Christian Worldview

The Misguided Backlash Against ‘Purity Culture’


Shane Morris

One of C. S. Lewis’ most insightful passages in “The Screwtape Letters,” sees the senior demon instructing his understudy in the diabolical strategy to “direct the fashionable outcry of each generation [of humans] against the vice of which it is least in danger.” “The game,” says Screwtape, “is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is nearly already gunwale under.”

I fear Abigail Rine Favale’s recent piece in First Things, entitled “Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye,” represents just such an effort at firefighting in a deluge.

Her article was prompted after Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” renounced the basic message of his 21-year-old book, which encouraged Christian young people to avoid a particular style of recreational romance. I can understand Harris’ decision, since he has spent the last two decades fielding complaints that his call to avoid aimless relationships ruined people’s sex lives and self-image. Many of us would crack under such a ceaseless barrage of blame.

But one thing I’ve noticed is how many of those complaints come from people who admit they never took Harris’ advice in the first place. Favale is one of them. She confesses: “I opted for more conventional forms of kissing and bade farewell to my virginity instead.” Nevertheless, she claims, “the ideas in Harris’ book influenced me—if not my habits, certainly my sense of self.”

It’s not clear what she means by this, except perhaps that she felt guilty about having premarital sex. No one needs Joshua Harris to experience the prick of conscience, though. Which is why one detects in recriminations against “purity culture” by those who openly engaged in impurity more than a hint of sour grapes.

Favale goes on to complain that purity pledges and rings, fixtures of 90s evangelical piety, taught “reductive and often harmful understandings of ‘purity’”—notice the scare quotes. I’m not sure how promising to save sex for marriage harmed young people, or how this countercultural message was “reductive.” Favale ventures an explanation, arguing that Harris and others focused on “when to have sex, rather than the underlying purpose of sex and why it belongs in marriage.”

Having read “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” as a teenager and lived by it into early adulthood, I find this suggestion puzzling. Harris’ argument, in brief, was that recreational dating is a training ground for serial relationships that teaches young people to see not just each other, but romantic love and sexual attraction as pastimes—sources of cheap thrills divorced from any thought of marriage. In addition, Harris argued that traditional dating affords too many temptations to sexual sin. I have always struggled to understand how such an obvious observation is harmful, reductive, legalistic, or any of the other adjectives self-proclaimed survivors of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” deploy.

Far from promulgating rules without reasons, Harris’ book and evangelical “purity culture” more broadly were explicitly rooted in teleology—namely the belief that not only sex, but romance itself should be ordered toward godly marriage, not recreation. In several places in his book, Harris extoled the superiority of committed sexual relationships with one’s spouse, calling young people to keep God’s design for their bodies and hearts at the front of their minds while navigating adolescence. His wasn’t a book of rules, as Favale charges. It was a timely reminder that “the body is not made for sexual immorality.”

Favale decries Harris’ “reductive notion of ‘purity’ itself,” and how “purity culture” wrongly equated it with virginity. She accuses him of inverting the arc of the Christian life, portraying virginal teens in a state of original innocence, which can be “corrupted or lost through sexual activity.”

Once again, this charge is baffling. The suggestion that young Christians make a conscious decision to fight sexual temptation implies that our in-born appetites are at war with our new lives in Christ. If we were innocent and pure by nature, what would Harris and other purveyors of “purity culture” have to warn us about?

Secondly, the claim that an emphasis on virginity is new or aberrant in Christianity is dumbfounding, particularly coming from a Roman Catholic. Favale asserts that “the purity culture conversation is rife with fear-and-shame-based rhetoric…” I can only wonder if she has ever cracked open the church fathers, whose views of sex make Joshua Harris sound like a Cosmopolitan columnist.

John Chrysostom (349-407) and John of Damascus (676-749), for example, both taught that Adam and Eve were never intended to have sex in the Garden of Eden, that “desire for sexual intercourse” was “alien to their soul,” and that “in Paradise virginity held sway.” Were it not for sin, these fathers argued that reproduction would have taken place in some non-sexual fashion!

Jerome (347-420), likewise, could easily be accused of using “fear-and-shame-based rhetoric” when he suggested that the man who is “too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.” Augustine (354-430) concurred, arguing that in the husband-wife relationship, “that which goes beyond [the necessity of reproduction] no longer follows reason but lust.” And Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) went still further, writing that a man who is too enthusiastic in bed with his wife “may in a sense be called an adulterer; and even more so than he that is too ardent a lover of another woman.”

This exalted view of abstinence which dominated the first millennium-and-a-half of Christian thought inspired a backlash in Protestant paeans to married sex. This in turn led to a more balanced view of marital intimacy, which as Leland Ryken points out in his book, “Worldly Saints,” became a mainstay of Puritan piety.

But Joshua Harris didn’t invent the link between purity and virginity. It’s been around since the beginning of the faith. Publicly pledging to remain chaste in anticipation of marriage parallels biblical practices like the Nazarite vow, and echoes later Christian monasticism. It becomes a symbol of moral purity in the mother of Jesus, who insisted she had been with no man, including her future husband, Joseph. Virginity pledges also prefigure marriage vows. There is a reason many Christian young people who followed through on their promises to remain sexually abstinent exchanged purity rings for wedding bands at the altar.

Favale charges ahead, accusing Harris of introducing a happily-ever-after theology for those who save physical intimacy for their wedding night. In her telling, “purity culture” offered a kind of carnal bargain with God—i.e., “keep yourself for marriage and you will be rewarded with hot sex.” Conversely, she cites an infamous allegory in the opening pages of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in which a man is confronted on his wedding day by all of his previous girlfriends, who each own a piece of his heart. This is probably the most common criticism of the book. But it says more about modern readers’ inability to grasp arguments from prudence than it does about “purity culture.”

Consider the book of Proverbs, which offers divinely-inspired wisdom contained in pithy generalizations, for example: “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” (Prov. 15:1) This is true, as a rule. A certain type of reply will tend to provoke anger, while a soft and conciliatory response will likely defuse it. But we do not accuse Solomon of making false promises when people hate us despite our gentleness. The same is true of non-inspired wisdom. “Lock your car door if you don’t want thieves to steal your things” is no less a prudent saying because burglars sometimes break windows! Critics of Joshua Harris don’t seem to understand that when he pointed to better marriages as a reason to avoid unwedded sex, he was offering a proverb, not a promise.

And he was empirically right. A new study from the University of Utah found that Americans who have only slept with their spouses are the most likely to report having “very happy” marriages. They’re nearly divorce-proof, too. Just six percent of marriages involving a bride who was a virgin end within five years, compared with 20 percent for brides who had engaged in sex before marriage. Similar studies from Western Washington University and the University of Virginia bolster these findings.

But Favale doesn’t stop at charring Harris with false promises. She attributes all kinds of claims to him which he never made, accusing him of tying a woman’s moral and spiritual worth to her sexual history, of denying redemption, and of describing repentant sexual sinners as “damaged goods.” Like all distortions, these are based on a truth. Harris and other “purity culture” writers did teach that sexual sin has lasting consequences which do not vanish in a puff of smoke when we repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And once again, they were right.

Sexually-transmitted diseases are now at an all-time high in the United States, and in addition, those who have had multiple sexual partners are at an increased risk of cancer and depression. Dissatisfaction with the hookup culture (the opposite of “purity culture” if there is one) is a common sentiment in mainstream, progressive publications. And a generation of children from divorced and broken homes are suffering historic rates of mental health issues and suicidal tendencies.

Sex outside of marriage is a recipe for personal misery and social destruction. It eats at the core of what makes us civilized, it promotes exploitation and murder (in the form of abortion), and trains young people to see one another as conquests, rather than as potential lifelong lovers and family members. And casual dating—that ubiquitous institution of teenagers in the 90s—was its training ground. I marvel at the temerity it takes for someone to survey this radioactive sexual landscape and conclude that our real problem is the teaching of a book on chastity we read in middle school.

Likewise, the charge that “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” persuaded a generation of young believers to idolize virginity is comically out-of-touch with reality. Research over the last decade has found that between 60 and 80 percent of self-identified “born-again” Christians have sex before marriage, taking Harris’ call about as seriously as Favale did. And among the general population, just five percent of new brides in recent years have been virgins. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, chastity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.

Favale and fellow critics of “purity culture” call for a “revitalized articulation of Christian sexuality” an expression of “the compelling why” behind biblical morality, and a “worldview” centered on God’s creation and incarnation in Christ. I agree! But that worldview involves prudence, wisdom, and taking responsibility for one’s own life. It’s precisely this moral sobriety that recommends evangelical “purity culture,” with all its flaws, over the too-clever-by-half critics of Joshua Harris, running about with their fire extinguishers in the middle of the flood he tried to warn us about.


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