Leaving Purity Culture: Now What?

In light of Maureen’s guest post from Monday, I think it’s time to launch into a discussion of what healthy sexual ethics in light of a purity culture upbringing and dynamic. As you may expect, my book covers these topics and more, much more in depth, so these posts are basic overviews. You’ll definitely want to get your hands on the book itself to get the full scoop!

I grew up in purity culture. I was given a ring when I was 14 and pledged everything to God. I even considered, for a short time, saving my first kiss for marriage. As a result of my upbringing, I developed a number of problems when I finally started dating people. I didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like; I didn’t know what was fast or slow or how to handle disagreements. Part of that is being brought up in a family that tends not to talk about hard things, but a major part of it is the romanticized vision of relationships that purity culture imparted on me.

I read a lot of Christian dating books when I was in college. I really wanted to find a way to get married before I graduated, but all the books I read painted a vision of romantic relationships that involved a lot of praying, a lot of talking to God, and a lot of “you’ll just know” type fluff – none of which was helpful. Additionally, as the girl who was convinced that she couldn’t ask boys out or it’d ruin everything, I felt like I had no agency in any of my relationships – I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed or what things were red flags. I was totally selfless – and as a result, I lacked confidence and the ability to assert myself in dating.

Many of the women I’ve spoken to found themselves in the same boat – once they realized the problems with purity culture, they found themselves asking “Now what? How do I live now?”

How do we approach and establish new sexual ethics? What principles do we use? What is our basis for morality?

One of the popular arguments in evangelical Christianity is that any kind of ethic not based in literal biblical thinking is not really an ethic – it is a relativistic, amoral form of thought, developed to make people feel good. But such strictures fall apart when you realize that a lot of the sexual ethics from the “secular” world not only mirror a healthier Biblical ideal but they do a better job of allowing for different experiences and centering the health of people involved.

This is not to say we reject the “traditional” Biblical ethic altogether – indeed, what I’m doing is far from that. Instead, we develop an understanding of ethics that honors people as God created them, a sexual ethic that applies to all peoples, not just straight, cisgender men and women. We honor the image of God in people by developing a healthy sexual ethic based in consent, in intentionality, and in grace.

That, then, is our first major underlining principle: you are who God created you to be, as your sexual self.

Much of purity culture is bent upon this idea that denying we are sexual beings altogether is the best way to proceed with sexual ethics. Boners are scary. Vaginas are to be hidden away. Any potential lust – any evidence of a sexual drive – is to be driven away by the love of God and the desire to worship only him. One of the questions I received for #AskAwayWed last week highlights this warped desire to replace a human, natural sexual drive with the worship of God.

Unfortunately, this kind of denial of self is at once impossible and a denial of who God created us to be. God created us as beings with a sexual identity, and to deny ourselves that basic concept is to deny who God made us to be. To force ourselves into any kind of identity that is different from what God created us to be – whether by denying our innate sexuality, by trying to change our sexual attractions to something else, by repressing any and all sexual thoughts and feelings – is to deny that we are created as beings in God’s image.

This is the first step toward developing a healthy sexual ethic – the recognition that you are okay. God created you, God made you, and God loves you. Get comfortable with who you are as a creature of God. You are okay.