I Kissed Purity Culture Goodbye

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I Kissed Purity Culture Goodbye – Erin East

I’m part of the purity generation – the evangelical young adults of the late 1990s and early 2000s. If you kissed dating goodbye, wore a purity ring, or proclaimed that true love waits, then you probably lived and breathed the purity life. Purity culture is part of me, shaping how I view sex, my body, and my marriage. If you grew up with purity culture, did it shape you?

The Lord of the Purity Rings

If you’re not familiar with evangelical purity culture, here’s the CliffNotes. Purity culture is built on absolutes. You’re either a good girl – a pure girl – or you’re not. It’s about more than losing your virginity on your wedding night; it’s about squeezing yourself into a mold. To keep one part of your body intact you have to break yourself. The irony of purity culture is this: To stay “pure” you need to give yourself away. And like the best three-point sermon, the hallmark of evangelical preaching, you can achieve purity in three easy steps:

Step one, give away your appearance. I listened to ministers preach that outward beauty is a sign of spiritual decay. I, a young single girl, took self-care tips from married men far older than me. I wanted to look at beauty magazines and learn about myself and my style. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Now, I look at pictures of myself in my early 20s and see a withdrawn, sad young woman – dull eyes, tatty hair, stooped shoulders.

Step two, give away your body. At Bible study, youth group, and church services, I learned that my body was dangerous, a lure that could pull godly men into sin. Their sexual purity, I heard, was my responsibility. Bye-bye bodycon dress. Hello shapeless sack. I concealed my curves with baggy clothes. I hid my legs in jeans. I tucked my body away.

Step three, give away your sexual desires. Once a year my old church was packed full. Dusty chairs were dragged out of dark storage cupboards. We’d gather for sermons on marriage, singleness, and sex. It was here I learned that godly women don’t have sex drives. Our desire for sex, it was said, began and ended with our desire to please our husband, and to keep our husband from the sin of seeking sex elsewhere. 

The First Rule of Purity Club: Don’t Talk about Sex

There’s a not too subtle message in purity culture: It’s shameful for good girls to want to have or to enjoy sex. Shame breeds silence. As a single girl I stayed quiet when ministers preached that virtuous women don’t crave sex. As a wife, I bottled the confusion, the guilt. I shut down the sexual part of me, just as I had before marriage. But now, I’ve started talking about sex. Through talking, I’ve begun to feel less broken, less alone. 

Purity Culture: The Next Generation

I’m rewriting my understanding of purity. I don’t have everything figured out, but this is what I know. We’re called to love God with all our heart, our soul, and our mind. We allow this love to flow back to others by loving others as we love ourselves. (Matthew 22: 37-40) So, for me, this is the foundation of a new purity culture: Take back who you are so you can love with all your heart, soul and mind.

Take back our appearance and our bodies: Your body is beautiful. You don’t need to fear your body or be ashamed of it. You’re God’s handiwork, a unique creation with your own sense of style. What if we threw off shame and rejoiced? What if we let this rejoicing lead us as we work out how to respect God, ourselves and each other? Rather than being stooped in self-doubt, we could dance. We could stand tall in love and praise. How beautiful would that be? 

Take back our sexual desires: The Bible is a sexy, sexy book. There is so much sex in it. There’s good sex, great sex, and ugly, heartbreaking sex. Stories of ugly sex speak of selfishness, cruelty, power imbalances, obligation, and disrespect. But the stories of great sex celebrate love and mutual desire. We talk a lot about the Proverbs 31 woman, but my favorite #biblegirlboss is the woman in Song of Songs. Uninhibited, she both gives and takes love. She smiles, declaring, “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.” (Song of Songs 3:6, The Message) For her, sex isn’t a duty. It’s love, mutual consent, and shared joy. 

Lover Meets Beloved: Say Hello to Pleasure

At night, I reach for my lover. Our daughter’s asleep. The dishes are done. The lights are dimmed but not out. Within the four walls of our room, we’re no longer parents. We’re no longer employees, tax payers, or house cleaners. I find my lover’s hand and let go of responsibilities. We share ourselves and our lives, fully accepted and fully known. We give and take pleasure. We share joy. 

But we only truly found each other by first knowing ourselves. We threw away the assumptions, the guilt and the expectations we learned through purity culture, kissing them goodbye. We embraced the truth of who we are, what we desire, and how we love. We embraced honest, complete, pure truth, and the sex – and our marriage – has never been better.*

*This post is part two in our series on bodies and sensuality. You can read part one, Boudoir Truths, in the Image Issue of She Leads Daily Magazine.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson