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The Poison of Purity Culture

Sexual ethics for Christians from many denominations were formed by a concept called “purity culture.” There’s a good chance your own ethic was as well. Maybe you wore a ring as a teen, pledging to Jesus that you wouldn’t have sex until marriage. Maybe you attended a church which urged courting rather than dating. Maybe you attended modesty fashion shows accompanied by lectures about “protecting” men from your sexual attractiveness.

Purity culture preaches that women are “stumbling blocks” for men, that bodies are shameful, that “impure” women are downright dangerous, that women shouldn’t feel desire and don’t enjoy sex like men do, that virginity is the most important thing you bring to a relationship, that you are “damaged goods” if you aren’t a virgin, that virginity is a thing “to lose” like it has some sort of intrinsic value on its own, and that if you have sex before marrying, your marriage is headed for disaster.

That’s a pretty long and nasty list, and it’s not complete.

This ideology leads to women being unable to enjoy sex, and to feeling guilty when they do experience pleasure. It leads to women drowning in shame and self-blame for the sexual abuse inflicted on them, because purity culture teaches girls that women are responsible for men’s self-control or lack of it.

It’s referred to as “rape culture, in its Sunday best.” If that offends you, it should.

If you’re female and haven’t yet been told otherwise, your body and your desire are beautiful reflections of God. You’re not responsible for the behavior of men. You’re worthy of being treated well, of sexual autonomy (even within marriage), and of pleasure. The presence or absence of a penis in your vagina doesn’t change your worth or your value. If you’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, it wasn’t your fault, you didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t because you weren’t chaste enough in appearance.

If you’re male and haven’t been told otherwise, you are in control of your body. Women have the right to dress and act however they want without worrying that you might harass or assault them. If you do harass or assault a woman it’s your fault, not hers. Women are sexual beings just as much as you are, and they are equally worthy of sexual satisfaction. The state of their hymen is none of your business and doesn’t impact you in any way. Marrying a woman doesn’t give you the right to have sex with her on demand.

We can accept the beauty of the poetic comparison of female sexuality as a walled garden from the Song of Songs while not comparing it to the need for a chastity belt. The garden’s owner controls the gate. She invites in who she will, and the wise visitor acknowledges the gift without believing they control it.

If you’ve been harmed by purity culture, please seek help. God wants you to enjoy your sexuality and accept its beauty. God desires your healing.

The purity message is not about sex. Rather, it is about us: who we are, who we are expected to be, and who it is said we will become if we fail to meet those expectations. This is the language of shame.

Linda Kay Klein


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