The Purity Culture’s Guinea Pigs: Its Daughters

A reader named Carol left the following comment on one of my posts regarding purity balls, purity rings, and the like:

These moms and dads obviously were not raised this way, did not start believing in this claptrap until they had daughters, they have absolutely zero proof that staying pure, I mean, not even holding hands? until marriage ensures a successful marriage. I won’t even say happy because that seems beside the point. And apparently, their marriages are successful anyhow, in spite of their pasts, at least some of them. These girls are locked up in their towers because the dads are trying a “do as I say not as I did” experiment on them.

This is so true. My parents weren’t raised on purity balls, purity rings, and the like. They weren’t taught to save their first kiss for the altar, and they had never heard of such a thing as a parent guided courtship. They dated in high school, and in college without parental supervision of any kind. And you know what? With the exception of trying to force themselves into gender roles that frequently don’t fit very well, they have to all appearances a pretty good marriage. And since they still kiss in the kitchen, their love life seems fine as well.

I’m willing to bet that the same is true of the vast, vast majority of parents now trying so conscientiously to raise their daughters in the purity culture. They talk about helping their daughters avoid the “mistakes” they themselves made, but they have no proof that the sort of extreme purity they push, both physical and emotional, will actually lead to healthy marital relationships. Their daughters are essentially guinea pigs in a grand experiment.

And I was one of those guinea pigs.

Imagine my surprise when I found, after marrying, that I regret not having dated. Or that I regret not having sexual experience. Imagine my surprise when I found that the purity culture resulted in me struggling with sexual dysfunction. Or when I realized that my husband and I have sexual compatibility issues. Or when I found that fostering a good marital relationship required so much more than coming into marriage as a virgin.

I was told that the purity culture would save me from pain and put me on the path to the most perfect, glorious fairy tale marriage I could imagine. That if I wore my purity ring, curbed every sexual thought, and refrained from kissing until the alter I would live happily ever after. But these promises aren’t based on data or experience. What I didn’t realize growing up was that I was in the middle of an experiment, an experiment fraught with problems and laced with pitfalls, an experiment that would leave me disillusioned and confused.

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.

  • Red

    I think this is quite true of the purity culture. The scary thing is that the purity culture markets itself to teens through books and other Christian products, so even teens in non P/QF families are still getting sucked in to the guilt-mongering, even if it’s not their parents presenting it to them. It also gets peddled through youth groups, popular books, and teen-led Bible studies. But yes, parents are responsible for much of it!

    I completely agree with you that kids are being fed a fantasy about what their sex life will be if they wait until marriage. The truth is that sex improves with experience, and there is no way around that, whether your experience begins before marriage or after. Kids are being taught to make the decision based on hormones and guilt (you want good sex, right? this is a guaranteed way to get it) rather than to make the decisions based on how they actually view sexuality (what do you believe about whether we should wait for marriage?)

    I chose to wait until marriage based on my beliefs and I am glad I did. But this decision turned out well for me IN SPITE OF, not BECAUSE OF, the guilt-mongering purity culture. It turned out to be a good decision because it was based on my own personal convictions. The purity culture doesn’t trust teens to foster their own convictions, for all the lip service it gives to that idea.

    • Paula

      That thing about marketing is *so true*. This can happen in other ways as well. My parents never told me Christians had to vote Republican, in fact you’d really have to call my Dad a swing voter–but the marketed Christian subculture told me that *so many times*. Including the stupid homeschooling textbooks… which my very moderate evangelical family simply bought for practicality b/c we were traveling too much that year for me to go to school… and which they were not discerning enough to see through as quasi-dominionist crap, or maybe they just didn’t read the stuff…

      I was pretty lucky to escape most of the purity stuff. I never heard of “defrauding” and “emotional purity” till I was in Bible college and it didn’t make much sense to me then. Besides, the idea of a purity ball, if we’d known what one was, would have squicked my dad the heck out. I’m grateful for him.

  • S. Lane

    I completely and totally agree. Neither of my parents were pure before marriage and yet they totally sign onto purity culture for their kids. In the “Virgin Daughters” documentary I also noticed that pretty much all the parents had “made mistakes” and didn’t want that for their daughters. In fact, I think many people who fall into uber-conservative flavors of Christianity do so because they had tumultuous childhoods and/or went wild as a young adult and paid for it. They don’t want the same things for their kids so they feel like running to the opposite extreme will solve everything, rather than realizing that virtually any kind of extremism is fraught with dysfunction. The negative emotions of what has happened with their lives (their choices/their circumstances) completely and totally blinds them to any of the deep caveats and problems in purity culture/fundamentalism at large.

    • Ibis3

      Or, more likely, they didn’t feel as though they made any mistakes until they bought into the sexual shaming and retroactively labelled what they did as sinful mistakes.

      • shadowspring

        Bingo! We have ourselves a winner!

        I totally agree. BTDT.

      • AnotherOne

        I think the retroactive self-shaming stuff is true for some people who are from more “normal” backgrounds. But some QF/CP parents are coming from far harsher backgrounds of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as poverty, substance abuse, and addiction. I can understand that they want their children to escape those things, and I can see how they look at the QF/CP fundamentalist lifestyle as a way to ensure their children’s well being (after all, isn’t harmony in this world and salvation in the next what the CP/QF lifestyle promises?). So I understand the appeal, at least at the outset. The problem of course is that fundamentalist promises are based on falsehoods, and the culture promotes the kind of self-delusion, fear-mongering, and shaming/shunning that makes it very difficult for both parents and children to escape.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that I cut my parents a break, to a certain extent, as angry and frustrated as I get with them sometimes. I wish I hadn’t been one of the ranks of guinea pigs, and my fundy upbringing sucked. But it sucked less than my parents’ childhoods, and for that at least I’m grateful.

      • S. Lane

        I’m sure that’s the case for many, yes, but not all. Even without purity culture, some people really do feel bad when they have sex, as I’m pretty sure was the case for at least one of my parents. For example, if someone is uncomfortable with their body/sexuality and/or they had sex before they were ready, it can lend itself to feelings of badness, shame, regret, etc. So, once purity culture comes along, it’s the perfect explanation to latch onto for why they had those bad feelings. It links up their bad feelings to the alleged inherent sinfulness of premarital sex, rather than as a personal issue of sex-negativity and poor decision-making.

    • minuteye

      A couple of the parents in that documentary described themselves as having gone through very painful divorces. For them, I suspect it’s about the very recent pain they still feel, and wanting to protect their children from that experience. The purity movement promises that marriages will be perfect, therefore no divorce. Libby has talked before about child-training exploiting parents’ love for their children by telling them this is the only way they’ll be happy, and I think the purity movement uses many of the same techniques to rope in vulnerable people by promising them their children will be protected this way.

      • S. Lane

        My brother and his ex-wife adhered to purity culture, and they were divorced in under 2 years. Needless to say, my brother has nothing but bad things to say about purity culture…

  • http://collegeatthirty.blogspot.com Heidi

    The Duggars said in one of the episodes where Josh was getting married, that they didn’t want their children to have all the “emotional baggage” that they carried into their relationship. I found it so sad because my “emotional baggage” is part of what makes me who I am. The dates that didn’t work out, the boyfriends that broke up with me and broke my heart, the ones that I had to break up with because I needed to stand up for myself. All of this makes me who I am, and it makes me stronger. I wouldn’t want to date a guy who hadn’t been in any relationships, and didn’t know what it meant to break up with someone because they were hurting him. Or if he doesn’t know how to speak his mind or keep his own during a “discussion” (argument). The whole not dating other people thing would, in my opinion, make a really bad marriage until the two figured out how to do all of that with each other; and since they aren’t allowed to use birth control, more than likely while trying to take care of kids. That’s not healthy.

    I don’t think waiting until marriage is a horrible thing, I think it depends on the person and their feelings on sex. I have reviewed two YA novels on my blog where the characters aren’t having sex despite the fact that it seems they want to, and the author doesn’t offer any reason as to what the hold-up is, and I think there are probably a lot of girls out there who are like that, just afraid of their own bodies, or convinced that sex is some huge big freakin’ deal–not that it’s not–and can’t get past that in order to see that there are more possibilities than sex, or that sex may be something less than what they’re building it up to be. (Excuse the run-on paragraph.) All that to say, I think a huge part of sexuality is being comfortable in your skin and knowing your body and your mind, but I know that doesn’t come overnight, so self-exploration, mutual exploration with a partner, etc. can all work together to make a wonderful sexual experience.

  • squrl

    Libby, darling, your topics are fascinating and you’re a great writer! However, one little thing nitpicky thing: You can ALTER a dress and there is an ALTAR in church. Whew! Alright then, carry on and good work!

  • Carol

    Great article as always, Libby Anne! I am just honored!!
    I sure don’t want my daughter to make the same mistakes I did. She’ll make her own mistakes, I can’t protect her from that. We just can’t protect our children from life by locking them up in ivory towers, no matter how much we desire to do so. My dear daughter, at 16, has only kissed one boy one time, then decided that (although he is absolutely the best looking boy I have ever seen off screen) he was not the boy for her at all and dropped him like a hot potato. And from that we come out not with a tragedy and a piece of her heart missing, whatever that means, but with just a good story to tell, and she is more secure with her own decision making. Yes, I know, a crisis situation. I can’t imagine taking it any more seriously than that.

  • Karen

    There’s nothing wrong with choosing not to engage in sex until you’re older/married/engaged/whatever… but there’s nothing wrong with choosing otherwise. The only wrong choices are those you let yourself be forced into, and the ones that are hazardous to your health or well-being. The first man I chose to have sex with ultimately turned out to be my husband, but I have friends who were years into living together before they decided that they were going to have children, and therefore getting married might be a good idea. The entire Purity thing strikes me as being ridiculous.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I guess I differ from a lot of people here in that I DO think that saving sex for marriage is problematic. I know I’m not supposed to; I’m supposed to say that any choice is equally good but I just have a hard time getting around the idea that entering into a marriage without having established sexual compatibility and sexual tastes is just not a great idea. Communicating about sex helps but it’s not a replacement. All this isn’t to say that waiting for marriage doesn’t work out for some people–some lucky people find that they are compatible and others find ways to work out their incompatibility (either with each other only or by opening up the marriage). But the fact that some people gamble and win doesn’t make it a good idea.

    Of course, I think that people should do what they’re comfortable with. If someone genuinely does not feel comfortable having sex before marriage, they obviously shouldn’t force themselves because of what some schmuck like me or anyone else says. But, the thing is, if our society genuinely did not stigmatize sex as something dirty (I don’t care how much purity-minded types insist that sex will be JUST AWESOME once you’re married. You just can’t equate a state of sexual inexperience with “purity” without casting sex as some how “impure.”), if our society didn’t teach people to look at a one’s first time as conferring some kind of power and ownership of them onto their partner, if girls didn’t get taught that an untouched vagina was the the greatest “gift” she had to offer a man, would people still feel the desire to wait? I tend to think not. If we had truly healthy attitudes towards sex, I can’t see how it wouldn’t just become one more way for a couple to share intimacy, among many others that people routinely engage in before marriage.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      This is my posture on this topic too although of course I would never mock people who choose to wait because everybody has a right to choose. I just think that sexual compatibility (which can be no sex at all if both partners are asexual fir example) and living together for a while are two important things you should check/do before deciding to spend your life forever with a person (be it by getting married or some other long lasting commitment).

    • jemand

      Well, I think this may be a difference between a set up of a society itself that would be better… and the choices that individuals make within a culture that still carries problematic elements.

      In a world that didn’t stigmatize premarital sex at all, fewer people would choose to be abstinent before marriage… but given as our society isn’t that one, it’s important to respect people’s decisions to navigate the social world around them that *does* exist.

      This is kind of similar to the whole women taking their husband’s name issue. In a world where the wider culture truly supported equality between men and women, this would be more rare than it is now, but that doesn’t mean that for any individual woman, choosing to take her husband’s name makes her “unfeminist.”

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I agree, but I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I said. I don’t think that people should feel pressured to have sex before marriage if they aren’t comfortable and the last thing I would ever want to do was to make a person feel shamed for their choices about their own sex life. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize the elements of the culture that I believe push people in the direction of a particular choice that I don’t think is very wise.

    • smrnda

      I knew some people who were very purity minded, and I once overheard the husband the relationship make the observation that “it took us almost a year to figure out how sex worked” – so it wasn’t like the great sex that happens if you wait really happens. Then again, it might be about some people feeling uncomfortable with the idea that the person they are with actually had sex with someone else.

      On the other hand, I know several people who were happy they had sexual experiences with different people since it helped them know what they were doing. They made pretty good cases that people should just have sex if they feel like it, provided they take adequate precautions.

  • Morpheus91

    One problem with the purity-minded crowd is that they honestly think they’re getting back to Christian roots. They don’t realize that this is a new movement, an experiment. The modern purity culture may borrow aspects of previous sexually repressive cultures (anti-female and anti-sex rhetoric can be found in a lot of writings by early church officials, for example), but as it exists today, it’s a modern incarnation, a reinvention. The folks involved don’t see it that way, though. They think they’re living exactly as earlier Christians did, exactly as Jesus (supposedly) commanded.

    You’d be hard pressed to get them to realize that what they’re doing is an experiment, because they think they’re rediscovering a successful formula practiced by generations of Christians, until “the world” infiltrated the church and led them into wickedness (the “sins” that they themselves committed and must now prevent their children from committing).

  • Anat

    This reminds me of another experiment in parenting, with a different ideology: Israeli kibbutzim. In the early kibbutzim (founded from the early 20th century) children spent their entire time with their peers, only coming to visit their parents for an hour or two in the afternoon, and the parents could visit them briefly in the ‘children’s houses’ – for instance at bedtime. As kids grew older supervision outside of school or work hours became minimal to non-existent. This arrangement was justified ideologically as useful to foster collective spirit, but also as economically more efficient.

    By the 1970s there was increasing dissatisfaction with this system – mostly from adults who were raised in it. Kibbutzim that could afford building the larger homes started transitioning to ‘family sleeping’ ie having kids sleep under the same roof as their parents. By the late 1980s I think most, if not all, kibbutzim completed the transition.

    Of course kibbutzniks knew they were conducting an experiment, and by this they differ from Quiverful parents. I’m wondering how many third generation Quiverfuls are there going to be?

    • Christine

      That, unfortunately won’t stop the Quiverful culture. After all, how many SECOND generation Shakers were there?

  • smrnda

    Part of the fascination with the whole ‘purity culture’ thing is the belief that there is some absolutely right, God-sanctioned way to do everything, and that if you follow the plan the results are going to be great and if you don’t, it’ll be a disaster.

    The truth is that people don’t work like that since we’re all different and live lives that are full of different circumstances. Plus, people do things that others consider wrong and their lives don’t end in disaster, and I don’t think that having sex before you are married should even be considered a mistake, and the idea that certain things – like past relationships or emotionally significant ties are “baggage” is just an idiot idea. The idea of “defrauding” was probably cooked up by some really insecure guy who couldn’t handle the idea that his wife might have been *close* to another man aside from him or (gasp!) might have held hands with another guy.

    To me, the concept of ‘baggage’ is like arguing that a person can’t be a good friend to you because they have too many friends. Nobody that I know regrets having had sex before they were married and it hasn’t caused problems because they were not taught to think of it as a big deal.

    But I think the reliance on the purity formula is that people believe there has to be a right way – even when they themselves turned out fine by some other way of life, they have to pretend that it’s had bad consequences for them since they are emotionally committed to believing that the right way really is better. So people who are happily married who didn’t follow the purity and courtship path, no matter how happy they are, have to pretend that they would have been better off under the system. The whole thing just seems built around controlling people through guilt and shame and teaching people that their entire value centers around some ideal of ‘purity’ that is just plain idiotic.

  • Anonymous

    The only couple I ever saw who went through the entire patriarchal courtship process (no dating, had to be accompanied by a sibling, no physical contact) wound up divorced within about a year. Husband was pretty well off too.

    That said, your odds of making it in marriage after you have been a part of the hookup culture are pretty bad too. My advice to my daughter (she is 6 and her mom and I are not married) is this: “Kiddo, if you meet a nice man someday and he loves you and wants to marry you and you think you like him too, then marry him. Even if he isn’t the handsomest and is a little nerdy. Please just marry him. Daddy will be very happy.”

    Seen too many women ravaged by the hookup culture, players, and bad boys. Before they know it they’re 30 and have more partners than they can count and by that time, their odds of having a lasting marriage are slim.

    I have no idea what I’ll tell my son.


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