The Real World Damage of the Purity Culture

The Real World Damage of the Purity Culture December 1, 2012

I frequently get emails regarding the things I have written about the purity culture (that world of purity balls, courtship, and emphasis on emotional and physical virginity). Sometimes these emails are heartbreaking. There’s this, for example, from a woman who grew up as the oldest daughter in another large Quiverfull family, and got married young through a parent-guided courtship (for an example of how courtship is generally practiced, read this story):

Things are pretty rough. My husband is being honest with me about some courtship-mindset assumptions that have been undermining our relationship for a long time (I “fell in love” with him, but he didn’t, and he married me “because it was the right thing to do” and was told that “the falling in love isn’t important/will happen later when you’re married” and now he’s constantly depressed because “it’s just as hollow as ever”). Honesty is good, but it’s hard and we’re weighing our options with counseling and considering a separation.

This actually isn’t the first time I’ve heard this from someone married through a courtship or even simply married young under the influence of the ideas of the “purity culture.” And with every additional woman I hear from who is struggling in a broken or troubled marriage, a marriage she entered through a process that promised a perfect result devoid of regular pitfalls or problems, the angrier I become.

It is worth pointing out that these sorts of problems are not simply a bug. Courtships are generally relatively short and are focused on marriage. It’s common that the couple doesn’t really get to know each other until after marriage. In fact, the couple is taught that this is just fine – better, even, because it maintains the maximum amount of emotional purity and makes sure that if something goes wrong and the courtship is broken off the damage will be minimized (remember that in some circles even one failed courtship can render a person damaged goods). There’s also the fact that these marriages are generally early, before people have a time to really figure out who they are. That they are early is actually by design.

Here is this slightly longer email from someone raised with a heavy dose of what I call “the purity culture”:

I know you are likely very busy, but I just wanted to thank you for your post on Sexual Compatibility from May of this year. My husband and I were both raised to believe that God was not ok with sex before marriage. I was either taught or perhaps just interpreted from what was given to me, that sexual pleasure would always come to those who waited. So there was no reason to try things out ahead of time…and to participate in any activities that had anything to do with sex (aside from kissing, which was never spoken out against) would make me a slut. As such, I never masturbated until age 18, when my college roomate was shocked to find I had never done so. I didn’t have an orgasm (self created) for at least 5 years after that. And to this day (I’m in my 30s), I’ve never had an orgasm brought about by someone else.

I’m certain there are a number of factors going into, as will always be the case. But I do think that the vast majority is that I am just completely not sexually compatible with my husband. I love him dearly, but I’ve never been turned on by him. Perhaps this should have been a red flag before we got married, but of course, I was taught to believe that God would bless your sex life if you just waited. Once it was clear (on our honeymoon) that things were not going well, part of me thought maybe I was being punished for being a little too friendly with other guys before my husband (although I was still technically a virgin). It took me a while to work through that guilt trip. But here I am, 5 years into a marriage with a husband who is growing very resentful, a beautiful child, and no desire to ever have sex with my husband again. I am so pissed off that this was what it has come to. Great…I’m not a slut, but I have in a sense doomed my family to a great deal of unhappiness instead. Am I to believe that this is really what God wanted/wants for me…for my husband…for my son?

Part of me wonders if I would really have ever been sexually compatible with anyone. … I guess I just really hate the idea of never knowing. Would I have liked sex, had I been given the freedom to try it out with the other 2-3 men I really loved in my life? Had my parents, rather than giving me a purity ring, just tried to explain that they felt that sex was best left until you were a bit older and with people you loved and trusted…not just some guy you met in a bar (not that it doesn’t work for some people, but I was raised conservative Christian so obviously my parents weren’t going to go there). Would my husband and I have gotten married had we known this ahead of time? Based on some conversations we’ve had, I’m guessing not. Had counselors and friends been open to the idea that sexual incompatibility exists, might we have gotten some advice on the subject that wasn’t just along the lines of it being my fault because I wouldn’t just have sex with him even when it hurt me and I didn’t like it? Maybe we wouldn’t have had a child…a beautiful child who I will never regret for a second of my existence….who now adds another layer of complexity to a relationship that was complex enough to begin with. It just really, really sucks, because there is no easy answer…there isn’t really even a good answer that I can see.

Sorry to rant and vent on you. I just, in my extreme frustration, decided to google the subject tonight and ran across your blog and I wanted to tell you thank you for opening my eyes to the fact that this is a real issue. That it is deeper than just me and my stubbornness and that it isn’t a matter of my getting all my “head” issues worked out as so many have told me over the past 5 years. Until tonight, I honestly though that we might be the only couple suffering from this…we’re certainly the only ones that I know personally. It is good to know that one is not alone, even if no help can be given. And it is good to realize what an influence the purity culture has had on things (I had my purity ring given to me too and ironically enough, lost it right before my husband and I got married. Still can’t find it.). It at least will give me some control over what I teach my son.

In case there was any question of why I blog on these issues, and especially why I blog against the purity culture, this is why. If you don’t love someone, you shouldn’t marry them. If you aren’t sexually attracted to someone, you shouldn’t marry them. And yet, the messages of the purity culture leave one completely open to these traps.

I literally grew up surrounded by arguments for purity and courtship that left me with the impression that any woman was compatible with any man, both in terms of marriage and in terms of sex. After all, courtship was all about weeding out those suitors who didn’t have the proper theological or political beliefs. Other things weren’t generally on the checklist. And the messages that surrounded sexual purity were that if you just stay “pure” until marriage, your sex life will be out of this world. Sexual compatibility? I honestly thought that was a myth made up by liberals in order to justify their desire to have unrestricted premarital sex.

The beliefs and ideas of the purity culture are not abstract or hypothetical. They have real world consequences and result in real world pain. And my heart breaks for those who fall victim to them.


For my critiques of the purity culture, see: 

The Purity Culture and Sexual Dysfunction

The Purity Culture and Sexual Incompatibility

How the Purity Culture Made Me Afraid of Men

The Purity Culture and Sex as a “Duty”

The “Problem” of Lust

The Purity Culture and “Lust”

Frozen Promises: Or, Life Is Not a Journey

The Perfect Relationship Secret: Virginity?

Courtship, Dating, and Regret

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