A recent article by Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, got me thinking about the way purity culture harms men. The article was titled Pursuing Purity at the Pool and aimed at preparing men for going to the beach or pool this summer. Take a look at this paragraph, for instance:
During this time of year many show up to swim wearing very immodest swimming gear. Such immodesty creates a struggle for many seeking sexual purity. We may choose to decry immodest swimming apparel, but the reality is that outside of our own homes and families there is not much we can do about it. That means that we will have to take responsibility for our own eyes and hearts as we venture out to swim this summer. Here are five suggestions to help us stay pure while many are wearing provocative attire near the water.
In order to understand what the author, Heath Lambert, is getting at, you have to understand that evangelicals and fundamentalists who enforce strict modesty standards and subscribe to what I call “purity culture” believe that even thinking about sex is sinful. To be more precise, thinking about sex with someone you are not married to is held to be sinful. But what this really boils down to is seeing sexual attraction as sinful.
When Heath talks about the difficulty of staying “pure” at the pool, he is not talking about how difficult it is to avoid having sex with sexually attractive women in swimming attire, he’s talking about how difficult it is to avoid having feelings of sexual attraction for attractive women in swimming attire.
Have you ever tried not thinking about something? It’s really hard, isn’t it? An ordinary guy is going to go to the pool and think “mmm, sexy” from time to time, and that’s about it. A guy who believes sexual thoughts are sinful is instead going to spend the entire time obsessing over sex in an attempt not to think about it. How sad is that?
(As a side note, while Heath does say that men should take responsibility for their own eyes, he also describes women’s swimwear as “provocative,” which generally implies an intention to provoke. I for one do not evaluate my swimming attire based on whether or not it will cause the men around me to think sexual thoughts.)
Heath offers several suggestions to help men avoid feelings of sexual attraction to women at the pool or beach.
1. Don’t Go
One suggestion is not to go to the pool, lake, or beach where others will be dressed immodestly. For some, the temptation to lust will be too overpowering and should be avoided. The suggestion to avoid such temptation may sound ridiculous to some. What is summer without the water? The beach? But this suggestion is not mine. Jesus thought of it long before I did. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire (Matt 18:9). Jesus’ words here are very candid instruction indicating that it is better to be pure than to be by the pool.
And there it is—“the temptation to lust.” Evangelical author Josh Harris defines lust as “craving sexually what God has forbidden.” Evangelical theologian John Piper defines lust as “the realm of thought, imagination, and desire that leads to sexual misconduct,” and makes it very clear that he any sexual thought can lead to sexual misconduct and all of it is counts as lust.
Many will not have to take such radical measures. Such people will find it possible to be near the scantily-clad bodies of people near the water, but they will need to get ready before they do it. This will at least mean that we need to pray. Prayer should be part of our preparation of heading to the lake every bit as much as buying sunscreen. We should pray for a heart of purity before we head out and we should be ready to depend on God in prayer while there. The immediacy of prayer means that we can call out to God in the moment of temptation and receive his help right when we need it (Heb 4:16).
3. Memorize and Meditate
In addition to prayer we can also prepare our hearts for the pool by memorizing and meditating on Scripture—I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you (Pss 119:11). The passages you select might be focused on purity, For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thess 4:3). Or the passage may be focused on some other glorious truth of Scripture that redirects your heart towards the things of God, Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible (Col 1:15-16). It really doesn’t matter as long as you are taking your thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).
Most people can get ready to head for the pool without creating a spiritual battle plan. And perhaps, to me, that is what is most sad here. Articles like this, with their conflation of sexual attraction with sin, make visits to the pool a Huge Freaking Deal and in doing so create elevated levels of sexual tension.
If Heath and other guys like him would stop trying so very hard not to think about sex, they might actually find themselves thinking about it less. Ironic, isn’t it?
4. Stay Focused
While you’re out swimming stay focused. For me, I never have an occasion to be swimming without my wife and children, and so staying focused means two things. First, I keep my gaze fixed on my family. I look at my wife or my kids. I work to avoid looking around at other people. Second, I stay focused on my work as a husband and father and work to serve my family. I focus on trying to play with my kids, talk with my wife, keep everyone safe, and do what I can to help everyone enjoy their time. I find this helps keeps my eyes and heart focused where they should be.
I’m a parent of young children myself, and I’m trying to think of the last time I had the time to think “mmm, sexy” while at the pool. Ordinarily I spend the bulk of my time trying to make sure my children don’t, you know, drown. My older child is transitioning to swimming without a floaties, which is freaking me out, and while my younger child still wears a flotation device, he doesn’t always stay as close to me as I would like. If I switch off with my husband and take a break from the kids, I usually go to the hot tub, close my eyes, and enjoy a moment of relaxation.
I guess what I’m getting at is that most people spend the bulk of their time at the pool focused on themselves or their friends or family members, not checking out sexy people. But because of Heath’s conflation of sexual attraction with sin, and because of his obsession with not thinking about sex, what is ordinarily normal becomes difficult and a challenging and part of a battle plan.
When all else fails . . . sing. So many people I know find that when they are really tempted they can break the back of sin and temptation by singing songs that redirect their attention to the Lord. In God’s world he causes music to be one of the main ways we treasure Christ and the Word (Col 3:16). Songs like Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, It Is Well with My Soul, and Before the Throne of God Above are all songs that I sing to help orient my heart to Jesus. You don’t have to be live in concert in front of everyone at the beach. You can sing silently and it will still work.
If someone wants to maintain an internal soundtrack, that’s fine by me, but again I would point out that this wouldn’t be such an issue without Heath’s obsessive focus on not thinking about sex. How is it not obvious that trying not to think about something is only going to make one think about it more?
I am praying for you this summer. My prayer is that in God’s kindness you would spend as much energy this summer fighting for purity as you do having a blast by the water. I pray that these suggestions help you do that very thing.
So basically, going to the pool is one part fighting lust and one part having fun in the water. That does not sound so fun. I mean, there’s the whole battle plan aspect of it—you have to be always on your guard, on the alert, etc. How can you actually relax?
Purity culture doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts men, too. I honestly and truly feel sorry for Heath. He is obsessing over sex to the point that he can’t simply enjoy a trip to the pool—and yet he thinks that in doing so he is being virtuous and honorable and that it is everyone else who is obsessed with sex.