When I was a student at a conservative Southern Baptist school for sixth through ninth grade, most of the chapels I attended were a blur. I think they mostly consisted of general guidelines for living a “godly” life (according to a very strict moral code, of course), and singing hymns. (I do, however, have fond memories of every kid’s favorite game of going through hymnals and adding “in bed” to the end of the titles.)
But there was one chapel in particular that stood out. It had to do with sex and (heterosexual) relationships. The standard guideline at my school was KEEP YOUR LEGS CLOSED FULL STOP when it came to sex education, but on this particular chapel, they did things a little differently.
The teacher leading chapel called four people onto the stage: two boys and two girls, all of whom were in relationships. The girls sat on one side, the boys on the other. One by one the teacher asked each person to pretend that the guy or girl sitting opposite them was their future spouse. He then asked how far they would be comfortable with their future spouses going physically with a current significant other. The answers were mostly the same: light kissing, nothing more. Everyone on stage and in the pews was giggling most of the time, but it was clear that this exercise was supposed to make us think.
This always seemed puzzling to me: the notion that the physical things I do with a significant other would matter to my future spouse. I never quite understood why, and it was never explained clearly other than “you need to honor your future spouse by saving yourself for them.” The message we received from that chapel was that it is imperative to police the actions of someone you have yet to meet.
When I sat down to write about my experience with purity culture, it was difficult to narrow it down to one story. I was raised in and had internalized purity culture, and have spent a good portion of my adulthood unlearning it.
I finally decided on this particular story because, to me, it demonstrates what purity culture boils down to: the policing of actions of others as well as our own.
What do I mean by actions? In my experience, three things:
Thoughts: It was important to keep them pure at all times and not “lustful”.
Dress: This was often directed toward women. Does that cleavage/leg/figure you’re showing cause your Christian brothers to stumble in their walk with God?
Relationships: Don’t put yourself in situation that would cause you and your significant other to give into “temptation”. (situations varied from not being alone in a bedroom to only going on group dates)
Purity culture tells you that if you stray from the list of Sexual Thou Shalt Nots (the contents of which depended on the pastor, youth leader, church, denomination, or particular belief system) then you are, in essence, doing the following:
- Dishonoring God.
- Dishonoring your significant other. (emphasis was often placed the woman as the one being dishonored)
- Ruining your future by setting yourself up for heartbreak. (also, not clear)
The biggest impact purity culture had on me, both as a teen and an adult, was in my approach to romantic relationships. Years of being told simultaneously that sex is a wonderful, amazing, beautiful gift from God (within a heterosexual marriage) AND that boys were constantly trying to get “it” from me. I was warned regularly that I needed to “guard my heart”; that boys will do or say anything to get in my pants but I should never, ever LET THEM.
This resulted in an intense fear of any guy that showed interest in me (especially after high school when my appearance changed due to the discovery of make-up, contact lenses, and clothes that actually fit my figure). I had internalized that all guys were predators, trying to get “it” from me. Not only that, but I fled from any semblance of a relationship because I was clueless about what to do. I had been taught only to “guard my heart”, but never how to open it up to have a relationship that included healthy boundaries and consent. Even now, in my 30s, I’m still working to overcome my hang-ups over romantic relationships with the opposite sex.
I can’t pinpoint a specific time in my life where I started to reject purity culture; it was definitely a gradual process. It became clear to me that this way of living – the constant self-policing, having “accountability partners”, confessing and repenting for every single thought that could be deemed lustful, refraining from any kind of intimacy that supposedly “dishonored” God – simply wasn’t sustainable. I made a conscious choice that I would define my OWN boundaries, not try to fit into some rigid ideal.
Rejecting purity culture means different things to different people. Some choose to be sexually active. Others choose to wait until marriage. What’s important is that these decisions are made autonomously, not out of shame or fear of causing dishonor.