Unlearning Purity Culture: Intentionality

This is part three of a month-long exploration of ways to establish new sexual ethics. On Monday, we discussed the idea that sexuality has many facets and many people bring different experiences to it. Today, we explore intentionality.

I was raised to believe that getting on birth control and buying condoms was worse than actually having sex. It meant you were planning to have sex and premeditated sex was practically unjustifiable – it meant that your loss of purity was intentional, that you actively decided to disobey God.

I also had several conversations with female friends when I was younger as they worried that they were pregnant, that they had caught some disease, because they were afraid to use protection. Using protection meant going out and buying protection and that meant that they were actively planning to have sex. And that took away their excuse that these kind of things “just happened.” Planning to have safe sex eliminated their one refuge from shame – that they were merely passive receivers of something happening to them, rather than actively deciding to participate and protect themselves.

Evangelicals are so used to operating under a burden of shame that we’ve developed loopholes to say that what we’re doing is not sin, it’s not bad, it’s not breaking the rules. And evangelical leaders condemn these loopholes not because their culture of shame creates them, but because they are loopholes. Finding “technical” ways to disobey the rules isn’t godly. They don’t consider that the rules themselves are the problem.

The rules about keeping oneself pure end up creating a world where unsafe, “unintentional” sex is better than sex that you plan to have and embrace fully. Sex in the heat of the moment can be excused, written off as a good person getting caught up in emotion. But sex that you plan for, sex that you intend to be safe and protected? That evinces a moral failing of the person, as someone deliberately choosing to disobey God.

This intentionality versus unintentionality conflict is the heart of why so many evangelicals push for abstinence only education. The American church is deeply, intimately afraid that if we teach people how to say both yes and no that they’ll actually say yes. As a result, we end up with sex that comes out of a Robin Thicke song, sex where consent isn’t a priority, where whirlwinds of emotions determine actions in the moment, rather than an intentional, healthy attitude that has looked at all possibilities.

Healthy sexual ethics are intentional sexual ethics. Approaching sex with intentionality, with a confident determination of “this is what I want to do and I am prepared for these experiences” is necessary for a healthy sexual life. But if you come from purity culture, spur of the moment decisions seem like the best way to have sex because it acts as a coping mechanism to deal with shame.

So the third thing you should learn in your way toward creating a new sexual ethic is how to have sex with intention. This means conversations about sex, about boundaries (yes!), and about protection. There are a lot of hard questions you have to ask yourself in order to engage in sex in a healthy manner.

Do I feel safe with this person?

Am I prepared for all possibilities, including pregnancy if that is a possibility? Do I have a plan?

Does this person want to have sex with me?

Do I want to have sex with this person?

Can I say no in this situation?

Have we taken all the necessary precautions?

Have we talked about what this means for us and our relationship? How will this change how we view each other? What does it mean to me?

Can I talk safely about sex and what protection to use with this person, without them whining or pouting about using a condom/dental dam/other protections? (If you cannot, you probably should not be having sex with them).

This is all about being intentional about your sexual life and what you do with other people. Loving other people means examining not only your own intentions but being willing to talk openly with your partner about sex. Some people are capable of having these conversations as a single person at age 18. Some others get well into their 30s before they get comfortable talking about sex with their wives. Like I said on Monday, everyone is different, and that’s okay.

The purity movement has had the problematic effect of removing intentionality from the sexual equation, particularly for single people. It has long been a source of deep shame for many, and shame is an ingrained response that is hard to move past. But being intentional, being safe, is far better emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Be intentional. Take those steps. And be free.