Purity Culture’s False Promises

Purity Culture’s False Promises November 15, 2022

torn paper heart

Over the last several weeks, I’ve written about the secular idea of “sexual compatibility.” I’ve demonstrated that it’s now our culture’s most popular argument for having sex before marriage. And I’ve shown that expecting a blissful married sex life just because you were “sexually compatible” while dating sets you up for disappointment. Sexual compatibility is no guarantee that things will never be hard, or that people and circumstances won’t change. The secular perspective is a false promise.

But the church has also been in the business of offering false romantic and sexual hope. Indeed, the so-called “purity movement” of the 90s and 2000s often used the promise of a good marriage and great sex to motivate youth to remain sexually abstinent. Keep yourself “pure” now, the thinking went, and you’ll have a great marriage later.

These promises made by “purity culture” were every bit as false as the promises made by the secular idea of “sexual compatibility.” Still worse, they were bad theology. As numerous critics have pointed out, promising marital bliss as a reward for good behavior landed somewhere between legalism and a sort of sexual prosperity gospel. It certainly wasn’t biblical.

Today, I want to explore just how pervasive such messaging was within Christian purity culture. And I want to demonstrate why the church must do better if it wants to counter the arguments of secular culture.

Assuming Marriage and Family

From the outset, purity culture rhetoric assumed that getting married and raising a family was the destiny of every Christian young person. Consider, for example, the True Love Waits pledge. Signed by millions of Christian young people in the 1990s, this pledge is one of the most instantly recognizable features of the purity movement. And listen to what it says.

“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship.”

Did you catch it? A future spouse, future children, and a future marriage relationship are simply assumed!

And, while it’s possible to chalk this up to an unfortunate choice of words, a survey of other books and resources makes it clear that such false assumptions were pervasive in purity culture literature.

For example, Dannah Gresh’s 1999 book And the Bride Wore White contains an entire chapter entitled “Purity Dreams of its Future.” In it, Gresh instructs young women to imagine what their future husband will be like—from his personality and character traits down to his physique. She further suggests that young women regularly spend time praying for their future husbands.

Gresh’s advice was certainly well-intentioned. After all, who can argue with prayer? But her complete silence about the possibility of singleness demonstrates the degree to which purity culture assumed everyone was destined for marriage.

Promising Great Sex

But it wasn’t just marriage and family that were promised. Purity culture rhetoric also frequently implied that fantastic married sex would await those that chose to stay chaste during their dating years.

Consider, for example, what Joshua Harris had to say in I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

“Remember, by delaying sexual involvement, you’re storing up passion and making sexual love within your marriage that much more meaningful.”

While we can once again acknowledge Harris’ noble intentions, we must nevertheless recognize the structure of the motivation here. Avoid sex now so that you can have great sex later.

According to purity movement researcher Christine Gardner, Harris was not the only one to use such logic. In fact, in her aptly-titled book Making Chastity Sexy, Gardner draws on field studies and interviews to demonstrate that evangelical abstinence campaigns frequently used the promise of great sex to motivate abstinence for teens. She puts it this way.

“Great sex in marriage is promised to those who wait. Sex is no longer a taboo to be avoided but the prize to be earned… Abstaining from nonmarital sex is characterized not as ‘no sex’ but as an investment for future ‘great sex.’”

Thus, purity culture not only assumed that everybody was destined for marriage, but also taught that “following the rules” would lead to sexual bliss down the road.

False Promises

But there was obviously a problem with these promises: a spouse, marriage, kids, and great sex are not guaranteed to everyone.

Take marriage and kids, for example. 1 Corinthians 7 teaches that many Christians are called to a lifetime of God-honoring singleness. Many more may desire to marry but never find the right relationship. Still others wrestle with same-sex attraction and find that the question of marriage is not so simple for them. Many divorce or lose a spouse. Many deal with infertility, miscarriages, or even the death of a child. We could go on.

Or consider sex. Like any other human activity, sex is something that requires practice and growth. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, and challenging first, even in the most ideal cases. And not every case is ideal. Individuals working to overcome past abuse may struggle to receive sexual love. Medical issues can complicate sexual relationships. Most couples will find that their sex drives and desires are not in complete alignment at all times—especially over many decades of marriage. And sexual sin, past or present, can undermine the sexual union.

These kinds of challenges have been a rude awakening for many raised with the promises of purity culture. They expected to get married and have a family, but they’re still single. They expected great sex, but found it was challenging. Again, we could go on. All too often, these people feel that they were betrayed—that they did things “God’s way” and didn’t end up with the relationship they were promised.

But the problem was never with God, or with doing things his way. The problem was with false promises.

Two Failed Perspectives

In the end, the secular framework of “sexual compatibility” and the purity culture framework of a “sexual prosperity gospel” are both flawed—and in essentially the same way. Sexual compatibility says “have sex while you’re dating and you’ll ensure a happy marriage.” Purity culture said “don’t have sex while you’re dating and you’ll ensure a happy marriage.” Both of these are quick-fix solutions that can’t possibly overcome the realities of human life, human hurt, and human sin.

The church therefore needs to counter both of these perspectives with something more realistic—and more biblical. We need a perspective on sex and marriage that’s honest about the challenges couples are likely to face. And we need to teach that couples can overcome these challenges by showing one-another Christ-like, redemptive love. In short, we need a perspective on marriage and sex that showcases the redemptive power of the gospel.

I’ve written before about why I think the biblical story of God and his people as bride and groom should set the standard for human love. And while I believe that story is applicable to many areas of human relationships, it is particularly helpful in countering the kind of empty sexual promises we’ve discussed today. After all, the story starts in victimization, sin, and shame, and ends with the perfect spiritual marriage, made possible by the sacrificial love of Christ. That kind of redemptive love should characterize our human relationships as well.

Next week, I’ll be breaking this gospel-soaked idea down a bit more, and applying it to human sexuality. Please come back if you’d like to hear more! (You can always follow me on Twitter to get my latest thoughts.)

Want to Learn More?

I should also say that I’m not the first to point out that purity culture had a problem with false promises. If you’d like to see more evidence and examples than I was able to include in this short post, I recommend checking out the books Making Chastity Sexy by Christine Gardner or Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Joy Welcher. They’ve explored this issue at length, and I’m indebted to their thinking.

Also, have any questions or comments about what I’ve said today? Did you have past experiences with purity culture’s false promises? Disagree with my perspective? I’d love to hear from you. Consider leaving a comment below, or reaching out on Twitter.

Image Credit: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash


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