Unlearning Purity Culture: Can Abstinence Be Right?

Ever since I started challenging purity culture (a project that’s been ongoing for about four years now), I’ve had one consistent and common criticism lobbed at me: “You just want people to have anonymous hook ups all the time! You want there to be no morals around sex whatsoever!”

In purity culture, there is no middle ground, no distinction between total abstinence and total lack of self-control around sex. We’re told, over and over again, that if you’re having sex outside of marriage, you must be doing in the most shameful ways. Waking up next to someone whose name you can’t remember is used as a threat to keep you from exploring your own sexuality, exploring what safe boundaries you can place. If you’re having sex outside of marriage, it seems, you’re only doing so in certain ways.

So a large part of my project has been to show that there are all sorts of different forms of sexual activity, and that even if you’re sleeping with someone on the first date, it is possible to do so with intentionality, consent, and grace. The point is to remove shame from the equation altogether and to refute the narratives of purity that say you are either a slut or a virgin and nothing in between.

In this process of affirming varying experiences and understanding what people bring to the table in terms of sexual activity, I also get accused of shaming virgins, of not wanting anyone to be celibate, of “anything goes” sexuality. But that’s not it either.

What I want for you is to figure out what is right for you, to have all the tools you need at your fingertips, to understand yourself well enough to make an educated decision. Abstinence that you have been scared into creates an unstable abstinence that is easily broken. Abstinence that you have thought about carefully and deeply and chosen for yourself is far easier to hold onto.

The problem comes when people begin to view the choice to be abstinent as more than a choice. It becomes something that places them closer to God, that positions them as holier and better than other people. It is the marker of a Good Christian Person. This is the problem.

Being abstinent is simply one state of being. You have not won any battle by making it to your wedding day as a virgin – you have merely managed to keep a somewhat arbitrary promise. You have not lost anything if you decide to have sex without a ring on your finger. These are merely two different states of being, and the realization of that will go a long way toward eliminating shame in our discussions of sexuality.

What are some reasons to choose to be abstinent?

You know yourself well enough that you know it would be emotionally the best choice for you.

You want to avoid any risk of pregnancy outside of a stable financial relationship with your partner.

You feel it’s the right choice for you at this point in time.

Notice I said nothing about it being “the right choice” universally – because it’s not. For some people, abstinence is a choice that can lead to them to make bad decisions. I knew a number of people in college who got married to the wrong people simply because they felt they couldn’t experience sex in any other way. The decision to remain abstinent is not one to be taken lightly – which is why it’s so discomfiting to me that we ask pre-teens to take virginity pledges.

Abstinence or celibacy may be the right choice for you. And that may change depending on life circumstances – things change and our ideas of ourselves shift throughout our lifetimes. Such choices are not sources of pride - they are shifts in our states of being. The intentionality, grace, and love with which we approach sexual choices, including abstinence, is what matters.