About five years ago, I was introduced to this term: "Purity Culture". You may or may not have seen the phrase that describes a segment of the late 1990s and early 2000s characterized by the Christian Church's emphasis on sexual ethics and boundaries for marriage. Chances are, if you heard the term, it wasn't in a positive context.
For me, this idea of sexual purity seemed like a noble pursuit, but would later be recognized as a shame-based ideology that hindered many Christians as they got older. When I first heard the term, I didn't feel like it had much bearing on me growing up. I had friends whose parents revered the Christian best-seller "I Kissed Dating Goodbye", a book-length manifesto about dating authored by a then 21-year-old virgin. Fortunately, my parents didn't embrace the book and these circles of thought, so I felt unaffected by Purity Culture's ideology. Or at least it seemed so.
During my last two years of college, I lived in my own apartment. One day when I was leaving for class, I heard the loudest scream I'd ever heard. Panicked, I walked out onto my porch to see what was wrong and I saw five police cars in the parking lot. Knowing I'd be late for class, I sat down in my chair to see what was going on. Moments later I saw a hysterical mother make her way to the stairwell of my building. She sat there, screaming at the top of her lungs in anger and sadness—her son was found dead in his apartment.
With the grieving mother now blocking my way down the stairs to my car, I just sat frozen in my chair listening to this lady process the first hour of life without her adult child. I looked down on the floor at my backpack and realized that I was about to leave for a typical day at class, while this lady's life will never be the same again. It was hard to wrap my head around—the pain this woman was experiencing. I looked around the complex that day, confused because it felt just like a normal day. Within an instant, this mother's entire world was destroyed. That's when it hit me: maybe this was what hell feels like. A perfectly sunny autumn day cloaked in a tangible, invisible, painful darkness. It was terribly confusing, but too familiar just the same—I had felt this similar feeling once before.
It was another perfectly sunny Phoenician day. I remember leaving his apartment and driving up the 101 thinking, "What did I just do? I promised myself I would never do this until I was married...to a woman, nevertheless." I had just slept with a guy for the first time. It wasn't who I was supposed to be—I wasn't supposed to have ever just hooked up anyone, let alone a guy!
I felt darkness. I felt nothing.
The same feelings of darkness that surrounded that mother in grief surrounded me that afternoon as I drove home reflecting on what I had just done—the most inconceivable thing that I promised myself I would never do. While everyone driving past me was having another mundane afternoon, I felt destroyed inside.
It was here where the idea of Purity Culture waged it's war on my heart.
I would never be the same. My sexuality was officially sealed inside my heart through this hook-up and I had officially done the irreversible thing. God wouldn't change this. God was angry at this. He was angry at my interest in pornography, he was hated me because I like guys, but He was officially done with me now that I had taken this step into the fire.
Eventually, my heart would grow numb from the shame. I would give up on caring about this portion of my life, as I went through swelling phases of hooking up and sexual stupidity. After all, I had already ruined myself, so there wasn't any going back, right? Even as I type this, I can clearly hear the voice of God, through His knowing laughter saying, "You really had no idea what I was capable of back then, Austin!"
The shame of my lifestyle was perpetually destroying me inside. The shame's voice was the collective sound of my youth pastor and various retreat speakers telling me that virginity was non-refundable, that sex was irreplaceable, and misuse of sex was detrimental. These thoughts were torturing my ability to connect with God, as if He didn't have His hands on this portion of my life. I hid sex from Him, as if He had no bearing on it.
I've read many stories like mine, many of which come to the conclusion that Purity Culture was of Satan and that none of its constructs should be valued or upheld today. As I reflect on this, I'm not sure it's all to be thrown to the side.
Statistics Are Waging The Same War for Purity
During my phase of attempting to hide sex from God and instead of embracing the religious backing for Biblical sexual ethics, I frequently read and re-read pop psychology research that discussed the various stressed and pains that are caused by sexual deviance. There was non-religious research to prove that pornography is actually changing people physiologically, affecting their ability to engage in healthy sex. There was empirical data to show that sex outside of marriage statistically increases the likelihood for divorce. It was in research, that I began to see the practical truth to the traditional sexual ethics that I was taught.
It still has me wondering, why my Sunday school teachers didn't lead with this type of research?
It was absolutely fascinating to see that secular culture was discovering the value of these seemingly conservative sexual ethics. Purity Culture in practice may have been shame-producing and damaging to thousands of Christians like myself, but seeing the secular statistics of it, I can now see that its intentions were mostly pure (pun intended).
Purity Is Gone, What Now?
None of this ever became more important than when I met the guy who would be my future husband. As we started the first month of our relationship, we had a choice to make. We had to decide if we were going to honor the sexual ethics we grew up under or were we going to honor our personal desires on sex? Without much of a struggle, we chose not to have any sort of sex while we were dating. At the time, same-sex marriage wasn't legal, so we knew we'd have to figure that part out if our relationship were to progress, but in the meantime, we chose to yield to the sexual ethics we were raised under.
Frankly speaking, I wasn't convinced that honoring sexual ethics would make any difference since we'd already overlooked them in previous relationships, but I figured it was worth a shot. Fortunately, we were wrong, and the overwhelming message of Purity Culture was wrong: God can renew us.
In our dating and engagement phase, we saw the power of bypassing the physical for a chance at emotional connection. A dear friend of mine described abstaining within a relationship as, "...a chance to channel our sexual desire into creative ways to emotionally connect." I'm sure some pastors wouldn't like me saying this, but we were familiar enough with sex that we had a firm understanding of what we weren't doing.
It was beautiful to experience restoration. It wasn't as if my past was scrubbed clean. We brought the inherent baggage into our relationship—baggage that would not have been there had each of us not had sexual pasts. But God didn't shame me for my past. He didn't give up on me because I failed to honor Him in years past. The start of our relationship was where God showed me that He revels in His ability to restore me.
I'm not sure that's something Purity Culture could have ever taught me.
This was a guest post originally posted here.