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 Goodbye, the 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 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.
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.
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…