Critiquing the Purity Culture

When I wrote about the purity culture and sexual dysfunction last week, I had no idea how many chords that simple post would touch. I had no idea how much attention it would get. Only fifteen hours after I posted it, it had more page views than any other post I have ever posted. Not more than any other post had after fifteen hours, more than any other post had total. Today, it has more than twice as many page views than any other post. To be perfectly honest, this attention surprised me. Perhaps it is simply because so few people in my position are willing to be so vulnerably honest about how the Purity Culture affected them.

I’ve thought more since about what I wrote, and I’ve had some additional thoughts. Have you ever heard the phrase “don’t waken love”?
That’s a phrase used in the purity culture, and the idea is that you shouldn’t awaken sexual feelings or desires until you are at the point of marriage. Killing your sexual impulses and thoughts they way I did, becoming essentially asexual, is the goal of the purity culture, and in that sense my story is a purity culture success story, not a cautionary tale. For the purity culture, the only problem with my story was the trouble I had shifting from being asexual to becoming an actual sexual agent. In fact, I read a post by another blogger saying just this – that my post reveals that more attention needs to be paid in the transition from saying “no, no, no” to saying “yes, yes, yes.” I do think that this is absolutely part of the problem, and is absolutely something that should be addressed. That transition is hard for a lot of young adults raised in the purity culture, and it is absolutely something the purity culture needs to find a way to better deal with. But. This really isn’t the core of my critique.

The transition from asexual to active sexual agent was extremely difficult, but in my opinion the main problem was not this transition but rather the way I was taught to approach my sexuality in the first place. I was taught to strangle it. Many of my readers said they weren’t as good at stifling their sexual desires and thoughts as I was, and as a result rather than dealing with a complete dearth of sexual impulses they dealt with a great load of guilt as they matured. This really is just the other side of the coin – you either smother your sexuality or you suffer endless guilt. Why? Because you’re taught that any sexual thought, fantasy, or action before marriage, regardless how small, is sin.

I don’t have any problem with people waiting to have sex until marriage. I don’t have any problem with people having sex before marriage. Honestly, I don’t care when people do or don’t have sex. But when young people are taught that their blooming sexuality is somehow sinful, and as a result either smother their sexuality or grow up under loads of guilt, that I do have a problem with. I also have a problem with young people having information about sex withheld from them, or being lied to about birth control or STDs.

The reality is that humans become sexually mature in their mid teens, long before the average age of marriage in the United States. “Not wakening love” does not take this into account. In order to “not waken love” in a teenager going through puberty and achieving sexual maturity, that teen has to smother his or her developing sexuality. I’m not saying that sexual maturity means that someone must have sex, but rather that at sexual maturity your sexuality becomes a natural part of you as an individual. You can suppress it, you can feel guilty because of it, but that doesn’t change the biological reality.

The purity culture is therefore working against a biological reality. One solution for the purity culture is the one it’s following now: urging its young people to either suppress their sexuality or suffer loads of guilt. I don’t like this solution. Another solution for the purity culture might be to move the age of marriage up to fifteen or seventeen, but given the way our society is set up, that makes little sense. I don’t like this solution either. A final solution for the purity culture is to change the way sexuality before marriage is approached. Understanding sexuality as a natural part of being a sexually mature human being does not necessarily mean having sex in one’s teens or having sex before marriage.

I have a daughter. For me, this discussion is not theoretical. I don’t have any interest in when my daughter starts having sex: if she wants to wait until marriage, fine; if she wants to have sex when she’s in high school, fine. My interest is different: I want my daughter (a) to embrace her sexuality as a natural part of herself, (b) to make her own choices without pressure or expectation, and (c) to have the information she needs to make informed and responsible choices.

(a) I don’t want my daughter to feel shame over her developing sexuality, and I will do my best to help her see the changes she goes through, and the new desires she experiences, as natural. At the same time, I will teach her that her sexuality is only one part of her, and that her value lies within herself, in her talents, interests, and desires, not in her sexuality. I intend to teach her that embracing her sexuality is not synonymous with having sex. In sum, I hope to teach my daughter that her developing sexual desires, feelings, and thoughts are natural and okay, but also that her sexuality does not define her.

(b) I don’t want my daughter to decide to have sex or to not have sex based on what some man, whether pastor, father, or boyfriend, tells her. I want her to make her own choices. I want her to wait until she’s ready for sex, and not give in to pressure to have sex before she feels she’s ready. At the same time, when she decides she’s ready I don’t want anyone to stand in her way. I want her to make her own decisions, not to simply acquiesce to other people making decisions about her life and her sexuality.

(c) But of course, my daughter won’t be able to make responsible and informed decisions unless she has access to information about sex, health, and birth control. I will make sure that she has access to that information. I didn’t know what sexual parts I had until I was twenty (I’m not kidding), and I don’t want her to be in the same situation. I want her to understand her body, understand the risks of sex, and understand the various forms of birth control and protection. I want her to understand the arguments of free love advocates and the arguments of those who advocate waiting until marriage. And with that information, I hope to enable her to make informed and responsible decisions for herself.

My point here is that I really don’t care when people start having sex. If someone decides it means something to them to wait until marriage, fine. Honestly, when people start having sex is not anyone’s business but theirs. What I care about is that young people approach their sexuality with understanding rather than guilt, that young people are allowed to make their own choices, and that young people have access to the information needed to make responsible decisions.

The thing is, I didn’t have any of this. None. I was taught to see any sexual thought in my teens as sin and perverted, I was told what my decision would be rather than allowed to really honestly decide things for myself, and I was not given accurate information, or really information at all, about sex, health, or birth control. It is this, not the difficulty of the transition from being essentially asexual to being an active sexual agent, that I see as the main problem with the purity culture.

So I’m glad that some in the purity culture have seen merit to my point about the difficulty of the transition from saying “no” to saying “yes,” but I think there’s a lot more that they need to think about and address than just that. You see, if the only issue were going from saying “no, I don’t want to have sex today” to “yes, I want to have sex today,” that wouldn’t be a problem, because everyone who ever has sex has to make that transition. While I think it’s good for the Purity Culture to address the transition from no to yes, when it does so it’s only dealing with a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

You see, the reason this transition was so difficult for me was because of the points outlined above: How was I to go from seeing my sexuality as sinful and something to be avoided to seeing it as a beautiful and natural part of my life? How was I to go from passively accepting what I was told about sex to being an active sexual being? How was I to have sex at all given that I’d been kept so ignorant that I didn’t even understand the basic mechanics of sex, let alone issues of sexual health? The problem isn’t moving from saying “no” to saying “yes” and it isn’t deciding to wait until marriage to have sex. The problem is being taught to see your adolescent sexuality as sinful, never being allowed to make your own decisions or be an active agent, and having only misinformation and ignorance about sex. And so you see, when you get down to it, the problem is really honestly truly not about wanting to wait until marriage. It’s all the baggage that the Purity Culture strings along with that.

The Modesty Rules---Not So Simple, Really
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
What Courtship Was for Me
Bob Jones University Rejects Key Recommendations of the GRACE Report
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Jennifer

    Wow. Your writing is amazing – thank you for doing it and please keep it up. The fact that you got from where you started to where you are now truly gives me hope for the future. Also, I think your daughter is a lucky girl to have you for a mother.

  • quietpanther

    This, this, this, this, this…….

  • Nathaniel

    Good post detailing what really matters when it comes to sex. That it be consensual, full informed and healthy.Unfortunately, I predict that someone will find a way make this about abortion. Again.

  • Nathaniel

    Damn, wish I could edit. Also want to say, I find it so telling, and so sad, that the purity police are literally telling people to not love people, lest you bump uglies and make baby Jesus cry.

  • Maria

    The biggest problem with Fundies and sex is the fact that they never talk about it, at all, unless it's "don't do it before you're married". It's ignoring a very important part of life.

  • Rebecca

    Really nicely written, and "I want my daughter (a) to embrace her sexuality as a natural part of herself, (b) to make her own choices without pressure or expectation, and (c) to have the information she needs to make informed and responsible choices" gives me hope that there are parents out there like you.

  • JB

    I have a question based on your recent entry on sexual purity and the sexual dysfunction you suffered. Of course, you're no longer a fundamentalist, and your husband was never a fundamentalist to begin with, but what do you think would have happened if you'd stayed in the movement and married another fundamentalist? Your husband was pretty understanding of your problem, but if you'd gone down the whole courtship road, would you have been allowed to talk about sex and sexual preferences as part of the courtship proceedings? Is that sort of thing normally allowed? In your case, you didn't even know you had those fantasies until you allowed yourself to fantasize, but if you'd continued in the movement, you probably wouldn't have known until your wedding night because any lust whatsoever before marriage is frowned upon big time. How do you think a fundamentalist guy would have reacted had he learned of your desire after you'd married? I can't help but think that you would have had a very, very hard time if you'd been in that situation as a fundamentalist.

  • thebrunettesblog

    Although I didn't comment on your first post, I'm another one who very much appreciated it. My experience was similar to yours, even though my upbringing was less extreme: I was very successful at self-repressing, and five years after religion I am still struggling to recover a full sense of sexual agency and an understanding of my own desires. The challenges I have faced and the work I have done to learn about sexuality, and form a healthy relationship with my own, are what prompted me to pursue a graduate degree in sex education (which I'm now doing.) One of my big goals is to teach parents how to teach their children about sexuality in a healthy way: your three principles for your daughter are really, really excellent, and I may ask your permission to use them when I begin developing my own educational materials.Thank you for writing so frankly on this intimate but crucial topic.- Ginny

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your honestly, frankness, and bravery. I find the culture just so damaging, and I hate that it seeps into other more mainline Protestantism.I want to ask your opinion: I have wondered if the Purity Culture acts as a shield to closeted gays and lesbians. Since sex is out of the question, they are 'off the hook' sexually until they get married. (And the added bonus is that their partner won't know any different, anyway.) What do you think?Wonderful posts. I love them, and they are so healing for me, too.

  • Libby Anne

    JB – While I can't say for sure, I would guess that most couples who go the courtship route and continue to suppress their sexuality up until the wedding struggle with sex in the months to come. Some may feel cheated, as they were promised this awesome sex and it doesn't instantly materialize, but others may simply say "better to learn with each other than with someone else." As for talking about what you like sexually before the actual wedding, that may possibly very from couple to couple, but I know that the first time my boyfriend brought it up to me, I asked him why anyone would need to discuss that until after the wedding. Anonymous of 8:40 – That's an interesting question. It's totally possible, though I haven't to my knowledge personally seen that happen (to my knowledge, no one I grew up with is gay or lesbian, but then, if they were, they sure wouldn't be letting on). I do know that that I have heard that sometimes gay or lesbian youth growing up in the purity culture classify their same sex attractions as sexual sin to be overcome, placing it right alongside premarital sexual attractions in general and thus normalizing it and ignoring it. Given that, I wouldn't doubt that the purity culture helps hide them and their difference – after all, if every sexual thought or action is a sin, it's not just same sex thoughts or actions that are targeted, and therefore these thoughts and actions don't stand out. Interesting thoughts.

  • Ashton

    I have a good friend who also grew up in conservative religion where everyone was supposed to wait until marriage, although I don't think her upbringing was quite as repressive. Despite the less-repressiveness she had no desire to have sex until after 20. This was shocking to me and it was shocking to her that I had sexual desires from the time I was about 10, which was before I even knew what sex was. She didn't think that teen girls naturally had sexual desires. She viewed any teen girl who had sex as being exploited by a boyfriend. She thought that any teen girl that had sexual fantasies must have been molested or possibly over-exposed to hormones from meat (neither of these things happened to me – I grew up vegetarian). My experience was baffling to her even though she had long since given up the idea of waiting until marriage (though she is still religious) and I don't think she really believed me. It was so odd that she thought this way because she usually considers other ideas more. Just because her teen experience didn't involve sexual desires she didn't think that anyone else with a healthy background would have that. Her astonishment made a tiny part of me wonder if I possibly had been molested at a really early age before I could remember it. Just one of the stupid things that radical religion makes people think.

  • Ashton

    In that first sentence I meant to say "quite as repressive as mine" instead of just "quite as repressive." Her upbringing and mine certainly were not as repressive as yours.

  • Anonymous

    Also, the more information she has about sexuality, the easier she will find it to recognise a potentially abusive situation before it develops.

  • Anonymous

    What has not been addressed is the following: some are so indoctrinated with the 'no, no, no' that the transition to 'yes, yes, yes' is never possible for them. Therapies exist, but not everyone is able to overcome their embarrassment enough to share with a therapist, or responsive to therapy if able to seek it.Lifetimes of frigidity or impotence and then self imposed aloneness because of the resultant feeling of inadequacy then results. Who can know how much so, as the shame associated with such topics does not make for openness? Who knows how many failed marriages have to do with this?

  • reasoningbeing

    I think these two articles hit the nail on the head. They describe my own experience with my mother's puritanical perspective on sex (it actually appears to disgust her) and the subsequent sexual repression I endured. Not only that but I projected her vocal intolerance of gays and lesbians onto everyone else making it extremely difficult for me, a lesbian, to even function socially and led to a prolonged dysfunctional period of being in the closet and chronically depressed. Libby, thank you for addressing this. Just seeing confirmation of my experience lightens my load.

  • Julia K.

    "I want my daughter (a) to embrace her sexuality as a natural part of herself, (b) to make her own choices without pressure or expectation, and (c) to have the information she needs to make informed and responsible choices."I think everyone can agree on (c) insofar as it involves an understanding of the body. I would argue, though, that beyond that, (b) and (c) are closely linked. One person's "information" is another person's "pressure." This is exemplified in the idea of an emotional component of sex. To one person, saying "sex forms and strengthens intimate emotional bonds between people, which is a major reason people wait" is necessary information that will help them make the informed and responsible choice. To another person, that's pressure and expectation.And if you think you know where to draw the line, consider these other two statements, which are less ambiguous but could each still be taken both ways: "sex can result in pregnancy, which is a major reason people use birth control," and "premarital sex can send you to hell, which is a major reason people abstain."The concept of being informed yet making decisions free of outside influence or pressure is a myth. Information itself is an outside influence, and none of us grow up without some kind of guidance.

  • Stephanie

    @Ashton – While I have never been a fundamentalist Christian, I was a devout Catholic for most of my life, so I also suffered from seeing sexuality as sinful. As a result, I also repressed my sexuality until I became basically asexual. While I felt the stirrings of sexual desire, I honestly had no desire to have sex with someone else until I was 24 years old. It took falling deeply in love with the only man who has ever accepted and loved all of who I am, dark and light. Only within the context of a completely safe, supportive, understanding, and loving relationship did I finally see that sexuality wasn't all about hellfire and damnation. Making love to him was the most beautiful, fulfilling, humbling, and selfless experience I have ever had. It's sad that the fear and guilt surrounding the purity culture cut me off from that part of myself. I was so emotionally stunted for years and years because of my intense fear of sexuality. It breaks my heart to hear of other people who have been through the exact same thing, because I slipped into a serious depression in the midst of my repression and I would never, ever wish that on another person.I'm just glad that I was lucky enough to find a love that could finally bring me to life and give me wings to fly.

  • Libby Anne

    Julia K. – That is exactly why I want my daughter to have all of the information offered by BOTH sides. Sure, if you only give someone one sided information, it puts pressure on them to follow what that side says. But if you have a whole spectrum of information, you can then analyze, compare, and make your own decisions. The pressure is generally not so much from the information as from those presenting it in a one sided fashion – or at least, that has been my experience.

  • Julia K.

    @ Libby Anne -Good point.My inner troll wants to add "Teach the controversy" – but I don't want to troll an earnest answer. So I guess my next question really is, do you teach 12-year-olds all sides of everything? Are they nuanced enough at that age to understand how to turn contradictory and variably correct data into a responsible choice? Or is there room for some parental guidance into a "good" choice, such as, wait until you're older at least?

  • Libby Anne

    Julia K. – I happen to believe that children are a lot more competent and intelligent and capable than people often think. That said, I do think I'd encourage my daughter, at twelve, to wait a bit longer. After all, her body wouldn't even be physically mature at twelve. But that's just my instinct at the moment, a lot will probably depend on the individual child (i.e., the balance between guidance and independent decision making).

  • Christine

    Here, here! Reading your posts I thought you had somehow spied on my life! Twenty-three years of marriage to a wonderful man has not made a difference simply because i have been rewired. Thank you for making me not feel so isolated.

  • shadowspring

    I share Libby's high opinion of teenagers, with the caveat that the part of their brains that assesses risk is not fully developed until young adulthood. This is why insurance rates drop when a person reaches age 24. It is why a perfectly sane, rational teen will occasionally do something one would never expect- and when it turns out poorly and causes a problem, they are honestly reporting the truth when they say "I don't know" in response to "What were you thinking?"This does not mean that any information should be withheld from them, but rather that more information along with continued guidance is needed to protect them. For example, it is one thing to explain to a teen the proper way to put on a condom. I do not think it overkill to point out the explosion of the rate of infection from herpes in recent years. Demonstrations would be good too, as well as continually emphasizing that a condom put on backwards needs to be discarded immediately and a fresh one opened. And if your daughter is not ready to be a parent, I advocate birth control pills. It doesn't replace a condom, but is a fail safe if the law of entropy strikes unexpectedly. That is the sort of information teens need. Having said that, even with a good,solid sex education, teens will still make some bad decisions in life. That is no reason not to educate them or not to trust them. It is part of living and growing. Teens need a lot of support and real help dealing with the mess that may result from a temporary lapse of judgement. It's emotional, and sometimes life-altering, when a teen makes a bad decision.That is why the fundamentalists are so afraid to allow their teens freedom. They view these mistakes in judgement as moral failures, not brain glitches that will fade with biological maturity. Inebriated teens are more likely to make more serious mistakes. Partying is therefore an evil to be avoided. Teens in the midst of hormone rush and romantic infatuation are more likely to make mistakes involving sex. Dating is therefore an evil to be avoided. Mistakes in judgement while driving can be life-changing. That is why some parents even forbid their teens from getting a license. The list of dangers just keeps getting longer, it seems, when every mistakes is a moral failure instead of a lapse in judgement.The enemy of every parent is fear. Fear is behind every damaging comment and angry ultimatum. Ironic that the Bible teaches that perfect love casts out fear, and the goal of the Christian faith as outlined by Jesus was to "love one another as I have loved you".