The Purity Myth

This looks like an absolutely fascinating documentary: The Purity Myth.

I’ve somewhat torn watching the preview on whether I like it or not. On the one hand, I do definitely believe that there is such thing as a sexual ethic. I can easily sympathize with those under attack in this video for discouraging casual sex. I may not put some of the same language of “purity” on it – I think that particular word choice is a complete misappropriation of the purity laws of the Bible. I also think most of the points are vastly overblown, picking the worst of the Christian church to paint very broad strokes of all, but maybe that’s just because it’s a preview – its job is to sell the documentary and the book, so of course it is sensationalized.

But I also completely understand what seems to be the thrust of the video. I have at times noticed the same thing. Culture is very oversexualized, undeniably. In response, different branches of the church have responded in different ways. The mainline church has largely moved towards agreement with cultural norms of sexuality and if they talk about it, they usually talk about it in terms of championing the same causes that the more liberal sides of society are championing (more cautious and thought out, but often the same ethical rules in conclusion). The evangelical church as this video describes has often gone the other way: reinforcing traditional conservative views on sex and particularly on women.

I don’t think in any way that the evangelical emphasis on purity is ever intended to restrict women, but I can see the argument that it is doing so by accident. This is largely out of one major observation. With the rest of society, it tends to be generally ignored if men break the church’s sexual ethic. It is almost encouraged, although again not intentionally. How often in evangelical circles do we essentially hear that men can’t help themselves? If men are always told we can’t help ourselves, it is not at all a surprise that many great Christian men think they can’t help themselves. When men fail to live up to the sexual ethic, we’re told it’s bad and we need to try to do better, but that’s really it – ultimately it is usually shrugged off as inevitable even if technically wrong.

Women, on the other hand, still have this Victorian aura around them sometimes in evangelical circles. Unlike men, they can stop themselves. Sometimes you even encounter this bizarre idea where women are responsible for helping men since men can’t help themselves, by setting the boundaries for us or by dressing in ways that could not possibly tempt any man. They’re not the same flawed humans that men are, at least not in the area of sex. There’s a lot more emphasis on the commitment to wait put on women, usually through some fear-mongering about how nothing but abstinence is 100% safe (which is true, but that’s not the point). The video does hit the main point in my opinion: women, unlike men, are often told (usually indirectly) that their worth is in their sexuality, in this concept of “purity” which typically means following the right rules as dictated by God to Ancient Israel.

The central problem in my opinion is this: if Christians really believe in a sexual ethic as most do (call it purity or otherwise), it needs to be applied to men the same as it is to women. The way it is often being done now is creating some very problematic outcomes. I’m more optimistic than the film-maker – I think they’re mostly accidental and not a deliberate political ploy to set back women’s rights – but they are there. I bet that many evangelicals even in the egalitarian camp would immediately reject this idea of treating men’s and women’s sexuality by the same standard if we actually tried to do it, although we wouldn’t necessarily be able to pinpoint why. I think this video is right on why, though: whether that’s what we think we think (not a typo) or not, we regularly believe that a woman’s worth is more tied to her sexuality (very much connected) than it is for a man (maybe a little bit). You can debate whether the sexual ethic men are actually held to is closer to the goal or whether the one women are held to is more the goal. I would suspect that most egalitarian evangelicals would say something in between in theory, and that we just don’t realize we’re not putting it into practice or don’t know how to put it into practice. Hopefully this blog has helped opened your eyes if the first is the problem in your context, and maybe some day I’ll try to tackle the second.

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.