There are a lot of things in this society that skeeve me out – large groups of teenaged boys, Senator Mitch McConnell, Halloween masks – but none more than the Purity Culture. The Purity Culture is the idea that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is bad, and that it will reserve you a first-class ticket to Hell. (Unless you don’t fully round the bases – that’ll probably get you seated in Economy on the plane ride to damnation.)
Many churches steer clear of preaching about sex at all, which is the best route. Some churches, however, encourage young people to pledge purity. They tell them that purity is good, and impurity is bad. Basically: having sex before marriage will make you a bad person and God will hate you if you do it.
I myself came home from a church youth group mission trip at the age of 14, a gangly mess of A-cup boobs, braces, and contact lenses, convinced that I should have a purity ring. The older girls in my youth group all had one, and I felt like it was important for me to have one too.
I didn’t think critically about it. I just thought, They have one. They’re Godly people and they’re older than me. I should have one too. No one had told me the stuff about how fire and brimstone waited for me just beyond my first premarital orgasm, but I assumed that if the other girls in my church had promised to wait until marriage, I should follow their lead.
So I asked my mom, and she seemed a little uncertain but ultimately agreed to take me to the Christian store in town. We picked out a ring, a pretty little silver band with hearts and a cross on it. I put it on – and felt immediately terrified.
I was convinced that by slipping the ring onto my finger, I had made an unbreakable promise. I felt like I’d signed a document without reading the fine print (or really, any of the print at all). Would I want to have sex before marriage? I wondered. Would I regret this?
For the next few weeks, I was plagued with worry about my decision. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I could always just remove the ring and forget about it. It was a promise, I figured. And not just any promise – a promise to God, who I was convinced cared very deeply about whether I had premarital sex.
(My current opinion is that God probably has more important things to worry about than that, but of course, our conversations are usually pretty one-way, so I can’t be sure about this.)
I really didn’t know much about sex at all. I was fourteen! I cared much more about reading books and listening to weird music. I was pretty much no worse for the wear for a while, with the exception of my concerns that I’d made a mistake.
But things started getting weird when I got older, and, as is natural for all humans, I started to think more about sex. Sexuality is the one thing that nearly every single person has in common. It is, obviously, a necessary part of human life. But for me, the entire concept of sex was filled with guilt and worry. The band on my ring told me that I shouldn’t even be thinking about it yet, and that I would have to wait a long, long time to act on any of these desires.
After several years wearing the ring, I realized that if I wanted to stay pure, it shouldn’t be because of a ring I’d purchased before I understood what purity really meant. It should be because of a personal desire, a choice made based on mature thought on the subject and a weighing of the pros and cons of both sides, not a ‘sex is kind of scary and God will hate me anyway’ mentality. I took the ring off one day, put it in my pocket, and didn’t care when I lost it in the washer. It wasn’t nearly as big a deal as I thought it would be; I couldn’t even feel the flames of Hell licking my ankles.
Not all stories turn out like this. Many girls are indoctrinated with the concept of purity before they understand what it means. No one should even be talking to pre-teens about purity, much less suggesting to them that they should promise to ‘stay pure’ until marriage. They don’t even know what that means! If they want to swear to purity at the age of 18, let them! More power to them! But at eleven, or thirteen? It’s weird, and harmful. It can lead to a strangulation of sexual desire, which can result in confusion and emotional pain down the road. Suppression of anything is never good, especially not something as natural and healthy as sexual desire.
Conversations about sex should be geared toward safe sex, the importance of consent, and how to know when you as an individual are ready for it. These conversations should come from an understanding and open-minded loved one, not ill-fitting Bible verses.
What bothers me the most about purity culture is that it’s often less of a choice and more of an obligation for prepubescent girls who don’t fully know what they’re doing. Purity is fine, but binding yourself to purity when you really should be starting a journey of self-exploration is not fine. The world is moving toward a greater understanding of sexuality and a looser moral code which sheds layers of guilt that people of previous generations had to carry with them. Let’s hope the Purity Culture will fade out and be replaced with a safer, happier understanding of sex.