It has become almost a cliche today to criticize the “purity culture” of evangelicalism. Reading some tweets that were critical of the Reflections Summit, which gave voice to survivors of sexual abuse in churches, the “purity culture” takes center stage in many of the tweets. However, this idea of a “purity culture” has morphed into nothing more than a “legitimate” stereotype of traditional Christian sexuality. Or, you can look at Nadia Bolz-Weber burning purity rings and making them into a statue of a vagina; far beyond simply calling people out, there is a form of aggressive iconoclasm exhibited in this culture that is not simply critique and correcting, but finding itself in direct hostility to traditional Christianity. As so often happens in heated social controversies and demagogic pastors, well-thought critique is not the currency of the day.
Nevertheless, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be level against the manner in which American evangelicals have treated people’s sexuality. It is well-documented the hurt and anger that people have felt in the face of the sexual ‘pedagogy’ in the church in the 90s and 2000s; search for responses years down the line to Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Harris’ own humble acknowledgement of the pain it caused for the best example.
I want to acknowledge that at the end of the day, there was a core concern of faithfulness in the “purity culture” of the 90s and the 2000s in trying to reserve sex for marriage. While many criticisms of the “purity culture” is actually a way of targetting such a mindset, which is more revealing of a culture that has an addiction to sex, more helpful criticisms can be leveled at the way this desire to be faithful to God was taught and put into practice.
The one piece of advice I remember from sometime in a church youth group was the rationale that waiting to have sex till marriage would be a wonderful thing for your spouse. You are saving yourself for your future spouse, who you can share this special gift with. While for us guys, this was only mentioned a little bit as our minds weren’t tuned into that type of frequency, I can only imagine the amount of times this trope was presented to the girls
At the core is this notion: I am making decisions about my life for someone I haven’t even met. On the surface this might sound good and noble. But there are many problems with this sort of advice.
From a specifically Christian angle, the concern about sexuality is a concern about being a holy person. Paul expressing this connect between sex and holiness in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8. The most explicit expression about Biblical sexuality comes in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the concern is that Israel not become like the nations who inhabited the land before them. Instead, Israel was to be holy as God is holy as Leviticus repeated multiple times. While one may discern a hint of concern about sexual reproduction in these chapters due to a prohibition of sacrificing children to Molech, the principle concern about such sexual regulations is about being faithful to God.
However, this concern about holiness isn’t related to the idea that having sex morally defiles a person. The concern is about the type of people were to become as God’s People, not that they were somehow “dirty.” Sex has consequences and the consequences in focus
Sex is not and has never been a harmless recreational activity, but sexual activity is deeply formative of the type of people we become. There are two emotionally powerful types of learning that occur in sex; in consensual sex, dopamine is released causing powerful changes in neural structure, particularly in memories. This type of learning motivates and directs future behavior in powerful ways that span beyond normal learning that occurs through conscious deliberation. Various aspects of the sexual experience is remembered and sets down a powerful pattern for future behavior. Sex powerful changes the person, establishing the way in the future the way the person will pursue sex and when they will expect it.
However, when fear is part of sex for either partner, the feelings of vulnerability in such a close, physical contact create traumatic memories. In a similar manner, so many aspects of the experience become encoded in memory, leading to deep aversion and anxiety afterward towards anything that resembles the event of sexual contact in the conditions of fear. This can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Sex can deeply damage a person.
Israel was thus deeply concerned about the power that sex can have to destroy the community and lead to injustice. The story of the sons of the gods taking the daughters of men in Genesis 6, far from it being a story of fallen angels, was most likely a story of powerful warrior figures of the past enforcing their will and taking women as their reproduction factories, which was an example of how the curse of patriarchal domination in Genesis 3.16b becomes realized, far from the more intimate understanding of sexuality contained in the language of “knowing” (Gen. 4.1) and “becoming one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24) and far from the more egalitarian helper that the woman was originally created to be (Gen. 2.18).
Then, there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is not really a tale of judgment about sex between men, but of a sexually dominating culture that would rape newcomers; the homosexuality Israel was familiar with in this story wasn’t one of intimacy that is talk about today but of domination. Hence, the call to put to death a man who treats another man as he would treat a woman (Leviticus 18.22) expresses a fear of domination that they had heard and would have witnessed elsewhere in the culture. For instance, the dominant Spartan military was paired with homosexual activity. While Israel probably wasn’t familiar with Sparta’s example, they weren’t the only ones who had such a practice. While we today associate homosexuality with being effeminate in Western culture, in ancient culture, it was more associated with patterns of dominance. The closest modern analogy to the ancient concern is the narrative that is told of sexual domination and rape in prisons.
Thus, at the core of Israel’s aversion to various forms of sexual activity is the way it can impact what type of people they would be. They were being called away from these various sexual practices that they saw associated with gross injustice and disregard for the relational bond of a husband and a wife. Sexual activity was dangerous as it had a tremendous impact on the people and culture. Thus to be holy as God is holy in terms of sexuality was to reflect this loving form of sexuality.
In other words, one refrains from sex outside of marriage not because it makes one dirty nor that it breaks some patriarchal norms of a virgin spouse, but because sexual activity can have deep, pervasive impacts. By having sex the way the other nations had sex, Israel would begin to reflect their practices and way of life and the injustice they committed.
Take American history for an example. From the 1960s into the 1990s, violent crime was on a sharp, steady rise according to FBI statistics. The most rapidly increasing form of ‘violent’ crime was robbery, but not all robbery events are actually physically violent towards a person, such as breaking into an empty home. So, of all purely violent crimes, which one rose the most: rape. It was in the 1960s that the sexual liberation began to develop, where people felt freer and freer to engage in sexual activity. Thus, the dopamine pathways of learning were training people more and more to pursue sex and more aggressively. While this is not the only factor in rape and sexual assault, sexual desire and activity can make people more aggressive as they ‘expect’ sex and become more reactive and manipulative when those expectations are not being met.
Thus, the problems with “saving oneself for marriage” is that it misunderstands the important reason for sexual abstinence. It isn’t about giving a gift to one’s future spouse. It isn’t about making your life decisions based upon someone you haven’t met. From the Biblical perspective
The danger therein of ‘sexual liberation’ is of sexual aggressiveness. Sex changes you; if sex isn’t in the confines of a bond of a newly formed, loving family where the other person has deep, personal importance, then the type of dopaminergic learning that occurs is one where sex is self-centered rather than other-centered activity, thereby reinforcing the possibility of sexual self-absorption, aggressiveness, and domination in the future. While most people who have sex without a real, strong, and deep commitment to another will never be exploitive themselves, the increase in self-absorption can make one increasingly aggressive.
This is actually the aggressiveness that is witnessed in many critics of the “purity culture.” While legitimate concerns about the way “purity culture” treated women as second to men and reinforced the domination of men, including sexual abuse, allow me to suggest the problem wasn’t the “purity culture,” per se, but the spread of the sexual aggressiveness of American culture that pervaded the churches and took the male-center leadership and distorted churches into avenues of sexual dominance and abuse. “Purity culture” didn’t create this; it masked and even reinforced the problem but it didn’t train male pastors and ministers to take sexual advantage of women. The real problem is the American sexual culture that fails to recognize just how truly responsible the culture of sexual liberation has been, being incredibly naive and ignorant about the primal psychological dynamics that exists in sex. And much as an addict will point to the problems of others, even as these problems may be legitimate and important address, while they overlook and deny their own problem and complicity, sexual progressiveness is highly and deeply complicit in the problem that they help reinforce and create but distract themselves from by seeing the injustice elsewhere.
So, I am not saving myself for marriage as it has the wrong reason and purpose in mind. I seek to abstain from sex for a different purpose. I commit myself to be different from this sexually exploitative culture and so I seek to abstain from sex so that I won’t be sexually brainwashed to become part of it.
In fact, to “save yourself from marriage” has another deep problem. There is no guarantee anyone will ever get married. Abstaining from
No. The Christian call to abstinence outside of marriage is rooted in resisting the culture and its aggressive posture, including but not limited to sexual exploitation. This understanding of the call recognizes the goodness of sex and doesn’t seek to “dirty” it; rather, it works with the understanding that the manner in which one has sex impacts the type of person one becomes in the future. The concern is about a way of life purposed towards reflecting God’s just and loving character as a holy way of life, unique from what is more widespread and rampant. The Gospel is about God’s work of new creation and redemption, and so a Christian sexual pedagogy should come to reflect this purpose. Christian teaching isn’t about preparing you for your spouse, but about guiding you to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ. Our sexual pedagogy should reflect this.