The Purity Culture and “Sex Is Beautiful”

Did you know that Michael Pearl wrote a book called “Holy Sex”? Yes, he wrote a book about how awesome sex is. It’s not just Mark Driscoll. There are lots of evangelicals and fundamentalists who have hopped on the sex bandwagon. They see themselves as “sex positive” and believe that it is depraved modern culture that is actually “sex negative.” And it’s true that I was taught to view sex as a beautiful, sacred thing (within marriage) and that I was taught that once married I would find sex so pleasurable and amazing that it would be well worth the wait.

But. These rosy ideas have a dark underbelly. This is why I write about the problems of the purity culture.

Premarital Sex Makes You Impure

If you’re taught that premarital sex is something that is unholy and sinful, and if you spend years believing that if you have sex right then you’ll suddenly become “impure,” well, switching gears when you hit marriage can be wrenching. After years of saying “no, no, no” switching to saying “yes, yes, yes” isn’t as simple as one might think. It’s almost like the message is “sex is dirty until you’re married, and then it’s beautiful.” The thing is, there’s no physical difference between premarital sex and marital sex, which makes this dichotomy…confusing. You’re told “sex makes you impure” and then suddenly, overnight, it changes to “sex is pure.” After years of pushing away every sexual thought as polluting, you’re suddenly supposed to see sex as something that is holy. That didn’t work for me.

The Amazingly Awesome Vanilla Sex

I was given the impression that when I got married sex would automatically be AWESOME. Without, you know, even talking about things like sexual preferences beforehand. I was woefully uneducated about sex (largely because, you know, all that mattered as a single was abstinence, so that’s all I needed to know about). I totally didn’t get why people said you should have sex before marriage to make sure you’re sexually compatible because, well, I thought sex was just…sex. I didn’t realize there were different preferences or different types of sex. I didn’t know there were different sex positions. I didn’t even know it was something that took practice! This does not make for a healthy sex life!

Now, there are more and more evangelicals and fundamentalists out there preaching about how to have a healthy sex life (within marriage), and they do talk about things like oral sex and the ins and outs and how tos of pleasure. But this stuff isn’t for singles! Presumably it’s for the disillusioned married couples who are wondering about that magically awesome sex they were expecting that didn’t suddenly appear on the wedding night.

Sex as Profoundly Gendered

Next, evangelicals and fundamentalists talk about sex in an unbalanced and gendered way. Sure, I was told that sex would be pleasurable and amazing for me, but I also got the message that men *need* sex while women don’t. That men can’t live without sex but women can. That guys have a hard time controlling themselves and that we, as their “sisters in Christ,” need to help them out by dressing modestly (nothing about men dressing modestly because, again, there is next to no acknowledgement of the female sex drive). That if a husband goes for too long without having sex, he’ll be tempted to cheat, and that it’s the wife’s duty to make sure that doesn’t happen.

And I want to be clear that it’s not just Debi Pearl who says things like this. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon by Mark Driscoll in which he recounted a conversation with a female parishioner, a conversation that eventually resulted in this parishioner’s husband joining Driscoll’s church:

She [the wife] says, “I’ve never performed oral sex on my husband. I’ve refused to.” I said, “You need to go home and tell your husband that you’ve met Jesus and you’ve been studying the Bible, and that you’re convicted of a terrible sin in your life. And then you need to drop his trousers, and you need to serve your husband. And when he asks why, say, ‘Because I’m a repentant woman. God has changed my heart and I’m supposed to be a biblical wife.’” She says, “Really?” I said, “Yeah. First Peter 3 says if your husband is an unbeliever to serve him with deeds of kindness.” [Laughter from audience] How many men would agree, that is a deed of kindness. He doesn’t want tracts. Those won’t do anything. What we’re talking about here could really help.

Sex is spoken of as a way a wife can serve her husband again and again in evangelical and fundamentalist marriage manuals and advice books. This means that no matter how often these manuals emphasize that sex will be wonderful and awesome for women too, it’s always going to be slightly more about the man than about the woman.

It’s All about Sex

When I was growing up, so much emphasis was placed on the idea that being a virgin on your wedding night will ensure that you have a perfect marriage that, well, that’s basically the only thing I was taught about how to have a good relationship. (Well, that and “practice wifely submission.”) For people who claim to be appalled with modern culture’s “obsession with sex,” evangelicals and fundamentalists do a very good job of reducing everything to sex on their own. How do you have a good dating or courting relationship? Don’t have sex. (Also, have the guy ask the girl’s father’s permission to date her.) How do you have a good marriage relationship? Have regular sex. (Also, the wife should submit to her husband’s leadership.)

I never heard the terms “healthy relationship” or “unhealthy relationship.” I was not taught anything about the importance of communication. Or cooperation. Or compromise. The emphasis when looking at a guy-girl relationship is not “is this a healthy relationship” or “are they practicing good communication skills.” No. It’s “are they having sex? no? are they french kissing? because that’s dangerous territory to enter.” It’s all about staying pure, and if you do that, you’re set. It’s easy to become so fixated on purity, on whether or not you’re having sex, that things like how to have a healthy relationship takes second place or becomes pushed under the carpet entirely!

Conclusion

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it’s easy to see that while many evangelicals and fundamentalists see themselves as “sex positive” and laugh in the face of claims to the contrary, their attitude and approach toward sex is actually highly problematic and not at all healthy. Of course, evangelicals or fundamentalists would likely respond to this by saying that “the mainstream view of sex, with young women coerced into sex by their boyfriends and young teens with low self esteem sleeping around to find love is highly problematic and not at all healthy – it’s God’s way that is healthy.” The thing is, abusive sexual relationships, well perhaps common, are not the alternative people like me want offer to evangelical and fundamentalist sexuality.

The alternative is to teach young people to respect themselves and their bodies, to think about their actions and weigh the potential consequences of their actions, to know how to carry on a healthy relationship and how to leave an unhealthy one, and how to make their own decisions. The alternative is to teach young people to find their value not in whether or not they’ve had sex but rather in themselves and their own beliefs, values, and dreams, and to value others in the same way. The alternative is to see sex as a normal part of life and to educate young people about it, and how to make sexual choices responsibly and ethically. That is the alternative.

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.


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