Unlearning Purity Culture: Fluid Sexualities

At the beginning of this year, I came out of the closet as a queer woman. I’ve been attracted to people outside of the narrow category of cisgender, heterosexual men for a while, but it took me a lot of time to realize and recognize my attractions for what they were. It wasn’t a “friend crush” as I previously thought, but an actual crush – a desire for something beyond a close friendship.

After I realized that, it was a relatively short amount of time before I came out of the closet as a bisexual woman, and the response was mostly positive. The interesting part to me is the question of virginity – does this mean I have two virginities to “lose”? What does that sort of thing look like for someone like me?

Even before I had this personal experience, though, I’d realized that the evangelical church’s teachings about purity and virginity were leaving out a large segment of the population. If virginity is defined by a penis entering a vagina, what does that mean for couples for whom this is not a main way of having sex? Are lesbians and gay men perpetual virgins?

The question’s absurd, naturally, but it demonstrates how closely purity culture is tied to a homophobic vision of marriage. In seeking to preserve the “covenant of marriage” by encouraging purity, the purity movement also implies that marriage is not for people outside the cisgender, heterosexual norm. Healthy sexual ethics don’t apply if you’re not straight and cisgender – LGBT people don’t exist in the world of purity culture.

This then begs the question: if your gospel-based sexual ethics only apply to a specific subset of the population, what does that say about the love of God which is said to be for all peoples? If your Gospel is only applicable to white, middle-class, American, straight, cisgender Christians, it’s not much of a gospel.

In which case, we need to expand our sexual ethics. Purity culture is, on its face, homophobic and transphobic. Specific gendered roles, ideas about how women and men are wired, and declarations about what happens to women who have sex all contribute to an atmosphere where LGBT folks find the church with nothing to offer them. The dismissal is insidious – it goes deeper than merely instructing people to wait until marriage. Purity culture is built upon the exclusion of LGBT people in the church.

So how can we go about creating a sexual ethic that applies to all of God’s creatures, not just the ones who fit the “right” mold?

Such recalibration of sexual ethics requires that we drop our preconceptions about gendered roles – which is a much bigger project than many anticipate when it comes to dismantling and unlearning purity culture. Purity culture is the loose thread that can lead to the unraveling of an entire tapestry. Purity culture is the underpinning of an entire false gospel of conservatism, based upon the control of men and women by telling them what they are as categories versus individual people. Abstinence promotion does not merely rely on encouraging whomever is listening to wait until marriage. It involves waiting in a specific way, modifying gendered behavior to fit restrictive “God-given” roles within a further marriage. The entire basis of the theologically conservative misconceptions about traditional family can be pulled apart merely by challenging the abstinence message.

Unlearning purity culture is the task before us, and it requires more than merely saying it’s okay not to wait. It means challenging the entire notion of sexuality as a set binary where men like women and women like men and never the twain shall meet. A healthy sexual ethic speaks to all forms of sexual activity, regardless of the orientation or gender identity of the people involved – and any sexual ethic that does not is not functioning as a universal sexual ethic.

This is the reason I am careful to talk about a person’s partner and to not make assumptions about people dating men or women (though I sometimes fail in that). Affirmation that sexual is fluid and changes from person to person and that all people are created by God is an important step in the dismantling of purity culture. This is how Christ meets people where they are, not as who societal pressure says they should be. If we are to affirm that all are created by God, we need to make sure that our lessons of sexual ethics don’t pretend otherwise.