Impure: #ChurchToo & US Politics

(This post is not so much a political statement as it is a comparison of responses from evangelical leaders, both pastoral and political, in the U.S. towards sexual violence. Additionally, the term “evangelical” has become political in recent years. Evangelical Christianity is a broad category with many different perspectives and is not monolithic. Simply because someone self-identifies as an evangelical does not mean they necessarily hold to the basic definition of evangelicalism or agree with more popular voices.)

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photo: mother jones

#ChurchToo

Evangelical purity culture perpetuates rape culture — which is the foundation for #ChurchToo, a follow up to the #MeToo movement.

#ChurchToo reveals the ways in which the church has dehumanized survivors and objectified their bodies, blaming them for the violence perpetuated by pastors, seminary presidents, and prominent evangelical organizations that once sought to keep sex “pure.”

I will allow these examples to speak for themselves:

Sadly, there are even more examples to list. While a minority of cases involve positive steps to repair the damage, generally, the church has not appropriately handled the prevention or response to sexual violence. Instead, survivors have been ignored or silenced in order to protect those in power, namely influential male leaders.

Read the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual statement and consider adding your name.

American Evangelicals & Political Power

Image result for bill clinton monica lewinsky
photo: cnn.com

Politically, some American evangelicals are still inconsistent in what they teach and what they do. There is a vast difference between President Bill Clinton’s scandal and the way the church has recognized Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump.

If we narrow our scope to the words of Dr. James Dobson, a voice for many evangelicals and large force behind purity culture, we’ll find he seems to have changed his mind about moral character or sexual immorality within the presidential office over the years. In his September 1998 newsletter, Dobson writes about the scandal between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (The full letter is archived in this book beginning on page 303 but you may also be able to find it online.) Here are a few excerpts with emphasis added:

“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people…”

“There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter…”

“Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?

Dr. James Dobson, September 1998 newsletter

In this letter Dobson is adamant that character matters. Personal history matters. He questions the nation’s ability to discern the “red flags.”

As candidates appeared in the race for office in 2015-2016, researcher George Barna reportedEvangelicals are seeking something in a candidate that very few other voters are searching for: strong moral character.

Strong moral character quickly went up for debate. While Hilary Clinton’s campaign promoted questions of integrity, Donald Trump’s personal life and political campaign also caused significant controversy.

Within in this context, Dobson appeared to affirm Trump’s recent Christian faith (which he later denies) and joined the evangelical executive advisory board, which does not require members to endorse the President but is significant. This interview just prior to the election is also interesting.

Also on the advisory board, friend of Dobson’s via his late father, and president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. stated in an interview with the Washington Post that there was nothing Trump could do to lose his support. Falwell believed Trump’s “personal behavior”, or sexual immorality, was irrelevant when compared to his business acumen.

Interesting.

Why this shift in support among Dr. Dobson and others? What part has fear or nationalism played in this?

How can many American evangelicals teach sexual “purity” or “pro-life” values and protect (and elect) perpetrators of sexual violence at the same time?

Food for thought:

Read more in this series:

Impure: Harmful or Healing Liturgy?

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church through liturgy. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Not all churches or religious spaces are “liturgical” like the Catholic or Anglican communions might be. Yet, all churches have particular spiritual languages and practices that order their worship and shape the way their audiences view their relationship with God and others. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, songs, prayers, gestures, as well as scripture readings, creeds, and rituals give form to one’s faith and directs worship. In this post I’ll be using the term liturgy to refer to these general elements.

Liturgy can edify but it can also silence and re-traumatize. It’s role in perpetuating cycles of sexual violence in the church and associated households cannot be underestimated. At the same time, liturgy has creative and theological power to address and interrupt spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual violence.

Further reading to consider as you read through the following two major areas of concern:

Is God male?

The Bible, as well as religious language often in used in Christian contexts, frequently refers to the divine imagery of God as a King, Lord, and Father with exclusive male pronouns. Submission and surrender to God may also be included alongside this imagery. Combined with the authority of predominantly male clergy, this can be harmful for survivors of trauma.

Although female clergy may be increasing, men are often elected/hired/called as leaders in evangelical congregations. Yet there is a significant gender gap in the pews. Research finds that women may pray more and attend services more regularly where they make up the majority of many Christian communities.

In a country where 80-90% of reported rape victims are either young or adult women, what messages does male-centric liturgy communicate to survivors of sexual assault and rape in the pews?

photo: joshua eckstein

“Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Perpetuating the exclusive patriarchal nature of these images, terms, and environments fosters potential justification of abuse of power and resulting violence. Even though they may believe the Bible to be inspired and authoritative, these factors can make it difficult to participate in worship and connect with God as not only as survivor but also as a female. Trauma can feel alienating and isolating, perhaps even more so within one’s faith if it feels as if God has abandoned or betrayed them.

To echo the concern of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the words of Mary Daley, “If God is male, male is God.” If we believe the idea God is a sovereign male ruler of “his” children, then the hierarchy of male leadership over women may also exist. This is fertile soil for abuse of power. Women and survivors alike may ask, is there a place for me? Will I find relief or protection from my suffering?

So, is God male? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male?

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This brief video covers the Swedish church in their exploration of gender-neutral language for God and the diverse perspectives.)

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is one of the most fundamental practices of the Christian faith. It can be spiritually nourishing for both the individual and the community. Yet just as something has power to inspire and provide sustenance for the soul, there is the potential for this power to be damaging.

Sitting, standing or kneeling, bread or wafers or crackers, grape juice or wine, small plastic cups or drinking straight from the silver chalice — the combinations for communion abound. The prayers associated with each element may differ but often reflect the story of the Last Supper.

photo: nicole honeywill

Researcher, Hilary Jerome Scarsella sees the eucharist and other ritual acts as “a negotiation of power relations.” From the language to the posture, communion can be interpreted as harmful for those who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma can be relived, unfortunately. Hearing the words and prayers of the eucharist, kneeling to receive the bread and cup from male clergy, or simply kneeling at the rail to drink from a cup, may produce a strong, if not visceral reaction from those who have been abused.

“The survivor who shared the second glimpse described taking the bread and wine as practice for the next time the person abusing her would force his body on her. Her communion participation, then, seems to have functioned as practicing the role of abuse victim quite literally. In communion, she took on and embodied the role of one who does not have the power to decide what will and won’t be allowed into her body.”

Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion

Scarsella was also included in a Menonite group who adjusted the language in their communion prayers in an effort to frame the unjust, bodily sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a light unique to him. Their work resulted in two alternative texts for prayers included in their eucharist. The first removed the words “body” and “blood.” The second left these words but added more contextual information (or “framing words”) to better communicate the message of freedom and salvation from sin and suffering.

“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”

A group member from #WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

The fact that scripture and faith practices of the Christian tradition have been used to oppress and re-traumatize others does not invalidate their ability to provide restoration and healing. Often this requires stepping outside of “the way things have always been” and humbly listening. We read scripture and participate in our faith with lenses unique to our personal biases and experiences. Recognizing this and allowing others the space to speak and be heard could be transformative.

Here are some examples of liturgies for survivors of trauma and sexual violence. While researching on purity culture and the damage done at the hands of the church, these prayers and songs inspired me to continue, especially this song.

Read more in this series:

Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only campaigns, Christian dating literature and Bible devotionals have implications not only on how a young girl is to interpret her role in her evangelical community but also significantly impacts her understanding of her own sexuality.

Power and control are the foundational elements of an abusive relationship. Purity culture uses these concepts, as well as fear, to (directly or indirectly) maintain male power over women. In terms of sexuality, the combination of these elements results in young girls and women being silenced and shamed for natural sexual desires.

photo: Tamara Bellis

Consent, or lack thereof.

Women have very little, if any, bodily autonomy within purity culture. As Dr. James Dobson was building his case against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, Roe v. Wade argued for a woman’s right to privacy. Against this background, the sexual purity movement argued a woman’s body was not for herself but something to be given to others.

Fathers are tasked with the protection (or control) of their daughter’s sexual purity assuming that a virgin is one of the greatest gifts a husband can receive. (In Christian literature, the word virgin is most often associated with females.) Some even believe the father takes the place of a romantic partner, in a way, while his daughter waits for a spouse. The father protects his daughter’s gift and guards her heart (or hymen) with rituals, vows, rings, and exclusive modesty. The language of “gift,” used in many books like Ludy and Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, denotes possession and ownership.

Especially in the context of courtship, the assumed heterosexual marriage relies on parental consent, although mothers are notably secondary or not present in similar literature. Marriage involves a transference of “protection” from father to husband. In this role, a wife is taught to be submissive to her husband’s authority and sexual urges, even by sacrificing her own sexual pleasure. Within marriage, consent is rarely defined or discussed, leaving lots of room for personal interpretation. Separation or independence from either her father or husband is viewed negatively and assumes her purity is at risk without male protection, meaning single or LGBTQ+ women do not fit in the prescribed box.

“A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road.”

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

The female body is treated like property of the system and property does not require consent. And while she may say “yes” or “no” to his marriage proposal and perhaps “I do” at the altar, the decision has already been made due to the power that rests in the hands of her father and potential husband, and perhaps even her pastor.

Fear of the female body and her libido.

Language of “purity” in this evangelical subculture attempts to expand upon the definition of virginity by including not only physical but also emotional purity. Myths encompass the female libido and body.

“Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me.”

Amanda Barbee (Read her article, Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture here.)

Purity culture teaches it is unnatural for women to be sexually assertive or competent. Men are assumed to have “animalistic” libidos, while women are “passive” and prefer emotional intimacy. For females, their thoughts must be carefully shielded against emotional closeness and sexual desires, though these sexual desires are assumed to be a lesser struggle for them than for men. Constantly, young girls are told to “guard” their bodies, minds, and hearts from the sexual desires of themselves and others.

  • In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” author Stepp believes only men should initiate sex. She suggests women find fulfillment in other areas, such as the kitchen or hospitality.
  • In Shalit’s book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” she argues women are naturally modest and pure, only to be corrupted by the world around them which tempts them to be sexual. Shalit does not believe female sexuality is healthy apart from marriage.
  • In Leslie Ludy’s blog and books, she suggests emotional intimacy is only for a husband. Impure thoughts must be confessed.

From very early ages their bodies are sexualized, objectified, and perceived as dangerous to the male gaze and assumed to threaten his ability to lead or fight. A woman’s reproductive functions have been interpreted as unclean and connected to the myth of “hysteria” or stereotypes of being “overly emotional.” Tertullian, an early Christian author, believed womanhood was essentially tied to destruction and sin, based on Eve’s actions. This idea has been carried into our world today, likely through benevolent sexism. If this is true, as the weaker spouse, women require male protection since they are more predisposed to sin. (This is theologically inaccurate.) If a woman steps outside of this protection, either by dressing “immodestly,” having sex outside the prescribed context, remaining single, or identifying as LGBTQ+, she is then assumed to be a threat to the group.

photo: Suad Kamardeen

Those who are single or LGBTQ+ are not the only ones cast aside in purity culture. Girls and women of color may have more challenges within purity culture than those who are considered white. Media surrounding sexual purity may appear as diverse but a second glance will prove “purity” is directly connected to youthful, slender, cisgender, white virgins. This narrow defintion is elevated above all others, which implies those outside this definition are predisposed to impurity. This contributes to the racist idea that whiteness is the default or “normal” standard in our society.

“To justify breeding, the institutionalized sanctioning of ongoing rape of enslaved black females to produce future laborers, white supremacist patriarchs had to position the black female in the cultural imagination as always “sexually suspect.” To make the black female body machine, vessel, was an act of dismemberment — a mutilation that ensured this group would always be seen as less than, as not really and truly worthy of desire…[White and black men] could dare to fantasize and/or enact sexual acts deemed degrading with black female bodies since it was impossible to ruin that which was perceived as inherently unworthy, tainted and soiled.”

bell hooks (Read her essay, Naked Without Shame: A Counter-Hegemonic Body Politic here.)

These assumptions were not extinguished with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement and have continued to be passed down in a variety of ways. I highly recommend bell hooks’ entire essay, as well as the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

Shame and silenced survivors.

Unless controlled by a father or husband, girls and women are taught to believe their sexualities are dangerous and their bodies cannot be trusted. Without bodily autonomy or an equal share of power — females are denied sexual pleasure.

“Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Purity literature in evangelical circles rarely contrasts premarital sex and sexual violence. When combined with the common elements of rape culture, purity culture views sexual assault and rape as simply sex, and specifically sin if outside marriage. Victims/survivors become perceived of as sinners who have not lost their voice but their purity. These messages can be implicit, but others are direct. Dimarco, in “Technical Virgin,” argues women are always responsible for men’s lust and the resulting thoughts and actions.

“By accepting “boys will be boys” and excusing the behavior of perpetrators we alter the accepted definition of sexual violence to the detriment of those suffering. When this definition changes, sexual violence in its objective form cannot be reported, because it has been normalized by the community.”

Heather Hlavka (Read her article Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse here.)

If sexual violence is recognized for what it is, there is no structure to report abuse or to recover from various types of trauma. The abusive cycle of power, control, and fear can begin again as rape myths and victim blaming may overwhelm any chance of being heard and helped appropriately. Purity culture is abusive to female participants but especially to victims/survivors of sexual violence and single, LGBTQ+, and “minority” girls and women. Men also suffer, although in different ways. Sadly, anyone outside the patriarchal, heteronormative definition of “purity” is likely to feel the weight of myths, victim blaming, and other forms of hostility.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together;” 1 Corinthians 12:26

Read more in this series:

More resources:

Impure: Purity Culture is Rape Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of rape culture and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Research identifies rape culture, or a space where rape or sexual violence is normalized, by a few things: acceptance of myths about rape, victim blaming, traditional gender stereotypes, and hostile and benevolent sexism. Purity culture embraces many of these elements.

Rape Myth Acceptance

Rape myths are false beliefs about the definition of rape as well as the victim and rapist. Unfortunately, these myths can create an environment where perpetrators are often protected rather than victims/survivors. To my surprise, I found both men and women believe and promote these false beliefs.

Common rape myths:

  • “They were asking for it.”
  • “She could have resisted if she wanted to.”
  • “Only bad girls/boys get raped.”
  • “Rape only happens at night.”
  • “Your spouse can’t rape you.”

Myths in purity culture can be included in subtle themes or direct messaging. These false beliefs are not exhaustive, nor are the examples, but cover a broad range of purity culture’s doctrine.

  • Girls/women are responsible for boy’s/men’s sexual urges.
    • The double standard of modesty between males and females.
    • “A guy will have a tendency to treat you like you are dressed. If you are dressed like a flesh buffet, don’t be surprised when he treats you like a piece of meat.” (Lookadoo and DiMarco, Datable, p. 118)
  • Heterosexual marriage is a reality for everyone and will always result in amazing sex.
    • Almost all forms of purity culture literature and media convey this “foolproof” assumption about their audiences.
  • A woman’s worth or status is tied exclusively to her virginity.
    • Abstinence-only spaces refer to girls/women who have had premarital sex as second hand gum, dirty tape, a disheveled, unwanted rose, etc. Have you heard these examples?
  • Martial rape does not exist.
    • Spouses are often viewed as and spoken of as property.
    • Consent is rarely, if ever, defined clearly.
    • Women who say “no” are considered “selfish lovers” according to Mark and Grace Driscoll in their book, Real Marriage.
  • Victims of sexual violence are at fault and should repent.

If you’re interested in finding more specific examples of these messages in Christian literature these articles are helpful and straightforward:

Traditional Gender Stereotypes

(Gender roles, commonly referred to as either complementarian or egalitarian, are not clearly defined in the Bible. While inconclusive, both perspectives have scriptural merit. However, research has found traditional or complementarian gender stereotypes create a friendly environment for abuse and oppression. My goal is not to completely dismantle traditional ideals, but encourage all family structures to evaluate if the power dynamics in their home are helping each member of the marriage/family flourish in a safe and healthy space.)

photo: Benita Elizabeth

Gender roles, according to purity culture, are different but complementary. According to this train of thought, men and women have “biologically hardwired” mental/physical/spiritual differences at birth that serve different purposes in society. If you remember the fairy tale message, men are the rescuers and women are to be rescued. (Cue stereotypes.) Especially in conservative religious circles, men may be assumed to have primary responsibility outside the home, they are strong and natural leaders, they are to protect their family. Women may have primary responsibility inside the home, they are meek and gentle, and nurture their families. Church may also assign “different, yet complementary” roles. These are very, very broad and not universally bad, yet not universally good. Stereotypes can easily restrict men and women’s engagement within their community. This provides ample space for religious legalism and abuse.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists have used these stereotypes to in efforts to protect their communities from the perceived danger of sexual immorality. John Piper advocates for patriarchal authority over women and argues #MeToo has been caused by the lack of male protection over women. His statements and sentiments have caused controversy over the years. If we believe these gender stereotypes apply in our context, we must also be aware of the increased potential to practice sexism, even with those we love. The pursuit of “protection” can result in an imbalance of power.

Whether you have instilled traditional or egalitarian roles (or neither!) in your home or church, you may want to ponder the following:

  • Does this relationship/doctrine value mutual submission or exclusively female submission?
  • Are my God-given talents and gifts welcomed and utilized in the home, church, and workplace or am I expected to engage with activities/responsibilities perceived to better suit my gender?
  • If I am not physically/emotionally/sexually safe at home/church is there a space where I will be heard and helped without being blamed or questioned?

Benevolent Sexism

You might not actively believe or promote a prejudice against or distrust in women in the workplace, politics, or at home. (This would be called hostile sexism.) It’s still possible you may believe in a hierarchy between men and women. Subjectively, benevolent sexism has a positive view on women. This type of sexism respects the role of wife and mother and believes women deserve (or require) male protection. Women are often romanticized as sexual or love objects. Families and churches who promote this variation of sexism aren’t always obvious since they’re usually perceived as likeable. Both forms are dangerous as they each insist upon male power over women.

Let’s look at some brief examples/myths from evangelical leaders in the 1970s-2000s. Emphasis added.

  • If God is like my husband, my husband is like god.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)
  • Men are uniquely equipped to be the provider and protector.
    • “One of the greatest threats to the institution of the family today is the undermining of this role as protector and provider. This is the contribution for which men were designed… If it is taken away, their commitment to their wives and children is jeopardized. (Focus on the Family brochure, 1994)
    • Little boys are the hope of the next generation.. Little girls too, will benefit because they’ll grow up with a clear vision of the kind of men who will make godly husbands.” (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 651)
  • Selfless service is a virtue of the best wives and mothers.
    • “With unbounded joy and enthusiastic effort I have poured my life into home and family, putting aside professional pursuits and personal ambitions.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 889)
    • “This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job… You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.” (Pearl, Created to be His Help-Meet, p. 21, 42-44)
  • Husbands initiate and benefit from intimacy, women surrender.
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)

These examples are a select few from countless other Bible devotionals, books, sermons, and other forms of evangelical or fundamental guidance from this time period. The implications of these elements are incredibly dehumanizing, especially for women. Without proper evaluation, some conservative churches have been systemically normalizing sexual violence and blaming or silencing those who courageously speak up. The most recent example can be found in the Southern Baptist Convention, among other ministries and traditions. Yet, it doesn’t require 700 victims for these similarities between rape culture and purity culture to be considered a disaster. Arguably, it only takes one.

Have you heard or believed any of these myths or sexist statements?

Read more in this series:

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.

Purity-DM-028.jpg
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: