If you’re keeping up with the purity discussion these days (and I don’t know how many people are), there are a lot of articles out there decrying the purity lessons we were taught as young women in the church. This backlash against the purity movement reached a fever pitch when Elizabeth Smart recently made a public statement partially correlating the purity lessons she was taught as a child with her inability or unwillingness to escape from her sexually abusive captors. Most of the discussion surrounding the issue leads back to the point that the “object lessons” are the problem, because they objectify women and undermine their inherent value. Whether you are chewed up gum, an unwrapped present, or the proverbial cow who won’t be bought if the milk is free, the main conclusion of the discussion is that everything we were taught about purity was phrased wrongly. It is appalling that girls have been hearing from churches a worldview that would shame them in such a horrible situation as sexual abuse. Anyone who is the victim of sexual crime should be getting hope from Christ, not a church that heaps worthlessness on top of victimization. That situation is an extreme one that reveals that what girls are hearing from the purity books and the discussion in their churches is causing them to view the lifestyle of purity wrongly. But while there are many articles from both Christians and non-Christians about the problems with past purity conversation, nothing I have seen seems to offer suggestions for how to continue this discussion in a way that is appropriate. As a woman who agrees that the analogies are unnecessarily shaming and objectifying, but who also hopes to some day have conversations with her children about saving sex for marriage, I would like to get the ball rolling on ways that this topic can be discussed in an edifying way. We should not be ending the discussion by defaming and railing against the wrong ways it has been discussed in the past. Yes, the current way a lifestyle of sexual purity has been presented to us is flawed, but we can’t move towards something better if we spend all of our time wallowing in how wrong the old ways were. We need to start identifying betters ways of discussing the topic.
I bought into the purity movement wholeheartedly at the age of 13. My parents gave me a purity ring for my 13th birthday, and it is a gift and a memory I treasure to this day. While I was blessed not to hear many object lessons from people in my church, I read many books on the subject and took them to heart. I “kissed dating goodbye” right along with Joshua Harris, and I planned on “Saving My First Kiss” for the one I would marry. Fast forward a few years, and I was dating my high school boyfriend, who, ironically, introduced me to Joshua Harris’ book. My plan to save my first kiss definitely didn’t last very long. I struggled with feelings of guilt and shame over this, and I stayed in an unhealthy and immature relationship far too long out of fear that no other man would want “damaged goods.” Looking back, I wonder why it is girls who bought into this so much more deeply than the guys did. My ex didn’t believe that he was unworthy of another relationship after the one he had with me. It may have been due to the shift of responsibility to women not to cause men to lust that is inherent in the modesty discussion, which I may discuss another day. But it is also clear that the purity movement was marketed to girls. From jewelry to purity balls, everything about the purity discussion has been couched in highly romantic language. Girls believed that only if we waited, we would get “true love,” untarnished by the pieces of our heart that we had given away along the way. We could throw a party for our first kiss if it was given to the right person. There was a Prince Charming who truly valued chastity and modesty waiting for us at the end of this long wait, and if we waited long enough, some day that prince would come.
Not only was purity romanticized, it was presented as a means to an end. Dressing modestly and abstaining from any sort of sexual activity was the way to earn a man who treated you like a princess and a happily ever after. Even the “true love” language is reminiscent of the Disney princess movies girls soaked up when we were small. Many of us thought we had found the key that would allow us to get what we had dreamed of since we were little girls: a happily ever after. But the other side of this coin is that God owes the girls who are chaste a fairytale future marriage. We unknowingly believed we could manipulate God into giving us the desires of our hearts. If true love waits, it waits for a spouse. The motivation here is focused on attaining that goal, not on honoring the One who gave us life in our bodies. Anyone who fell short of this mark of chastity was an “unwrapped present” who didn’t deserve happily ever after. So we struggled for the position of power in the situation and strove to earn what can only be a blessing and a gift from God. And when we missed the mark, whether it be by giving our first kiss to the wrong guy or giving much more than that, we believed that all of our hopes and dreams were shattered.
Why were girls hearing all of these false things in the purity lessons they were being taught? While some in the church may have been intentionally trying to subjugate and objectify women in order to avoid responsibility for their own actions, I think for the most part Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and parents had good intentions and were trying to communicate important truths to children and young adults that they loved and for whom they wanted the best. This is an issue where remembering your audience is critical. Children and teens are prone to see things in black-and-white absolutes, hence the “how far is too far?” discussion that occurs in every youth group across America. As an adult, I can distinguish to some extent between what the adults in my life were trying to teach me, versus what I was hearing and believing about what it meant to live a lifestyle of purity. But in attempting to make the topic palatable and understandable to younger generations, we have overemphasized and oversimplified the discussion. It is much more nuanced to teach a child a heart of purity, rather than just the act of abstaining from sex. And as a result, too much of the discussion is phrased in language that is painting the wrong picture to girls. “Saving yourself” for marriage is used interchangeably with abstinence, as if your sexual status of virgin or non-virgin is your whole self. This makes the sin of premarital sex not just important, but all-important. Virginity is a gift that you give to your future spouse on your wedding night that shows that you had enough “true love” for them before you even met that you waited to have sex. What is left to deduce from this kind of context except that if you do not save this very special gift for your spouse, you have nothing else to give?
So where do we go from here? Do I think the whole topic should be thrown out and abandoned altogether? Definitely not. I do think it is time to start developing a more nuanced discussion of the topic. Words are powerful, and we need words in this discussion that edify girls and set them on the path towards righteousness, not just abstinence. I would love some input from mothers who are older and wiser than I am on this subject. And I would love for a discussion to begin that includes ways of discussing the topic in a way that edifies girls instead of objectifying them. How do we communicate to our daughters that they are so much more than their sexual status, while still impressing upon them the value of saving sex for marriage? There is room for guilt when the sin is committed, but when we make premarital sex the ultimate sin, the impression is given that there it is a sin beyond forgiveness. Just as Hosea went after Gomer and loved her despite her sexual sin against him, we serve a God who relentlessly pursues and forgives this sin just as He does others. We need to find a way to communicate that while your future spouse should value a committed lifestyle of chastity, the commitment to purity is not a gift you give your husband, but a way of presenting your body as a living sacrifice to God. (Romans 12:1) And that is the heart of the issue: How do we teach girls that this is an act of worship and love towards their Heavenly Father, instead of a way to earn His blessing of a good marriage? How do we teach a heart of purity instead of moralized to-do list?