Purity Culture on Trial, Part 1 – The Backlash to the Backlash

Purity Culture on Trial, Part 1 – The Backlash to the Backlash April 27, 2017

photo-1474680877336-91e280603191_optThis week a friend sent me a piece by Rebecca Calhoun at Christ and Pop Culture entitled “Moving Past the Purity Movement.” I’ve got to say, it’s one of the best and most insightful articles I’ve read on the subject. I found myself nodding in agreement and admiring Calhoun’s maturity and fair-mindedness. If anything, she makes much the same point I made last year in my less merciful treatment of millennial evangelicals blaming Joshua Harris for their sexual problems decades after “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” was published.

Of her experience with “purity culture,” Rebecca speaks for many who criticized my defense of Harris: “I internalized the idea that unwed sexual experiences would ruin my soul and my potential for healthy marriage; that a pubescent boy’s lustful eye was undoubtedly my fault; that every time I held hands with a boy, I was permanently jettisoning a piece of my heart.”

Given these false impressions and expectations, she recalls the surprise many evangelical young people felt when they didn’t wind up “bursting into a ball of flames during premarital sex.” It turns out Harris was wrong! The youth pastors were all wrong. Sex outside of wedlock isn’t so bad, after all. As a matter of fact, it’s downright fun, and maybe even a necessary prerequisite to long-term romantic commitment. Weren’t those fuddy-duddy “purity culture” police ever wrong!

At first blush, Calhoun reads like yet another refugee from 1990s Evangelistan blaming her problems on a book she read in middle school and using it to repudiate Christian sexual ethics. But having established what seem like impeccable victim credentials, she turns and asks a piercing question of her readers: Do you think all of the things you’ve learned sleeping around have left you less confused about sex? Do you have it all figured out, now? Are you happy?

Obviously not. Contrary to anti-“purity culture” crusaders like Dianna E. Anderson who suggests in her book, “Damaged Goods” that “feeling ready” is the only prerequisite for hopping between the sheets, my generation, at least those raised Christian, are a hot mess when it comes to sex.

A poll by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 77 percent of millennial evangelicals opposed nonmarital sex on principle, but 44 percent said they still engage in it, anyway (many more were probably lying). And how well is the alternative to Christian chastity really working out? Could the nearly one in four women who report being sexually assaulted in college tell us anything? How about the fact that sexually transmitted infections in the United States are now at an all-time high? What do the half of all religious men willing to admit they’re addicted to pornography tell us? And what do we do with the general disappointment with casual sex among those who practice it, or the fact that young people have, in a very ironic sense, “kissed dating goodbye” in favor of a hookup culture they hate?

Far from finding happiness in post-purity freedom, our backlash against chastity and its messengers has left us miserable. Calhoun responds with a radical suggestion: Maybe the essence of what Joshua Harris and other “purity culture” teachers were saying was right. Maybe their sexual ethic, if not so much their messaging, was right on-target. What if they “did not necessarily set out to ruin a whole crop of teenage girls”? What if they were “only doing what they thought was best.” What if “It’s time we all stopped wallowing and moved on”? What if “we need a collective attitude adjustment”?

Amen, sister!

That kind of generational tantrum tone-down was what a Facebook friend of mine, Lindsay Marks Harold, suggested recently in a brilliant comment, which she gave me permission to repost here:

“The ‘problems’ of purity culture that most people point to are not necessarily problems of the message, but imbalances of emphasis that caused some people to get the wrong idea. There are certainly fringe groups or individual parents or churches that actually taught the wrong message of course. But the purity movement in general, if there’s anything bad to say about it, is that, in reacting to a sexually permissive culture, it focused on the opposing messages and not necessarily the big picture, and some people got confused.

There’s nothing wrong with telling teens that having premarital sex will likely make it harder for them to bond and remain faithful in marriage. There’s nothing wrong with calling singles to stay pure, and by that I mean avoiding sex before marriage. There’s nothing wrong with teaching young women to practice submitting to their father’s authority in order to learn how to submit to a husband’s authority when they marry. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the damage caused by immodesty and sexual immorality. These things are all good and true.

What happens when you give these messages to young people is that, in some cases, rather than try to learn wisdom from these facts and principles, they try to turn it into a legalistic set of rules. Or perhaps their parents or youth leaders do. Many people are more comfortable taking things to extremes instead of learning wisdom.

So when people want to turn valid principles into simplistic and rigid rules, you get misunderstandings like young women believing that if they aren’t wearing a burka and a young man had a lustful thought about them, then it’s their fault and not his. Or a person who believes that God can never forgive them and any future marriage is doomed to failure because they had premarital sex. Or someone who confuses purity with virginity and now thinks even sex within marriage is impure and gross. Or a young man who believed that waiting until marriage was a deal with God to have awesome sex on the honeymoon. These things were never actually taught (in the vast majority of cases), but were misunderstandings of the message.

So for most of those claiming to be harmed by ‘purity culture,’ my question is whether the things they thought were being taught were actually taught in those terms, or whether they got the wrong idea because they oversimplified the message.”

(By the way, check out Lindsay’s blog, here.)

Calhoun’s article and comments like this, not to mention the full-scale sexual pandemonium many of my evangelical peers are regretting as they approach thirty, give me hope that a backlash to the backlash is underway. Despite the ubiquitous complaints by evangelicals and ex-evangelicals alike that kissing dating goodbye ruined their lives, I’m seeing hopeful signs that the pendulum is beginning to swing back, that some are beginning to recognize that Harris was addressing a real problem, and that their poor listening/reading skills may be partly to blame for how badly the purity movement went off the rails. Most importantly, some seem to be realizing that Harris’ warnings about the consequences of premarital sex weren’t idle.

In part 2, I’ll push back on some of the pushback against the messaging of “purity culture,” and reassert what I think are some vital truths we’ve been too willing to surrender.

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