I’m working my way through Rachel Joy Welcher’s book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality and it’s a work of art.
Rachel covers the rise of “traditional values” taking over the American Christian culture in the 60s and 70s as a reactionary effort to combat the explosion of sexual liberation and the spike in sexually transmitted diseases. What began as an effort to stave off unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, financial instability, broken families, and homes ended up becoming a culture of virginity idolization, shame, sexual repression, and sexual misinformation that to this day continues to harm men and women within religious circles.
She covers the rise of purity rings and abstinence pledges, the idolization of virginity, female responsibilities, and male purity and the rhetoric of lust. These topics are covered in the first four chapters alone.
Purity Rings and Abstinence Pledges
Rachel makes mention of the proliferation of purity rings and abstinence pledges that swept the teen and youth markets, as youth leaders and itinerant panelists collected pledges from unassuming adherents as if they were trophies. Mind you, purity rings and pledges were made so that adherents, teens, mind you, could pride themselves in abstinence in hopes of making it to marriage without dipping their fingers into the cesspool of sexual depravity (my words). Teens found greater spiritual comfort in the ring on their hand than in the words of God and the grace afforded them through the efficacious work of Jesus on the cross. One woman reported that after getting married and bedding her husband she took her ring off, only to feel impure and unclean from removing the ring and resorting to wearing it again as if it were some mystical talisman that kept her spiritually clean. The ring and the pledge are what kept her spiritual purity intact.
The Idolization of Virginity
Then comes the idolization of virginity. How many of us are still struggling with the visuals of flowers being crushed, a sheet of paper being crumbled and then ripped to shreds, or a clay vase being shattered, as visual examples of what we would be like if we lost our virginity before marriage. We are all delicate creatures whose virginity must remain intact, pure, undefiled, and if we so much as submit to the heat of intercourse our lives are from there on blemished and our worth tainted forever. Like bruised roses, our beauty is dimmed. Like a ripped sheet of paper, our utility is lost. Like a shattered vase, we are forever deformed, even when put back together our life is deformed forever. And under this guise, teens and young adults went to lengths to engage in every form of sexual activity for extended periods of time to alleviate the tension of youthful sexual awakening inasmuch as they did not engage in intercourse itself. From manual stimulation to oral gratification, everything went, inasmuch as intercourse was left out of the equation. The idolization of virginity created a duality within Christendom where boys and girls who remained virgins until marriage were considered pure and holy, whereas those who had relinquished theirs were depraved and lost souls who no longer deserved a healthy and fulfilling marriage. People were not classified as saints saved by Christ and made righteous by His work. They were classified as holy and coveted because of their virginity. A culture of shame and ostracization bloomed in this era, making millions of sexually and spiritually uneducated youth feel like the possibility of having a successful and fulfilling marriage was gone because they had premarital sex. Being a virgin until marriage was the only way for one to be sexually fulfilled and maritally successful. No other metric is needed.
Female Responsibilities and Male Purity and the Rhetoric of Lust
Rachel delves into the disillusioned and harmful mindset that festers within this culture where a woman has the responsibility of controlling a man’s desires and lust. She must dress a certain way, independent of how robust and curvacious her God given body is. Her modesty and purity, and her male counterparts’ purity is dependent upon how she looks and behaves. Hence, whenever a woman is a victim of sexual violence and rape at a university campus, a train station, at home, a church, or anywhere in the world, the generic and demonic question usually is: What was she wearing?
Rachel states that within this culture, a woman has to dictate to a man what is and what is not acceptable, sexually speaking, within a relationship. She must dress modestly, whatever the culture, usually run by men, dictates is modest enough for her to wear so as not to tempt men. And here, men are seen as savage sexual beasts who have no control or restraint over their sexual appetites and women are to prevent and control this animalistic side in them. Therefore behaving seductively is prohibited because such behavior is an invitation for sexual assault. Women are not to tempt men. Women are to set boundaries. Women this. Women that. There’s an unforgiving weight of responsibility placed on women and women alone to be the pillar of a man’s sexual purity or the sole responsible agent of sexual assault.
What. The. Hell.
Not just that, but women are to be sexually rigid vessels, frigid and cold to the thought of sexual activity until their honeymoon where they are to know everything a man wants, unleash themselves as often and liberally to whatever her husband wants, protect him from seeking sexual gratification outside the home by offering herself up as a sexual opiate to him as much as possible, even if there is pain, exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and no pleasure derived from the act.
A woman is to be like a light switch, sexually inactive for the better part of the first two to three decades of her life and at a moment’s notice, without her consent or understanding, become the most sexually active being on the planet.
She is a machine and at the same time a princess on a pedestal. Her worth is valued by her virginity before marriage and by her sexual prowess and promiscuity with her husband once married. She is not allowed to think freely about what healthy sex life is like before marriage because thinking like that gets her tagged with unmentionable monikers.
Girls aren’t supposed to talk about sex before marriage. That’s uncomely of them. If they do then their sexually active, depraved, and filthy.
All this without evidence, of course.
Rachel explains that within purity culture, a man is an animal who struggles with insatiable sexual lusts that can only be tamed by a wife and if she is unavailable for any particular amount of time he will be forced to seek that gratification through pornography or adultery. And the person left with the blame of the husband’s infidelity is the wife for not, as Rachel states, “being sexually available enough.”
Purity Culture creates an unbiblical and psychologically damaging atmosphere where our worth is dictated by our sexual choices, whereas, a virgin is pure and someone who is not a virgin is sexually filthy and spiritually sick. We’re measured not by our stance before a Redeeming God but by a Christianized Culture’s idea of what purity is: virginity.
Rachel does not dismount or dethrone the bible but she elevates its worth when it comes to sex and sexuality. She amplifies how the bible speaks that a man should not withhold sex from his wife and vice versa. That sexual fulfillment goes both ways. Both men AND women are sexual beings who truly enjoy and find peace in fulfilling sexual experiences within marriage. She dismantles the idea that women are but vessels of man’s gratification. A place where a beast goes to alleviate its ramped-up hormones and then moves on to its more mundane tasks, returning to a civilized state until it needs sex again.
This is dismissive of God’s true intent in human sexuality.
And purity culture has done more damage to Christian youths and adults today than the sexual revolution ever did in the 60s. Millions of people thought that all they had to do was hold out until reaching their honeymoon and voila, they have a successful marriage, but so many have found that this purity culture was all a lie. They were cheated of a healthy education about what true biblical purity really is, what sex is supposed to be like, what body autonomy really is, what God says about sex, and etc.
Thinking that if they got the ring, made the pledge, set boundaries, dressed appropriately, behaved correctly, and then suddenly became sexually available for their husbands/wives in the blink of an eye once married that they need not worry about anything else, ever again.
It’s a myth. An unbiblical myth. It’s ungodly and unChristian teaching that creates an aura that praises and elevates legalism and self-righteousness within the body of Christ.
I’m only four chapters into this revelatory book and I’m hellbent on writing more about this topic because I’ve lived in and through, and thankfully, survived the purity culture. I was there. I took the ring. Made my pledge. I always thought the girl I was dating or pursuing had to set our sexual boundaries. I believed that we could reach every base on the field inasmuch as we did not consummate our relationship with intercourse.
Thanks to Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye (which he has since denounced, divorced his wife, and abandoned Christianity) millions of teens and young adults avoided dating because the concept of engaging the opposite sex romantically was deemed an unholy venture. Holding hands, exchanging kisses, hugs, discussing a future together whilst dating was deemed unchristian and millions of people entered marriage without any sort of social or relationship skills thinking that their absence from the dating scene early in life would accentuate their marriage in the future. Little did they know is that they entered into a lifelong commitment with someone they were and are incompatible with, whose temperant is childish, whose maturity is nonexistent, whose ability to communicate, disastrous and here, in this holy union they are bound to shame, guilt, and ungratifying sex life.
I’m not saying this to make the reader believe one should be as sexually promiscuous as possible before entering marriage for the sake of acquiring sexual “skills” whatever that means, but that there are two extremes to this topic, and Christians were taught to believe that purity culture was not an extreme when in reality it was just as harmful as having no boundaries whatsoever in one’s dating and sex life.
The difference between the sexual revolution of the 60s and the Purity Culture that began in the 70s and continues to this day is that one of these extremes is supported, unbiblically so, by bible-believing Christians.
I cannot wait to finish Talking Back To Purity Culture to further understand how proof-texting the Bible and adhering to cultural standards of purity, instead of biblical standards of purity, sanctity, and righteousness, is one of the greatest blemishes of the 20th and 21st-century church.
We must recoup a healthy biblical and psychologically healthy understanding of the beautiful and complex bodies God has given us and how they are made for procreation but also sexual gratification. We must not shy away from the beauty of intercourse but we mustn’t destroy this divine gift by exploiting it either.
There is danger in exploitation as much as there is in repression.
The sexual revolution was but the reaction of repressed people rediscovering sex in the public square. The purity culture was but the reaction to the sexual revolution. If we keep on being reactionary about sexuality we will get to a point in history where we no longer know what normal sexuality even is.
We can do better. We should.
One healthy hermeneutic at a time.
Read Rachel’s book, people! Read it and weep! Weep from the joy that you’re free from an ungodly purity culture and free to serve God, forgiven, renewed, righteous, and made in His image.
Now go on about your business.
Featured Image belongs to Rachel’s book. It was modified to fit into a collage in order to become the main image for this post.