Unlearning Purity Culture: The Simple Complexity of God's Plan

In my upcoming book, I establish several principles for developing a healthy sexual ethic. Over the next few weeks I’ll be talking about some of those principles in brief. Read the introduction post here.

 In 2009, I went on a trip to India to learn about human trafficking. I’m glad for the time that I had there, though I know that 14 white people coming in to learn ultimately didn’t do anything to change the situation. The trip, ultimately, was more for our benefit, as short term missions trips tend to be.

One particular moment that stands out to me from the trip was when we went to a small town in the southeast part of India. This town is known for its sex industry – many women enter prostitution work by 15, and many families have a long history of women going into sex work. We went to a local shelter for sex workers – a place where they can get health care, extra clothes, and support if they decide to leave the trade.

At this shelter, we were there to meet with some of the women and to help out the shelter with a symbolic gesture of giving out some saris to the women. After we handed out the robes, we were given the opportunity to talk to the women and ask them questions. Our team sat in a semi-circle, facing about twenty women, and didn’t know what to say at first. Then one of our leaders, a white woman, spoke up.

I don’t remember how she phrased the question, but it implied that this was work the women didn’t want to do and had been forced into. The women – ranging in age from young, 20-something women to women in their 70s – bristled. Many of them immediately indicated that they didn’t want to answer any more questions if they were going to be along those lines. They told our translator that no one had forced them to do anything – this was their job, and it should be respected as such.

It took me years to understand why these women took such immediate offense – years of reading sex workers’ writing and learning more deeply about the feminist approach to sex work. While I struggle with the idea of sex as a monetary transaction, I respect and understand that for many people, it is simply a job that they do that should not be conflated with trafficking and abuse prima facie.

Being involved with these discussions has brought me to what many may call a far-too-liberal understanding of God’s plan for sexuality. A lot of purity culture and evangelical teaching centers on the idea that God’s plan for sexuality looks exactly the same for everyone. You are to wait until you are married and then have lots of heterosexual sex and produce lots of babies.

This is the traditional American vision. This is the evangelical plan. But in a church that spends a lot of time talking about Jeremiah 29:11 and how to find God’s plan for your life, a lot of the culture seems bent on making sure you follow a particular prescribed path when it comes to sexuality. When it comes to sexuality in the Body of Christ, it seems we are less a body and more all left feet.

The white evangelical church is a huge fan of making sure everyone else is following their idea of Biblical thought – everyone must be a virgin on their wedding day. Everyone must produce lots of Christian children. Everyone must stay married, no matter the circumstances. It’s a simple plan.

But real life is messy. Real life, with real people created by our real God, reflects far more diversity than that simple, white evangelical plan with a yard and white picket fence could ever be. Gay people exist. Trans* people exist. People divorce. People are infertile. People choose to have sex outside of marriage. People choose to wait. People have those choices stolen from them. People grow up without mothers. Without fathers. People grow up with two dads or two moms or just one parent. People have a set of parents and then their parents’ special friend. People will never have any desire to experience sex.

This is the vastness of the human experience. Not all of it is good. Not all of it is bad. But it is complex, it is complicated, and it is not easy to understand.

The patent absurdity of American evangelical purity culture is that it claims waiting until heterosexual marriage is the way to healthy sexuality for absolutely everyone. Its morality is king, no matter what your situation. The plain, bald truth is that it’s not. People need to be equipped to know themselves, to know the best path for them, to explore their sexuality safely. And we will not get to a place where that is possible without accepting that “stay a virgin until marriage” is an inadequate sexual ethic to cover the complexity of human sexuality.

We accept, quite easily, that God calls different people to live out parts of their lives differently. We need to start applying that principle to sexuality and sexual behavior as well. If we are unwilling to place sexuality in the category of secondary concerns, a category where differentiation is accepted and allowed, then what we are really saying is that staying a virgin is the Gospel. That sexual purity is so primary as to override all other aspects of grace and love.

Are we prepared to say that sexual purity is so central to the Gospel that any deviation threatens salvation? Are we really prepared to create such a narrow gate that only white, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual American Christians can go through?

Or are we prepared to listen to people’s stories, to allow that we are a Body, a community composed of vastly different people with vastly different experiences, all contributing to a wonderful thriving Love? Are we going to participate in the public sphere with the knowledge that the Other is created by God just as we are? Or are we going to insist that our idea of God's plan makes it the same for everyone?

Accepting this pluralism is part and parcel of unlearning purity culture. Shame is rooted in the idea that we are all the same and those who have fallen short of the white, middle-class, heterosexual ideal have somehow sinned. Freedom comes from the recognition that God's plan may be different for you and for me and for that guy over there[1]. Liberation comes from the realization that this is okay. This is our starting point - not only the recognition that we are okay, but they are okay too.

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[1] Note that this is not to say that traumatic experiences are part of God's plan. Instead, I am saying that our life experiences affect how relationships with God play out in individual lives and we have to respect that difference.