Recovering from Purity Culture


Purity culture took deep roots in the 1990s and 2000s. I know precisely who introduced my mom to “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. It was the wife of a church elder, whose eldest daughter gave my sisters and me piano lessons—the same elder who baptized me when I was nine.

While purity culture may have been born out of a sincere desire to help young Christians live a holy life, a sincere desire is not enough to change people. At the root was fear of man. A pregnant teen was the height of horror for Christian parents and divorce was seen as a last resort for only the worst scenarios. How could they avoid these “atrocities” for their children? They did what religious folks do best. Create a system of rules that could “protect” their children from those societal travesties.

There are many articles and books running around the internet that talk about the issues that have come from purity culture. Everything from poor sexual health to outright abuse. My own story has its share of ignorance, trauma, and unfulfilled promises. Ultimately, purity culture did not deliver on its promise to make marriages great simply by not having sex outside of marriage.

The Failing of Purity Culture

The reason that purity culture cannot fulfill its’ promises is that purity is not about your sex life. A pure life is living in a holistic way that seeks to release the parts of ourselves that are ugly, cruel, or foolish. Living a false life is also impure. Promises of happiness, based on suppressing God-given desires, will ultimately prove false.

When purity is about a single perceived virtue (eg. staying a virgin until marriage), it minimizes people to objects. Purity culture objectified men and women in a different, yet no less problematic way than the fashion industry. Hiding away emotions and desires is failing to understand the range of personhood God created in humans. Heightened focus on one area blows it out of proportion and fails to consider purity in a whole person.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8 (NIV)

You do not need to line all your ducks in a row to live a pure life nor is it a one-shot deal. Purity culture made a big deal out of virginity, and also emotional purity. It boiled a life of relationships to sex only. The narrative was this: “Have sex with your spouse and only your spouse and that will be pure.” Also, you shouldn’t have crushes, because that is emotional impurity.

A conversation about purity needs to include grace. Your sexual purity is not a factor in your purity before God. Grace is the promise of forgiveness when you fail in the eyes of God because, in human eyes, sexual sin is the ultimate. Yet that is not how Jesus sees any of us.

What is Spiritual Purity?

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27 (NIV)

Purity in the Bible is loving God and loving your neighbor (which includes all humans who are created in the image of God). So if your relationship with others is petty, cruel, or divisive, it doesn’t matter how sexually faithful you have been to your spouse.

If you want to avoid being “polluted by the world” you want to live a life that listens to Holy Spirit. Your relationships with others are defined by more than the sum of your sexual parts. Learn to build your relationships with grace and compassion, for that is purity.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33

Podcasts Dismantling Purity Culture

Devi and Jessica are tackling many issues of purity culture from teaching about sex to dating to rom-com influence. Their show “Where Do We Go From Here?” is a great start for anyone trying to understand purity culture.

Morgan is sharing firsthand stories on her podcast, Sanctuary Woman. She interviews doctors about female orgasms and explores the toxic parts of purity culture with grace and healing. Plus her voice is really soothing.

Dr. Camden Morgante has been a guest on many podcasts about sexual health and purity culture.

The author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” has since left the viewpoints he wrote about in 1997. You can hear more of his story on a podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.

Books To Recover Purity

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu is a beautiful book. Look at your faith as more than just a Sunday morning thing or way of following men’s rules.

Grace for the Good Girl by Emily P. Freeman is a wonderful place for the rule followers (raises hand). Learn how to let go of the need to please everyone else.

When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People by Gary Thomas is a helpful guide. When you realize that some of the “Christians” in your life are actually toxic, you will need to set boundaries.

Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen may lead you into thinking about how you are beloved by God. You were made pure by His grace.

More from Caitlin

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