Irreparable Damage: The Problem of Christian Purity Culture

What we call Christian “purity culture” in America has developed in the last few decades as a reaction against loosening sexual morality, and it focuses not only on refraining from sex (and other acts like fantasizing or kissing) before marriage, but also on strict rules of modesty that are mostly directed at girls and women. It spawned the True Love Waits campaign that was a staple at the Baptist youth conferences and camps that I attended as a teenager in the mid-90s.

In conservative religious circles, purity culture has also prompted the popularity of daddy-daughter dances and dating (I’m all for dads spending time with their daughters, but over-romanticizing it as a ‘date’ is somewhat creepy, as in this video).

Purity balls are even creepier, if not downright horrifying from a feminist standpoint: in one variation of this marriage-like ceremony, a young woman stands up with her father, who gives her a purity ring and pledges to exercise his authority over her, specifically over her purity (i.e. modesty and virginity). Meanwhile, the daughter silently commits herself to remain pure. She does not even get to pledge on her own behalf. 

I have two responses to such ceremonies: the first is “Ick!” and the second is, “What about the boys?”

Well, the founders of the same purity ball described above explain on their website how they provide a supposedly similar experience for their sons, who at age twelve have a “manhood ceremony” in which they are given a purity ring that reminds them to honor God (not the authority of their fathers) and an enormous sword to symbolize “the incredible privilege and responsibility we [that is, men] have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God.”

So, while girls silently give up all authority over themselves and their bodies to their fathers, boys are given a (very large and phallic) symbol of their incipient manly authority at the symbolic age when Jesus began to speak and ask questions. The founders also invite boys to attend the purity ball to see how their fathers treat young women, which is essentially as passive pieces of property over whom they have authority, most particularly in matters of sexuality.


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Image: “How to Handle Your Females” by nakedpastor, in response to purity culture.


This is not surprising, considering that a great deal of sexual morality has always been aimed primarily at controlling women and their bodies. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible is essentially an economic transaction in which the wife and her resulting offspring became property of the husband. Strict sexual standards for women ensured that babies born into a family were legitimate heirs, and marriage practices sought to ensure that men had heirs to continue the family and preserve its property (i.e. levirate marriage, polygyny, divorcing a barren wife, or producing heirs using slave women). Men, especially powerful ones, had much more sexual liberty than women, and most rules regarding sexuality and marriage practices were for the direct benefit of men.

Although Jesus and Paul advocated a more gender-neutral standard for sexual morality and a more precise definition of marriage (bye-bye multiple wives, slaves, and concubines), throughout history men in western cultures have been granted much more leniency to have sexual relationships outside of marriage than women have. Thus, we have no female equivalents of popular philandering archetypes like Don Juan or Casanova because such behavior in a woman simply made her a whore.

While I am all for self-control in sexual behavior and for fathers taking an active role in guiding their daughters, purity culture is pernicious because it continues the promotion of double standards for girls and boys. It takes away any authority that girls have over their own bodies and gives it first to their fathers and then to their husbands. It also gives boys and men the idea that they have a right and a responsibility to control female bodies.

Critics of purity culture have rightly linked it to male entitlement and even to rape culture because of the way it takes away women’s autonomy. In addition to these critiques, purity culture can be extremely harmful to women’s spiritual lives (and probably men’s as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now). Here is my take on the reason why:

Purity culture takes sex and puts it into a category of its own so that it seems like the most egregious act that person can commit. It also places an undue burden on girls and women to avoid sexual desire–both their own and male desires that might be incited by their bodies or clothing. It also sends a message to young women that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their sexual purity.

Generally speaking, men have always been expected to have sexual desires, and to be sexually aggressive, while women have been expected to be pure and passive. Consequently, a young man’s sexual transgression is more likely to be seen as a slip up or a mistake that does not detract his inherent worth. This is because men are not understood to be automatically altered or damaged by a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, a woman’s loss of virginity before marriage has been understood as an irreversible alteration of her body and as a permanent stain on her character, and the social and psychological implications of these ideas are still very much with us (for instance, in gender-biased metaphors used to teach abstinence).

Sins can be forgiven, but virginity cannot be restored, which means that if a young woman makes a wrong decision about sex, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it can become long-lasting and even permanent. The sin may be forgivable, but being forgiven does us little good if we are unable to accept that forgiveness and grant it to ourselves.

Shame hinders the holy work of grace and forgiveness and separates us from God. It can also isolate us from our faith communities because of our fear of condemnation and rejection.

Purity culture attaches so much gravity and shame to one particular act, especially for girls, that if they transgress sexual boundaries, they can end up feeling like they have done irreparable spiritual damage to themselves. Girls need to know that they are worth more than their virginity before marriage, or their purity afterwards.

Christian culture needs to teach self-control in sexual matters, but not in a way that takes away young women’s autonomy and encourages male entitlement over women’s sexuality. Girls need to be given the guidance and then the authority to make positive decisions about their own bodies without a heavy cloud of unequal expectations and potential shame hanging over their heads.


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