Impure Motives Of ‘Purity Culture’ Critics
For many critics, though, critiquing ‘purity culture’ is simply a proxy for Christianity’s sexual ethics—the prohibitions on same-sex and pre- or extra-marital sexual activity, most of all, but also the injunction to live modestly and chastely in all arenas of our lives. A few are more careful–I appreciated Katelyn Beaty’s endorsement of a married sexual ethic here, for instance. But similar problems to those that entangled Harris’ book threaten even those level-headed critiques: by reacting against the excesses and distortions of purity culture, they risk distorting or diminishing aspects of that sexual ethic that are essential for the full flowering of chastity within our lives and communities. Those who wish to critique purity culture should, for instance, be unhesitatingly vocal about Scripture’s prohibitions, including those against same-sex unions.
As an aside, I’d note that I said something almost identical to the gathering of gay Christians at the Spiritual Friendship pre-conference at Revoice two years ago. The dangers of starting reflection about ethics from a reactionary posture are real, and can prompt us to be hesitating and milquetoast about stances that Scripture is unambiguous and bold about. When that occurs, though, the legitimate criticisms gay Christians have to make about evangelicalism’s culture of teaching get lost within the broader cultural capitulation by those who would make the same criticisms and throw out Scripture’s teachings as well.
To put the point differently, reactionary critics should start from their positive vision of things—rather than working toward such a vision in and through their deconstructive efforts or prophetic denunciations. After all, when ‘purity culture’ is overthrown, what then? Ambivalence or ambiguity about Scripture’s teachings on such questions can only leave a different type of wreckage in its wake, and one that is probably more destructive.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have any direct experience with “purity culture,” though I have friends who are theologically conservative on sexual matters, but who say that they were damaged by it. Their point, as I understand it, is not that traditional Christian sexual ethics are wrong, but that “purity culture” distorts them in a rigidly legalistic way that can harm the ability of particular believers to live out these ethics. I accept that this can be true. I have seen this kind of thing at work within non-Protestant religious circles too.
That said, Anderson is certainly right that whatever the problems with purity culture, they can never justify throwing out Christian sexual ethics, tout court. As Christians are thinking critically about purity culture and its deleterious effects, they should be ruthlessly honest with themselves about their true motivations. Are they trying to rationalize their own desire to be “liberated” from the obligation to obey teachings that they don’t want to follow? In my past, I kept my distance from Christianity exactly for this reason — not wanting to submit to Christian sexual morality — but I told myself that I had serious theological doubts about this or that Christian claim. I was a sophisticated self-deceiver; my objections were, deep down, entirely about valorizing my refusal to accept and obey teachings that limited my options.
So yeah, I’m deeply skeptical of Christians who throw out traditional Christian sexual teaching based on the faults of others who profess them. Argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy, it is true, but I have found over the years that there is no subject on which contemporary Christians lie to themselves and to others about more than sex and sexuality. Sexual autonomy is the god of this age, and most Christians are eager to be syncretists, while hiding from themselves their true motivations. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and nearly messed up my life and the lives of others trying to live out that appealing lie.
UPDATE: A reader e-mails:
I grew up in an Evangelical church setting where “purity culture” was heavily emphasized, especially at church camps and youth retreats, beginning at middle school age. A lot of folks have commented on what that is like and I don’t have much to add there. It certainly did have the effect of making one scared of sex. I agree with your friend who said the moral outcome being sought was sound but that other than threatening horrible outcomes from premarital sex little was offered in the way of a well-formed sexual ethic. That is really a problem, I think, but honestly I’m not sure how you would teach teenagers to have a truly mature view of sex.
Beyond the legalistic view being passed on, though, there is another major fallout that I see to this day. A lot of folks got the impression that if you had sex prior to marriage you were broken for life. I have encountered individuals who not only think it is one’s responsibility to live chastely (totally legit) but also to avoid marrying anyone who didn’t remain chaste throughout their teenage and young adult years. On occasion, I have challenged people in private conversations on this point. What if you are a young woman who is considering marrying a man who had a couple of sexual encounters in college but then had a conversion experience and has lived chastely for several years? Amazingly, the answer if often that the woman should dump the guy and insist on a virgin, without exception. There is often little acknowledgement of the possibility of redemption or forgiveness.
This attitude is by no means universal in that subculture, and indeed I remember speakers at church camp talking about “restored virginity” for a young person who had been sexually active and repented. But, a lot of people clearly got the idea that once you have sex you are unfit for a healthy marriage. Once, I asked someone who insisted on that what the message should be to someone who had not even been raised a Christian and had been sexually active but now was repentant and seeking to live a chaste life. The response was that they should have known better, period.
This really gets at the main problem, as I see it. It isn’t just that purity is being taught (which is a good thing!), it is a worldview that sees people who’ve had sex as damaged goods. It reminds me of the taboos in some cultures that lead to married men abandoning their wives because they were raped by a soldier in a war zone. This isn’t Christian sexual morality; it’s opposed to the dignity of the human person and can amount to psychological abuse for young people who haven’t lived up to this very high standard. I am now a Catholic, and you see this view sometimes in discussions of St. Maria Goretti. Some people talk as if she was “fighting for her purity,” as if even a rape victim loses their moral purity in some way, and therefore the message is that protecting physical vicinity at all costs is the most important thing. This is an incredibly destructive idea.
By the way, I never read Harris’ book, so I have no idea if he actually promoted this view himself. I can speak only to the general ethos of the particular Evangelical subculture in which I was raised, and the individuals I’ve encountered who had similar backgrounds.