A purity culture I don’t know…

Seems like there’s a lot of critique of the ‘evangelical purity culture’ in the blogosphere lately.  I grew up here in Belgium as a pentecostal/evangelical Christian, and I always thought I’d seen a lot of talk about sexual purity and stuff in my life. But when I read critiques of the North-American version of ‘purity culture’ (Very interesting ones from the latest blog storm are Sarah Bessey, Elizabeth Esther for example, or find a bigger list in Scots challenging article at faith and food, and some more commentary from Richard Beck) and  I must conclude that I don’t seem to know much about it myself when I see some of the details mentioned. Seems like there are 2 possibilities:

A) I’ve never been paying attention and did get a slightly different message than what was communicated.


B) What I’ve been taught is not at all as toxic as what appears to be taught in certain corners of the Christian subculture in the good ole Us of A.

What I’ve never heard  in all of this was stuff like the following, all of which I would’ve disagreed with then as much as I would do now:

– female virginity is for some unclear reason much more important than male virginity.

– Men are supposed to take the initiative and always be the leaders, otherwise you have some kind of abomination going on.

– purity rings or rituals for girls involving the father.

– Non-virgins will by definition have a bad marriage.

– Never be alone with someone of the other sex that you’re not (yet) married to.

– if you’re single after a certain age something is wrong with you.

– You must give your first kiss on your wedding day, not earlier.

 (Okay, the last whole ‘first kiss on your wedding day’ idea  was something that some people might choose to do I suppose, but not at all something that anyone (except maybe for some teenagers who never had had a relationship but liked to talk about those rules a lot) would ever see as normative over here. It’s quite an exotic idea in our culture actually, not even recognisable as ‘conservative’… Maybe something for followers of Joshua Harris)

(And oh, the rule of never being alone with someone of the other sex might also be something I read in Joshua Harris, but which I rejected as otherworldly, as being someone who had all his life had female friends and had never had any problem hanging out with them alone at all the idea just didn’t have a chance with me…)

Even though I might disagree with  some details of what I’ve been taught and the way it was communicated, I never encountered most of what those people and others I’ve read are critiquing. What I picked up from sex-talk in church, on teenage camps, and even from the people of wareliefdewacht.be, with was the local true love waits* but does not seem to exist anymore, and from imported  wisdom from people like Rebecca st-James (the Christian rock-singer, who was very clear about both ‘true love waits and her intentional singleness at the moment) was something like:

– Sex is something important that you need to wait with until you’re married. Sex is beautiful in the right context and it is powerful, so it will do much good in the right context, and damage people in the bad context.

– Speak about boundaries in a relationship, which was mainly about the ‘how far will you go before marriage’, but the issue of consent and not being pushy was also communicated clearly…

– Virginity and sexual purity is  equally important for boys and for girls.

– Love and friendship are very important in romantic relationships and marriage.

– Singleness is something to be embraced, and does not have to be a problem. For most it will be a season in their life that they will learn from, for others it might be a calling.

– Sexual sin might be serious, but there is always forgiveness, whatever you have done. (The weird term  ‘recycle virgin’ was also used.)  Anyway there’s no need in shaming those who have made mistakes.

ongekust en

When I was in my early twenties that Joshua Harris’ ‘I kissed dating goodbye’ (a book of which the Dutch title can be translated back as ‘unkissed, but not a frog’) was making the rounds, and that most people I knew found it ‘too American’. I can’t remember much of it, actually, I just know I wasn’t impressed at all.

Now I don’t say I would agree with everything if I’d have to hear one of those sex-talks again that I heard as a teenager, but I do not recognise the big problematic things at all… And really, I do not understand the asymmetry in which rules for women would be different from those for men. That’s just nonsense… (especially in a heteronormative frame, where sex requires both a man and a woman…)

So, my question is; those things that I do not recognise, how common are they?

And how do we frame talk about love, sex and marriage? I do believe that sex belongs in a lifelong monogamous family-forming relationship (which is not necessarily the same as a state marriage, I would think the sacramental part and the reality -2 people form one life-unit- more important), but there seems to be so much ballast on the concept of marriage and on all this ‘no sex before marriage’ stuff…


* they have nothing to do with this beautiful radiohead song.

10 responses to “A purity culture I don’t know…

  1. As I was part of two different denominations for youth group and college group, I’ve found that most of the items in the first group are pretty much universal for Evangelical Christian culture in the U.S., except the last two on the list, which are more like unspoken rules really.
    The singleness after a certain age thing, which is around 22 or 23, just doesn’t happen very often in churches. The general idea is, go to college, find a mate and get married shortly after you graduate. I was one of the few who didn’t get married out of college because I didn’t have anyone to get married to. No one said that I was a bad person for not being married, but I did find that my married friends suddenly became a lot less accessible after they were married. And the church I was part of didn’t really know what to do with me, because I didn’t fit into any of their groups, as I was an adult, post-college, but not married. There were a few others whom they started a singles group with, but singles groups in American churches are made for the purpose of marrying them all off to each other, more than just general support and fellowship. So, I still hung out with the college group even though I’d already graduated. It was like I needed to get married to graduate to the adult group with all the married couples.
    Anyway, I wanted to comment on that because I think I have a unique perspective compared to most American Evangelicals because I will not have been married until later than life by Evangelical standards.

  2. Must be a cultural thing, I’ve always seen single people in church (of every age) and never noticed there was a problem. The group for young adults (roughly 20+ I think) in our church does have single and married people together without any problem. Also with my non-christian friends I’ve never seen that single and married people could not be good friends without any barrier.

    I do remember an article from the ‘true love waits’ people about intentional singleness for a season in your life, or as a lifestyle calling God might have chosen for you. (Also, Rebecca St-James, imported poster child and role model of the purity movement that I know only married in 2011 at age 33 or so.)

    But for the rest of the list, I have never heard anyone defending seriously that virginity would be more important for girls. (I don’t even see how that would ever work logically) Nor did the rings and other stuff ever get imported over here. (not as far as I know) The idea that ‘men must take the first move’ has always been a puzzling tradition to me, but it was a shock to me to find out that people would find such a thing ‘biblical’.

  3. Good post Mr. Cools. America seems to have it’s own way of doing everything, including religion.

    On another note, in the Catholic tradition, being Single is a valid and respected vocation in life, as much as Married Life or the Holy Orders.

  4. The problem with subcultures is that it is easy for outsiders to misunderstand what and why something is happening. Having grown up in the pentecostal/evangelical subculture of the USA “Bible Belt” (Tulsa, Ok and Northeast Texas), I can tell you that not everything within the ‘evangelical purity culture’ was/is bad. To me, a lot of the stuff I hear about on the blogosphere comes from folks who are trying to justify their current lifestyle which tends to match the lifestyle of the culture around them. Granted, I’m sure there are those who had overly zealous teachers/parents/leaders who overstated an item or two which lead to misconception…but hell, life isn’t perfect so stop compiling about it. (and no, I have not read the posts from the folks you mentioned so I don’t know where they fall into things).

    Personally, I am extremely thankful for the purity concepts that swept across the Bible Belt in the 1990’s. Knowing myself, I would have most likely joined the rest of the culture around me and engaged in sexual acts in high school. As it was, I have only dated two girls in my life – one in high school for six months (I broke it off after being convicted by God as my primary reason for dating her was because she had a sexually activity past) and one in college, whom I ended up marrying. Both my wife and I were virgins when we got married – and our first on-the-mouth kiss was at the altar when we got married.

    I say all this as I want to paint the picture for the rest of my comments. Namely, we are both very, very, very, very glad that someone taught us how to have self-control and wait until marriage. It has saved us years of heart ache and pain that comes when one dates tons of people. It doesn’t matter if one is sexually active or not, the simple act of dating someone and giving them your emotional heart only to breakup later is painful. I have seen more people hurt because of ‘dating’ than anything else – in fact, one of the reasons I chosen not to have another girlfriend in high school was because I saw the pain my friends went through (male and female).

    This, by the way, doesn’t mean that people who date are evil or are going to have bad marriages. It just means that they will have some baggage to work through…which is possible through the power of Jesus.

    As far as the purity rings, my wife had one of those given to her by her father and it was an incredibly good thing. The idea is fairly simple, her father took an active role in helping her understand her sexuality and wanted to help her make the right choices in honoring God. While I didn’t have a ‘ring’ (ladies tend, at least in my experience, to like jewelry more than guys), I made a similar vow with God (my folks were split at the time) – which helped me to break off the before mentioned relationship before things went too far.

    The wedding day kiss – the only reason why we did that was because my wife asked me not to kiss her until that day. The fact that I honored her and had the self-control to do that even when she would have let me kiss her was HUGE! Why did she make that request? Simple, studies have shown that once you start kissing passionately your body starts releasing chemicals that makes you want to have sex. It is biological. Therefore, the best way to have self-control is to stay away from the edge of the cliff, so to speak. No kissing means no chemicals, means easier to honor God and each other. It is not rocket science nor is it mean or bad – it is simply obeying the word of God not to have sex until you are married.

    Being alone with someone of the opposite sex – this started, by the way, with Billy Graham and not Joshua Harris. The concept is fairly simple: the evil one has used sex to destroy the lives of many a follower of God. Think David and Bathsheba… To prevent the evil one and to guard against the ‘appearance of evil’ (which I know can be misused), Billy Graham made a rule not to be in a room or other enclosed place alone with a women, other than his wife. Most church leaders today have a similar rule in place when praying with or counseling opposite gender people as it stops a TON of abuse.

    Now some folks may have taken this guideline a tad too far… but the concept itself is a good one. Be careful about your surroundings and who you are with.

    Growing up I always had friends who were women. This was especially true in college where the ladies knew that I was ‘safe’ – as in I wasn’t wanting or trying to date them. As such, there were plenty of times when I was alone with a women and it did not bother me or them as we were friends. However, when I started to date one of my friends (i.e. my now wife), I was incredible aware of my surroundings and make sure that I was never alone with her in a private area (public places are different). We did that not because it was ‘holy’ or God-spoken, but because we knew that if we were left alone that the temptation to make out would come (and it did), and instead having to fight that fight, we decided to stop things beforehand.

    Alas…this is a very long comment… hopefully you get the jest of it. Namely, there were a lot of good things happening within ‘evangelical purity culture’ that blessed and honored both male and females. Were there some abuses of the concepts, yeah…but there are always abuses. I think overall it was a good thing that helped folks like my wife and I go against the culture that we were living in and stay firm to the word of God not to have sex outside of marriage.

    • Yes, I understand your story. It’s different from mine. (Me and my wife were both each others relationship, but we took the road of growing in intimacy towards marriage.
      The idea of self-control is very important indeed, but I never understood how people could think it unavoidable to have sex when tempted. In a marriage there are lots of times in which one of the partners is not able to have sex (certain diseases, just too tired, after or before having a baby, or whatever) while both partners are alone with each other a lot and I hope that the other partner is able to not have sex in those cases (otherwise it would be marital rape) so I’d think being alone without having sex a good way to grow in that kind of self-control already.
      I do think that there’s a lot of good intentions behind the movement, but most people I’ve met who were preaching it were a bit too over-focussed and unbalanced…

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