One of the things that we are REALLY good at doing in our culture, unfortunately, is being polarized on one side or another of an issue without much nuance. As Josh Harris, author of 90’s bestseller, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is in the news for renouncing both his book and his faith, it’s easy to slam “purity culture” and all it stands for.
I would like to slam “purity culture” too, in a lot of ways. But I want to do it with nuance, not with a broad brush. I recently got married at age 42, and while I do think purity culture had a very negative influence on my life in a variety of ways, I am not at all unhappy that I went to my wedding as a, yes, 42-year-old virgin.
I wish I had been younger — getting married, that is. I’ve written elsewhere about the damage done by purity culture and an apathetic church culture on extending, or at least not helping, with the plight of singles getting older without marriage (for those who desire marriage) here and here.
But one thing I actually WORRY about in the current climate of a no-holds-barred bashing of purity culture is that singles are losing the ground upon which prospective mates will respect a desire to remain celibate until marriage. While this applies to all singles broadly, women more specifically often get pressured by men to have sex before marriage, and the more that progressive christians specifically start to label saving sex for marriage as a detrimental outcome of “purity culture”, the more sex becomes EXPECTED without any commitment from the party expecting it. (Or demanded, as in, “I understand that’s your conviction, but I need to move on to someone who will have sex with me before we get married.” ) This is a situation where what gets promoted as “sex-positive” actually demotes it into something which can be demanded, or else, singles lose even more opportunities to find people to date them.
That said, here are a few things I do believe purity culture gets wrong about sex:
Bad teaching #1. If you’ve had sex before marriage, you’re ruining your ability to have a healthy marriage.
This is a false teaching of the purity movement. How do I know it’s not true? Because even in the purity movement, no one has any issue or concerns with widows or widowers remarrying. If sex before a marriage permanently destroyed one’s ability to have a healthy marital sex life or healthy marital bond with anyone from that point forward, widows and widowers should be writing books about how they overcame the memories of their wonderful sexual histories with their prior deceased spouses to go on to have a good relationship with their present spouse. I know of no such books.
Now I’m sure that people do have a huge transition to go through in going from their life with one spouse to another spouse after the first one dies, I’m not discounting that there must be all sorts of emotional and human issues that go on with that, from adjusting to a new person’s eating habits to how they roll the toothpaste to yes, even to having sex with a new love. But while adjustments to new seasons and new circumstances are to be expected, no one expects that a widow or widower is going to have too much “sexual baggage” to be able to enjoy intercourse with their new spouse.
In fact, adulterers and adulteresses don’t seem to have much trouble bonding with a new person despite having sex with their legitimate spouses first before being unfaithful. I’d hate to use this as an example, but it does make a point: humans seem to be actually very flexible with being able to go from one partner to the next. This isn’t ideal, for a whole lot of reasons, nor do I encourage it: but I’m just saying, I think the purity movement gets this one completely wrong.
What the REAL result of this teaching in fact ends up being is that thousands of Christians who slipped up and had sex with someone before being married, end up getting a complex over it where once they finally find themselves in a fulfilling marital relationship, they yet believe that they somehow always carry part of the person or persons they had sex with before marriage with them into their marital bed. This is somewhat a uniquely Christian problem, in my experience — reports from nonbelievers I know who view having serial sexual partners before marriage as part of normal dating life often do not develop a hang-up on feeling unable to shake feelings or memories of previous sexual partners during love-making with their spouses. Sadly, this is a sometimes self-fulfilling prophecy unfortunately where believing something is going to have a certain effect on you, can actually cause that effect.
The exception to this of course is if someone had a great experience with someone sexually and later goes on to marry someone who isn’t communicating well in bed and isn’t fulfilling someone’s sexual fantasies/needs/desires, but that is a slightly different problem, which is covered below.
Bad teaching #2: If you save sex for marriage, you’ll have a fantastic sex life once you are married.
If you save sex for marriage, you are almost guaranteed to have a totally lousy sex life when you first start having sex. Why? Sex is a learned skill, and virgins by definition have had virtually no chance to learn it.
Will your sex life eventually be turned into something awesome with, er, practice? That is entirely up to the couple — how well they love each other, how well they communicate with each other, how well they identify any issues that might get in the way (and this extends even to medical issues for which medical help might be warranted.). Saving sex for marriage doesn’t mean that two people will be kind to each other, or communicate well with each other, or be patient with each other, or experimental with each other, or any of the whole host of other things that make for both good relationships, and good sexual chemistry and sexual troubleshooting.
When it comes to sex, no one can give anyone any guarantees – whether two people refrain from sex before marriage or not. But, sex is something that is meant, I believe, to be *developed* between two people, so having sex ahead of time to figure out if one is “compatible” I personally think is also a bad strategy. But that’s just me. I think, perhaps erroneously, that one is marrying another person’s entire personality and character, and those things carry over to what one can expect in the bedroom.
I think in both these wrong teachings of the purity movement, the error is in trying to EXPLAIN why saving sex for marriage makes good emotional sense and will result in a good relationship. But sexual abstinence does not need to be justified; it is enough to value one’s deepest physical intimacy and one’s body as something to be shared with another person only when the other person shows themselves worthy of such a sharing, by honoring the giver with a lifelong commitment before God and others, which is then also reciprocated. And even if that were too much of a justification, even if there were no reason whatsoever that waiting until marriage for sex made sense, one who believes that God desires the intimate sharing of sex to be only unleashed inside of a marriage covenant should not need to justify their belief as anything other than to simply to obey God.
So a word to those who bash the purity movement: I hear you, and in many ways I agree with you. But please be careful not to run roughshod over those who either because of spiritual conviction or personal desire, wish to be celibate until marriage. I am that person, and I am very happy with my decision.
August 30, 2019 at 5:40 pm
I do agree with your main premise and appreciate it. Absolutely! And I appreciate you mentioning this. The danger of bashing purity culture can lead to “throwing out the baby with the bath water”. Great point! And we don’t need a further explanation for remaining celibate than that is what God commands. However, I might add that staying celibate until getting married does not at all mean a not so good sexual experience at first. Although we’ve definitely grown in our relationship over the years and it is better than ever (32 years later!), It’s been great all along. I have to confess our wedding night was absolutely wonderful! And it only got better from there. Granted, we had both read Christian sexual counseling books a month or two before the wedding night and communicated a bit in advance about this. I would strongly recommend this by the way. Second, technically speaking, there should never be any quilt with having had sex and memories of it with a spouse who has died. So I don’t think the parallel is a good one to fornication or adultery, since that sexual relationship was pure unlike the latter. But yes, I DO absolutely agree that sinful sex in the past doesn’t doom one to struggles in marriage. This is not at all taught in scripture. And this was a wrong teaching in purity culture. So good point. Rather, we are “a new creation in Christ, the old has gone and the new has come”.
February 9, 2021 at 7:50 am
Simply rejecting purity culture is not enough; it matters that it is replaced with a consent-based sexual ethic. A person who advocates for consent would not bash somebody for abstaining from sex – or for having sex, including sex that you personally don’t find appealing.