Growing up, I was a strong advocate for the “purity movement” of the late 90’s. This was a movement primarily in the Christian evangelical church which encouraged teenage boys and girls (predominantly girls) to avoid having sex before marriage. Some churches had purity ceremonies where teenage girls walked down the aisle and were symbolically given to Jesus by their fathers. They would wear a white dress and receive a ring and make a promise to “stay pure” until marriage. Some churches had purity bible studies where, without ever talking about healthy sexuality, young girls were told that “sleeping with someone” when you’re not married makes your heart grimy and dirty and means you are turning away from Jesus.
To make better sense of this movement, I need to go back to the Home-school Revolution of the early 80’s. In deference to James Dobson and several other fundamentalist leaders, evangelical Christians were encouraged to break out of societal norms and to revolutionize the world by keeping their children untainted by it. Many parents chose to pull their children out of school in order to shelter, protect, and influence their children in the way they saw fit. Others chose to have their children in private Christian education but kept a close eye. Many watched only “Christian” movies, listened only to “Christian” music, and only socialized with Christian friends.
Now, jump ahead to the late 90’s. All of these parents who had experimented with sheltering the children of the early 80’s found themselves parenting pubescent teenagers with romantic interests. How were they to parent young adults and find them mates in a post-sexual-revolution culture? The home-school and fundamentalist movements placed great emphasis on family – in fact the idea of living a life in singleness was predominantly viewed as tragic – but how were they to get their children to the altar?
It was on this fertile ground and with this high demand for Christian advice on romance that Joshua Harris published his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” In this book, Harris advocates not only sexual abstinence but romantic abstinence until marriage. Saving one’s heart as well as one’s body for the wedding night. The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.” Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”
Now, I am not here to speak against abstinence; historic Christianity has always been pro-marriage and anti-promiscuity. Nor am I speaking against emotional self-control; anyone in a committed relationship knows that sometimes fidelity requires more than just physical boundaries. What I am saying is that the purity movement addressed pre-marital sex without addressing marriage. Instead of painting a beautiful, fascinating, healthy and realistic picture of marital sex, they attempted to control the behaviour of teenagers and left marital sex almost entirely out of the conversation. No one was preparing young people for sex, they were trying their best to get them not to have it.
The purity movement didn’t address things like the dangers of sexual anorexia, male chauvinism, the prevalence of sexual abuse, or the path to healing. The movement didn’t acknowledge that marriage is less like a chic-flick and more like Baptism. Instead it only spoke of marital sex in order to promote a prosperity gospel that promises sexual bliss for the price of pre-marital abstinence. Empty promises were given, like, “If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will enjoy it so much more once you have it.” In addition to this, we must not forget the “petal plucking” philosophy which states that virginity is a rose and every romantic experience is plucking a petal off of that rose…on your wedding night don’t you want more than a stem to offer your spouse? Furthermore, no one explained what the poor little flower supposedly looked like the morning after the wedding. After all, if they got you to the wedding pure, you were on your own.
Even if a young Christian adult was strong enough or sheltered enough to avoid sex before marriage, many have been left to walk into marriage with all of the same polluted ideas of sex that they learned from the culture but with a hovering sense of guilt that sex is morally bad. Sadly, some learned this not just from the culture but from their “purity” promoting parents. Many Christian men were not taught that hedonism is false and to learn self-control; they were taught that hedonism is true but delayed gratification is more pleasurable. Wait for the wedding night, then have sex whenever you want. Many women were not taught that sex is for them too; they were taught female subjugation and that the real value of sex is the power to keep your husband. Don’t ever say “yes” to a boyfriend and don’t ever say “no” to a husband. A man will not stay with you if you don’t give him his pleasure, but nor will he buy the cow if the milk is free. I can’t even repeat that phrase without gagging a little. Comparing marriage to the purchase of livestock is just icky.
The purity movement didn’t speak out against marital utilitarianism like that found in Dr. Laura’s book, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.” They didn’t address how placating men by debasing women is degrading to both sexes. For some her book is even considered good ol’ practical advice for a Christian home. I even read a review that described it as “a wonderful instruction manual on how to carry out the New Testament’s principles for wives.” In addition to this, consider that the Scripture refers to marriage as an image of Christ and His Church. Can you imagine how disturbing it would be to read a theological book entitled, “The Proper Care and Feeding of God”? This would be disturbing because God is a Person! I’m sure such a book would include all the necessary prayers and actions required to keep a simple God placated into not abandoning His people. It is philosophies like these that continue to poison our marriages. Men are not beasts or loyal pets. Women are not mere things – even pure things.
To call this a “purity” movement is a misnomer – this was a “virginity” movement. We taught people about abstinence; we taught them nothing about sex. Even worse, we taught them nothing about grace, about forgiveness, about salvation, about healing. We did not teach them how to love their spouse, we taught them how to keep record of wrongs. We did not teach them sacrifice, but mutual jealousy. We gave them a movie plot that ends with a wedding. But the altar is not meant to be a finish but a beginning: the beginning of a life of sanctification with another person. Marriage is like Baptism. Baptism is not where we demonstrate our purity, it is where we wash off our sins. Marriage is a place where we learn to love a sinner and so become less sinful ourselves. It is a place where we may be so loved by a sinner that we realize we can’t begin to glimpse the kind of love God must have for us.