I have previously written a post on what I believe to be missing in the teachings of the Purity Movement. I am writing now about what I believe is problematically present in the Purity Movement. The calling to pre-marital abstinence is consistent with what Christianity has always taught. However, the Purity Movement took this teaching, and twisted it beyond recognition with false motives, false methods, and false consequences which not only surpass the tenets of Christian teaching, but actually contradict them.
The Purity Movement often employs two different methods to promote a subculture of abstinence in a post-sexual-revolution world. The first method is to motivate with a stick, the second a carrot. The stick method is to teach young people that the one thing of value which they possess is their virginity, and that if they fail to abstain from premarital sex then they are worthless. The carrot method is to promise young people that if they abstain from premarital sex, they will have happy, sexually satisfying marriages that will last a lifetime.
The Stick Method
There are countless analogies which the movement will employ in order to reinforce this notion that virginity = worth. It is vital to recognize that – no matter how well meaning speakers, authors, youth leaders, and parents have been – these analogies damage the dignity, the hope, and the self-worth of those who hear them. One example is comparing a non-virgin to a pair of underwear which someone else has worn. Other analogies compare a person’s virginity to a rose designed to be a wedding gift to their spouse – if you give it away you have nothing left to offer. A further analogy, and perhaps the most disgusting, is that virginity is a cup of fresh water for your spouse to drink and any person you have slept with has spit into that water. Who would want to drink from a cup in which other people had spit their saliva? The analogies continue. Each of them create either tragic or repulsive images with which a person is to associate themselves if they have lost their virginity, or with which they should fear to to be associated if they lose their virginity in the future.
The first thing I want to say about these analogies and this teaching is that they are absolutely contrary to reality. The second, is that they offend even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. It is evident that self-worth does not reside in virginity by the mere fact that, if it did, then marriage would be stupid. Why commit yourself to a lifetime of monogamy if sex is a one-time gift? If the first time is the only time that counts, why do we want to have it more than once in our life? It just seems obvious that sex is one of those recurring gifts, otherwise we would do it once and be done. In addition, these disturbing analogies are equal propaganda against monogamy; after all, who would want to drink from a cup of their own saliva? Or who wants to re-wear their own underwear? Or, regardless of who has plucked off the petals, what good is a stump of rose? These analogies do not speak against fornication or promiscuity, they really just speak against sex and against finding self-worth in anything else.
Furthermore, the first teaching of a Christian anthropology is that God made men and women in His own Image. If we are created in God’s image, then to ascribe our innate worth to our sexual behavior is somewhat sacrilegious. Our worth, our identity, is in the Image of God which we bear. Contrary to this theology, Christianity actually teaches us that even in our sins, God loves us. God doesn’t merely tolerate us if we are willing to follow the rules. God is willing to incarnate Himself with our very flesh and blood, to suffer, to die, to be rejected by us even still, because He loves us. How many times in the Old and New Testaments do the Scriptures compare God’s people to an unfaithful spouse whom He loves and desires to return to Him? God still wants us – no matter what. To pretend that God, or anyone else, will hate us if we fornicate is not just to lie about sex, it is to lie about God.
The Carrot Method
If the purity movement has not succeeded in motivating us with the stick of worthlessness, it will attempt to motivate us with the carrot of bliss. This is where things get really creative. Employing a short term interpretation of the rewards which accompany obedience, the Purity Movement advertises a list of rewards that you will receive if you wait to have sex until your wedding night. If you abstain from sex while dating, you will have less marital conflict, total lifelong fidelity, little-to-no risk of divorce, unwavering attraction to your spouse, and instant and continual sexual compatibility. Contrary to physiology, experience, and reason, the movement tells us that sexual desire and sexual pleasure are cumulative. In other words, if you wait until marriage to have sex, it will be all orgasm all the time.
In his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Josh Harris tells a story of a couple who did not hold hands before marriage and therefore could not keep their hands off of each other after they were married. In her book “Passion and Purity,” Elizabeth Elliot describes her own experience of waiting as if waiting produces sexual fireworks. Young women are told that if a man can prove that he is willing to wait for you, then he will never leave you. If you abstain from sex, then God will bless you with a peaceful, fun, fulfilling marriage.
Now there are several big problems with this prosperity propaganda. First, no one in the purity movement tells the other stories. They don’t tell the stories of the men and women who suppressed their sexuality so that even after marriage they still feel guilty after sex. Or the stories of people who abstain from sex and dating only never to find a spouse. Or the stories of men and women who have closed themselves off so much that they can’t detect whether or not they are sexually attracted to their partner. Or the stories of how long it takes to become sexually compatible with your spouse, or how sex can be challenging even for healthy couples, or how jealousy can poison even secure relationships. In short, they don’t tell the stories of how you can be faithful to follow all of the rules and still suffer just like everyone else.
In this way, the Purity Movement lied to us. No one can guarantee any of the promises which were made to us. No one can guarantee bliss because life isn’t fair. And no one should guarantee bliss because God does not promise us a lack of suffering in exchange for obedience. If we took half a glance at reality we would realize this, or if we have ever read the book of Job. The world would make conveniently more sense if judgment took place this side of heaven and everyone always received what they deserved. However, so long as the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, it is vital to realize that not all suffering is punishment and not all blessing is reward. God does not promise to reduce our suffering but to restore us through it.
This brings me to a further problem with the carrot method. If someone actually does experience the gifts which the Purity Movement has promised them, they think it is because the formula worked. This means that, not only do we believe all disappointments are merited, we also believe that the blessings in our lives are really rewards. The Purity Movement taught us to look down on people whose marriages struggle as though they are doing something wrong. We were hindered from being grateful for the real blessings in our lives because we thought that we (meritoriously) had merely done the right thing to acquire them. If someone was emotionally hurting, it was their own fault. We were not taught to feel compassion for young women who were going through pregnancy alone, or young people dealing with the heartbreaks of broken relationships, or men and women who felt they had lost all self worth because they had been promiscuous, or people who were lonely because no one wanted to date them. We were taught that they were in some way getting what they deserved. Perhaps the worst part, if we believe that bad things don’t happen to good people then how do we respond if a woman is raped? We ask what she was wearing.
Finally, if someone once makes a sexual mistake they often stop looking for a healthy marriage. They were told that a happy marriage is something people must earn, therefore they think that God does not want to give it to them anymore. Even if God could be persuaded to forgive them for their sin and not send them to hell, they are certainly in some sort of timeout for the rest of their earthly life so they can think about what they’ve done. People stop looking for good things because they have been taught that they themselves are worthless and that good things don’t apply to them anymore.
If we are to promote abstinence, it must not be by contradicting reason and lying about Christianity. We have truly lost sight of the goal with which we began if we are willing to feed people false beliefs about the gospel in order to manipulate their behavior into living as if the gospel were true. If we want to promote chastity and healthy marriages, we will not accomplish this by lying to young people and abolishing all sense of grace, forgiveness, self-worth, and Christ’s power to restore the brokenness in our lives. In fact, it is the grace of God that inspires us to be chaste. Why would we trust a God who commands us to be chaste if we have established that he is fickle and perfectionistic? It is the help, grace, and compassion of God that enables us to be holy, leads us to repentance, and inspires us to follow after Him even when His commands are hard.