Last spring, I conducted an informal survey for a research paper for one of my classes via the internet. I put out a status asking my Facebook friends who had been raised in the evangelical, wait-’til-the-wedding-night culture if they would be willing to fill out the survey for me about sex and their views on it. I was shocked at how many people commented saying they wanted to do it – it seemed to strike a nerve. This became a catalyst for a lot of thoughtful conversations in the next few months; people want to talk about this subject, especially with someone who will not judge or shame them for either choice.
I had some survey questions, but I won’t go over those results, because, honestly, my questions weren’t well-written. It definitely wouldn’t have passed any IRB review. What was the most arresting part of the responses for me was the box at the end that simply asked “Is there anything you would like to say about your experiences with the purity culture, sex, and marriage?” I was blown away by the responses; people wrote NOVELS. While it was an option to take the survey anonymously, many people attached their name and still wrote deeply personal stories about their experiences regarding sex and abstinence.
There were a few themes I pulled out from the collection of 27 people who choose to write an answer to that question.
1. No matter which choice they made, very few regretted it.
Almost across the board, whether the person chose abstinence or premarital sex, very few people expressed a desire to go back in time and change their choices. Married couples who waited said it was “worth it” because they felt no guilt in their sex lives, they felt it was the best way to show respect for each other, and that it minimized the pain and heartbreak in their lives.
People who did not wait to have sex until marriage often considered their relationships to be healthy and loving, and that their sexual experiences shaped them into the person that they are today. As those who waited predicted, there were many stories of heartbreak included; however, I would like to point out that heartbreak is not an inherently negative thing. It is a part of loving another person and is a tremendous opportunity for growth. And on the topic of heartbreak…
2. Parent or community judgement of sex is both a tool used to inspire abstinence and a significant source of emotional pain.
Purity culture is community-based, specifically in religion. A few people who took the survey were Catholic (and seemed to have the most well thought out, non-extreme views on the subject, for what it’s worth) but most grew up in Christian evangelical homes. Most people who have attended youth group have experienced the awkward group sex talk at some point – I know I did. We were always split into male/female groups, and usually there was someone who confessed that they made out with their boyfriend for too long and they felt bad about it, or an adult leader who talked vaguely about past mistakes, but emphasized that their husband has now forgiven them, and they loooove sex now. Side note: how weird is it to hear your youth leaders/conference speakers titter about their sex lives and how hot their spouses are? If your experience was anything like mine, that happened way too often. I think it was to make married sex sound the super exciting and “worth the wait.” Not all of them did this, of course, but enough to make it a pattern.
At least for us girls, these sex talks were rooted in the idea that women have sex to feel loved, and that we only went “too far” (Which is how far? No one ever had a definitive answer) if we didn’t fully accept God’s love for us. These talks were too often oversimplified. People have sex for lots of different reasons, but in the mind of the curriculum used for youth group, there were only two: Girls for love and boys for pleasure.
A hallmark of these talks, and almost all literature in this area, is the shame-based techniques used to keep teens abstinent. One of my favorite writers, Sarah Bessey, wrote an article titled “I am damaged goods.” on the subject. The metaphors used in purity culture refer to people, especially women, who have had sex as dirty, damaged, and “used up.” No matter what your beliefs on the proper context for sex, this is deeply upsetting and dehumanizing. Premarital sex does not ruin all future relationships, just as not having sex does not guarantee a good one. Ask any couple who has been happily married for a long time the secret to their success, and I highly doubt the response will be, “We owe it all to waiting until the wedding night.” For some couples that I received responses from, waiting was a way of demonstrating respect and honor for one another, but it is not the whole picture, and it should not be treated as such. I would say that most people don’t treat it as everything, but there is an undue importance placed on abstinence and its effect on the quality of relationships.
Churches are not the only ones to spread these messages, of course. Families play a huge role in people views of and experiences with sex, whether positive or negative. One of the most arresting stories that was shared was from a friend who slept with her boyfriend, and it caused a deep rift in her family. She says, “When I did have sex my dad stopped talking to me for nearly six weeks and my mother screamed at me. After my boyfriend and I broke up for unrelated reasons, my parents, especially my dad constantly berated me about how I was now a used woman and how our relationship never meant anything because we had sex and then broke up. The tension, pain and strife in my family because of virginity ideals has left more scars in me than a broken hymen ever could.” Here, it was not the sex that caused the problem. It was the association of being “damaged goods” and her family’s reaction that left her feeling hurt and saddened.
3. LGBT people are excluded in purity culture.
Fun fact: there is no actual medical definition of virginity. For something that is so deeply imbedded in our culture and our ideas of sex, this is surprising to me. From my experiences, when people talk about losing their virginity, they are almost always are referring to heterosexual vaginal sex. However, this is not a useful definition because it completely excludes LGBT people and delegitimizes their sexual experiences. In practice, we realize that it would be silly to refer to someone who has only had same-sex sex as a virgin, but we still fall back on P-in-V when it comes to defining virginity. Honestly, I would like to do away with the term “virgin” altogether, but that’s another blog post for another day.
LGBT people are barely mentioned in purity culture books, which is ridiculous considering that it was estimated in 2011 that there are 9 million LGBT people in the US. That’s about 3.5% of our population, and the church is no different. When LGBT issues are discussed, it’s generally to say that they should a) be celibate and b) go to counseling. Counseling is great, but it is straight up unrealistic to expect all LGBT people to be celibate. I could throw in a few more words there that would show my pro-marriage equality bias, but for now, we’ll leave it at that.
LGBT people who took the survey expressed their feelings of being alienated by this culture, because marriage is seen as the only context for sex. Without being able to be legally married in the majority of states today, this tells LGBT people that there is never going to be a proper context for sex or romantic love in their lives. Take a minute to imagine yourself in that situation if you are not. Then, go hug your nearest gay friend, because must be damn hard. Or maybe don’t, because that might be weird? But you know, try some compassion and empathy on for size.
Really, if I had to sum up what the purity culture needs more of, it would be just that: compassion and empathy. There is a lot of emotional pain surrounding the issues of sex, and to shut people down by shaming them for their choices is counterproductive, damaging, and alienating. No one should feel “ruined” for the choices they make. I think the purity culture would benefit from more honest conversations about sex, ones where there is not necessarily a lesson to be learned but a person to care about. It’s time we shift the dialogue about sex from harsh but unclear lines (seriously, how far is too far?), to one where people do not feel ashamed to speak honestly and to acknowledge the gray areas. I know that the older I’ve gotten, the more my friends and I who grew up in the purity culture have these conversations. I hope that that can trickle into churches, especially youth groups. There is a whole lot more to unpack about the movement – I wrote a whole paper about it that barely skimmed over what is in this post because of its focus on other issues in the purity culture. But these are the ones that affected me the most because the stories come from people I care about, and parts of it are my story as well. I hope that this post gave you some insight that you didn’t have before into people’s stories surrounding the effects of the purity culture on their lives and attitudes towards themselves, and that your responses are thoughtful and candid. Remember: empathy and compassion, because we’re all in this together. (Or something like that.)