Back to Basics: Purity Culture, Consent, and the Double Standard

This post is part six in an ongoing series about the basics of feminism. [part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5] 

I wear a purity ring on my right hand, and have for about fourteen years now. It’s an inexpensive ring that my parents bought me at WalMart, but it is real gold with real diamond chips embedded in it. My parents gave me the ring in a ceremony in front of my church congregation on a Sunday morning shortly after I turned fourteen.

That ring symbolized a deep commitment I was making to God, my church, and my family. A deep commitment that said I would save my virginal vagina for my wedding night and do my best to keep from lust or tempting situations. I wouldn’t date until I was ready to marry, and I would keep every relationship pure and holy and focused on God. The best relationships are a triangle, after all – two people with one eye on each other and both looking up at God.

(Don’t think about that image too deeply. I don’t want you to have nightmares).

This is, in small part, purity culture. Developing out of a feminist understanding of sexual ethics and bodily autonomy, the critique of the evangelical purity movement has dubbed it a “purity culture.” Previous to that, aspects of this culture were dubbed various things; “the double standard” is possibly the most recognizable.

What is the double standard?

“He’s a player; she’s a slut.”

“She’s a prude; he’s a hero.”

“Women have to say no; it’s a man’s job to push those boundaries.”

The double standard is the idea that a man who goes out and has lots of sex is simply being a manly man who mans. But a woman who has lots of sex is a dirty slut who is the lowest of the low.

But purity culture connotes much more than just the double standard. Purity culture is a particularly Christian, American, evangelical notion, though you will find differing strains of it in religions all around the world. The Roma people throughout Europe, for example, have a particularly intriguing version of purity culture within their families.

Purity culture is, in brief, the linking of religious piety with virginal status, particularly in young people, and the association of sin and shame with sex. When a teacher is fired from her Christian school for having sex before her wedding, that is purity culture in action.

Purity culture says that sex is damaging, shameful, and disgraceful if it happens before a wedding has taken place.

Purity culture says that sex before marriage takes something essential away from the bond between husband and wife – it proposes that the heart’s capacity to be intimate with others is limited and should therefore be protected and guarded fiercely.

Within this purity culture, there exist several variant manifestations. Modesty culture extends from purity culture. This is the idea that a woman’s immodest dress can lead a man to “stumble” in his spiritual walk, and therefore women must take absolute care to dress as modestly as possible so their brothers will not be tempted. However, much of modesty culture, in attempting to make the argument that modesty is a good value for people to have, end up sexualizing modesty itself, saying “modest is hottest.”

Purity culture’s targets are young women. Young men are simultaneously a focus and an afterthought. Every motivation behind staying pure is focused on being received well by a future husband, but those same future husbands are more easily forgiven for transgressions, written off with “boys will be boys.”

One important aspect of purity culture is that it often espouses the idea that even the least knowledge of sex is damaging to the purity crusade. It is the purity movement that is pushing for abstinence only sexual education in schools, under the auspice that if we teach people how to have sex safely, they will then be motivated to go have sex.

Consent is absent in purity culture, making it part and parcel of our overarching American rape culture. Because purity proponents often actively oppose education about any kind of safe sex, the ability to consent is not part of the conversation. There is no discussion about what asking consent, giving consent, or having consensual sex looks like. This blurring of sexual boundaries and what "yes" means, combined with an emphasis on young men as animalistic lust monsters, creates a world in which women are shamed even if they never made the decision to have sex.

All premarital sex is the same in purity culture, whether it happened consensually or not. This creates a hostile atmosphere for victims of rape. Since purity culture is bathed in religious piety, God becomes a monster who traffics in shame and punishment for any and all expressions of sexual desire - not just those which are harmful to other people. The person who was raped by her boyfriend is greeted with the same amount of shame as the person who chose to consensually engage in sexual acts with her betrothed.

Purity culture is, at its heart, a shame-based approach to sexual ethics. It creates a world where secrecy, silence, and shame surround sex, all in the name of God. And it harms women.

The problems with this movement are far too great to recount here, which is why I wrote the book I did. Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, gives a history of the purity movement over the last century, examines the Biblical underpinnings for the development of just such a culture, and systematically develops a new approach to sexual ethics that eschews the harmful double standard that purity culture incubates. The book works in conversation with existing purity guides of our day, from Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Eric and Leslie Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story. In July, I’ll be talking more in depth about these ideas and moving toward a new sexual ethic – and previewing some material from the book!

Pre-order will be coming this summer (believe me, you won’t be able to miss it when it happens!).

Tune in on Monday for a 101 level discussion on gender, sexuality, and various probably confusing acronyms you come across in feminist discourse!