Purity Culture and Porn Culture: Two sides of the same dirty coin

I grew up at the tail end of Purity Culture’s heyday in a fairly conservative, Evangelical community. Courtship, “true love waits,” purity rings, were part of our common vernacular regarding relationships, and the definition of purity was ubiquitous and unchallenged: virginity.

Conflating purity and virginity was just one of many problematic things I was taught growing up. The church camp I attended every summer through junior high and high school had separate “guys and girls” talks, where the guys were admonished not to watch porn or masturbate, and the girls were encouraged make lists of traits we wanted in our future husbands and ask God to bring that special man into our lives at just the right time. We were also warned not let the guys get too handsy with us, because “once guys get going, it can be difficult for them to stop.” Shudder.

I also distinctly remember at my last year of church camp the speaker saying something to the effect of, “If you wait and do things God’s way, he will reward you. You’ll have the kind of sex that will curl your toes.” That first sentence was a paraphrase; the second is forever seared into my memory, verbatim.

Purity culture–embodied by the True Love Waits campaign, I Kissed Dating Goodbyethe Scotch tape metaphor and other such illustrations–largely failed to achieve its goal of keeping Christian teens and single adults from becoming sexually active. But beyond that, it set many of us up for disappointment once we reached the arbitrary point of being “ready” for marriage.

I’ve known for years that Purity Culture established unrealistic expectations of romance and marriage in many Christians of my generation, and I’ve actively fought it in my own heart and mind. But as I stepped into the world of dating myself, I was surprised and disturbed by the other consequences of Purity Culture I’ve encountered. And what’s more, I was surprised by how these effects mirror those of porn culture. The following is not an exhaustive list of parallels, but merely what I’ve picked up from my own meager dating experience and by watching my friends date.

Entitlement

Entitlement is the cornerstone of porn culture. Instant gratification is the reason the industry exists in its current form: I can have exactly what I want, whenever I feel like it, and no one can tell me otherwise. Entitlement quenches gratitude, growth, joy, and ultimately sucks the life and love out of a relationship (often before it begins).

When marriage–the relational end game of most Christians raised in Purity Culture–is seen as God’s reward for a “pure” life, and when purity is narrowly defined as virginity or sexual activity in a distant but redeemed past life, it can generate a sense of entitlement in us as well. I’ve been obedient and faithful, so why hasn’t God delivered on his end of the bargain yet? The end result of disappointed entitlement is either hate directed inward (God hasn’t delivered on his end of the bargain because I’m not [attractive/funny/smart/spiritual/wealthy] enough), or hate directed outward (God hasn’t delivered on his end of the bargain because all of these [b*tches/a**holes] are too vain to look at me). I’ve seen plenty of this in my single Christian friends, both male and female. If I’m being honest, I, too have had thoughts along these lines from time to time. Let me say it again: entitlement sucks the life and love out of relationships.

I am not entitled to be married any more than I am entitled to sexual gratification at any and every moment of the day. When I read the Bible, I do not see that God has promised me a marriage with a “toe-curling” sex life. What he has promised me is actually far more significant. I am invited to participate in the joy-filled, love-abounding perichoresis of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am adopted into the family of God, the communion of saints–a family which will surely delight and disappoint, challenge and change, encourage and discourage as all families do. My life is given eternal purpose and meaning as God works in, with, and through me and my brothers and sisters to bring about the restoration of his beloved world. These are the things he promises me, with or without a spouse.

Consent

Following closely on the heels of entitlement, dangerous beliefs about consent are another consequence of both Purity Culture and porn culture. While some proponents of pornography assert that porn is consensual because the actors are paid, reports of sexual assault on set are far from uncommon. Furthermore, the prevalence of violence in porn shapes viewers’ arousal templates, meaning men and women alike (because let’s be honest, women use porn, too) find arousal and, ahem, completion difficult without some element of force, abuse, or coercion. Anecdotally, I have heard from lots of teenagers in Generation Z–who get their sex education primarily from Porn Hub–that they feel expected and pressured to perform more violent and bizarre acts than they are comfortable with. Porn does a terrible job educating young minds about consent.

As does Purity Culture. Growing up, I heard time and again that men are more visual (an assertion that is heavily contested within social and neurosciences), and so women must dress modestly in order to “protect our brothers from stumbling.” This dubious psychological premise followed with a misapplication of 1 Corinthians 8:9 has a sleazy cousin, which I briefly mentioned earlier: “once guys get going, it can be difficult for them to stop.” In other words, I am responsible to keep myself from being assaulted. I am responsible for my own purity, narrowly defined, as well as my boyfriend’s. The story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11) is taught as a cautionary tale on immodesty more than a story of a woman who was coerced into sex (rape) by a man who held tremendous power over her.

I wrote a post several months ago about some of my own brushes with harassment and unwanted physical contact within Christian circles. Not only does no not mean no to many Christian men, but there was never a question to begin with because it is simply assumed that the woman is the gatekeeper of the relationship’s physical boundaries.

Objectification

Until now, I’ve been talking about Purity Culture and porn culture as though they’re two separate forces. But I actually think it’s naïve to assume that those raised in Purity Culture were not also raised in porn culture. It can be difficult to tease out which problems stem from Purity Culture and which stem from porn culture, and to what degree. Once a cake is baked, you can’t separate out which part is egg and which is flour.

That said, I think the ‘cake’ takes a pretty clear form once baked: objectification.

Porn culture reduces beautiful, precious men and women beloved by God and created in the divine image to two dimensional, digital apparitions whose existence begins and ends with the click of a button. It obscures and commoditizes their humanity, basing their worth entirely upon a few key physical attributes and a willingness to ‘perform’ for people they will never meet face to face. They are things that exist to fulfill another’s self-centered needs, not the complex, interesting, glorious people God created them to be.

At the beginning of this post, I talked about the list I was encouraged to make at church camp of traits I wanted in my future husband. While I believe that this was intended to teach us to develop healthy standards, I think that the broader impact of ‘the shopping list’ approach on my generation has been the objectification of those we encounter on a day to day basis. Are you The One? becomes the question we ask ourselves whenever we are around singles our age. We treat each person that God has called us to love sacrificially as though their primary value lies in whether or not they tick all of the boxes on our list, whether there is “a spark” or sufficient chemistry, or whether their [EQ/spiritual habits/calling] matches our own. When we do find that person who more or less ticks all the boxes, our love is transactional and highly conditional, quid pro quo. Our significant others are things that exist to fulfill our self-centered needs, not the complex, interesting, glorious people God created them to be.

Faith, Hope, and Love

In the last year and a half, I have had to wrestle honestly with my unwanted gift of singleness more than at any other point in my life. I have struggled with each of the issues above–and then some!–in different ways, and I understand that I cannot avoid the repercussions of porn culture or Purity Culture by trying to wish away my desire for a relationship. I am also slowly settling into the realization that I cannot satisfy my singleness woes with a relationship, at least not entirely.

Rather than responding to a legitimate longing for a relationship with objectification or a sense of entitlement, the solution is the three things that remain at the end of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Faith: authentic, firmly rooted trust that God is a good Father who gives good gifts to his children for a good purpose, although I may not understand fully what that purpose is. Hope: the expectation that God is drawing me deeper into the perichoresis, that he has given me a permanent place in his family (Ps 68:6, Jn 1:12, Eph 1:5), and that he is making all things new (Rev. 21:1-4). Love, the greatest of all: choosing to receive his abundant love for me even when it feels foreign and uncomfortable; accepting love from those around me, flawed though it may be; asking God to give me the eyes to see others as he does, so that I may love them as he does–sacrificially, tenaciously, and with great delight. These are the only antidotes I know to the creeping, insidious ripple effects of two seemingly opposed cultural forces.

But what revolutionary antidotes they are…

 

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#MeToo in The Church

Unless you live off the power grid, you’re probably aware that a prominent Hollywood producer has been dethroned by a snowballing number of sexual assault allegations in recent weeks, with another massive round of allegations against a major director following close behind. Chances are, you’re also aware of the thousands upon thousands of #MeToo posts circulating on social media attempting to bring the staggering, common, and generally overlooked problems of sexual harassment and assault to the forefront of people’s consciousness.  This particular movement, if we can call it that yet, strikes me differently than past female-driven hashtags (recall #Ineedfeminismbecause and #Imwithher) because it is simple and it is personal; it states a fact rather than taking a stance.  #MeToo is an invitation to step into another person’s shoes, to glimpse the world through her eyes and consider that she knows something about the bleakness of the world that we cannot understand.

I’m going to add my own voice to the flood of #MeToo’s, not because I want sympathy or shows of support, but because I hope that by stepping into my shoes for a moment, you may be compelled to shift from empathy to an altered stance, and from a stance to action.

I was fifteen the first time I was sexually harassed. A guy in one of my classes asked me to have sex with him during our lunch period.  When I think back on that event, the vileness of his proposition still makes me queasy.  I was harassed again by someone else a few months later, and that time it got physical.  I exited the situation quickly, and told myself I had imagined it.  In the 20/20 hindsight of adulthood, I know I did not.

I am beyond thankful that these two encounters were the worst it ever was, and I know from countless conversations with friends that I am in the minority here. I was never assaulted or raped, and most of my brushes with harassment since then–while they still disgust me–have not made me fearful in the way that these first two incidents did.

Most of the audience I expect to read this is tracking with me so far, because they–you–know that the world is a dark place full of teenage boys and grown men with lecherous minds. Society, without question, objectifies women and reduces us to mere body parts that exist for male gratification, and rampant sexual harassment and assault are the natural fruit of said objectification. We have the porn industry, advertising, and yes, Hollywood, to thank for this.

But it may come as a surprise–to some, anyway–to know that both of the times I was sexually harassed in high school were by Christian boys, and both incidents happened when we were surrounded by other Christians.  And this, reader, is by no means unusual.  These were my first experiences of harassment from Christians, but they were certainly not the last. And beyond my own experiences, I have friends who have been harassed, assaulted, and even raped by men that they–we–went to church with. These are not my stories to tell, but they are many, and are so many that I am convinced that this happens regularly in most churches, if not all of them.

It is no secret that Christian men battle pornography addictions at comparable rates to the rest of society (as do a growing number of Christian women).  Lust undoubtedly plays a part in harassment and assault, and lots of churches have ministries specifically geared toward helping men walk in freedom from pornography addiction.  Addiction is crippling, and I have a lot of compassion for those in its grip.

But sexual harassment, abuse, and assault are not just about sexual desire; they are about power, too. To be honest, I don’t think that the 17-year-old that propositioned me actually wanted to have sex with me; the number one thing I took away from his tone, body language, and the words he chose was that he wanted me to fear him.  He wanted power over me.

And I’m going to suggest something that will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers:  mainstream Evangelical theology and its outworking often lend themselves to this kind of power.  As I see it, there are two aspects to this, and I’m going to start with the interpersonal one: as long as we understand submission in Ephesians 5 as being linked to power/control/authority, churches will never be completely safe for Christian women.

I’m not going to get into how I understand all of Ephesians 5 right now because this post is already long-winded, and I still have more to talk about.  But suffice to say that if men view women fundamentally as people to be controlled, if they believe that God encourages them to assume positions of power over women, it is easy to see how what women want, need, and are entitled to as children of God can become subordinated to the impulses and desires of men. It is an almost imperceptibly small step from “men run the show” to abuse and silencing the abused.

I’m not saying that men and women are the same, or that the Bible doesn’t promote some kind of gender roles within marriage. But I do think that when we legitimize men assuming power over women, women lose. We lose dignity, value, and most importantly, we lose safety.  And men lose, too, because when women become fearful, subdued, hollow shells of who we were created to be, men will be hollow shells as well.  In a world untainted by sin, Adam still needed Eve to do what God made him to do.  We were created for interdependence, not domination and subordination.

The second aspect of Evangelical theology I see contributing to a domination/subordination culture is in our ecclesiology.  Shifting from the interpersonal to the corporate/communal ways most Evangelical churches operate, my observation is this: when church leadership teams are exclusively men–or include only a token female–the church is creating an atmosphere ripe for the exploitation of women.

Let me be clear: although I am egalitarian when it comes to church life, it is not my mission to turn any of you reading this into egalitarians.  My concern here is that women are safe, valued, and respected in their churches and in the company of the men who claim to be their Christian brothers.  And I strongly suspect that when men who are crippled by addiction and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy walk into a church and see only men on the stage, only men making decisions, only men speaking with authority, they subconsciously begin to feel like this might be the place for them to take back the power they think they’ve lost.  When boys growing up in church see only men on stage, they value the minds and hearts of women less.  And when women see this, we know that male needs and viewpoints are of primary importance in this community; we know we are decorative, at best.  Regardless of what the man from behind the pulpit says about men and women being created equally in the image of God, if image-bearing women remain without positions of influence in the church body, what is said from behind the pulpit is mere lip service.  Based on what is plainly visible, male imago Dei > female imago Dei.

For those of you complementarians, I’m not saying you have to let women preach.  But men, if you are not actively seeking out the wisdom, guidance, and constructive criticism of at least some of the women in your church, and if you are not doing so visibly, your church is probably not a safe place for women.  The women in your church need to see women in prominent positions so that they know this is a place where women are respected and valued, and the men in your church need to see women in prominent positions for the exact same reasons.

Furthermore, our churches need women in prominent positions because their voices are necessary for building Christ-like communities. Men, you do not instinctively know what we need to be safe. You need to be told.  You need to be told that the way you talk about lust and modesty and romance often makes us less safe and adds to our silence.  You need to be told that most of us do not feel comfortable telling our pastor that his friend felt us up when he had too much to drink, or that he won’t stop texting us or “randomly” bumping into us when we’ve turned him down repeatedly.  You need women to help shape your communication style, relationships, and the church community itself so that your church can be a place for women to thrive as image bearers of the living God. Men, you need our voices in order for the Kingdom of God to be established in your churches, and we need you to know that you need us.  If the apostle Paul needed women in his ministry, so do you.

I have spent my entire life in church.  Until I was in college, I attended nominally egalitarian churches, churches whose theology, in theory, causes them to champion women.  But a theological position is not enough.  A stance is not enough.  Action is required.  Our relationships and our churches have to change if #MeToo is ever going to stop being the norm in Christian communities.