My Brothers Too: Purity Culture and Double Standards

Every time purity culture issues come up—purity rings, purity balls, saving your first kiss for the wedding—someone inevitably makes an argument about double standards. Sometimes these commenters are absolutely right—modesty discussions almost without fail involve a double standard—but other times, well, it’s not so simple.

In the conservative evangelical homeschool circles I ran in as a teen and young adult, boys didn’t get a pass on not having sex before marriage. Guys were expected to “save themselves for marriage” just as girls were. In an atmosphere that took purity to such an extreme that a commitment to “emotional purity” ruled out casual dating, guys were most definitely expected to arrive at marriage just as virginal as girls were. You can see that today in blog post titles like “My First Kiss and His Second Chance.” Indeed, there has been much digital ink spilled in the Christian blogosphere by young single Christian women hoping their future husbands will remain sexually pure.

Christian music artist Rebecca St. James included these lyrics in a song she called “Wait For Me” :

Darling did you know I dream about life together
Knowing it will be forever
I’ll be yours and you’ll be mine
And darling when I say
Till death do us part
I’ll mean it with all of my heart
Now and always faithful to you

Cause, I am waiting for
Praying for you darling
Wait for me too
Wait for me as I wait for you
Cause, I am waiting for
Praying for you darling
Wait for me too
Wait for me as I wait for you
Darling wait
Darling wait

Rebecca’s lyrics were about a couple waiting for each other, not about women being expected to remain pure while men were allowed to sleep around as they saw fit. Rebecca’s lyrics don’t suggest a double standard.

And like Rebecca St. James, my parents did indeed expect my brothers to remain just as physically pure as they expected my sisters and I to be. While they believed that their sons would struggle with saving sex for marriage visually while their daughters would struggle with it emotionally, they didn’t give anyone a pass. Indeed, my parents gave my brothers purity rings when they turned thirteen just like they gave us sisters. The entire process and ceremony was the same. In my family, purity standards were extremely evenly applied. With this as my background, I cringe every time a commenter makes some quip about how girls are expected to be virgins while boys aren’t—in my experience that is absolutely untrue.

One thing that brought this to my mind lately was a blog post called Future Husbands: Your Future Wife Does Not Belong To You. In that post Samantha wrote about a letter from a man complaining that he can’t find a suitable wife because all the women he knew have already had sex. Here’s an excerpt:

After he opens with not finding women who meet his standards as a “potential,” he then labels the act of a woman having pre-marital sex as infidelity.


Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Because, ladies, having sex before you’ve even met your future husband is cheating. And, in this frame of reference, it’s cheating because, guess what– you belong to him already. . . . Behaving like you’re not already married? Not possible. Because you are, before you’ve even sworn that vow. Your body, your vagina, isn’t yours. It’s his, your future husband’s. Always.

Thing is, I believed that about my future husband as well—that his body belonged to me even before he got married, and that if he had had sex (or had even kissed a woman) before we met, well, that was cheating. Indeed, when I met Sean and we began our relationship, I was very upset that he had dated before, and that he had been physically involved with previous girlfriends. Very upset isn’t enough—I was crushed. I know I sure didn’t have a double standard. I expected my future husband to arrive at the alter just as physically “pure” as I was.

So where does the whole double standard thing come in? Well first, of course, is modesty. Girls are expected to follow all sorts of nit picky modesty rules, and when boys are required to dress modestly so as not to lead their sisters in Christ into lust—and in my family this was indeed a requirement—that generally simply means not going shirtless. Next is that there is a lot of talk of fathers guarding their daughters’ purity, and much, much less such talk of either parent guarding sons’ purity. It is girls’ purity that needs guarding while boys are expected to guard their own purity (with the added boon of girls helping them do so by saying no to their sexual advances, of course). This can tend to skew things and create a gendered division in the way purity expectations play out.

I don’t have an answer to why there is sometimes a double standard and sometimes not. I think that one thing that is going on is that in the past there was a very strong double standard, but that what with the rise in feminism and the breakdown of patriarchy evangelical purity culture has responded by applying the virginity expectation to both women and men. Then again, even in the past when there was a strong and enforced double standard, conservative evangelical Christianity was not apt to give young men the same pass that as the mainstream. Regardless of the exact implications of these swirling legacies, evangelical purity culture is sometimes very evenly applied and other times fraught with double standards.

I am extremely grateful to my parents that when it came to sexual purity, they didn’t hold a double standard. This didn’t eliminate all the problems the purity culture left me with, but it did mean that I was taught to be sexually “pure” because everyone, male or female, was required to be so, not because I was simply being groomed to be a possession of my future husband. And for that I am glad.

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