May 29, 2024

Opinion: Your Value is Not in Your Virginity

Liesl Hoeldtke '22

A group of youth group students sits in a circle, the leader holding an Oreo on a plate. The leader tells the students to pass the cookie around the circle and take turns spitting on it. Once the cookie makes its rounds, the youth leader holds it up and asks if anyone wants to eat it. No one raises a hand.

“This,” the youth leader says, “is what happens to your body when you have sex before marriage. It gets used and dirty, and eventually, no one will want it anymore.”

The spat-on Oreo is one example of what is called an “object lesson.” Other popular examples include a rose that gets its petals pulled off, a piece of tape that loses its stickiness, a piece of gum that gets chewed up. The moral of these lessons? Don’t have premarital sex, or no one will want you. This kind of purity teaching has been prominent in particularly the American Evangelical church for about the last thirty years.

You may have memories of the Jonas Brothers showing off their purity rings, or maybe you were given one yourself. Maybe you even went to a purity ceremony, where middle school girls wear white dresses and are given rings by their fathers, as a sign of the promise that they will maintain their purity until they are married. These are all parts of what has become known as “purity culture.” Purity culture arose out of a desire to follow a Biblical sexual ethic, a desire to follow God in the way we use our bodies and our sexuality. The question is, however, was that actually achieved?

Purity culture can be much more dangerous than we might initially realize. It creates a culture where men are taught that they are not in control of their actions, and women are taught that if they are violated, it must be because of something they did. Women are disproportionately targeted in purity teachings, to the point where any form of expressing their sexuality can be seen as a mark of their purity or lack thereof. Linda Kay Klein, author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, explains how purity is defined differently for men and women.

“Men are taught their minds are evil, whereas women are taught their bodies are evil. That is to say, men’s thoughts and actions are said to be either pure or impure, while women themselves are said to be either pure or impure.”1

This distinction is what leads to having young women wear modest clothing, and trying to avoid “tempting” men in any way possible. This same narrative is what allows for victim-blaming and allows predators to be protected. Women are tasked with maintaining the purity of not only themselves, but the men around them, meanwhile men are taught that they need other people to manage their self-control for them. This teaching is not beneficial for anyone.

Klein has also pointed out the different ways purity culture may affect women of color.

“Whereas white American women may feel they must unfairly maintain the “purity” they are assumed to have been born with, American women of color and women from other cultures may feel they must attain purity, as it is not something they are assumed to have been born with within the sub-culture.”2

Where white women are called to a high standard of purity, women of color may feel the pressure even more intensely. The intersection of misogyny and racism in the American church pervades even teachings about sex and relationships. This has even proven to be fatal. This past March, there was a man who went into a massage parlor in Atlanta and shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. The shooter is cited saying he felt that they were a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” In an article about this incident, writer Flora X. Tang says this.

‘”Lead us not into temptation,” we must pray. But the temptation from which we must be delivered is not the bodies of vulnerable Asian women. Rather, we are called to resist the temptation of relegating Asian women and other women of color as disembodied objects of male desire.”3

We cannot go on pretending that purity is just about rings and pledges and wearing white on your wedding day when it has been proven to have detrimental effects, especially for the marginalized.

Purity teachings continue today. Plenty of people grew up in Christian private schools not getting comprehensive sexual education for fear that teaching about sex would lead to impurity. Others got permission to be signed out of their public school sex ed. class for the same reason. Maybe you went to a summer camp or on a youth retreat where young women have to wear t-shirts and shorts over their bathing suits or not wear spaghetti straps, in an attempt to keep men from lusting after them. 2018 Gordon graduate Eliza Stiles wrote about this in her senior thesis and has this to say about promoting purity-based modesty.

“​​In an attempt to teach girls to remove any attention from their bodies, modesty advocates have a created a narrative that has resulted in girls fearing their own bodies.”4

Stiles concluded that there is a need to reorient our understanding of our bodies to be one of witness to redemption, rather than fear and control.

I am not writing this article to tell you what the “right” sexual ethic is. If there is anything that I have learned from my research is that this is not a “one-size-fits-all” issue. One book that is credited with laying the foundations of purity culture is the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Harris wrote this infamous book at the age of 21 and it outlined what he considered to be a new approach to sex and relationships. Although there are definitely positives to this work, namely that he urges readers not to rush into marriage and to not be ashamed of singleness, his teaching also had some problematic outcomes.

The reality is that Joshua Harris’s teachings did work for some people. There are plenty of people that followed purity teachings to the letter and are now happily married and living their dreams. It did not work for Harris himself, though. In 2016, Harris actually retracted what he wrote in his famous book and apologized for the harm he may have caused. In 2018, he announced he and his wife were getting a divorce. The very system that he had set up claiming it would lead to a happy and healthy marriage had failed him. There is no one set of extra-Biblical rules that is going to work for everyone when it comes to sex and dating. Harris’s teachings and other purity teachings are still prevalent today because there are many people who cling to and find hope in them. However, there are even more people who would classify themselves as survivors of purity culture, who quote these teachings as being traumatic and ultimately the reason they left the Church. Many people have been deeply harmed by the teachings of purity culture, to the point where some display symptoms of PTSD.5 What we can learn is that healthy relationships are not born out of a spirit of fear. The problem with purity culture is that it separates the person from their body, creating a unique brand of self-hate. We are not divisible from our physical selves, and God loves us wholly in the bodies we have right now. Beth Felker Jones, a theologian and professor at Northern Seminary writes this in her book Faithful: A Theology of Sex:

“If sex is in any way a sign of God’s grace, it can never be commodified. It can never be wrenched out of the framework of free, mutual, consensual relationship and placed on the market floor. If sex is thus free, then sexual holiness cannot—cannot, cannot—mean having a “valuable” kind of body or preserving that “value” against loss of value. But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead, we’ve bought into a mistaken set of ideas about what purity looks like.”6

When we mistake purity for holiness, we are missing the point of the gospel. Jesus came because even in our broken state, God sees us as valuable. We don’t have to prove our value to the one who created us.

[1] Klein, Linda K. n.d. “What Is Purity Culture?”

[2] Klein, Linda K. n.d. “What Is Purity Culture?”

[3] Tang, Flora X. 2021. “Purity culture, racism and the violence against Asian women in Atlanta.”

[4] Stiles, Eliza, and Sharon Ketcham. “AFTER MODESTY CULTURE: LIVING INTO THE HOPE OF OUR REDEEMED BODIES.” Journal of Youth Ministry 17, no. 1 (2019).

[5] Tricaso, Kayla. 2021. “How Does Purity Culture Trauma Impact Sexuality?” Modern Intimacy.

[6] Felker Jones, Beth. 2015. Faithful: A Theology of Sex. N.p.: Zondervan, 83.

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