji). If you find that you aren’t lusting after everything that is female, that doesn’t make you abnormal. There is a large range of normal when it comes to libido. Interests that aren’t seen as prototypical male are absolutely fine for everyone. My boys are artistic and musical, they don’t play sports and hunt, but that in no way makes them less masculine and any man that tells you otherwise has a form of toxic masculinity.
If you experienced purity culture, I’m sorry. I know it’s caused some damage to everyone it touched. We have to recognize it and do better for this generation of kids. No more purity messages and for gosh sake no more ring ceremonies.