The Christian Purity Culture: More From The Atlantic Interview

You may have noticed that I recently appeared in Abigail Rine's article at The Atlantic, "Why Some Evangelicals Are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Premarital Sex."

The article discusses the growing concerns about the "purity culture" in evangelicalism. Abigail cites my work in Unclean (summarized in this post) regarding the psychology of purity metaphors and how they are used to regulate female sexuality.

For the article Abigail sent me some questions, and some of my answers appear in the article. I thought I'd post here all her questions and my full answers. Not everything I said could be used in the article. I am, it must be admitted, a bit long-winded (it's a professional hazard).

But more importantly, as Abigail and I discussed via email, this is an important conversation that I'd like to keep going. And to be clear, I don't have all the answers. But here, for your consideration, are the answers I gave to Abigail's questions (with slight edits):
Abigail Rine:
You've written about why you view the purity metaphor as problematic. Do you think ditching this metaphor requires evangelicals to move away from the ideal of premarital abstinence?

Richard Beck:
I don't think the metaphor has to be ditched.

My main concerns have to due with the narrow and particular use of the purity metaphor, how the metaphor is used almost exclusively to regulate female sexuality. The metaphor is being used unevenly, picking out a particular class of moral failures (sexual sins) and focusing on a particular population (women). So my initial response isn't that the metaphor has to be ditched but used in a more reflective, careful and balanced way. By balanced I mean applied both equally to males and females and used as a general, rather than particular, metaphor for sin.

But perhaps more important is the theological care the metaphor is given. Psychologically, the purity metaphor is the "atomic bomb" of moral metaphors. It is the metaphor that activates, viscerally, emotions of shame, guilt and self-loathing. So you cannot activate those emotions without providing a route toward rehabilitation, grace, love and self-acceptance. That is rarely, if ever, done. The abuses of the purity metaphor occur when the metaphor is used without this context and care and is simply a means to use shame to regulate behavior, specifically the behavior of young women.

What do you think a "post-purity" evangelical narrative of sexuality should look like?

I think a "post-purity" sexual ethic will focus less on the physical act of sex and how that physical act is "defiling" and more upon issues related to covenant faithfulness, care, and harm. The narrative about sex becomes about how, in the sexual sphere, we are maximally exposed and vulnerable. God's interest in sex, then, is less puritanical than a concern about how we hurt and damage each other, physically and emotionally, in ways that often leave lifelong scars. Covenant faithfulness, thus, is attached to human sexuality as a form of protection, as a form of care. Covenant faithfulness represents God's interest in making sure that sex and love are always united.

Basically, the conversation about sex shifts away from purity to love, trust, faithfulness, and care. Sex becomes about learning the hard and lifelong work of love.

What is the distinction between "covenant faithfulness" and marriage?

"Marriage" is a pretty contested term. I don't think that is news. But I also think it confuses the ritual for the reality it is supposed to be representing. Thus you have the spectacle of evangelical culture with divorce rates as high as those in the general population. Along with the tendency to ignore the poor marital examples of high profile personalities when the politics coincide.

So I find the debates about marriage to be both distracting and often wildly hypocritical. My assessment is that until the evangelical culture gets its moral witness together regarding marriage it should forgo broad denunciations about sex. Evangelical culture should be in a confessional and repentant posture. That's the discussion it needs to be having but is largely avoiding.

Because if the moral witness of evangelical culture were to be rehabilitated then I think the wider culture, along with our young people, would tolerate a conversation about sexual purity. Because even if they disagreed there would exist the recognition that these people at least practice what they preach, and that the way they love, marry and make love leads to joy, well-being and demonstrable human flourishing.

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9 thoughts on “The Christian Purity Culture: More From The Atlantic Interview”

  1. I have been reading the purity culture discussions online with fascination. Thanks for this valuable contribution.

  2. Thanks. I think perspectives from the social sciences add to the conversation. Because, at root, what I think is going on is that certain sociological groups (pockets of evangelical culture) are using psychology (shame and guilt) to regulate moral behavior, female sexuality in particularly. Trouble is, all that is hidden under the purity metaphor. But once you see what is going on, psychologically speaking (which is the bit I think I'm contributing), with the purity metaphor the underlying dynamics of what is going on become more transparent.

  3. I find your work on this topic to be fascinating and revealing even for how I myself think about sexual morality.

    I was wondering if you've considered how your research intersects with Jonathan Haidt's research into moral foundations theory. It sounds as though your solution to the problem of the Evangelical purity ethic is (for the most part) to shift sexual morality out of the sanctity/degradation realm of moral psychology and into the care/harm realm. Is that correct? And, if so, do you foresee any drawbacks to such a shift?

  4. I use Haidt's work in Unclean, very familiar with it. And yes, generally speaking, that's the shift I'm talking about, away from purity/sanctity to harm/care. But as I noted in the post, I don't think the purity frame has to be wholly ditched, and in the answers above I talk a bit about how I think purity could be used and should be framed if used.

  5. I was thrilled to see your contribution to the Atlantic article - I have been highlighting each of these conversations amongst my peers in hope that this reaches the broader conversation and couldn't be happier - turning the conversation to covenant faithfulness gives me great hope that there could be a course correction on the horizon. Thank you. I would love to see the harm/care undergirding also seep into the abortion/right to life dialog as there are so many better reasons to embrace life than those that are currently clanging so loudly.

  6. Very very interesting. I always see too this interesting dynamic of what parents are

  7. I also thought of this piece (published 10 yrs ago) "Scaring The Sex Out Of You". It intrigued back then when our kids were young. I dont know that what we tried to communicate is what they heard.


  9. Ya'll need to check out Thank God For Sex, a community approach to healing sexual shame. Bring your voice to the table! Thankgodforsex.con

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