Purity Culture and Me: My Struggle, Past and Present

WARNING: This blog post is rated PG 13 for frank discussion of sexuality. While I do not get graphic, I am pretty straightforward.

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Dying-Rose_referenceI regularly read a few dozen blogs. One of the blogging universes that I am sort of on the periphery of involves blogs from progressive evangelicals, like Rachel Held Evans. She is usually my entry point into that world (I read her regularly because I have loved her books, really enjoyed a fifteen minute conversation with her when she visited ACU a few years ago, and because I can identify with her journey) because I don’t really spend much time in the evangelical world anymore.

Rachel recently shared a link to a blog post by David M. Schell in which Schell explains his experience of being a progressive evangelical in a sea of conservatives. I deeply resonated with that post, and so I dug around further into his blog and found this piece about how the evangelical purity culture hurts guys, too. I was floored. Really for the first time, I found an accurate and clear discussion of why I struggle like I do with so-called purity.

The main thrust of his argument is that, in teaching guys to treat all women as temptations, purity culture teaches guys to sexualize women. It also teaches men that their own natural reactions to women they find attractive is part of their innate sin-nature, rather than part of evolutionary biology. Thus, purity culture harms guys by a) eliminating the possibility of platonic friendships with women and b) by criminalizing male physiology.

Purity culture eliminates the possibility of platonic friendships with women because it insists that women are, first and foremost, sexual objects of sinful desire. Schell writes:

When your average 20-something single guy walks onto a beach full of beautiful women in bikinis, he might check them out and be interested in them, but his “temptation” is absolutely nothing compared to what a young man in purity culture feels. He knows it’s wrong, which feeds his desire, which feeds his guilt, which feeds his desire. That poor kid has a molotov cocktail of guilt, shame, and knowing-it’s-wrong with a fuse of temptation sticking out and soaked in gasoline. All he needs is the spark of a beautiful woman who isn’t ashamed of her body.

This classifying of women as objects of temptation instead of as humans results in the purity rules in which women must hide their God-given bodies beneath whatever layers of clothes a patriarchal society deems “modest” enough to prevent temptation.

Purity culture also criminalizes male physiology because it insists that any positive male response to attractive femininity is lustful. Schell continues:

Guys tend to associate lust with being turned on. Honestly, sometimes that just happens. It doesn’t mean you’re lusting if your pants have a protrusion. It just means you’re turned on. . . . This is, I think, the cause for the popular teaching that men can’t control themselves: when it comes to the little jack-in-the-box, we really can’t control it. It’s a product of evolution. Guy sees girl, gets turned on, goes and has sex with her, potentially dominates her, she gets pregnant, reproduction happens, the human race continues. But we can rise above this. That’s part of what it is to be human, I think. We don’t have to jump on top of a girl and have sex with her just because our genetics recognize that this is someone of the opposite sex and procreation is a possibility. Unfortunately, I think most of the folks in purity culture don’t believe in evolution so they probably don’t get the genetic predisposition part and just call it “Sin nature.”

When guys are indoctrinated into purity culture (usually right as puberty begins), they are taught to classify sexual desire as wrong. While this includes being ashamed for having random erections (pretty common for a teenage guy), it also includes making sure one’s “thought life” is pure. This teaches guys to classify both their bodies and their minds as enemies, which I seriously doubt is all that helpful for healthy development.

The result is a kind of anti-Christian gnosticism in which bodies are divorced from souls. Guys view their bodies as evil, or at least seriously compromised, while viewing the female body as a kind of forbidden fruit. Women get reduced to their bodies while losing their personhood. They become temptations to avoid instead of people to know. And guys, far from respecting women by avoiding the fact that women have bodies, disrespect the incarnated humanity of women.

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A New Testament professor of mine in undergrad explained that, growing up in Arizona where swimming was necessary for survival, he didn’t realize that the pool was meant for lusting. Only after coming to Texas, and encountering prohibitions on “mixed-bathing,” did he realize that women in bathing suits were supposed to be objects of sexual desire.

I have struggled deeply with the purity culture. At youth group pool parties, a staple of summer vacation, girls were always told to wear a one-piece (with shorts). At the Christian camps I attended, counselors would measure how far down the thigh a girl’s shorts went. Even my public middle school and high school had a (loosely enforced) fingertips rule. Everyone knew that guys couldn’t control themselves and, as our sisters in Christ, the girls should cover up their bodies. But, in covering up their bodies with the express purpose of preventing us guys from noticing them, the purity culture insured that we noticed.

My experience in church taught me how to lust. It taught me that the only non-sexy part of a girl were her arms, legs, and head. Everything else was, naturally, the object of lust. The truth is, covering up body parts did nothing to prevent me from imagining them. And, given the forbidden-nature of those body parts, it made my lustful desire even stronger.

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When I was sixteen and first admitted to a friend that I was addicted to pornography, we decided together that we would try to stop lusting. Of course, our definition of lust was vague. I once heard lust defined as “you would if you could.” If that is the definition, then I have very rarely lusted in my life. My functioning definition was something like “noticing that a girl was attractive.”

When I went off to college, things got even wackier. The college ministry that I joined had lifegroups, but these groups were divided into guy and girl groups. When the full ministry did get together for prayer or worship, we were encouraged to only be spiritually intimate with people of the same sex. “Guys with guys; girls with girls” was the common refrain. When, the next year, the lifegroups were integrated, it was still pretty clear that guys should really only have guy friends and girls should really only have girl friends. This was called “guarding your heart” and was important because it avoided risk-taking.

The purity culture of the college ministry was more heightened than I had yet encountered. I chafed against it, believing that we all should learn to live in the necessary vulnerabilities. And, eventually, things got better as my group of friends got older, and as we all started dating each other.

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My time in the purity culture in college cemented in me a psychology of risk avoidance. Girls were threats to my wellbeing. Even as we started dating each other, we followed an elaborate courtship ritual in which the guy (of course) asks the girl if they can become better friends. This was called “intentional friendship.” If the girl agreed (usually after consulting her “community”), then the guy and the girl were allowed to spend unchaperoned time together. After a while, the guy would initiate a DTR (define the relationship) talk in which he would ask if he could “pursue” the girl. This meant going on a few dates. After a while, they would have another DTR in which the guy and girl would clarify whether they would become boyfriend and girlfriend, in the regular sense of those terms.

While this ritual was born out of a desire to be respectful, it was really born out of a sense of fear. Guys were afraid that the girls would prove too tempting. Girls were afraid that the guys would take advantage of them. A lot of what went on (male leadership and initiative) was based in typical evangelical patriarchal understandings of relationships, to the point that women were treated as having little agency in relationships with guys. Guys, as men, were entrusted with the responsibility of protecting their sisters by creating an environment in which the weaker sex would feel safe and secure.

This situation objectified both guys and girls. Guys were viewed as, and viewed themselves as, lust prone barbarians, while girls were viewed as, and viewed themselves as, vulnerable objects of desire.

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If lust was sinful, then masturbation was out of the question (it involved an actual body, after all). How could one masturbate without lusting? I mean, even if one didn’t look at porn (trying not to be too graphic here) while getting after it, surely something lustful had to pass through a guy’s mind. And, of course, girls never masturbated.

As David Schell pointed out earlier, much of the power of so-called lust derives from the fact that it is forbidden fruit. The evangelical teenage guy knows that noticing (for too long, anyway) the bikini clad woman at the beach is wrong, which fuels his desire. While all teenagers and young adults experience a good deal of sexual tension (the natural result of biological changes, hormones, and the presence of hormonal others), the evangelical teenager experiences sexual tension to the nth degree fueled, as he is, by the big constant NO hanging over his head. And he, or she, is not permitted release through natural means. Because, you know, the body is the enemy.

And I don’t know if I believe that masturbation, for single people hoping to remain celibate until marriage (which, by the way, I absolutely affirm as the ideal), is sinful, or even problematic. If I were to be convinced of its wrongness, though, it would be because of Catholic natural law arguments and not because of evangelical purity/morality arguments.

In any case, I masturbated a lot. And I tortured myself over it, believing that I had descended into deep, dark sin. But, as is typical when even thoughts are repressed, I did in secret what I wished that I wouldn’t do. Which, I guess is another natural fruit of purity culture: there are a lot of secrets, and not tons of openness. While it is okay in purity culture to admit sin, it is not okay to keep sinning again and again.

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One suggestion for combating lust that was typically offered to guys (I don’t think women were conceived as having the ability to lust) was the avoidance/averting maneuver. If, walking along, a guy notices a girl’s butt, he should immediately direct his gaze elsewhere so as not to lust after her and so to respect her by not treating her as, primarily, a sex object. If, in a movie, a woman takes her top off for a sex scene, and is only in her bra and underwear, then the guy should close his eyes or look away until she is fully clothed again. This works with thoughts, too. If, walking a long, a guy recalls to mind a pornographic scene he saw last week when he “fell,” he should immediately think of something else. And on it goes.

I deeply absorbed the avoidance/aversion maneuver. Quite aside from avoiding particular thoughts or images, I got good at avoiding female bodies. The logical extension of avoiding a particular image is avoiding whatever it is that is the source of that image. If the battle against lust is, as I was taught, a battle against it’s root cause, then guys really should avoid female bodies. That way, hidden away from all sexual temptation, it isn’t possible to lust. But, of course, this refuses to treat women as people.

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One newer expression of purity culture in my life (it is, by the way, not something I have gotten out of my head, not even by a long shot) is the view of other women from the perspective of a married man. Luke Harms, in this post, takes to task the advice given by the propagators of purity culture to married men. The advice more or less advocates that all other women are potential home-wreckers. And, when forced to interact with other (especially single) women, men have an obligation to avoid friendship at any cost. Harms points out the narcissism, patriarchy, and selfishness that sits behind that kind of advice. And I couldn’t agree with him more.

Except that, since being married, I have struggled deeply with this aspect of purity culture. I’ve written some about that struggle here. Psychologically wired as I have been by purity culture, it is a struggle to overcome my ingrained habit of avoidance/aversion, rooted as it is in fear of messing up. In the past, before I was dating Amanda, I cared about purity to some degree, but I largely felt like some things were more or less natural. Since being married, I worry about the effect of so-called lust on my relationship. I wonder what Amanda will think of me if she knew that I sometimes notice that other women are attractive, that I sometimes notice that women have bodies.

I have avoided, on purpose, friendships with women because of the risk that I, somehow, won’t be true to my wife. I am still wired to participate in life on a low-risk basis, trying to avoid potential problems, trying to nip potential sin in the bud.

And all of this without believing in purity culture anymore.

Because I don’t believe that purity should be used as a moral grammar for sexuality. I don’t believe that women should have to cover up their God-given bodies in order to satisfy my insecurity. Women should wear as much or as little as they want, according to what pleases them. I have been wired to flag two-piece swimsuits, tight-fitting jeans, low necklines, short shorts, and other clothing items as problems because of how they might affect me. I have avoided deep and good friendships with women who are not my wife because women, according to purity culture, are simply objects of temptation, not people. But such flags, such aversions, such avoidances are oppressive and patriarchal, a holdover from my puritan past.

* * *

If purity culture is wrong, if it’s basic assumptions about men and women are bankrupt, then we are left not with two great stereotypes–Man and Woman–but with people in relationships with other people. It is, of course, true that people are unfaithful to their spouses. It is true that people struggle, often mightily, with attraction to someone else. But if the answer for single people trying to avoid lust and fornication (not that I think that should be the point) isn’t purity culture, then neither is the solution for married people. If single people are to live in the necessary vulnerabilities, to affirm the personhood of the people right in front of them, then married people can do the same.

Setting up a fortress in order to keep anything bad from happening results in stale morbidity, not vigorous life. The question to ask is not, “how can I avoid sin?”, the question is “how can I truly live life?” Purity culture, in the end, is rooted in fear. But, as the first epistle of St. John makes clear:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears had not been perfected in love.

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