The Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture

If you read the blogs I do (and mainly I'm alerted to these things by following Rachel Held Evans) you'll have been following over the last week or so the debate about the "purity culture" of evangelicalism and the way it has created an ecosystem of shame around the subject of virginity. More, the shaming here is generally asymmetrical, a burden and a stigma almost exclusively placed upon young women.

As a man it's not my place to tell that story, or unpack that shame and damage. So let me suggest Rachel's post, the powerful "I am Damaged Goods" by Sarah Bessey, and "Virginity: New and Improved!" by Elizabeth Esther.

I'd like to add to this conversation some observations about the psychology of purity and why this psychology makes purity culture so toxic. This analysis will be familiar to those of you who have read Unclean and have thus become the resident experts in your churches about the negative effects of purity psychology on the life and actions of the church.

But for those who have not read Unclean, why is the Christian purity culture so toxic and shaming?

It has to do with the psychology of purity. At root, purity is a food-attribution system, a suite of psychological processes that help us make judgments about whether or not it is safe or healthy to eat something.

One aspect of purity psychology is how we make contamination appraisals. The psychologist Paul Rozin has been a pioneer in naming and describing these appraisals. And one of these appraisals is the judgment of permanence.

To illustrate this Rozin will put, say, a cockroach in a glass of juice and swish it around. He then removes the bug and offers the juice for participants to drink. They, of course, refuse. That's to be expected. But then the interesting part of the experiment begins. Rozin goes on to sterilize the juice in front of the watching participant. He then makes another offer. Participants continue to refuse. This despite knowing, at a rational level, that the juice has been sanitized. So why refuse? Because at the affective level a judgment of contamination continues to dominate. The juice is judged as unclean. Despite all efforts to purify, sanitize, or rehabilitate.

Rozin's demo illustrates the attribution of permanence, which is a key part of purity psychology. The judgment appears to be "once contaminated, always contaminated." The implication here is that contamination--a loss of purity--is a catastrophic judgment creating a state that cannot be rehabilitated. The foodstuff is, as we say, ruined. And if ruined it's only fit for the trash.

As I discuss in Unclean, what happens when we structure parts of our moral experience with the metaphor of purity is that we import the psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives. That is, we start to use the attribution of permanence (along with other purity appraisals I talk about in Unclean) when thinking about moral failure and sin. A loss of purity is understood to be permanent and is unable to be rehabilitated because, well, that's the way purity works.

Now what is peculiar about all this is that we use the purity metaphor in an uneven manner. Most sins don't get the purity metaphor. True, generally understood sin is understood to be a purity violation. But particular sins aren't typically viewed as a purity issue. Most sins are framed, metaphorically, as mistakes or errors, as performance failures. Another common metaphor here is sin as a form of stumbling or falling. What is important to note about these metaphors--performance failures and stumbling--is that these metaphors aren't catastrophic in nature. That is, they can be easily rehabilitated. If you make a mistake you try again. If you stumble and fall you get back up. Inherent in the logic of the metaphor is an obvious route to rehabilitation.

But not so with the purity metaphor. When the sin is framed as a purity violation the damage that is done is total and unable to be rehabilitated. A purity violation creates a state of irreversible ruin.

And with that in mind let's ask ourselves, what sin categories are almost exclusively regulated by purity metaphors in our churches?

Answer: sexual sins, the loss of virginity in particular.

Think about it. I bet most of us would say that the sin most Americans are guility of is materialism. I bet most of us would even say that materialism is the sin most killing the church. And yet, when did you ever hear a talk about "materialism purity"? Beyond never hearing such a talk, the phrase "materialism purity" just sounds weird. And try tacking "purity" onto any other sin. Fill in the blank: "__________ purity." Can you think of any sin--except "sexual purity"--that works in the blank, that doesn't sound weird when framed as a purity violation?

The point is, we treat sexual sins and the loss of virginity very differently from other sins, as a class of sin unto itself. And how do we make that happen? We accomplish this by framing these sins almost exclusively with purity metaphors. And in doing so we recruit a psychological system built upon a food-aversion system, a system driven by disgust, revulsion, and nausea. But instead of directing these feelings toward food we are now directing the feelings of disgust, revulsion and nausea toward human beings. More, we teach our children to internalize and direct these feelings toward themselves.

And I think we can sharpen this point even more.

Based upon my experience, I would argue that male sexual sin isn't generally framed as a purity violation. The loss of male virginity still gets the performance failure metaphor. If a boy losses his virginity it's a mistake, a stumbling. Consequently, this is something he can easily rehabilitate. He's not damaged goods. He can simply resolve to do better going forward. How is this so easy for him? Because his sexuality is being regulated by a performance metaphor.

By contrast, and this is the heart of of the matter, the loss of female virginity is almost exclusively regulated by the purity metaphor. For females the loss of virginity is a bit more than a performance failure. It's a loss of purity that, because of the way purity works, is catastrophic and beyond rehabilitation. And because of this she's got no way to move forward, metaphorically speaking. The game's over. And thus she reaches the only conclusion the purity metaphor makes available to her: She's damaged goods. And all the emotions related to that judgment of contamination rush forward as she internalizes all the shame, disgust, revulsion and nausea.

This is the psychology that makes the Christian purity culture so toxic.

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49 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Christian Purity Culture”

  1. In my experience, purity language is used extensively in reference to men. However, as male identity is mediated more by one's relationship with one's agency than by one's relationship with one's body, while the self is perceived to be compromised, there is somewhat less of a sense of the body being 'polluted'.

    More importantly, however, the language of bodily defilement and shame in relation to sexual sin is biblical, as is the idea that sexual sins are a distinct kind of sin. Unlike all other sorts of actions, sex has a unique power to forge a unity of being in biblical thought and so purity is much more of an issue. Unless we are going to shelve swathes of biblical teaching on these subjects in order to accommodate our contemporary resistance to 'slut-shaming', it seems to me that we have to come up with a more theological solution. I have posted some thoughts along these lines here.

  2. While reading last week's lively and passionate discussion of purity culture, I started wondering about the role of disgust psychology and hoping you'd weigh in. One of the interesting aspects of the toxicity of purity culture is how few escape unwounded; even among those who made it to the altar as virgins, I read comments by women who felt that they were not pure enough, either because they had engaged in other forms of physical affection / sexual activity or because they had thought about it, and the thinking is enough, when connected to a purity metaphor, to permanently spoil the whole person, her future, and that of her husband, marriage, and (I assume) children.

    It's also interesting that some comments were along the line of "oh, so you're sayng premarital sex isn't sinful, that anything goes?" none of the posts I read, regardless of their perspective or experience, had suggested anything like this, but that's what some readers took away. It seems that rejecting the purity metaphor is sometimes interpreted as a total rejection of not just the contamination / shaming aspect, but of all strictures around sexual conduct.

  3. General rule of thumb, I'm always 1-2 weeks behind any hot topic breaking on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. When I finally did catch up to this conversation I was like, "Hey, I think I wrote a book about this?" :-)

  4. Isn't it the case that the Old Testament understanding of sin was almost always cloaked in language of "uncleanliness?"

    In any case, even if you do subscribe to some kind of special understanding of sexual purity (and even if it is specially or exclusively pertaining to women), doesn't the theology of Jesus's saving role apply equally to those kind of sins? Or even especially and specifically? (I'm thinking of the woman 'taken in adultery,' for example.) How can you ascribe to that salvific understanding and nevertheless consider someone "spoiled" forever?

    Agh. The hypocrisy.

  5. As I hinted at in the post, when purity is applied to sin generally the potential for psychological damage is greatly mitigated. Mainly, I think, because we have other metaphors to think about our being sinners in general. That is, we don't exclusively lock onto the notion of defilement and remain there. To be sure, some Christians and some Christian communities do lock onto that single narrow view and it's in these situations where we see the most toxic outcomes.

    The point being, purity doesn't do a lot of damage when deployed abstractly, generally, and as one among many other metaphors. Where purity does become a problem is when it is applied at a more fine-grained level, with this sin rather than that sin, and thus picking out a particular group of people as being particularly set apart as "unclean" (e.g., Yes, everyone is unclean but these people are REALLY unclean). Or when purity becomes the dominant and exclusive overall metaphor for just being a sinner (something you see happen in shame/guilt driven Christian communities).

  6. Thanks, Richard. Real helpful. Of course, being who I am, I have to also ask when/ why/ how the purity metaphor has been useful, in the Hebrew or Christian tradition. Is "stumbling" or "mistake" a metaphor that distances the possibility of absolutely avoiding certain behavior?

    For example: in the area of materialism it is unavoidable that I will "stumble," sometimes less and sometimes more, but in the area of cheating on my wife it is not unavoidable that I will sometimes "stumble"--and I may need a robust metaphor that allows me to more fully embrace the possibility of absolutely never, ever, ever cheating on my wife.

    Another thought is the fact that both Testaments would radically disagree with the "permanence" factor of impurity. Yes, they would say, there is something about impurity (as opposed, say, to a simple performance error) that leaves a mark/ stain on the soul. But they would go on to say (and do go on to say) quite a bit about how that stain may be removed. In a sense, many purity systems are out of a job if we assume either that there is no stain, or that it is permanent. Because their job is to remove the stain.

    But thanks for making sure I really, really get the potential toxic side of a permanent (and unfairly applied!) purity standard. "Damaged goods." Yikes!

  7. It seems to me, in light of what you've written and based on a quick scan of biblical passages on purity (as in, a Bible word search for the words 'pure' and 'purity,' not specifically concerning sexual sin), that the church should be moving toward viewing all sin as impurity, not removing sexual sin from that category. While I agree that there are potential damaging implications to our perhaps subconscious views on purity, it seems risky to abandon that conceptual model.  First, several biblical authors--David, Paul and John, to name a few--seem to understand sin in those terms.  Second, the idea that sin does, in fact, permanently stain us seems important.  When you understand that sin is a nearly permanent mark, you better understand the grace that washes that mark away. The one who has been forgiven much loves much.
    All that being said, the singling out of sexual sin and women for the labels 'impurity' and 'impure' is neither justice nor truth.  I personally have not witnessed this issue in the degree you describe, but no amount of injustice is unconcerning. Thanks for the article.

  8. I have had two thoughts about this topic since reading Unclean, and I'm rather glad to have this post to use as a place to share them. First, it seems that there is a fairly obvious yet unmentioned reason why girls rather than boys are affected by the "permanence" aspect of the sexual purity metaphor: for them the loss of virginity involves an irreversible physical change. If it were not so -- if it were just as impossible to tell if a woman is still a virgin as it is to tell if a man is -- I daresay there would be much more parity in the attitudes toward both genders.

    Second, it is interesting this sexual mores are stricter now than in the past. I was struck by this when reading Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, published in 1749. We often think of morals declining over the decades, but in the 18th Century attitudes toward sex were more like attitudes toward any other sin. And this change cannot be attributed to less familiarity with the Bible texts about sex. I suspect the average "man on the street" in 1749 could quote more scripture off the top of his head than the average man in the pew today. I guess what most challenged me was the awareness that Christians are more influenced by cultural forces from within and from without than they are wont to admit.

  9. I liked the point in your post that virgin bodies need redemption also. This is something that gets lost in the discourse about purity.

  10. I agree that the idea of purity is not something that we should throw out. Someone - probably in Evans's post - brought up the rhetorical difference between 'virginity' and 'chastity.' While both inevitably draw on the idea of purity, virginity has a permanent aspect that chastity does not. That is, you could 'stumble' at some point but repent and live a chaste life. But virginity once lost is always lost and so the defilement is permanent, even with repentance and chastity. While people say, of course, that sin is forgiven, the 'damaged goods' and 'second best' language remains. Perhaps 'chastity' language would be an improvement there.

  11. A couple of thoughts. First, I agree that it would be impossible to remove the notion of purity from the OT and NT. The issue, as I frame it in Unclean, is if Jesus deconstructs the Levitical purity tradition by folding it into the prophetic tradition. That's a matter open to debate. But I'd argue that Jesus is using the language of purity in a radically new way. That is, the language of "purity" remains but we mean something more prophetic than Levitical when using it.

    Second, I totally agree about the need to emphasize the purification on offer in Jesus. As seen time after time in the gospels contact with Jesus purifies and cleanses. But as I point out in Unclean, this is an unnatural reversal. Contamination privileges the negative over the positive (this is called "negativity dominance"). All that to say, it is psychologically difficult to experience a sense of cleansing as the psychological mechanisms these feelings are built upon are working in the opposites direction. Which means our psychological default will be to feel contaminated rather than cleansed. Which means that Christian leaders, pastors and teachers are going to be swimming upstream against an innate psychological bias. So they better work hard at overcoming that psychology rather than, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforcing it.

  12. Your comment, particularly the part about the possibility of cheating on a spouse and being too materialistic, suggests that a "robust metaphor" is the only thing keeping that from happening, or keeping the thought from entering our minds. If robust metaphors and strongly stated laws are solely what motivates us to do what is good and to strive for what is moral, I would submit that we have no hope. I don't steal or murder, but that isn't because of the laws that are in place... It's because I know it's wrong. I think what we need to focus on, and what could bring about a more sustainable morality, is the "why" behind the rules and metaphors. If we focus on the grace we've been given and the ways that Jesus lived as our motivation for morality and purity, we don't NEED more robust metaphors to keep us in line.

    Maybe this is a stretch too far off topic... or maybe I misinterpreted what you were saying... but there are the two cents. Blessings

  13. I have pretty much crossed over from a purity psychology to something much healthier as I've grown. I think the purity attitude isn't total bunk (there are plenty of things out there deleterious to one's spirituality) but it is a damaging ideology in evangelical circles. Not having sex is blown way out of proportion by those people. I think one way to put Jesus' teachings in a nutshell is to say that he did in fact want to replace Moses' purity with something more sacred and sincere.

  14. Just as a simple example: I remember as a kid hearing a sermon in which the preacher talked about "bad company corrupts good character." And the preacher said, "When you put a white glove in the dirt, the glove gets dirty, the dirt doesn't turn white." And I thought, "What a perfect contrast to the Gospels."

  15. Thanks. And yes, I agree that there are many forms of grace and motivation for avoiding sin. I guess I would not contrast those with needing robust metaphors. I do think that how I imagine something does help me "know it's wrong." And, in fact, meditation on the positive value of purity helps me "know it's wrong" in a more healthy sense than simply meditating on any narrowly-conceived "why" (for example, I really wouldn't want to risk an STD).

    That said, I agree with what I think your main point is--that grace-oriented motivations are better than judgment-based or rule-based motivations.

  16. Wonderful post. I run into a lot of this kind of thing with the youth ministry that I work with. But what puzzles me is that, while I have made some real progress discussing this topic with the youth, parents for the most part seem resistant. 

  17. Nice post, and Unclean was awesome. A couple of thoughts:

    (1) The notion of "toxicity" invokes a purity metaphor, right? As in, "This is poisonous for the Church, and so we should spit it out." I wouldn't say it is hypocritical to use a purity metaphor to eject other purity metaphors ... on the contrary, you seem to be measuring back to purity what it has measured out. You are judging the judges, so that mercy can reign. Still, in doing this, I would say it is more like you are condescending to purity metaphors, eliminating them in their own terms, than like you are rising above them. I'm all for that, when it seems necessary, and I'm all for recognizing when we do that. But we do get our hands dirty in the process :)

    (2) One of my very favorite parts of Unclean was the end, when you explored the Eucharist as a remarkable transgression of all of the main impulses that instigate disgust. I nearly cried when I read that, because I thought it was so beautiful, and brought the entire book together so powerfully. I'd love to see more of that in your challenges to purity culture. It is powerful. At the same time, the Eucharist powerfully engages us on our own level, challenges us and, I would even say, makes us clean.

    (3) I have seen purity culture applied to fighting poverty, or to solidarity with the poor. I've seen it play out in political circles, in which "radicalism" of various sorts is taken as a purity marker, and I've seen friends "purged" from groups because of this. I think purity culture animates all kinds of political radicalism, from Tea Party groups to radical peace groups. We also see something similar in the Franciscans, when they begin to debate how long their robes can be without seeming to ostentatious, how much wealth must be purged from them, etc. So while some cultures may apply this selectively to sexuality, I think it can be, and has been, applied in other ways...and the results are often not very pretty there, either.

    (4) Has anyone ever researched ritual methods of purifying roach juice? Clearly, the participants in the study didn't feel that mechanical purification dealt with their feelings of disgust. But what if, after mechanically purifying the juice, a prayer was said over it? What if a priest blessed it? Would this have a differential effect on different people, based on their belief systems? I think that an experience of purification can, and does, happen. I've experienced it. I know people who have experienced it. It would be really neat to see research on what does accomplish this, given that simple sanitation doesn't.

  18. The "why" needn't be narrowly conceived at all.

    All of Christian morality is about loving others (with God first among others). Every moral tenet is about how to love others better; nothing is ever immoral that does not in some way harm others or inhibit our ability to love them. In charity, the goal is giving more rather than our self-deprivation. In kindness, the point is to do that which edifies others; not a list of mean things we shouldn't do. When it comes to sexuality, the pursuit should be for the positive virtue of faithfulness; not the unattainable goal of "purity".

  19. In some sections of the purity culture, it cuts that way for men, too. The last words I remember before she hung up the phone from breaking up with me years ago were "My parents said they thought I wanted to marry someone pure."

  20. I wonder if the way sexual sin/purity is viewed is directly related to the way original sin is defined. Evangelical culture is hung up on the description of it being a stain that we are all born with, thus penal substitution is the logical outcome (then representational authority, then Western civilization, etc). But God's metaphor to Cain always had me scratching my head. "Sin is crouching at your door".... Perhaps it is not essential to our nature. That is, we are essentially good, a good creation. Sin is the strong man who defiles the house. I would suggest that we choose to see purity in Scripture as having less to do with a spoiled nature and more to do with vocation. Defilement is anything that gets in the way of that vocation, we have to tie up the strong man, we are cleansed and we move on again towards the goal. The vocation is the participation in the reconciling of all things to God through Christ.

  21. That's an important counterpoint to the post. Maybe I'm right about women carrying a heavier burden than men in this regard, maybe I'm wrong and the burden is the same. Really doesn't matter as, at the end of the day, we have to talk about individual stories.

  22. Sara, I like your take on purity. If the metaphor of purity and defilement is connected with house-keeping, then remaining pure is impossible. Our house needs constant care and cleaning. Defilement is messy but inevitable, and our focus must be on proper cleansing. Like when the woman in Jesus' parable sweeps the floor to find her lost coin.

    When it comes to sexuality, it is interesting to note that Jesus is criticizing MEN for divorcing their wives or looking at other women with desire. Every time a woman is stigmatized for her (supposed) sexuality, Jesus defends her. So if we want to take Jesus seriously, we should be more concerned about the male gaze than female virginity.

  23. if it were just as impossible to tell if a woman is still a virgin as it
    is to tell if a man is -- I daresay there would be much more parity in
    the attitudes toward both genders.

    First of all, women can lose their hymens for a large number of reasons that have nothing to do with sex. I had mine surgically removed because it was blocking off my menses, and obviously that was LONG before I ever had sex. Cultures that value intact hymens have even developed surgical reconstruction of hymens to "disguise" women who have - for whatever reason - lost their hymens.

    And that discounts all the sexual acts that you can perform that don't involve vaginal penetration, which women are *still* made to feel "dirty" for. Though I know there are some "systems" that score oral or manual sex - literally, there are "purity tests" that you can take that supposedly tell you how pure you are based on what specific sexual acts you have performed. These tend to be

    This isn't about hymens being more obvious signs. This is about women's sexuality being a commodity in past cultures the way men's sexuality was generally not.

  24. Let me fix that second paragraph (it's late here in Japan):
    And that discounts all the sexual acts that you can perform that don't
    involve vaginal penetration, which women are *still* made to feel
    "dirty" for. Though I know there are some "systems" that score oral or
    manual sex "lower" than vaginal sex - literally, there are "purity tests" that you can take that
    supposedly tell you how pure you are based on what specific sexual acts
    you have performed. These tend to strike me as tools to say "well, at least I'm not as dirty as she is," redrawing the line on where the purity mark passes so you can get away with at least some sexual activity.

  25. I really like your emphases on love and faithfulness. Yet are you suggesting that everyone who has preached purity, in the OT or NT or church history, didn't get the primacy of love? Or of faithfulness?

    My modest suggestion is that once we have really accepted the primacy of love, kindness, and faithfulness, we may still need to flesh out that primacy with a broad project of imagining "what is good?" One small part of that project will be to avoid the sophistry that "if it doesn't directly hurt someone, it must be moral." (I'm not suggesting you think this--but it's an obvious temptation if we limit our moral language ONLY to love/ kindness/ charity).

    In some cases, I suggest, people are more loving because they have striven for the positive virtue of purity, as one component of their faithfulness. Purity is a tool in the arsenal of Christian moral formation--like self-control, patience, or humility. It is a way of imagining what sort of people we desire to be, and strive to be.

  26.  I just finished looking at Deuteronomy 22:13-21 for another purpose.

    I think that you've described the process of purity judgements over womens sexuality very well. The motivation for this process though seems to run deep and I don't truly get it. I don't feel like control over reproduction is sufficient to explain it. Unless there's some kind of resentment of the softening that fatherhood "inflicts" on men which explodes onto women if there is any uncertainty over the child they've given love to.

    I also think it might be precisely because a lot of sexual sins aren't sinful that a false economy of purity has to be created. When I don't give up wealth, children die, but when me and my defacto partner shag no-one gets "hurt" (quite the contrary) unless we create purity. Likewise only by manufacturing purity and its partner shame can we even bother to tell people that something like masturbation is a big no-no.

  27. Okay, since my first draft got flagged, let me retry:
    Loss of hymen may be used as proof of virginity, but the reality is that women can lose their hymens for a wide variety of reasons, from accidents to illness, and lack of hymen is not evidence of any sexual behavior. You argue that somehow the sense of a permanent physical change is the reason that sexual sin is attached to women as a mark of permanence, but the far more likely reason is that women's sexuality was seen as a possession of her husband, and "used goods" aren't as valuable as new ones.

    That work okay?

  28.  "are you suggesting that everyone who has preached purity, in the OT or
    NT or church history, didn't get the primacy of love? Or of

    No, though I believe many do and have done. But not getting it doesn't have to be the explanation, either. Getting it and not sufficiently applying it would suffice, and let's face it—that's something of which we are all guilty some times, to some extent.

    "One small part of that project will be to avoid the sophistry that "if
    it doesn't directly hurt someone, it must be moral." (I'm not suggesting
    you think this--but it's an obvious temptation if we limit our moral
    language ONLY to love/ kindness/ charity)."

    I don't say that, but I would say something close to it: something that isn't inherently harmful to another person is not inherently immoral. It can be, but it isn't necessarily. But on the other hand, the law of love is a law of positive virtue. Simply not hurting others is not the entirety of virtue, or even close to it. Failing to help others in need is also immoral.

    Nor do I believe that we should "limit our moral language" to Christian virtues, but the virtues should be prioritized and emphasized. I believe it's partly a problem of modern pedagogy. People are so used to being told WHAT to believe that they often fail to explain WHY they should believe it. We shouldn't say "don't have sex because it is sinful". We can say "don't have a casual regard for sexuality because you will form bad habits that will be bad for your relationships", or "don't be sexually unfaithful because it is a betrayal of the one person you should be loving", or something like that.

    Practical applications of Christian love to the matter of sex tell people WHY it should matter to them. Simply issuing prohibitions only annoys and alienates people. And unless someone understands the importance of faithfulness as an aspect of Love, no amount of moralizing is going to change their behavior. It is at that point that people who are focused on stamping out the sin more than redeeming the sinner start using the guilt and shame that is unavoidable in purity systems. Which brings us to your last point:

    "In some cases, I suggest, people are more loving because they have
    striven for the positive virtue of purity, as one component of their

    Perhaps. In the same way, abstention from alcohol by someone who earnestly believes that it is sinful may be counted as righteousness, but it is still wrong to impose that belief on people. But again we come to the distinction of "purity" that is at issue.

    Purity is an impossible goal. Failure is inevitable. And if Richard's analysis is correct (which I do not see anyone arguing it is not), then an inevitable consequence of that is unnecessary and counterproductive guilt, shame, and shunning. The fact that it "works" to produce the desirable result of sexual virtue does not mean that it ought to be pursued. God makes all things "work" to his glory, even the bad things. And even if the intentions behind it are commendable (which I would accept only in a heavily qualified sense), purity culture bears mixed fruit. And some of the fruit is poisonous.

  29. My comments go back to Deuteronomy 23:13-21 in which a newly wed husband may essentially annul his marriage if he does not "find [his wife] a virgin" when they have sex. In such a circumstance the woman is to be stoned to death for "playing the harlot" in her father's house. The only way to counter the charge is for the woman's father to present "evidence of virginity" (presumably bloody bed sheets from the wedding night that have been preserved against the chance of just such an accusation). Of course a newly wed wife can never make such a charge against her husband because there is no possible "evidence of virginity" for a man. My theory is that if neither party could ever have accused the other of "shameful deeds" without being caught in the act, the emphasis on virginity at marriage (while never a non-issue) might have been no greater for women than it is for men.

    Be that as it may, I do not disagree with your point that women were treated essentially as property and their behavior ultimately a reflection on their father or husband.

    In your other comment about "purity tests," I agree with your conclusion that they merely reinforce the idea that sexuality can be quantified and sexual acts measured against some scale of "less sinful" to "more sinful." It is just such Pharisaical "ranking" of behavior that Jesus is teaching against in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that lustful thoughts are as bad as the physical adultery because it is the condition of the heart that defines what is sinful, not the behavior per se.

  30. Terrified this will some how turn up on my facebook page!...
    All of this is very close to the bone. Saved aged 13 into a"purity" obsessed christian culture having been raped 6 months before. Whether or not I chose it (that glass didn't choose the cockroach) I was deeply shamed by the fact I was unable to wear a "True Love Waits" ring. A very kind and compassionate christian counsellor told me that the cross of christ had recycled me... I was now a "recycled virgin". All I could think of was a recycled notepad I had been given the christmas before. It had a beautiful silk cover but the paper had brown flecks through it. That was who I now was, recycled but fundametally always tainted. While I looked at my wonderful christian friends who were all perfect, new, (pure, you might say) printer paper, I was dirty and used... still functionable but nevertheless not of quite the same quality and value.
    My virginity already out the window, I thought of sexuality as something I had already failed at. There was no need for self restraint, the seal had been broken. I am aware that those who endorsed the purity culture would have been horrifed, but to me it was something even the cross of christ was unable to un-do, so what did it matter?
    Deeply shamed and confused I began to self-harm (interestingly this didn't happen after I was raped but instead after I became a christian) and close friends (jokingly) at university nicknamed me "damaged goods".
    I am aware that this is a very extreme example, and not something which would relate to many. Nevertheless I thought it important to point out that while I heartily believe that as christians we need to be a voice for good in the world, even the implication that something is beyond God's redemption is nothing less than satanic.
    Perhaps we need to learn new (grace filled) language to talk about virginity with our young people, perhaps we need to stop obsessing over one small issue, or perhaps we need a spirit-filled revival to teach us the true magnitude of the cross and its power.
    As a post script... I am now ordained, still in love with Jesus and much more willing to accept that the cross is bigger than my past. I still do not wear a "True Love Waits" ring.

  31. I will admit I am only just getting started on my close-reading of the legal sections of the Pentateuch, but I'm familiar with a lot of the passages on sex. Can you recall for me any verse where male virginity is required at marriage? It's not just a matter of it being "unprovable," it's that no one cared. The primary extramarital sin that man could commit was sleeping with a woman engaged to somebody else., i.e. infringing on another man's property. If he had sex with an unbetrothed woman, his only "punishment" was to marry her, for having "ruined" her (though presumably this allowed some couples to get married when their parents might otherwise have not approved... "Sorry, mom and dad, I have to marry her!").

    Male virginity wasn't demanded. Female virginity was. Unless you can find some verse I forgot?

  32. Jenny, I'm amazed to read your story, to see how in love with Jesus you are now, but at the same time sympathetic as to how you were treated. I'm in a similar position in that I was molested many times when younger, although obviously no two experiences can be compared. I do not believe that we are recycled; we are washed clean by Christ's blood, pure and made in his image. Whatever experiences were foisted upon us have no relevance to our identity in Him. By his love we are pure, and if we so choose, as entitled to wear a ring as anyone else.

    Personally, I have never wished to wear a ring, but I believe that to be because of the heavily secular culture I grew up in. Also, 'true love waits'... surely such a statement can denigrate other people's love? I don't believe that people love once, or if they love more than once that they give away a piece of themselves, never to be retrieved. If we trust in Christ, we are renewed. If we focus on the idea of there being only one person for everyone, we fall into the trap of waiting for Mr Right to appear in front of us, on our doorstep. I think dating is a good thing, and do not plan to have a rushed engagement. I believe there are many stages to love, and if you are married in the first blush of love, what is to say that it will work out happily.

    I hope that you have willingly decided to not wear that ring, rather than feeling unworthy. My prayers are with you :)

  33. I'd like to read more about what modern day purification ritual would look like.  I think it's an important distinction from feeling "forgiven" to feel "pure." I remember reading a fictional story in which a young girl of an ancient culture was gang raped just before her coming of age ceramony. The men were caught, beaten, and exiled; the girl recovered, but refused to participate in the cerimony. No amount of telling her that it wasn't her fault and that it didn't change anything would change her mind... until the priest devised a "purification" cerimony in which she was made ritually clean with hot water, chanting,  and incense.

    It is all fine and well to reject the purposful enculturation of purity, but what of us in the meanwhile who already absorbed it's message...or who take it in despite efforts to sheild us? Should we simply learn to live with our demons, or could they be made ritualy pure somehow?

  34. 'And try tacking "purity" onto any other sin. Fill in the blank: "__________ purity." Can you think of any sin--except "sexual purity"--that works in the blank, that doesn't sound weird when framed as a purity violation?'
    The reason it sounds weird is that "sexual purity" is not a sin, nor is "sexual." But I take your general point.

  35. Jenny, thanks so much for sharing this. The experience of rape takes this to a whole other place, a whole other level of shame, and stigma.

    But also, as in your story, a whole other level of courage, grace, beauty and redemption.

  36.  Is it possible the reason sexual purity is highlight and "different" is because Scripture calls it that way?  
    Paul writes, "Flee from sexual immorality.  Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?"  (1 Cor. 6:18-19)

    I'm wondering what the benefits/advantages are of lowering the bar for sexual purity.   The Bible seems to be full of admonitions to be sexually pure, in thought and deed.   Why, as Christians, are we suggesting otherwise?  Is it because we think we can't meet the demands Jesus makes of us?   Or won't? 

  37. Hi Dr. Beck - just read this brilliant piece about Elizabeth Smart - and knew you'd want to know about it:

  38. Love love love your post. I'm a married mom of five grown kids, and we have seen the church's effect on youth our kids' peers. Tragic. Interesting that just a quick glance of comments seem to run on gender lines -- pushback from males (no offense, it's just not the prejudice they have to live in), and more deep grasp of this situation from females. I look forward to many more great blogs.

  39. This is belated, but perhaps you can help. Since this topic blew up online, I've found lots of resources on recovery from purity culture for women, but none for men. In my case, I grew up pretty sheltered from purity culture, but my husband internalised the purity talks he received as a teenager, to the extent that he seems to regard his very normal desires as shameful towards me. Is anyone talking about the damage that purity culture has done to men?

  40. I haven't come across anything that really got into the effects on men. That's a troublesome oversight. Though I think the recommendations given about how to rethink the purity culture are generally applicable.

    Incidentally, the best work I've seen on dealing with shame is the work of Brene Brown. You may want to look into her TED talks and books. She began looking as shame in women but in her most recent book Daring Greatly discusses how she stumbled upon the massive amounts of hidden shame in men.

  41. I think the real problem comes when purity culture is combined with a naturally obsessive- compulsive disposition. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and so did my brother. I'm the one who got inordinately guilty over having crushes on people. I don't think my brother had that problem.

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