If you’ve grown up outside the Christian bubble, the term “purity culture” might sound a bit foreign. Heck, even if you do come from Christian circles, there is a chance you haven’t heard this term either. Even though, as an Eastern European, I didn’t hear this concept growing up, when I moved to the West I discovered that the phrase “purity culture” described a phenomenon that I’d been experiencing all along.
Purity culture centers around the idea that as a Christian you have to maintain sexual purity until marriage. But what does sexual purity entail exactly? I think most churches would agree that having sex is at the top of the list, but there are many other aspects to sexual purity that are more ambiguous. Does masturbating make your body impure? Do involuntary sexual desires pollute your mind? Unfortunately, the Bible does not provide a clear checklist of what keeps your body pure of “sexual immorality”, so us mortals are stuck down here trying to figure it out. This is why throughout my life I’ve heard many and wide-ranging Christian interpretations of what sexual purity means.
From a young age, I had the impression that my mere attraction to boys was unbiblical. I remember reading Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”, and thinking that even the thought of my liking someone was lustful and therefore, sinful. Older people in my family warned me that as I grew older, boys could try inappropriate things such as touching me in intimate places, like my boobs and my butt; but also that touching myself was a horrible, horrible sin. When I was about nine years old I tried swearing off the very thought of boys until I reached a stage in life when it would be more “appropriate”.
From a young age, I had the impression that my mere attraction to boys was unbiblical.
I was pretty well prepared to fear and distrust my sexuality before entering puberty. I quickly discovered that all my efforts to shun my physical attractions were fruitless. I clearly wasn’t pure or godly enough, otherwise God would give me the strength to fight my sinful nature better. Throughout my early to mid teenage years, I repeatedly prayed the same prayer for forgiveness for my weak human nature.
So, what changed?
I think there comes a time in growing up when the blinders of your childhood have to come off so that you can evaluate what you have always thought to be true. This happened to me as a teenager when I was confronted by my non-religious classmates about my faith. Taking off my faith blinders was a painful process because there was no more comfort, no more security. But it was necessary for me to take a wider look at the landscape around me to have even more confidence that the path of my religion was the right one. My faith either had to grow up with me or be left on the side of the road.
I think there comes a time in growing up when the blinders of your childhood have to come off so that you can evaluate what you have always thought to be true.
Taking off the blinders of my obsession with purity was a longer process, one that I have been thinking a lot about very recently, and will most likely continue to grow in after publishing this piece. I don’t think I realized just how impossible my desire for pure actions and thoughts was, that my nine year-old self committed to. This is because the aspirations that pastors in my life, and online evangelists, have repeatedly set for our sexual desires are completely unattainable. We are almost expected, as good and pure Christians, to have no sexual desires during our single life and non-marital relationships. Only once the ring is on, are we expected to magically transform into sexual beings for our partner. This standard makes sexually aware Christians steep their instinctive desires in shame and condemnation. I can imagine that asexual people might feel the pressure for reproduction and to perform their spousal duties once they are married. Purity culture somehow manages to fail people across the board.
I dared confront my frustrations with my standards of purity head-on after hearing a sermon which, once again, epitomized a marriage relationship as a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with His church. I guessed that I, as a single person, could not get a good enough understanding of Jesus’ love for me. Apparently, my struggles with the desire for physical intimacy was the Holy Spirit inviting me into a deeper relationship with Him. While this rhetoric would have hit me deeply as an impressionable teenager, it now left me unfulfilled, frustrated, and full of even more questions. It was time for the blinders to come off.
I don’t deny that the Bible calls us to sexual integrity as Christians. I don’t deny that there should be a line in the sand about our physical intimacy with a romantic partner vs a spouse. But I do see just how obsessed the church has been with sex. As a body of believers, we should be very careful about making purity our idol. We don’t realize how many people we are turning away because of what we have deemed as sinful behavior.
As a body of believers, we should be very careful about making purity our idol.
After taking off my purity culture blinders, I still believe that leaving sex for marriage is the right choice for me. But unlike earlier, I am not making this decision out of fear. I’m not “saving” my body because the alternative is an unforgivable sin. Throughout the Bible we see God being patient and faithful to people who fall all over the sexuality spectrum, from single unmarried followers to sexually promiscuous men. He will surely also have patience for us believers, who come to Him with questions about our own sexuality.