Impure: The Fairy Tale

A good story isn’t always true.

Often times traditions, social norms, and cultures are taught through stories. These narratives aren’t necessarily real but they communicate a specific message. Some stories are short, others are long. There is one story in particular, a fairy tale in fact, that has had a grasp on the most intimate parts of young minds.

This fairy tale is both vintage and modern: boy meets girl, or rather princess awaits her prince. The princess is told her prince will come and scoop her up from her father’s tall tower, a tower meant to protect her from the gremlins and dangers of the world below. The prince will come, and after he’s scaled the tower, she’ll have her first kiss and the most amazing, mind blowing, married sex she’ll ever have. Because she’s waited for him, their life together will be perfect. Their household, finances, children, spiritual lives will all be in order. All will be right in their world.

Purity culture has captured this story and run with it, adding several myths along the way. Maybe you’ve heard a variation or two of it? I know I have. You’ll find several Christian dating books full of whimsical promises and descriptions of the ideal (and highly romanticized) forms of masculinity and femininity one should look for and strive to uphold.

Promising Purity

Purity balls are a good example of this fairy tale in action. Originally started by the Wilson family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, (which is also home of Focus on the Family,) a purity ball invites fathers to escort their young daughters to a banquet where they each promise to protect/maintain sexual purity until she is married. Fathers are to be their daughter’s “authority and protection” and “high priest,” according to the Wilson’s website. There’s usually a fancy meal and choreographed dance involving a wooden cross. Some fathers present their daughters with purity rings to symbolize their protection of and her commitment to “purity.” It feels a little bit like a wedding. (Maybe too much like a wedding?)

Also in the 1990s the Southern Baptist Convention promoted the campaign, True Love Waits. Youth across the United States and abroad signed their names on small cards pledging to save their sexual debut until (assumed heterosexual) marriage. Often this pledge was accompanied with a silver ring on the left ring finger to symbolize their commitment. Countless ministries and churches caught on and promoted sexual purity in a variety of ways, including marketing great (married) sex to sell abstinence through concerts, retreats, t-shirts, jewelry, books, etc. This message reached more people than we might admit at first. (Even the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings for a hot minute.)

Inspired by True Love Waits, Joshua Harris wrote and sold millions of copies of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book that offered his perspective on romantic relationships. Rather than dating casually, he encouraged his readers in the practice of courtship, which should be initiated by the interested male speaking to the young woman’s father to gain permission for their eventual marriage. To court instead of date would protect someone from the trouble of multiple heartbreaks, as well as unnecessary sexual baggage in their future marriage.

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A daughter and father duo en route to a purity ball. This photo was captured by David Magnusson. View the rest of this project here.

Does true love really wait?

Thinking of sexual “purity” in terms of this fairy tale narrative is not helpful. It sounds nice and uncomplicated but sadly there are no formulas for a magical marriage, nor is marriage a goal for everyone. The Southern Baptist Convention was recently found to have over 700 silenced or ignored victims of sexual violence in the last 20 years. Harris has discontinued his earliest publications after testimonies revealed the shame, guilt, and relational disasters that happened per his unscriptural advice. The sparkly fairy tale is only a mask on a prosperity gospel message. “Do this and God will give you this.” It doesn’t take long to find out God isn’t a vending machine.

Research is finding that virginity pledges aren’t universally effective. Those who pledged at an early age in a smaller group did significantly delay having sex. Yet, 88% of those who pledge still engage in premarital sex. (95% of people in the US have premarital sex, according to this study.) Pledges might delay one’s sexual debut, but they do not prevent STIs/STDs any better than non-pledgers. Chances are the virginity pledges are taking place in or alongside an abstinence-only “educational” approach, which means many of the 88% may be having sex with little to no information on safe sex practices or what to do when sexual violence occurs. Is misinformed “abstinence” any better than safe sex? It doesn’t appear so.

Pledged and unprepared, the damaging myths of purity culture run much deeper than even the fairy tale story we tell. While I work on that post, catch up on other posts in this series:

Impure: In Defense of the American Family

Nothing is created in a vacuum. Purity culture is quite the mix of misguided pastoral care and political concepts. The rise of a sexual purity doctrine isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in church history, nor do I believe the church is done wrestling with their attempt at counter-cultural sexual ethics. Here I want to focus on just a couple key elements in purity culture’s recent history.

Dr. James Dobson

The purity culture you may have been raised in was shaped by many different political movements and people throughout the 20th century but one figure in particular kept appearing in the research I read: Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. (Adventures in Odyssey, anyone?)

photo from latimes.com

In the 1970s through the early 2000s, Dobson’s career grew from psychology to pastoral care, and yet again to politics. His books and radio show on children and parenting became popular amongst Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. During this time society was exploring a sexual revolution, rights to abortion and contraception, the equal status of women and those included in the LGBTQ+ community — things Dobson argues will destroy the American family.

In defense of the family unit, Dobson believes and advocates for the following:

  • Families, and associated values, should return to “the ‘Happy Days’ of the 1950s” with traditional gender roles. (Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, 1990.)
  • Sexual immorality is a “threat to survival” for healthy families, who are to be a reflection of the created order, (i.e. the conservative understanding of gender hierarchy as believed to be found in the Adam and Eve’s relationship.) Sexual sin has the power to “destroy the institution of the family.” (Emotions: Can You Trust Them? and The New Dare to Discipline, both published in 1992.)
  • Sexual liberation, as seen in the 1960s-1970s, was a “social, spiritual, and physiological disaster.” To save a nation, Dobson believed you must save the family. (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)
  • Secular sex education “breaks down the natural barriers between the sexes and makes familiarity and casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids — especially girls — of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology and condom usage made explicit in co-ed situations.” (Dobson advocates against comprehensive sex education.) (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)

Now let it be known, Dobson is not solely responsible for the sexual purity movement. There were many other authors, pastors, public figures or groups alike who echoed his concerns and carried influence. Elisabeth Elliott, Paige Patterson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, among others in groups like Promise Keepers, the Moral Majority, or Christian Coalition pushed similar messages. Dobson’s success lies in his ability to creatively articulate the perceived problem and solution from his widely known platform. Despite denying his involvement with politics, his voice captured the attention of millions, even the ear of politicians and presidents who would support conservative legislation on abstinence-only sex education.

photo from religionnews.com

The Significance of Abstinence-Only Sex Education in the US

Purity culture is founded upon the practice of abstinence before marriage. This practice is not inherently damaging, but the methodologies used to teach and sustain it have been controversial. Since the 1980s, the federal government has spent over 2 billion dollars on abstinence-only focused programs, yet even with good intentions these programs may not have been helpful to youth. Setting the theological background aside for now, here are a few (very, very brief) historical points on sex education in the states:

  • Federal government funds abstinence-only sex education in 1981 through the Adolescent Family Life Act.
  • Through the welfare reform this funding expands in 1996 and provides resources to public and faith-based programs, now known as Title V Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programs.
  • In 2004 it was found that 11 out of 13 AOUM programs were not teaching scientifically accurate information on reproductive health and contraception and instead emphasizing traditional gender roles and religious beliefs. (Read more.)
  • Critics have argued AOUM programs are focus on “character and morality,” while comprehensive sex education focus on “health behaviors and outcomes.” (Read more.)
  • Researchers have found the results of abstinence-only education are not necessarily different than the results of comprehensive sex education. In fact, those who participated in abstinence focused spaces had an increased risk for STIs/STDs based on decreased condom use. (Read more.)

Without accurate information, developing an informed sexual ethic is extremely challenging. Abstinence before marriage is in no way a bad thing, yet if this all-or-nothing approach is the only tool in someone’s back pocket, they will be extremely unprepared (emotionally/physically/spiritually) if/when something does happen to them or a friend.

If you are interested in more details on these programs, here are a few resources to dig into:

I found this information helpful so I hope it proves helpful to you as well. As I continue to unpack purity culture here, we’ll soon see how Dobson’s intentions to protect became weapons in the church arsenal to be used against the vulnerable and those suffering at the hands of sexual violence.

Read more in this series:

A Graduation & a Confirmation

May has been a pretty exciting (and also exhausting, chaotic, and full) month for us.

The morning after my last final exam we packed up our on-campus apartment and moved a few minutes down the road to a quiet neighborhood apartment. Our new space brought us a few new quirks but we’re settling in day by day.

About a week after we moved, I graduated with a Masters of Arts in Religion with a concentration on social ethics and spiritual formation. I chose these concentrations because I couldn’t justify their separation; ethics and spirituality are intricately linked and layered. Together they shape our behaviors and thoughts. Most of my courses and professors were amazing. There were a couple that gave me a headache. My favorite classes included church history, racial/gender justice, and various topics in the Old Testament.

Seminary was hard. As they graciously warn you, I left with more questions than answers. In the past 2 years, Aaron was away from home for 6+ months, in which I managed a multiple day power outage and shoveled out several feet of snow by myself. I took a summer intensive course for Hebrew 1 and 2. We changed churches a few times. We saw a marriage counselor. I got angry. Angry about the world, the church, and my own weaknesses. Burnout happened and I wanted to give up multiple times. Relationships disappeared. Our theology shifted. I cried, a lot.

But even when seminary cut deep, these past two years offered an unexpected healing. I was able to put words to my experience as a woman in the church and I was encouraged in my ability to think theologically, as a woman. I met women and men from around the world, friends and those who we now consider family, who laughed and wept with us and strengthened us when we couldn’t see the other side. I learned so much in class and through reading, but even more from those we lived and served with in our seminary community.

This month was significant again for another reason. Aaron was confirmed in the Episcopal church. If you’ve been following the progression of our faith, you know we’ve explored a few different traditions. We were hesitant to approach the Episcopal tradition because we had both grown up hearing episcopalians don’t really love Jesus. (What a lie.) The beauty of this tradition (and the body of Christ) is in it’s diversity in thought and community.

You’ll also notice only Aaron was confirmed. We’re both very satisfied in this new space, but since he wants to attend an episcopal seminary and pursue ordination in the coming years it was more important for him to take this step sooner than I might. Aaron affectionately calls me a crockpot or “turtle” and in many ways that’s very true. I tend take my time to simmer and think on something. When the time is right, I’ll think about the next step. For now, I’m still soaking up every bit of our Sunday services. (If you have questions about the Episcopal tradition or the progression of our faith, I’m happy to answer them.)

And finally, I turned 24 this month. My birthday began with an early morning walk around our new neighborhood and ended with gelato with Aaron and my parents. I’m not sure what this next year holds but it’s sure to be a good story.

Any fun milestones happen in your life recently?

Impure: A Reading List on Purity Culture

For my final masters project, I wrote on the implications of evangelical purity culture. And let me tell you, what a wild ride. Normalized sexual violence, gender roles, politics, #ChurchToo, liturgy — there is a little bit of everything packed into this paper.

This paper has gained quite a bit of interest since mentioning it on my Instagram last month. My hope is to break down my research into digestible, accessible pieces for others to benefit from. (What use is all this if I hoard it all in my brain?)

Purity culture, or the evangelical sexual purity movement of the 1980s-2010s, establishes sexual “purity” as the ultimate standard for those waiting to be married. (Marriage is assumed.) In this subculture, to be sexually “impure” would be disastrous in all other areas of life and would doom any relationship with a future spouse. In both political and pastoral spaces, methods of control and fear seek to maintain patriarchal power over the hearts and bodies of young people, though primarily girls and women.

Stories and testimonies reveal the abusive nature of “purity” teachings and practices. Girls and women are often dehumanized and denied vibrant sexualities of their own. If feelings of discomfort or reports of sexual violence are made known, they can be frequently silenced and ignored. Sadly, there are real convictions buried in these teachings – blinded by ignorance and the fight for power. There seems to be no intention to inflict harm on to others. Rather many of those who participate are held to a conviction which values hierarchy between men and women, emphasizing a woman’s submission to men’s needs. “Purity” is interpreted as protection. More on this later.

Before I jump into the research itself, I wanted to share some materials on the impact of the evangelical sexual purity movement or abstinence-only education.

This reading list is fairly brief and does not include academic articles. Even so, these examples are moving and incredibly revealing. Please note, many portions of these texts discuss sexual trauma, which can be triggering or overwhelming for some.

Books or Essays

Blogs

I would also encourage you to read through the #ChurchToo on Twitter or sign the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual Statement.

If there are other articles, books, podcasts, etc. that have been helpful to you, I would love to read them and include them here. If your experience in purity culture has been positive, I would also love to understand more about your story.

Remembering Rachel Held Evans

Sadness, heartache, dread, disbelief — maybe you felt these things too as you heard the news of Rachel’s death yesterday.

I’m not sure what kind of words or feelings she was met with yesterday as she entered Heaven but I’m certain it was a celebration of God’s faithfulness in her life. Rachel was adventurous in her faith. She explored the scriptures, asked the risky questions and embraced her doubt.

She was a forerunner and a pioneer in many ways. Before it was popular, she made room at the table for different voices and faces. She helped others, like me, understand the beauty of hard, unanswered questions of faith and also the importance of the gospel. It’s hard to think of a world without Rachel.

Remembering Rachel, here is a brief list of my favorites:

Books:

Podcasts:

Blogposts:

Did RHE have a role in your faith?