Is Purity Culture Oppressive to a Woman’s Sexuality?
I recently read an article on articlebuffet.com (also known as facebook.) It was called “Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture.” The article was a condensed master’s thesis by a woman who was arguing that purity culture is oppressive to a woman’s sexuality and causes long-lasting emotional and psychological devastation. She felt that the purity movement makes a woman feel like her body is sinful and a stumbling block to men, that the burden of purity rests on the woman and men get off easy, and that any sexual desire is shameful. All of this causes a woman to be repressed and hate her sexuality. Her case is corroborated by testimony, and by the number of likes by evangelical females the article received, I would say she has uncovered a serious problem in this movement.
So the short answer to the question in my title is “Yes, elements of purity culture have been oppressive to some women.” As a man, I am limited in how much of this I can address, but I have a mother I greatly respect, three sisters I adore, a wife that I love with everything I have, and a precious little daughter that I would die for. I also have a very strong protective streak. Anything that oppresses women or damages their emotions or sexuality makes me irate very quickly. I read her article with concern and I hurt for the women who have suffered because what they’ve been told about purity and their bodies. But I need to ask, “Is it the purity culture that is to blame? Or is it the purity message?” A culture contains fallen humans and so any “culture” can become oppressive. I need to know if it is the purity message itself that is causing the harm. I want to address the factors that I think are causing the pain, but also look at the alternative. If we throw away purity culture, what will take its place and will the alternative be any better?
What is the purity message?
I can’t speak for everyone, but the message that I grew up with was that our bodies and our sexuality are a gift from God, but a gift that came with certain conditions and parameters. I believe our Creator’s instructions call for the expressions of the sexual act to be saved for the marriage of one man and one woman. Sex in its many forms outside of the safe confines of marriage will result in consequences caused by going against the Creator’s design. I don’t think we can expect God to bless every form of sexual exploration.
Even though this is the purity message, any form of communication can be twisted so that what was received is very different from what was intended. Elements of this message have been twisted and the results are very damaging.
The twisted perspective:
The female body is a temptation to men and therefore sinful.
I know this is how modesty teaching is often interpreted and it makes me mad, because it is so far from the truth! God saved his greatest creation for last when He made the female body. I believe He infused more of his glory in that amazing design than He did into any other aspect of creation. Because of that, the female body has a tremendous amount of power and mystique. The sight of it can cast an entrancing spell over a person and bring some of the greatest pleasure known to man.
You should not be modest because your body is a shameful thing, but because it is so awe-inspiring and precious. Your body should not be made cheap and available to any slob with a lustful eye, but should be a treasure that is saved for the man who will earn the right to enjoy your beauty. The man who will tenderly protect you and cherish you for the jewel you are, he is the only one who should get the privilege of reveling in the pleasure your body can bring.
The burden and responsibility of purity is on the woman not the man
I can’t believe this idea is actually out there!It is so sad that this how some men and woman interpret the message. It is so wrong! But to be honest, I felt the author was kind of selective with the evidence. Within the purity culture men are called to be the initiators and the protectors. On judgment day, God will let no man blame the woman for his impurity. I grew up with seven brothers and we were taught to guard our eyes and that we were responsible for our thoughts no matter what the girls around us were wearing. I have also come across this very message in many books in the purity culture. Josh Harris, who was quoted in the article for teaching the view that the responsibility lies with the woman, has written extensively calling men to purity and giving them no excuse to put the blame on the woman. The “Every Man’s Battle” series also challenges the men to take responsibility for purity. In fact, there are very few other places where men are called to bridle their sex drive for the benefit of the woman, but in this evangelical call to purity men are challenged to cherish rather than exploit.
The purity message calls a man to save his eyes for his wife. Because his wife will always be his standard of beauty, then as she changes shapes through pregnancy and aging, he will always be satisfied and she will always feel beautiful in his eyes. Tell me, how does that harm a woman’s sexuality! The purity message tells the man to love, serve, and cherish that woman for the rest of his life. This takes the pressure off the woman to need to have great measurements in order to keep a man. Because this woman will learn to trust, she will be able to let go and be enabled to experience a deeper level of sexual ecstasy.
The purity culture is shame-based.
Sadly, this is often true. God’s beautiful ideal for sex is one man and one woman exclusively giving themselves sexually to each other alone within the safe garden of a holy vow. When this ideal is held up to see, there will be a sadness and a sense of shame in those who feel their opportunity to experience that exclusivity was thrown away or taken from them. Sexual acts outside of God’s commands will bring shame. The shame will be there whether or not another person points their finger at you.
We know deep down that God is holy and that sex is sacred. God is passionate about sexual purity. His word is full of warnings to protect this gift. A thing’s power for good has an equal power for evil if misused. Sex is one of God’s greatest gifts to us and also infused with his glory. Because of this Satan hates sex and wants to see it cheapened and distorted. He loves to see God’s precious gift become a weapon of horror. We wink at our own sexual sin but God sees the end result of throwing off the safe guards of sex. Unshackled sex often leads to divorce, abortion, rape, and child molestation.
Sex pursued selfishly is never fully satisfied. You always need more and more, and then kinkier and more perverse. God weeps to see this vicious cycle and begs us to not abuse this gift. So it makes sense that we will feel shame for sexual misconduct. But that shame can be a good thing if it prevents further sexual damage. We want rapists and pedophiles to feel shame! The ones who don’t are the dangerous ones!
But there is also a sense of shame that comes from Satan, also known as the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10) It is not just the purity culture that uses shame. Sinful humanity universally uses shame to try to control people. People who spout hate for homosexuals are shamed by our culture. People who are overweight are shamed into trying to lose weight. Shame is not just a purity thing; it is a human thing!
Shame is also not God’s way. His Son, on the cross, endured the greatest shame ever known so that we could be free from our sin and shame. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
The purity message without the gospel…
We live in a sex-saturated culture were children’s innocence is usually taken from them before they even hit adolescence. We are bombarded daily with sexually charged images and sexual scandal. The message of purity without the truths of the gospel will be ineffectual at best and a source of guilt and shame. Many women feel like because they have explored their sexuality or been sexually active, they are now worthless; that they are only precious if they are untainted by sexual sin. But the truth is that none of us are pure apart from Christ. We are all “damaged” and in need of grace and forgiveness.
How the Gospel makes sexual purity beautiful
We need to understand the holiness of God, and that He is pure goodness and the essence of beauty. When we understand that sex is the gift of loving Father rather than a mere evolved biological function, the act will be infused with wonder. We will also see that God’s rules for sex are for our pleasure. The entire transcendent act of sex was God’s idea. He invented our private parts and nerve endings. Our sexuality is not something to be ashamed of, but it is something we need to surrender to God to be enjoyed to the fullest.
We also need to understand that the purity God calls us to is so much deeper than mere externals. Our hearts on their own are full of lust and repugnant pride. Outside of grace there is not a pure person among us. Someone who feels pride about their “purity” or looks down at those stained by sexual sin knows nothing of the holiness of God.
We need to understand forgiveness. That no matter what is in our past, we can be healed and given a clean slate. Your virginity is precious, but if it is lost, you are not worthless. You are still a precious child that God wants to reach down and restore! You are worth so much more than your track record of behavior. There is no sin too costly that the cross cannot cover. You are never more than a confession away from being completely cleansed and made whole. God wants not a self-righteous heart but a broken heart. A heart that looks to Jesus for its purity and not its own filthy rags.
We also need to grasp the grace of God and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. God never expected us to be pure on our own strength. The only ones who can be “good” on their own are the ones who redefine goodness and call darkness light.
God can heal you, but He won’t change the design. Purity and holiness are His nonnegotiable demands. But only because He sees how much damage impurity brings to His precious creation.
What about outside “Purity Culture?”
I have read the comments of women who have had a bad experience within purity culture and they say they will not be raising their daughters the same way. I agree that something needs to change, but I need to ask, “How are you going to raise them?” What are you going to do differently? Are you going to tell them that sex is beautiful and should be explored any way you like? Is all sexual expression beautiful? Since the 50’s, our culture has thrown off the sexual restrictions laid down in God’s word. It has been “anything goes.” What has been the fruit for women outside evangelical purity culture? Look around. Do you see women loving their bodies? Do you see an abundance of sexually satisfied women? (I’m talking about real life here, not the fantasy realm of TV and movies.)
The symbol of unshackled, sex-as-you-like-it is pornography. Do you know how many married woman are hungry for sex because their husband is so addicted to his virtual partners that he can no longer have normal sexual relations? How fulfilling does that sound? We see photo-shopped women flaunting fake body parts as the sexual ideal. Does this make a woman love her natural body? It’s seems to me a woman’s sense of shame about her body is increased by a culture that flaunts the youthful body and sets up unrealistic expectations for what is sexually ideal.
To discard the purity message is to throw off the biblical guidelines for sex. Historically, when sexual restraint is cast off, it is always the women who suffer worst. When a woman’s value is based on her level of culturally defined sexual perfection, real life women will always suffer.
There is so much messed up with our world, and women and children seem to get the brunt of it. There are so many men whose sex drives are fueled by selfishness. It doesn’t matter who they hurt or what harm they cause, they feel like they have a right to sex whenever they feel like it. But it is women who end up crying in the post-abortion room. It is women who hate their bodies because they know they can never measure up to airbrushed, animated models. It is women who feel used and cheap and dirty after rape or molestation.
The purity message calls men to sacrifice their immediate gratification and follow Christ’s example of selfless life-long love. It calls a man to save his eyes and hands for one woman and to cherish her all his days. The safety a woman feels in such a marriage is vital if she wants to experience the full range of sexual pleasure.
If you have been hurt by a twisted version of the purity message, I hurt for you, I really do. But don’t fling yourself into the sexual immorality of a culture that is ignoring God’s authority. Satan hates your body and your sexuality. He wants you so addicted to counterfeit forms of sex that you develop an ever-increasing desire and ever-diminishing pleasure. God, the one who calls us to purity and asks us to keep sex sacred within marriage, loves your body and your sexuality. He invented pleasure. Sex was his idea. He wants sex to be a beautiful act of worship that unites your soul to your spouse and fills your heart with gratitude and wonder. Forget the men who have made you feel dirty. Come to the Cross, receive a fresh start. Give your sexuality to the One who will heal you and make sex more satisfying than you could ever imagine.
A word to parents
Dear parents of daughters, I plead with you, please love them with all you have and express that love often and in the ways that make her feel loved! Let her know how precious her womanhood really is. In your desire to protect her from the lustful gaze, make sure she never feels like her body is something to be ashamed of! And while you are warning her about the dangers of immorality, make sure she also is hearing how beautiful and satisfying godly sex is and how sexual desire is a gift from God. Take the time to be available to listen to her sexual struggles so that she doesn’t feel alone or that something is wrong with her. As she approaches marriage, make sure she doesn’t feel pressure to turn into a nymphomaniac overnight. Beautiful sex is something that takes work and time and lots of awkward but precious attempts. But above all show her the love and grace of her Heavenly Father. It is God who makes sex truly beautiful.
T Lipp • March 7, 2014
Thanks for the good thoughts Jesse, I’ve had several conversations about this topic lately. Specifically with colleagues who love Jesus and are from cultural backgrounds were there is less “purity culture” and see how demeaning “purity culture” is to sexuality. I think you made a good distinction between the message and the culture, that’s an important distinction to make.
What I’m starting to ponder now is, how can you foster a culture that encourages both purity and sexuality. Is that even okay to say? Maybe I should have put “God-given” in front of sexuality, but then again I didn’t feel it necessary to put “God-given” in front of purity….
Chris • April 1, 2014
Guys suffer from religion-induced sexual dysfunction too.I was at work several months ago and thinking about the depression and anger that plagued me throughout much of my teen years, and I think much of it can be linked to Jesus’s words about lust in Matthew 5. I often felt guilty and angry when I felt any kind of sexual urge, and since adolescence is a time when we guys feel that frequently, there was a ton of anger and guilt. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I saw a minister on TV teach that the purpose of those passages wasn’t to make us feel guilty or repress our sexuality, but to emphasize God’s grace, to make us realize how much we need Him in our daily lives, and the fact that Jesus was “showing up” the Pharisees by telling them that they weren’t nearly as good at following the Law as they thought they were.. It was like, “Gee, NOW someone tells me.”
Some women who’ve blogged about being indoctrinated into this lunacy describe having thoughts and feelings that are classic symptoms of childhood sexual abuse and many of them pertain to me. The fact that I haven’t pulled a Columbine is proof that God is indeed merciful, so I can only hope that something good can come out of this. He’s got His work cut out for Him; this is a person who’s spent nearly as of his adult life under incomprehensible turmoil.