My First Blatant Encounter with the Problem of Purity Culture

Seen these visible reminders of the obsession with sex in some church cultures?

Like many other oblivious young men in the evangelical church, I never considered that there was anything potentially wrong about purity culture until I was about 20. I had consistently – not as obsessively as in many churches, but consistently – been told about the perils of sex before marriage or even being significantly attracted to someone (called “lust”) before marriage. As a teenager I started hearing bits and pieces about how the Christian women in my life could help us out by how they dress. That sounded pretty good to me; who doesn’t want help in not sinning? I never really thought of it as blaming women, just encouraging them to help us out. And since all of these conversations happened divided by gender, and I didn’t have a lot of female friends anyway, I didn’t ever hear feedback from women and just assumed that they were generally happy to help us out.

I worked at an evangelical camp from the age of 19 to the age of 22. I need to be clear that I love the people there to this day and I don’t think they meant any kind of harm. But each year we had “The Talk,” which was broken down into two parts. In the first, the camp director basically explained why they strongly discourage dating during the summer and why we should wait until September instead: camp is a weird bubble where you don’t really know somebody, if you break up you still have to see each other multiple times a day, and it’s a distraction from the hard work that came with the job. I still agree with that point wholeheartedly.

For the second part, we split up by gender and talked some more. The men were basically encouraged to fight our lusts, not to see women as property for our sexual pleasure, not to toy with them emotionally, and to seek accountability with each other through it all. Some gender generalizations aside, I don’t think this was particularly problematic either. The women, on the other hand, were essentially told not to dress like a slut (a fairly broad definition of what dressing like a slut included) because if they did we men would immediately fall into sin. They were told pretty clearly that while we could try hard – what we were being told to do – we couldn’t really help ourselves and so it was up to them. I’ve written before about how insulting this is to men as well as women.

In my second year at the camp, I saw a female friend crying at the end of it. And she, while attractive, dressed modestly by all but the most extreme standards. She didn’t want to talk about why she was crying and it was another two years before I even knew what really was said in that half of The Talk thanks to another friend (by that point I had a lot more and a lot closer female friends). So I didn’t know exactly why this teaching was clearly hurting her, but I had the sudden realization of something that remained a nagging thought: something is wrong with the way that this camp, and a lot of the church in general, talks/talked (I don’t know if the camp still does it) about sex.

Years later, I know what purity culture means and can explain better why it is a problem. I still look at people like leaders of my camp with great love and I still believe that they are doing what they think is the best option for everybody involved. I’ve just also become convinced that it really isn’t the best option for everybody involved. In fact, it does a lot of harm, holding many men and women in a false captivity created by excessive shame begun at a young age.

And the key to me seeing this captivity was the fact that this friend expressed her pain in a way that hadn’t been visible to me before. Young men of course didn’t talk about how it made us feel to each other. That’s awkward and is questioning the church that we loved. And we were even less likely to talk to women about it, considering how terrible we felt for the thoughts we had about them. But this first time, seeing some real honest expression of what it was doing to someone, showed me the crack in the system. Even though it wasn’t intentional and I would much rather she didn’t have to go through it, I thank that friend for showing that to me. She showed me a dark side of purity culture and it is primarily for people like her that I fight against it.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.