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?)
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.
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:
- The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs
- Timeline of Abstinence-Only Education in U.S. Classrooms
- Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage: An Updated Review of U.S. Policies and Programs and Their Impact
- Money, Sex, and the Religious Right: A Constitutional Analysis of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Sexuality Education
- The Failure of Abstinence Only Education: Minors Have a Right to Honest Talk About Sex
- A comprehensive review of reviews of school-based interventions to improve sexual-health
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.