Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

4 Reasons Purity Culture Is So Toxic

4 Reasons Purity Culture Is So Toxic

If we travel back in time to the decade of the 90’s, youth groups and rallies will be discussing a new campaign geared toward sexual purity. This campaign is called “True Love Waits” and its goal is to create a wave of young men and women who choose not to have sex before marriage.

The message of True Love Waits is just as important and pertinent to our culture today as it was in the 90’s. There is a resurgence of the sexual revolution in our culture that says that if it feels good then it’s okay.

But in an effort to instill godly morals in our youth, we must still consider if there are toxic aspects to the messages we are communicating through purity culture.

Through my research and teenage experience, I have realized that there are 4 aspects of purity culture that can have a negative impact on our lives. After uncovering these aspects, let’s consider if we still need a purity campaign and if so, does this campaign have room for improvement?

Where Is Purity Culture Discussed in the Bible?

Purity culture is a term we have created based on the scriptural instruction, like that of 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. The apostle Paul is speaking to the church at Thessalonica. He instructs them to live a life pleasing to God and to do that, they must abstain from sexual immorality.

Paul says specifically in verse 4 that we are to learn to control our own bodies in a way that is holy and honorable. Further down, Paul says we were not called to live a life of impurity.

While purity culture is not the specific term used in scripture, the directions to live a pure life are found in Scripture. But are all the aspects of our manmade purity culture to be found in Scripture as well?

How is purity culture toxic?

To be clear, I believe the message of True Love Waits is good. I believe that purity should be talked about in homes and from the pulpits of our churches. But I also believe there are characteristics of this culture that are damaging. Here are 4 of them.

1. Impurity Becomes Something You Can’t Come Back From

Young people are impressionable. When someone they look up to, such as their pastor, says to that if you’re a Christian, you will abstain from sex until marriage, they believe it. This is a scary path to go down because it leads to the belief that you must do something to earn your salvation.

This message says you are not good enough if you fail. It measures you against other’s level of faith. A person’s sexual history does not determine one’s spiritual status. Writer Camden Morgante sums this idea up when she says, “Rather than knowing Christians by their relationship with Jesus, purity culture asserts that we will know them by their virginity.”

If purity is a measure of one’s faith, then sexual abstinence becomes the focus. We spend all our time resisting temptation and forget where our focus should be, on Jesus. In essence we have a faith based on works alone. Purity becomes an idol.

We are no longer free to develop and nurture a meaningful relationship with God.

Purity is one aspect of a healthy relationship with God. But it is certainly not the only aspect, and pressuring teens to remain pure out of fear of hell will not give them room to nurture this relationship.

2. Women Become Responsible for the Sexual Purity of Men

The message of purity culture is almost solely marketed toward girls and women. Words like “chastity” and “virginity” are thrown around and it’s the girls who are to guard themselves from the sexual evils of the world. We are told only the virgins wear a white dress on their wedding day. We are taught that if we wear certain things or act a certain way, we are provoking lust in men.

 Unfortunately, this puts a lot of pressure on women. Somehow, they find they are not only responsible for themselves, but responsible for keeping men from committing sexual sins.

Traditional gender roles are at the heart of the true love waits message. There is a patriarchal theology that has very deep roots.

This theology states that women are to perform their “wifely duties” and if they don’t, then the man will need to seek fulfillment elsewhere, therefore, committing a sin—but it’s the wife’s fault.

Women are not responsible for men’s purity. And we need to stop treating them like they are.

3. Purity Culture Perpetuates Fear and Negative Stigmas

Purity culture has come to mean that for one to be pure, they must be a virgin. So, I ask, where is the grace, mercy, and forgiveness? If a young person does experience a sexual act before marriage, are they forever distanced from God?

I often watch British historical dramas. In every storyline there is the girl that falls to temptation and is told she would forever be “damaged goods.” Today is no different. Our culture calls women who engage in sexual acts outside of marriage vulgar names. People will say that no decent man will have them because they are unclean.

Those words bring a sense of shame to women. It is like wearing a scarlet letter on your chest. We may feel like we can never forgive ourselves.

The God we serve is a God of forgiveness. When we make mistakes, He will forgive us. He will extend a measure of grace and mercy in our lives.

Of course, impurity and immorality have dire consequences. We are always in a spiritual battle, and we absolutely need to be held to a standard of purity. But Jesus paid the price for those sins, too.

Purity culture is not sharing this message, and that needs to change.

4. The Biblical Ethic of Sex Is Lost

When we put all our energy into teaching purity, we tend to forget to teach God’s design for sex. We spend all our time telling our youth that they should not have premarital sex, when we should be telling them why God created sex and how sex fits inside a marriage.

Our desire should be to teach our children that sex is a special bond between a husband and wife. God designed males and females to have the ability to fit together as one. It is a representation of oneness in the sight of God.

Biblical sex is beautiful, fulfilling, and a gift from God. If the only message about sex is that it’s bad or evil, what will be the long-term effects of our teens believing that? What kind of shame will still surround sex, even after a biblical marriage?

Are Purity Campaigns Beneficial?

I do believe that purity campaigns like True Love Waits are beneficial.

In 2021, we are not hearing people speak of waiting for marriage. What we are hearing is that couples feel they need to test the waters to make sure they are compatible. There is nothing about sexual compatibility in the Bible.

Society says that sex feels good so we should all be doing it. It is all about self-gratification. It is crucial to teach teenagers, and others, that God’s plans and purpose are not about self-gratification. Purity is, instead, a way to glorify God.

What Changes Would Reduce Toxicity?

While purity campaigns and culture have beneficial lessons, there is some room for improvement. More than teaching purity from sex, we should be teaching that a relationship with God is not a list of do’s and don’t’ s. Christians should be striving to be pure in all areas of their lives.

We also need to consider that purity culture has left out what we are waiting for. Let’s be clear about this.

Waiting is not about getting the perfect man or woman to spend the rest of your life with. This is not a fairytale. It is about Jesus and desiring to be more like Him each day.

God loves you, and because you love God, you want to follow his commands, including the command of purity.

In the present, we need a purity culture more than ever, but that culture should be based on living our lives with a Christian and biblical worldview, not believing that we will be unforgivable if we don’t follow the rules.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Emiliano Vittoriosi

Ashley Hooker headshotAshley Hooker is a freelance writer passionate about missions. She has collaborated with mission teams in North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia, and Vermont. Presently, she lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children, where she fulfills roles as a pastor's wife, a dance mom, and a farm girl.