Purity culture is a term that refers to a movement, if you will, born of the 90s in evangelical Christian circles, though certainly not limited to them. This movement, which completely ignores LGBTQ individuals, took special aim at trying to return girls and young women to the days where females were judged good or bad based on chastity. Plainly put, the job of a good female was to remain a virgin until her wedding night, and during her growing up years to maintain modesty and decorum in dress and behavior at all times. Now this is also something most patriarchal cultures outside of religion hold at a high premium—a daughter whose marriageability is dependent on her “unsullied” past and innocence in the ways of sexuality.
In the United States, many Christian denominations take purity culture to all kinds of levels—father/daughter balls where a young girl publicly pledges the keeping of her virginity until marriage, to her father in exchange for a purity ring to be surrendered on her wedding day (a bit creepy if you ask me). There were books (who remembers I Kissed Dating Goodbye? Yeah, that author has rethought that project since), conferences (where teens who’d done the deed cried in public confessions in sports arenas), pacts between groups of young girls in their church youth classes, purity pledge cards, etc.
Essentially, purity culture taught girls that chastity before marriage was a holy ideal that was to be valued above everything else. EVERYTHING else.
Is it bad to remain a virgin until marriage? No, of course not. The truth is, going that route is 100% effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy, contracting SDIs, and saving oneself emotional and self-worth issues (especially for those not mature enough to handle a sexual relationship). However, that idea isn’t as commonly accepted as it once was, thus society has indeed moved the goal posts. And it’s because of that shift that purity culture was born, but here’s how it does damage.
- Purity culture puts an unfair amount of responsibility on the female alone. On a foundational level, it asserts that the female body exists solely to please a man. Thus, a young woman is pretty much a temptress whose physical beauty and “parts” for lack of a better word, must be guarded at risk of bringing shame upon herself, her family, and her faith, should she “slip.” The role of the male in all this places them as nothing more than hungry fiends ready to pounce, and a “good” girl is always in defense mode.
- It breeds a crushing atmosphere of guilt, shame, and fear; almost certainly guaranteeing hypocrisy and disillusionment.
- It places all sense of self-worth on sexuality and virginity, so that if those things are compromised, a person amounts to nothing. Anyone heard the chewed-up piece of gum analogy? Lots of young women even today have been shown a lovely, fresh piece of gum. But when the gum is chewed and spat out, they are asked if anyone would want that used gum. Girls who have sex before marriage are chewed pieces of gum.
- It warps a person’s concept of being loved and valued by God just as they are, and in an ironic way, blames God. How? For a group of people who believe firmly in the flawless creation of humanity by a master designer God, the female body appears to be a problem. In its beauty and alluring nature, God, it turns out, made something no more than a troublesome, loaded weapon.
- Purity culture provides fertile ground for low self-esteem and mental health issues. When shame, guilt, and fear are primary motivators all connected to a physical body, how exactly are young women (and men) supposed to transform into well-adjusted marriage partners with healthy attitudes toward sexuality?
- It can push forward a completely warped version of the female body to the point where girls are so ashamed of what is natural, they will not seek medical help for issues that arise.
- It can actually feed into rape culture, by causing a young person to feel that their actions or dress sent “messages” that got them what they “deserved.” Wearing a short skirt? She asked for it. This goes dangerously further in that a young person may feel so ashamed of their perceived failure they stay silent, failing to see sexual assault for what it really is: an act of violence and dominance by a sick person.
I think many parents can agree on wanting their children to remain safe from disease, feel emotionally secure and confident, and enter parenthood on their own terms at the time that is right for them according to their personal values. But what is so important is to teach kids to see that the responsibility for treating oneself with the utmost respect lies on both boys and girls, however they identify. Full autonomy over their bodies is their right. And right up there with that is the need to reinforce the truth that the beauty a person possess’ inside and out can’t be removed by losing one’s “purity.”
It is a tough world out there. And we do well to be careful, discerning, and smart in our decisions. But there are better ways to help young people make smart choices for themselves that do that don’t meld fear mongering with emotional, spiritual, and mental manipulation.