In a guest post a few weeks ago, I argued that the biblical metaphor of God and his people as bride and groom should be the lens through which Christians view sexual and relational ethics. And I contrasted that approach with the framework of “purity culture,” which I said was essentially the logic of virginity. But there wasn’t space in that article to explain why I thought the logic of virginity was so embedded in purity culture teachings.
Today, I want to lay out my case. I want to demonstrate, first, that purity culture began by emphasizing the importance of virginity in the traditional sense. And I want to show, further, that it expanded the logic of virginity (a state of innocence which can only be lost and never regained) so that it began to apply to every sexual sin, every failed romance, and every relational first that couldn’t be shared with one’s future spouse.
I think this is demonstrated by the following five observations.
1) “Purity” Originally Meant Virginity
When a teenager in Tennessee signed the very first True Love Waits pledge card in February of 1993, they signed a commitment to “be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship.”
The particular wording of that pledge, with its implication that “sexual purity” extends only until the wedding day, could mean only one of a few things. First, it could mean that married sex was not pure—hardly likely. Second, it could mean that sexual holiness was not important for married folks. Again, hardly something we can imagine a well-intentioned Christian proposing. Finally, it could mean that “sexual purity” was essentially a synonym for virginity, which would then end once a person got married.
The last explanation is, of course, the only reasonable possibility. “A virgin” can be substituted for “sexually pure” in the language of the pledge without changing the meaning.
In other words, when the purity movement first got started, “purity” meant “virginity.”
2) Virginity was Referred to as a Gift
In Making Chastity Sexy, purity culture observer Christine Gardner points out that one of purity culture’s unique innovations was referring to your virginity as a “gift” which was to be given to your future spouse. The gift idea became so embedded in purity culture rhetoric that Gardner argues it eventually become central to purity culture’s understanding of marriage and married sex. Indeed, she writes that in the rhetoric of purity culture, “marital sex consist[ed] of a mutual giving and receiving of gifts of virginity.”
This “virginity as a gift” paradigm was emphasized through the wearing of purity rings, which functioned as physical symbols of your virginity. The rings were promoted by both True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, and both organizations suggested giving your ring to your spouse on your wedding day to represent the gift of your virginity.
The gift paradigm was therefore essential to purity culture’s teachings on virginity.
3) The Definition of “Purity” Expanded
Unsurprisingly, one of the first challenges faced by the purity movement’s abstinence campaigns was the need to define sex. If young people are supposed to be saving sex for marriage, then what “counts as” sex? And if virginity is a gift, when has it been given?
The purity movement recognized (rightly, I might add) that avoiding sexual intercourse, even while engaging in all manner of other sexual sin, was a distinction without a difference. And so the movement quickly adapted the language of “sexual purity” to offer a more wholistic vision of sexual holiness.
Indeed, it didn’t take long for True Love Waits to alter the wording of their pledge so that it became a commitment to “a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” The altered wording served to emphasize that abstinence was only one component of a broader lifestyle of purity, in contrast to the original pledge, in which purity and virginity were virtually synonymous (as we saw earlier).
Thus, “purity” began to encompass not only virginity in the strict sense, but a whole host of sexual and relational issues. Modesty, lustful thoughts, methods of dating, and the appropriateness of any kind of physical touch all became topics that fell underneath the banner of purity.
4) The Logic of Virginity Expanded Too
While it was reasonable to expand the definition of purity to encompass a broader lifestyle of sexual and relational holiness, the purity movement made what I believe was a crucial mistake in the way that it went about it. It took the logic of virginity, and the “virginity as a gift” paradigm, and expanded those ideas right along with the definition of purity. Thus, discussions of all kinds of sexual and relational questions began to be seen through the lens of saving a gift for your future spouse.
The pervasiveness of the gift logic in all aspects of purity culture teachings is likely best illustrated by Joshua Harris’ account of a young woman’s nightmare in the opening pages of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the dream, the woman’s future husband appears at the altar on their wedding day, flanked by all the women he’s ever dated. She asks him what’s going on, and the following conversation ensues.
“They’re girls from my past,” he answered sadly. “Anna, they don’t mean anything to me now… but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”
“I thought your heart was mine,” she said.
“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”
According to Harris, after the young woman woke up, she wondered “How many times have I given my heart away in short-term relationships? Will I have anything left to give my husband?”
It’s worth emphasizing specifically that Harris is not discussing premarital sex here. It’s clear from the context that the subject at hand is nothing more than falling in love with somebody you don’t end up marrying. But Harris nevertheless addresses that subject using the exact same language that purity culture originally used to understand virginity. The person who falls in love and then breaks off a relationship “gives away” the gift of their heart. And they run the risk of having nothing left to give their spouse.
While this is only one example, the fact that it’s so far removed from sex (or anything physical, for that matter) underscores purity culture’s radical expansion of the logic of virginity and the associated purity-as-a-gift paradigm.
5) Purity Culture Critics Attack Virginity
At this point, I’ve taken in quite a number of books, blog posts, articles, and podcast episodes criticizing purity culture. As I’ve done so, I’ve realized that most of their critiques fall into one of four categories. And every single one of those categories is directly related to the logic of virginity.
First, purity culture is often critiqued for painting sexual and relational mistakes as irredeemable. The relationship to virginity and the purity as a gift construct are obvious. Once your gift (whether it be your virginity or even your “heart”) has been given, it can’t be un-given.
Second, critics routinely accuse purity culture of tying one’s worth as a marriage partner to their past sexual and relational mistakes (or lack thereof). Once again, this objection is hitting directly at the logic of virginity, as updated through the conception of a gift. If you give your gift away, you don’t have as much to offer your future spouse.
Third, purity culture is often accused of promising a perfect marriage complete with hot married sex. This idea is simply the other side of the purity-as-marital-worth coin. Those couples who have preserved their gifts get to enjoy them together in a wonderful marriage.
Finally, critics often accuse purity culture of placing disproportionate burdens on women. This too has its roots in historical double-standards which applied expectations of virginity to women much more rigorously than to men. Indeed, in most languages, the word for “virgin” has generally been synonymous with a virgin woman.
It’s striking that all four of these major categories of purity culture criticism are hitting at realities that can be traced back to the logic of virginity.
I believe this brief history of purity culture rhetoric demonstrates the centrality of virginity to purity culture thinking. It affirmed virginity in the strict technical sense, but it also viewed all relational ethics through the virginity lens. You start off innocent, you can compromise your innocence through sexual or relational mistakes, and you can never get your innocence back once it’s been compromised. This was the logic applied not only to sex, but to dating, to emotional attachments, to lust, etc.
But that still leaves one major unanswered question: was this approach biblical? That will have to be the subject for my next post.
Questions or comments about virginity and purity culture? Do you think I’m right that an expanded version of virginity logic was a central framework used in purity culture? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. I’m always looking to refine my perspective!