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.
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.
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: