let’s talk about sexual purity and evangelical anxiety, shall we?

let’s talk about sexual purity and evangelical anxiety, shall we? July 9, 2015

VNToday’s post is a book review of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, by Sarah Moslener.

The review itself isn’t by me but by someone who actually knows what she’s talking about: Dr. Margaret Kim Peterson, Associate Professor of Theology at Eastern University in Saint Davids, PA.

Peterson’s Ph.D. is in theology and ethics from Duke University, and she also earned an M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from La Salle University. With her husband Dwight N. Peterson, she is co-author of Are You Waiting for “The One”?: Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage. Peterson has been at Eastern since 1998.


Remember a few weeks ago, when a story was bouncing around the news about a Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush’s past statements about what he saw as a socially damaging decline in public shaming of single parents?

Did anyone stop to wonder what, exactly, might lead a politician trying to appeal to evangelical voters to equate insufficient shame around single parenthood with American cultural decay, and to recommend increased shaming of misbehaving young people as a means of national revival?

If you’re wondering now, there is a book for you: Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (Oxford University Press, 2015), by Sara Moslener.

Moslener, who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies at Claremont Graduate University and who now teaches at Central Michigan University, elucidates what she sees as longstanding connections between two strands of evangelical anxiety: worries having to do with the sexual purity of adolescents, and worries about American national well-being.

Anyone who has been around evangelicalism for any time at all is well aware of the emphasis placed within this subculture on “purity,” by which is meant virginity until marriage for both males and females.

Teenagers and young adults are taught to regard purity as an integral—perhaps even as the central—element in their religious identity, and to regard premarital sex with horror and aversion.

In the words of one young person of my own acquaintance: “I was taught that sex before marriage was pretty much the worst possible thing that you could do. I mean, we were taught that murder was very wrong, but obviously we would never do that, so sex before marriage was probably the worst thing we could ever do.”

You might think that parents would be the ones charged with inculcating values—including values around sex and sexuality—in their offspring, but in the present day climate of youth culture and mass media the job of getting adolescents onto the purity bandwagon is increasingly outsourced to faith-based purity organizations.

Two of the most prominent of these are True Love Waits (see also here)–which encourages youth to make publicly spoken commitments to remain sexually abstinent until marriage; and Silver Ring Thing–which is a traveling multimedia show incorporating elements of fantasy and parody to make its case for sexual abstinence, the impossibility of this apart from a personal relationship with Jesus, and the desirability of a symbolically-freighted piece of jewelry—the “silver ring”—that is available for purchase only by attendees of Silver Ring Thing events.

If you think this is all weirdly fascinating enough to be of interest to scholars of American religion and culture, you would be right.

Most scholars trace the rise of the evangelical purity movement to the cultural shifts of the 1960s, with the purity movement originating in response to the loosened sexual mores of that time.

By the 1990s, the time of the emergence of both True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, this cultural pushback had been joined by an evangelical desire to embrace certain other aspects of contemporary culture, namely individual choice and self-fulfillment. (Thus both organizations identify a central benefit of premarital sexual abstinence as mind-blowingly fabulous marital sex.)

The contribution of Moslener to this conversation is her sense that the historical narrative needs to start further back, if sense is to be made of certain elements of purity culture rhetoric.

In particular is the explicit use of apocalyptic imagery in connection with sexual morality. Moslener cites a ditty that is performed at Silver Ring Thing events:

The world says use a condom
If we told you you’d be fine / we’d be lying to your face
It’s like playing with a nuclear bomb
You could wipe out the whole human race

The connection between condoms and nuclear holocaust is, as Moslener notes, neither explained or defended by the producers of Silver Ring Thing; it is simply assumed. Why? Exploration of this question forms the substance of Moslener’s book.

Moslener’s sense is that evangelical purity culture (as opposed to traditional Christian emphasis on the reservation of sexual expression to the maritalMKP relationship) got its start in the late 19th century, as white evangelicals began to lose their hitherto unquestioned grip on mainstream American culture.

Waves of immigration of non-white, non-Anglo Saxon, non-Protestants threatened to overturn the prior status quo, and white evangelicals responded with a range of social reform movements that privileged bourgeois (read: white, middle-class, Protestant) respectability. Temperance was one such movement; purity was another.

At the same time the psychologist G. Stanley Hall began to identify adolescence as a new stage of human development, one in which young persons grew from innocence into maturity both sexually and spiritually. Later psychologists dropped the religious language that Hall had used to characterize adolescence, but retained Hall’s sense that if anyone was going to save (or ruin) the world, adolescents were.

Hence the focus, Moslener thinks, of the purity movement on specifically adolescent sexuality. It is in the bodies and (sexual) behavior of teenagers that the battle for Anglo-Saxon and specifically American supremacy is being fought.

Moslener traces the development of purity culture from its 19th-century origins through the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s, the anticommunism of the Cold War era, and the rise of the family-values movement in the 1970s and 1980s, in which evangelicals drew explicit connections between moral decay and national decline, on the one hand, and strong families and a strong (American) nation on the other.

Later chapters in the book examine True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing as exemplars of evangelical purity organizations (there are many hundreds of smaller such organizations, but these are the largest two), and looks at the ways in which these are related to political and governmental forces (as for example through the reception or rejection of federal funding for abstinence-only sex education), and ways in which these organizations make use of modern media technologies.

This is a book for scholars. It is a revised dissertation, and reads like one. Phrases like “in an earlier version of this work” pop up from time to time. Academic jargon permeates the book. “Thomas Csordas’s analysis of charismatic healing in the United States is especially helpful for decoding the interplay of memory, identity, and the self in the context of the therapeutically charged, media-saturated abstinence event.” Well, hmm, okay.

Could it be useful for this author to produce a version of her work addressed to a general audience? Maybe; maybe not.

My sense is that non-evangelicals tend to be appalled by purity culture, so it’s doubtful they’re going to want to know more about it. Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to resist strongly efforts to help them examine their convictions, uncover their historical antecedents and theological underpinnings, and consider whether they might want to re-think some of them.

How many evangelicals would be willing to read a book, no matter how accessibly-written, that called into question deeply-held convictions about such hot-button topics as sex and nationalism?

I do think there are a lot of Christian young people out there who deserve much better sex education than they’re getting. Purity culture is, in fact, the opposite of sex education. The emphasis in the purity movement is on not doing, not thinking, not knowing, not experiencing, with all of this ignorance and inexperience sold as the royal road to sexual fulfillment in marriage later on.

It’s crazy, when you think about it. If Sara Moslener were to offer better advice to young evangelicals wondering how to navigate their developing sexuality, I wonder what she would say.

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  • “purity as an integral—perhaps even as the central—element in their religious identity”

    Wow, that takes me back to MY evangelical adolescence in the 1990s Bible Belt, just on the cusp of all this that this author talks about. I’ll just be over here with my touch of PTSD.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      LOL. Breathe deeply!

  • Gary

    For me personally, this isn’t quite there to be helpful. The project that I need isn’t this analysis; it’s not the examination of convictions, uncovering historical antecedents and theological underpinnings, or challenges to re-thinking. The project that I need is the analysis of engagement models in dialogues around these matters. How do you even have a sustained, content-rich, multi-interaction conversation with your pastor about convictions, antecedents, under-pinnings, and re-thinking? How do you engage family members? Friends? Not in an argumentative tone and not in a single interaction over a few minutes, but over extended periods of time as often is required to change hearts and minds. Is this too of “interest to scholars of American religion and culture?” If not, the cultural chasm will continue to widen between those in open conversation (e.g. “mainstream”) and those remaining on a subcultural island of isolation and obscurity. From what I understand of orthodox Christian mission, eschatology, and teleology, that isn’t the way a notion of the Kingdom of God is conceived to come about. Personally, without these tools, I see no way to meaningfully engage people enraptured by these Evangelical subcultural movements and no ability to interact other than passively and perversely gawk in identical ways as in response to the shock-value of contemporary reality television. An academic work on the bizarre can offer a vocabulary for wackiness, but who is to help guide the frameworks of dialogue? I went to a couple daddy-daughter events now more than a decade ago with my girls that is a feeder system ritual among the followers of the Evangelical purity cult. My daughters were young and enjoyed the dress up. Even then, before much of my complete reevaluation of faith, I was creeped out by the whole thing. My daughters, at least since, have made comments to me that they now recollect it as something quite bizarre. Without meaningful engagement models, I’m left with little more than saying to my daughters but a sentence or two–sadly simplistic and shamefully derogatory–about “nutters.”

    • RustbeltRick

      Hopefully you’ll find what you need.

      • Gary

        Thanks Rick.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      You’re right, Gary; this is not a book that is designed to be useful to the person in the pew. It’s an academic work; it will help its author get tenure (she hopes :-). I empathize with your wish for a model (or many models) of engagement around, as you say, convictions, antecedents, underpinnings and rethinking. I tried to provide something along these lines in my book (Are You Waiting for “The One”?), but it’s not easy to do this, and not easy to sell books that try to do it. The fact is, non-evangelicals aren’t interested in the conversation because they think it’s crazy; and evangelicals seem to be drawn to the crazy like moths to a flame–so they’re not buying books by sane people (like I imagine myself to be :-). Again to use the example of my book: it was published around the same time as another book on marriage by a prominent megachurch pastor who is, by any honest analysis, a sociopath. Guess whose book was a best-seller? So it’s hard. I think the path of faithfulness lies in personal interactions over a long period of time, and in valuing process over outcomes. It’s not easy.

      • Gary

        I haven’t read anything in years wrt to Christianity that isn’t either academic or by an academic who is a popularizer. This makes it hard to talk with Christians about Christianity. If I have to go to church Sunday, I’ll be thinking under my breath, moths-to-the-flame. If you ask me, most books “designed to be useful to the person in the pew” aren’t.

        • Margaret Kim Peterson

          Have you ever read “Resident Aliens” (Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon)? 25 years after its original publication, it is still worthwhile.

          • Gary

            I’ve not. I’ve only read one Hauerwas book and nothing by Willimon. Hauerwas’ Christianity is emphatically different enough from that which I encounter on a daily basis that it just as well be a different religion.

          • Margaret Kim Peterson

            Well, that’s kind of the point. It puts evangelical (and other) craziness in perspective, and makes you realize there are other ways to be a Christian (whether or not you want to be a Christian after the fashion of Hauerwas).

  • Kim Fabricius

    American conservative evangelicals and sex — two sayings of St. Mark come to mind, the first correcting Columbus, the second Paul (Titus 1:15):

    “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.”

    “To the pure, all things are impure.”

    (Oh — that’s St. Mark Twain, btw.)

  • Andrew Dowling

    The irony is that purity-based cultures FAIL HORRIBLY at stemming pre-marital.and risky sexual behavior. Force-feeding traditional cultish patriarchy and putting sex on a completely unrealistic pedastol results in unhealthy relationships and unhealthy sex. Want to decrease teen pregnancy? STDs? Abortion?
    Get girls educated and empowered. Evangelical purity culture does the opposite of that.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      It’s not only girls, but boys as well, who are ill served by purity culture. The effects of purity culture aren’t equally bad for every individual, male or female, but it’s not clear to me that anyone is positively influenced.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Oh I’d agree with that whole-heartedly; just noting the data that connects increased educational opportunities for women (along with increased access to contraception) and those positive outcomes noted, in light of the purity culture which moreso treats a woman’s sexual purity as the fundamental aspect of her being. But the culture is not beneficial to a boy’s sexual development (or their relationship/conception of the opposite gender) either, without a doubt.

  • Luke

    It’s pretty interesting from outside that abstinence *and* abortion is such a political issue in the U.S., especially in light of recent research on the effectiveness of teen contraception for reducing abortion: http://nytimes.com/2015/07/06/science/colorados-push-against-teenage-pregnancies-is-a-startling-success.html?_r=0 .

    You’d think that what is often described as baby murder would trump concerns around abstinence, but I’d never really appreciated how much abstinence was a signifier of American protestant nationalism; and that seems to be the greatest religious concern of all for many ‘evangelicals’.

  • gimel

    To imagine a world in which preachers denouncing ‘sexual impurity’ spend half as much time and energy condemning and uprooting vices other than lust, ie. pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, wrath; a world in which slut-shaming from the pulpit is accompanied by denouncing of hate-mongering is left as an exercise for the reader.

    Incidentally, is it just me, or a great many fundamentalists and/or evangelicals have harder time accepting repented adulterer, aldurteress, fornicator, fornicatress etc. than a reformed murderer? Seems the 3rd chapter of Mark lied to us: all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons (and daughters) of men, but blasphemy against the Holy Ghost and pre-marital (extra-marital) hanky-panky.

    • jbarlow

      As someone who was recently damned to hell by Facebook message for expressing support for LGBT rights, I believe Mark the evangelist also forgot to mention the unforgivable sins of: questioning authority, identifying hypocrisy, denying biblical inerrancy, using logic and reason, persuading impressionable young people in a public forum, and suggesting that what the Bible says about love is more important than what it says about sex.

      • Gary

        From what we know, wasn’t Jesus of Nazareth kinda into some of those things?

      • gimel

        Well, no, that’s OBVIOUSLY blasphemy against Spirit. I mean, logic? What next, sacrificing babies to Moloch?

  • The idea of sexual purity either within or awaiting marriage is probably an illusion! It is highly implausible that God is at the centre of any marriage founded upon natural law. That is an intellectual and theological fraud that comes packaged with Christianity and others. Biological carnality and it’s union existed long before any of the mono-theisms ever appeared on earth. And the basics of concupiscence and biology haven’t and aren’t changed by some contrivance of language, ceremony, blessing or the most sincere aspirations of a man and woman. There is no ethical or moral content within this act! Only the pretensions imposed upon the fulfilling of a biological imperative. Which itself may be a corruption of the very ideal it pretends to represent. Better considered from a verse by Shakespeare, from his poem Venus and Adonis:

    Call it not love for love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurp’d His name.
    Under who simple semblance man hath fed
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    As caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain
    but lust effect is tempest after sun.
    Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain.
    Lust’s winter comes, ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      “There is no ethical or moral content within this act.” Well, hmm. I’m not sure it’s possible to say that about any human action, given that humans are moral creatures–i.e., creatures able to envision alternate futures and choose to aim at one or another of them on the grounds that one is better than the other.

      That said, you are of course right in your observation that marriage is a human institution, not an exclusively Christian one. So the question becomes, what might it mean to seek to be married in a specifically Christian sense?

      • What ever morality humanity may have mastered to date, it is self evidently limited by human nature itself, a slave to our evolutionary root. Our ability to engage in moral discourse does not make us moral and those moral aspirations which inspire many remain unrealized. I personally doubt that our species is moral in anything but a very relativistic sense which is well demonstrated by the great variety of cultural differences contained on our planet. Thus to confuse cultural respectibility for morality is the great self deception.

        We remain “creatures able to envision alternate futures and choose to aim at one
        or another of them on the grounds that one is better than the other.” But without the moral or insights to reach out and deliver that greater moral vision. But our ‘Aim’ is repeatedly off the mark. That is the human dilemma unresolved by religion, philosophy or science. And probably the root of the limitation is a corruption in the nature of our understanding of Love.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Ironically your neo-Hobbsian view of human nature has been soundly torn to shreds by recent studies in evolutionary biology.

          • Hardly! Evolutionary biology as a source of insight for anything moral must be an illusion or there would be no environmental crisis. As the only way to resolve that crisis is a radical development in human ethics and perception which biology, evolution or religion are unable to offer. Thus human nature remains a corruption of the natural order. Morality and purity a human invention of wishful thinking.

  • Kristen

    I’m still very much in favor of sexual purity for myself as a Christian. But I also fully recognize how messed up purity culture has gotten. The issue, really, is the assumption that “if you don’t talk about it, they won’t do it,” when it comes to sex education. Sex education is so needed. Thorough, comprehensive sex education.

    On a personal level, as a young woman (and I know that this is the case for many Christian men) the emphasis on not having sex until marriage and a lack of sex education leads curious minds to get the information from elsewhere. For me, that meant turning to porn, the worst teacher of them all. And it’s something I’ve been struggling with since puberty because my frustrated sexual desires had nowhere to go.

    On top of that, having “sex before marriage is the worst thing a young Christian can do” pounded into you in those formative years of raging hormones has lead to an epidemic of sexual dysfunction among Christians when they DO get married and can have sex. Churches spend all their time saying “NO NO NO” and then suddenly say “okay you can have sex now, you’re married” and the brain just can’t do that. The ingrained shame and sinfulness of sex leads to severely repressed young people who can’t enjoy themselves with their spouse. They can’t relax and struggle communicating with their partners.

    Thankfully, some churches are beginning to recognize this problem. I’m glad to be prepared for and working on that mentality BEFORE I get married.

    While I still have made the personal commitment to not have sex before marriage, I’ve failed in my sexual purity in other ways (though I’ve come to terms with not feeling guilty or ashamed for masturbating, which is so much harder for women than men within religious communities IMO). We were created with sex drives and those desires. Even if I recognize my own convictions about when I want to have sex, the Church has to own up for the damaging way they’ve handled issues of purity and modesty.

  • SJ

    We now have some physiological evidence validating purity. God’s Word used to always be good enough until biased sex researchers like Mead and Kinsey got involved and managed to introduce a lot of suspect sexual research into the mainstream media.

  • Cynthia Brown Christ

    What kind of immorality did Jesus talk about the most? Which things did he warn us the most about? Which things did he say would restrict our ability to enter his kingdom the most?

    Sex before marriage?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The purity culture goes further than just “no sex before marriage”. In my case I was , through my parents, involved in a group which extended that to “no dating”, “no courtship”, and eventually to “God will tell me who to marry, and then we marry even if we do not know each other from a bar of soap, because that is the PUREST way”.

    A lot of heartache followed. A lot of misunderstanding. A lot of suffering. On both sides.

    A pox on their house!

  • stefanstackhouse

    For most of human history, in most times and places people got married not very long after reaching puberty (if they got married at all). Non-marital sexual activity undoubtedly did happen even in cultures that held marital fidelity as an expected norm, but it was viewed as an exceptional departure from the norm. (For those cultures that did not hold marital fidelity as a norm, at least for the males, it was a non-issue.)

    What has changed in just a few generations is the near-impossibility for anyone to get married until they are at least half a decade beyond puberty, and often for a decade or two after. Let’s be honest: with raging hormones and all, that IS a long time to wait. Add a sex-saturated popular culture, and the temptations become almost overwhelming.

    The Evangelical churches (at least, but maybe not entirely alone) have been scrambling to find a way to cope with this massive change in the human condition. So far they have been able to do little more than slap a “purity” band-aid on the problem, and we all know how well that band-aid has worked.

    What is lacking is any broader-scope thinking, and especially a lack of critical examination of our society. We are totally failing to ask ourselves: Why are we taking it for granted and with total acceptance that our young people must wait until the mid-20s, late-20s, or even later to get married? Sure, we want our kids to be well-educated, well-employed, and affluent. Do we realize the price to be paid for that? Is this the trade-off that we really want: delayed marriage, a probable failure of most young people to resist sexual temptation, and who knows what sort of long-term consequences of that when they finally do get married?

    What if we really asked ourselves these questions, and didn’t like the default answers we’ve been giving to them? I don’t know what the other answer would be, but I suspect that it would probably involve some sort of realization that we collectively would have more of an obligation to help out our young people to get an earlier start in life if we didn’t want them to have to delay marriage so long. As long as we cling to this extreme (and unbiblical) rugged individualism ideology, we are unlikely to seriously entertain the type of change that might really make a difference.

    • Margaret Kim Peterson

      “For most of human history, in most times and places people got married not very long after reaching puberty.” Actually, this is not true. There are two main patterns of marriage, corresponding to early and to late marriage, in human culture.

      One pattern is that the bride joins the husband’s household, meaning that the couple lives with the husband’s parents. In these cultures, people marry very young, because they are not expected to be economically self-sufficient when they are first married.

      The other pattern is that newly married couples are expected to set up their own independent households. In these cultures, people marry significantly later, because they need time to accumulate enough capital and earning power to be able to set up housekeeping.

      In the second kind of culture (later marriage), the question arises, what are young people to do with their sexual impulses until eventually they marry (if they ever do)? While there is often an official expectation of abstinence until marriage for both sexes, in actual practice there is usually a double standard, with social and religious catastrophe for unmarried women who conceive or are otherwise known or suspected to be sexually active, and unmarried men allowed or expected to sow their wild oats.

      In the Middle Ages, towns actually ran brothels so that young men could have a sexual outlet and might thus leave the daughters of respectable families alone. I kid you not.

      So let’s not imagine that once upon a time, everybody got married the day after they entered puberty. It’s much more complicated than that.

      P.S. In the first kind of culture, when couples marry very young because they move in with the groom’s parents, often there is no expectation of sexual fidelity for husbands. That’s only for wives, who are property. So there are double standards everywhere you look. It’s not nice, but it’s how things are, or at least how things have been.