Is there room for other perspectives in the evangelical conversation against purity culture?

Is there room for other perspectives in the evangelical conversation against purity culture? May 24, 2013

Today, @mslooola, who I follow on the Twitters (#FF her for more great tweets on the topic, by the way–can I do #FF on a blog? Is that cheating?), tweeted her thoughts on the recent trend of evangelicals calling out Purity Culture:

Now, I have a lot of friends/acquaintances who are evangelical, who are speaking out against purity culture, and whose sexual ethic (regardless of their personal convictions on when you should have sex) revolves around consent, and respect for others’ autonomy and humanity. This does not cover everyone I know who is speaking about this issue.

But when I saw this tweet, I had to laugh, because in many ways it’s so true.

You see these posts declaring that those who have sex are NOT damaged goods, and their lives are NOT ruined! They CAN have good marriages and God CAN still use them. Many of them are empowering and refreshing, but they all have to have a disclaimer about how premarital sex is definitely still a sin.

Then, more conservative blogs catch wind of these posts and respond with (totally unfounded) accusations that the people writing these posts are advocating that everyone just walk down the streets naked, carrying a box of condoms, ready to get it on with anyone in sight.

The original bloggers (who I understand want to defend their own convictions, which have been grossly misinterpreted by these conservative blogs) respond by vehemently reminding everyone that, yes, premarital sex IS a terrible sin, and you WILL regret it, but it’s not worse than say lying  or having a bad day and being a jerk to someone.

At this point, I just sigh, because it feels like we’re just going around in circles and ending up at the same place, over and over again.

I want to be clear that I don’t think it’s wrong to be personally convinced to be abstinent until marriage. In fact, I think it’s a decision that deserves respect and affirmation, and I think that people who shame abstinent people and virgins are participating in rape culture.

But I feel like this conversation keeps hitting the wall of “premarital sex is clearly a sin, but . . . “

I see friends who don’t even say that they are “okay” with premarital sex getting blog hate just because they didn’t include a “premarital sex is clearly a sin, but . . . ” phrase. Maybe other bloggers feel like they have their hands tied as they watch while those who don’t make definitive declarations about their personal convictions are discredited.

And I wonder . . .

I wonder if there’s any space to respect the autonomy of those who have different convictions about sex. I wonder if there’s any room for the stories of people who had premarital sex and didn’t regret it. Maybe even for those who are glad they made such a decision.

I know that’s my story. Maybe it’s yours. Maybe there is room for us, or maybe we’ll have to make room.

I don’t think the movement against purity culture is going to have any sort of meaningful success until we can stop making this all about “sin” and start talking about autonomy. As long as people don’t have space to make decisions about their bodies and their beliefs, purity culture will prevail. It may change shape, but it will prevail. 

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  • Great observation. I remember people were outraged when Sarah Bessey wrote on this topic and said that God didn’t care if you had pre-marital sex or something to that affect. People were seriously horrified. I don’t remember her making any sort of follow up “Well, but its still a super serious sin” type statement and I’m glad she didn’t cave to the critics.

    I saw something similar happen regarding the Beyonce half-time show. For the whole month before that, the Christian blogosphere was rallying against modesty rules. The EXACT same people who were speaking out against damaging modesty/purity culture all of a sudden were the ones casting the first stone at Beyonce’s half-time performance. It was super frustrating.

    What I’ve come to discover is that people don’t want THEIR choices to be judged, but have no problem judging other people for the exact same thing.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Yes, it’s definitely not everyone caving to critics!

      And I noticed that with the Beyonce thing too! Even secular feminists were shaming her and I was like “What?!??”

  • Nicole Resweber


    (Where I come from, that is the signal of immense approval.)

  • Nicole Resweber

    Had an interesting conversation recently about whether “sin,” as a concept, was helpful at all in nurturing an informed ethos. It’s *so* tightly correlated with “rules not to piss off God/the Church” for so many people.

    • Francis Levesque

      I would have said “no, absolutely not” before I read “Speaking Christian” by Marcus J. Borg. It reframes and explores historical understandings of sin – and other core concepts in Christianity – in ways which made it far more powerful and relevant than I’d ever thought possible. It forced me re-think the meaning of a *lot* of doctrines which I hadn’t seen much (if any) value in before.

  • forgedimagination

    I’m starting to try to figure out where I’m at on this, and I think it’s going to be a long and hard process as I start filtering through what’s from my fundamentalist past and what I actually think.

    I can definitely understand the reflex of “purity culture is bad, but . . . ” because it’s my automatic reaction almost every time, although I don’t comment on it. For me, though, it tends to come out of a place of non-religious concern. I’m not worried about pre-marital sex as wrong/sin, as much as I’m trying to mentally frame it in questions like “when is it healthy for me/you/us to have sex?”

    For myself, all I know is that in my relationship with my now-husband, our physical relationship was a huge, gigantic leap forward in my spiritual healing and psychological recovery. Our physicality helped me come to grips with a shit-ton of garbage from my past. Becoming physical was the best thing that has ever happened for me.

    • forgedimagination

      And it happened before we were married– before we were engaged. Sorry, didn’t make that clear.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I have a similar story that I hope to share soon! And I think questions of “when is it healthy for me/you/us to have sex?” are much more interesting and important, personally.

  • Well written. I approached the topic from a different angle in my post on the subject, but I’m not sure I was able to express my perspective clearly. Or perhaps the divide with the purity culture is large enough that it’s a gulf that can’t be spanned.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I’m not sure I’ve ever read your post, Scott!

      • Ah, well such as it is, it’s here.

        I do state, as clearly as I could, that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong or evil in premarital sex even if in some sense it might miss the ideal bullseye of the target. In fact, I flat out state that in some circumstances, a sexual relationship may be pure good and work toward our salvation.

        Plenty in my post, I’m sure, for lots of people to disagree with. /shrug

  • I tend to go back to the verse where it says, “All is permissable, not everything is beneficial”, but I think these days, I read it in a different way from how purity culture would interpret it.

    For some people, it isn’t beneficial to have sex before marriage, and that should be respected. But for others, it is beneficial to do so, and I think purity culture can’t stand that. It would mean they’d have to recognize that, even in this regard, everyone is different, and they can’t have that, now, can they? (Notice tinge of sarcasm.) They’d have to recognize a person’s worth isn’t attached to their penis/vagina/uterus/balls/clitoris/etc. They’d have to take themselves off their precious (more sarcasm) pedestal of purity and morality, look in the effing mirror, and take ownership of where they’ve gone wrong. It’d mean humbling themselves. But they don’t want to do the work.