Post-Purity Sexual Ethic?

By Abigail Rine, at The Atlantic:

One of the issues here is that sex is devalued when women (not so often men) are seen as damaged goods, impure, contaminated, deflowered, defiled… so Richard Beck, and others, are exploring new metaphors for sexuality.

Denunciations of purity culture are beginning to emerge from the evangelical ivory tower as well. Richard Beck, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Abilene Christian University, an evangelical school, expounds on the deeper implications of purity obsession both on his website and in his book Unclean, taking particular issue with the words and metaphors Christians use to frame sexual sin, especially for women. Beck argues that using the metaphor of purity imports a “psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives,” and this contamination is viewed as a permanent state, one beyond restoration.

Moreover, while women are subjected to the language of purity and seen as irreparably contaminated after having sex, the same is not true for men. According to Beck, a boy losing his virginity is seen as a “mistake, a stumbling,” a mode of behavior that can be changed and rehabilitated. This, he argues, exposes a double standard at work in the language of sexual purity: women who have sex are seen as “damaged goods,” but men who have sex are not.

Beck’s analysis reveals how evangelical critiques of purity are increasing in nuance and complexity, but what remains all but absent in these accounts is a fleshed-out alternative. While these writers clearly advocate abandoning the language of purity, they seem reluctant to relinquish the abstinence ideal entirely—which creates an interesting tension. What, exactly, does a post-purity sexual ethic look like for evangelicals?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Communities that had wide-ranging adoptions of ‘purity pledges’ showed greater than average premarital sex and teen pregnancy rates.
    The focus shouldn’t be on the ‘sin’ of premarital sex; it should be on the complete stupidity of having a child before you’re able to support it and affirming the mutual respect, and self respect, inherent in healthy relationships.

  • Michael Mercer

    Scot, how much of the “purity ethic” do you think is now outmoded because it was tied to past cultural mores in which protecting the purity of one’s daughters was not only (or primarily?) a moral issue but also closely related to legal, financial, and inheritance matters? Are certain sexual ethics timeless standards, or are they always tied to family and social practices in a given culture?

  • scotmcknight

    Mike the word “purity” in some of these contexts is tied to an entire system so there’s about ten strands to unravel. If one sees “purity” as either male or female, the language has to shift away from the female. This discussion to me is an entry into a bundle of important issues about body, about marriage, about sexuality, and procreation. I’m persuaded that sexual relations are not simply about pleasure or about personal satisfaction but about procreative potential, so I would see timeless standards as a major consideration.

  • scotmcknight

    But, yes, always tied to culture and context.

  • scotmcknight

    Agreed on the focus, Andrew.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    “Damaged goods” expresses the patriarchal attitude quite effectively. Particularly the “goods” part.

  • Michael Mercer

    Scot, I agree, but I wonder if we have taken older cultural customs into account enough. In patriarchal, pre-industrial family systems, having marriageable daughters would have held much more importance. “Damaged goods” was something to be feared, not specifically because of some transcendent idea of sexual morality (though it may have been justified in those terms), but because of the disruption female sexual freedom would have caused within the community and the threat it would have been to the male-led structures of society. We see this today in shame cultures which are invariably patriarchal and which penalize women much more for transgressions. In the end, it is about power. I’m not saying there are no timeless standards, but there’s a lot of unraveling to do to get through all the cultural baggage.