Unlearning Purity Culture: Consent

Throughout July, we’re working on developing healthy sexual ethics as we unlearn purity culture. Read previous posts here.

[content note: rape]

My parents and I stood in front of my church when I was fourteen and gave me a small diamond ring. That day, I pledged to save my vagina for the man God appointed for me, and for the time after the wedding.

For me, there wasn’t really a question of me falling into temptation in any form – while I wanted to be in a relationship, I didn’t experience any kind of sexual desire or pull toward having sex. I was taught that this was perfectly normal and in fact good – as the woman, it would be my job to stop things when they got too heated, and this would be easier if I didn’t have desire.

Whenever I pictured how “protecting my virginity” would go, it always followed along the same lines – a man would be attempting to force me into sex, with sly words and a quick tongue. I would look at my hand, see my purity ring, and remember my commitment to God and to my future husband.

I didn’t realize that these were stories of rape and sexual assault until I was out of college. And I slowly came to the realization that this was because I had no metric for consent – no understanding of what a consensual sexual encounter would look like.

As I read numerous dating guides for research for my forthcoming book, I noticed a pattern with the stories of virginity loss and ruined purity – a significant number of them were stories of rape. In the Abstinence Clearinghouse’s pro-abstinence only education book, Abstinence 101, many of the stories cited are fairly clear cut stories of rape. Even further, in that same text, rape is cited as a direct consequence of divorcing love and commitment from sex – which is their phrasing for premarital sex of any kind.

Rape is simultaneously unrecognizable and a constant threat in purity culture. The simple truth of it is that, without consent education, the purity movement makes it impossible for people to recognize rape as such. Many conservative evangelical will adamantly declare that they are against rape, they think it’s a horrific crime, in the same breath as saying that a wife who denies her husband sex is failing to do her duty. Purity proponents end up promoting rape because they don’t know what consent and healthy sexuality actually look like.

So how do we learn consent again? How do we implement a culture of consent throughout our sexual culture? We start by respecting consent in all other areas as well.

We respect personal boundaries – when someone doesn’t want to hug, we don’t force them into it. We don’t touch people without their permission. In a sexual encounter, we check in with our partner, pay attention to how they’re feeling and reacting and ask before we try something new. We take a purposeful, intentional approach to sexual encounters, understanding that they cannot and should not happen without the consent of both parties.

It takes a long time to unlearn the ramifications of purity culture, but one of the most important things we need to learn immediately is to ask for and receive affirmative consent before proceeding in any kind of sexual relationship. It means that we recognize the narratives we’ve been telling ourselves are stories of rape, and that we stop using stories of coercion and giving in to talk about the “consequences” of premarital sex and sin. It means we recognize that sex happening without consent is rape, full-stop – regardless of whether or not it could be prosecuted in court, regardless of what the victim was wearing, regardless of what the circumstances surrounding the incident were.

If you take anything away from the process of unlearning purity culture, the utmost importance of consent needs to be it. That is your lesson.