Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Purity Culture and Chastity

As I've grown older in Christian circles, I've heard a lot of negative re-assessments of what people have labeled the "purity culture" which held some sway in Evangelical and Catholic circles during the 1990s and early 2000s.  As with many terms, what this is applied to can vary.  I'll take it here to mean what I think is the most common usage, referring to a type of evangelization which was used to encourage teens to not have sex outside of marriage.  Since the goal was to encourage kids who had not yet had sex to avoid fornication, this evangelization tended to focus on teaching and rituals designed to emphasize the importance of maintaining the virginity which it was assumed the audience still possessed.

The rituals involved included the giving and wearing of "purity rings" (which symbolized a promise to remain pure until marriage), the signing of chastity pledges, proposals for replacing dating with "Christian courtship", and Father/Daughter purity dances (sometimes accentuated by white dresses for the daughters to symbolize the purity they were supposed to maintain.)

Teaching often focused on a purity vs. contamination metaphor for avoiding sex: Would you want to chew used bubble gum?  Would you want to drink from a bottle of water full of backwash?  Well then why would you want to marry a spouse who'd had sex with other people?  You should avoid having sex until marriage so your spouse won't feel like they're sleeping with lost of other people when they sleep with you.

As with many invented rituals, the rituals of the purity movement could be hokey, which more than any principled stand was why they didn't appeal to me at the time.  Looking back, however, what seems most problematic was the fact that the rituals but most especially the teaching placed such an emphasis on virginity that they seemed to hint that if someone did have sex before marriage, she was permanently contaminated and there was no path back to virtue and salvation for her.

A piece of gum, after all, really only has value as a thing to chew.  If it's already been chewed, it has no value and becomes something useless.  A person is unlike a piece of gum.  A person has value simply for being a person, made in the image and likeness of God.  A person who has sinned by choosing to have sex outside of marriage is not of less value as a person.  They have sinned, but their innate value and dignity is the same.  Because a piece of gum is good only for use (and only desirable for use if it's un-chewed) there's no sense in which a piece of gum can return to virtue.  However, for a person, no matter how many sins we have committed, it is always good to commit to not sinning again.  We never reach a point where we are so spoiled that it just doesn't matter if we sin any more.

None of these misinterpretations of these metaphors occurred to me at the time.  If you'd asked the teenaged me whether someone who had been unchaste once was ruined forever and thus might as well keep sinning, I would have said, "Of course not!"  But apparently plenty of emotionally vulnerable people did take these examples to mean exactly that, and the harm done was real.

To what extent the people who taught this way believed there was no recovery from sin is, I suppose, an open question.  Certainly, I remember lots of "I used to be a sinner, but now I've changed and I'm waiting to find the perfect spouse" testimonies that went around.  I even remember my native Los Angeles Times running an indignant and perplexed piece about how a local evangelical youth movement was encouraging high school girls with sexual histories to commit to "second virginity" and renounce further sex until marriage.  The author of the piece conceded that the youth pastors involved did apparently realize this didn't cause physical virginity to grow back, but they still seemed to find the whole thing to involve magical thinking.

But regardless, it's important that when people teach on behalf of the truth they do so in a way which conveys the truth as clearly as possible, and I think there's a good case to be made that many of these purity-based metaphors failed in that regard.

All of which is to say: I think there are legitimate complains to make against the 'purity culture' as it existed conservative religious circles in my youth.

That said, however, I want to poke at the confidence with which people reject it.  Because while some of the metaphors used to urge people to maintain their virginity were metaphors that tended to obscure the truth, I think it's worth pointing out that the project of encouraging young people who are virgins to remain so until they get married is not itself wrong.  The problem with these purity metaphors is not that they emphasized that fornicating was wrong, it's that they suggested that someone who had fornicated was then worthless or irredeemable.  However, encouraging someone to maintain their virginity until marriage is not in itself bad.  It is good.

Why should we say that avoiding fornication entirely (in other words, never voluntarily losing one's virginity until marriage) is a good and important thing?  Isn't that in and of itself over-emphasizing the importance of 'purity'?

Perhaps it's easier if we think for a moment about sins which it remains fashionable to consider always and everywhere wrong.

Is it important for a man to maintain the purity of never having beaten his wife?  Are we over-emphasizing the important of sinlessness and discouraging the sinners if we say that a man should never, ever, haul off and smack the woman he loves, no matter how bitter their disagreements?  Are we unfairly smearing men who've beaten just a few women if we suggest that women should consider a man who has beaten other women permanently suspect?  Are we suggesting that there's no forgiveness and thus writing such men off forever?

Of course, I would hope we all agree that it is not at all unreasonable to emphasize not just that guys should overall, most of the time, especially once they settle down, avoid hitting women too much, but rather that they never, ever hit women, that they not do it even the first time.  Why?  Because abuse is wrong.  Does that mean that a man who commits that sin can never be forgiven, that he has no value as a person and might as well keep doing it because there's no redemption?  No.  We emphasize that he should not sin in this way even once not because he'll cease to have human value if he sins, but rather because it's a bad, destructive thing to do and we don't want the bad effects of this sin to touch either him or the person he committed such a sin against.

Now, if we admit that fornication is in fact wrong and destructive (which as Christians we should) then clearly we should desire that any person for whom we wish the good (and we should wish everyone the good) not commit this sin even once.  In other words, we should wish them to maintain their virginity until marriage.

So while it's important that Christians avoid the use of teaching metaphors and rituals that suggest people only have value to the extent that they remain 'pure' for the later use of another person, encouraging young people to maintain their virginity until marriage is not something we should feel embarrassed to do.  It is a good and worthwhile thing to teach young people to avoid sin.


BenK said...

You have hit the core problem with a purity culture. The problem is that all notions of purity reinforce the asymmetry of contamination. A tiny contamination ruins the purity of the whole thing.

However, alternative notions are that either:
1. Deeds don't matter at all - only intentions, emotions, the heart, etc.
2. That the magnitude or number of the offenses count and that they can either be compared or even outweighed by good deeds.
3. People are equally valuable no matter who they are.

All four of these ideas have some core truth they reflect and they are in fact in tension with each other. There are worse things, intentions are very important, and impurity is an irreversible taint, all people are in the image of God.

All of the ideas have core flaws.
Some people are the branch that will be thrown into the fire, some people produce more for the Kingdom, deeds are what flows from the heart, and forgiveness is a reality.

So - what is the underlying unity? Perhaps the parable of the japanese bowls; where a beautiful bowl should be protected from injury... unique and created perfectly... but then it gets chipped, broken, and shattered in hard use (the metaphor breaks down because the bowl causes some of the problems itself - and bad intentions tend to break other bowls). Big cracks are worse than small ones. But then it is repaired with gold paste that makes the repairs part of a new beauty. The old beauty isn't recovered, and the pattern can be more or less evident through the repairs; the best repair jobs take a long time and are artwork all their own.

So we have all the facets represented to some degree. Best to avoid cracks. Even more important not to crack other bowls. Even one crack ruins the original bowl. All bowls started equal and are equally capable of being repaired to a new pattern of unique value.

DMinor said...

The culture , at least the Internet culture, carries that concept of irredeemablilty to this day. Once you mess up, it would appear that you are forever condemned. And the Internet makes it so easy to dig back even into childhood for things that make you “unacceptable”.

Darwin said...


Really good point about how all these ideas have flaws.


Yeah, the effort to establish who is a "good person" and who isn't seems to cause a lot of this modern moral confusion.

GeekLady said...

BenK, even the analogy of Kintsugi is prone to misuse. I’ve been told that, eventually, the gold joined pottery became so highly prized that people would deliberately break bowls so they could be repaired with gold.

Anonymous said...

Amen! The church does not teach purity at all, as far as I have seen. Can't recall ever hearing any priest or laity teach about why chastity is important (before and during marriage). Of course, maybe it just seems obvious, but teens especially need to be given the support of people they know gently encouraging them to a life of purity.

Happy Christmas!