My junior year, our school’s campus ministries program debuted a lecture series on love, sex, and dating from a biblical perspective. The first session I went to with a few friends and we took note of the overwhelming number of females in attendance. I listened attentively, letting the chaplain’s message simmer, but not necessarily seep.
The presence of one too many suspected buzzwords was enough to illicit a moderate rejection of her words and shrug off the offered handouts. While I was having flashbacks to middle school sex education class, the rest of the audience was largely captivated by the presentation. In so many religious circles, talk of sex is often taboo.
This is unfortunate, given how sexuality permeates our culture in myriad ways. I already shudder to note mass injustices religious people are justifiably accused of: racism, discrimination, and the ever-increasing view that our most notable quality is intolerance. I’d hate for us to also take blame for society’s faults concerning sexuality. Albeit a sobering reality, this presents an opportunity for Christians to take pause and examine the priorities of our faith.
My harsher criticism came after leaving my college auditorium. I soon found it an irritating paradox that female virginity is so valued in our hypersexual society. This reality of purity culture enforces chastity and maintains a broader fixation on preserving “innocence” that splinters the Church and hurts its members.
The purity ethos is touted prominently by white Protestant Evangelicals who encompass a significant part of the nation’s Christian population.
This group frequently undercuts women’s equality in church leadership, traditional marital roles, and the right to bodily autonomy; it’s unsurprising gender bias is evident in purity culture. Good intentions from sincere people of faith are thwarted when women regularly become the target of messages perpetuating shame, pouring salt on deep wounds of gender inequity that have long been festering in the Church. Stigma around modest dress and sexual behavior has an outsized impact on young females. And it’s no curious connection that access to reproductive health care is increasingly being chipped away by a male-dominated legislative body.
Promoting abstinence is not a panacea for all questions concerning sexual health and well-being. Beliefs fervently espoused by the Moral Majority of the Christian Right are predicated upon such a dangerous proclamation. As a result, right-wing politicians haven taken to policing women on their sexual behavior, evidenced by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who infamously equated support for contraception with uncontrollable libido in wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case.
Like other politicians, pundits, and pioneers of purity culture, he targets females through unwarranted judgement, failing to address males in his supercilious rants. Not to mention speaking from skewed reality. A study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 80 percent of unmarried individuals ages 18-29 who identify as Evangelical have had sex. What’s more, two-thirds of those surveyed were sexually active in the recent year.
Contraception is a basic health care need, and not up for debate in an ethical battleground. It’s critical to the thriving of our communities that educators and medical professionals provide accurate and comprehensive sexual education and reproductive health care to adolescents. That increased access to these services dramatically lowers rates of unintended pregnancy is an indisputable fact.
Religious and cultural beliefs that so highly extol virginity end up voiding women of their voice. Certain faith-based and secular relationship teachings generalize men as more physical, placing responsibility in the hands of women to tame carnal desire. This poses harm to both genders. There is no worse—or more false—argument than “men will be men;” suggesting such is a feeble attempt at female empowerment and shows little regard for the merit of men’s moral consciences.
And reducing the gift of intimacy to the archaism of purity culture does little to uplift sex as a positive responsibility. Instead, it hinders transparent dialogue between partners and within communities—communication that is helpful in developing gender-egalitarian relationships.
What’s more, purity culture fosters the belief that abstinence is the single best indicator of morality. Improving our sexual culture will not be achieved by erecting a counterculture, wherein well-meaning individuals cherry-pick others’ behaviors to apprehend. However, a holistic view of sexual well-being—caring for the totality of a person—should be encouraged by people of faith. We are never called to shaming. We are forever called to inclusion and mercy.
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality, but years later, I suspect many of the girls I sat next to in my college auditorium share common frustrations. Individuals should be subject to personal accountability rather than pressure from fabricated cultural expectations. Neglecting to realize the consequences of such expectations does a disservice to the tenets of our faith and the moral fabric of our society.