Purity culture harmed thousands of evangelical teens; what did the Church get wrong about sex?

Ryan, along with his wife Laura, hosts the podcast Rebel Parenting, which he describes as a “super unfiltered podcast where we talk about real struggles parents face.” But his father, Ryan said, didn’t have that luxury. 

“I can get on my show and say, ‘Hey, I blew it with my kids or my wife or on this issue.’ My dad couldn’t do that. He would’ve lost all of his listeners,” he said. “And he really was the expert, he’d counseled hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of families and kids. He really knew what he was talking about.”

When asked what he’d say to those harmed by the teachings of the purity movement, Dobson responded, “Show more grace.”

“Religion says, ‘I messed up. My dad is going to kill me.’ The Gospel says, ‘I messed up. I need to call my dad,’ and yeah, I think we missed that a little,” he said. “But I’m only here because of the Church that came before me. Did we blow it? Yeah. But everyone blows it all the time. Learn from it and have grace.”

Perhaps the most visible proponent of the purity movement was Joshua Harris, who in 1997 penned the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Although written when Harris was just 21 and had never been in a dating relationship, the book sold millions of copies and impacted countless relationships.

But over two decades after the book became a worldwide phenomenon, Harris announced that his publisher would stop future printings of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He also apologized for the way his book negatively affected people’s lives.

"I gave the impression that there was one formula that you could follow, and if you followed that, you'd be happily married, God would bless you, and you'd have a great sex life and marriage. Obviously, the real world doesn't work that way,” he said.

"Fear is never a good motive," Harris said, adding: "Fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, fear of sex."

Despite criticism, True Love Waits continues to have a following in some evangelical circles. Stainless steel purity rings, for example, are still available for purchase at Target, and LifeWay Christian Resources continues to offer True Love Waits products.

Richard Ross, who founded True Love Waits in 1993, previously admitted that while the movement may have made some missteps in the past, its central message remains unchanging.

“Inviting teenagers into a lifetime of sexual holiness and purity, if consistent with Scripture, is a beautiful thing,” he wrote. “I do not feel guilty, nor do I second-guess the rightness of the original message.”

The ultimate purpose of True Love Waits, he explained, is the glorification and magnification of Christ.

“In the past, True Love Waits young people have often made promises thinking, ‘Jesus wants me to do this because it will make my life better, so bad things will not happen to me, so I will not be a disobedient Christian,’” Ross said. “Now, there is an element of truth in each of those statements, but I detect a shift [toward] ‘Not that I do this so that my life will be better, but I choose purity for Christ’s glory. I am doing this for His sake, not my sake. I am doing this because He deserves adoration, and the purity of my life is a way to show Him that adoration.’ The focus comes off of ‘me,’ and the focus goes to ‘Him.’ There is no moralism. If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship.”

How can churches do better?

As thousands of adults grapple with the ramifications of the purity teachings that permeated their adolescence, the question arises: “How can churches do better?” In a hook-up culture, what, exactly, is a healthy Christian approach to sexuality? After all, the biblical rules on premarital and extramarital sex still apply to believers today.

West, who currently attends an evangelical church in Holland, Michigan, believes the answer begins with transparency within the Church body.

“The Church needs to be more supportive, creating an environment where young people are able to ask questions and talk about issues surrounding sex and sexuality,” she said. “Teens need to figure out what they believe for themselves, so not being able to ask questions or talk about sexual feelings is not healthy.”

Abstinence-only education, West said, is simply not helpful — or realistic in today’s hyper-sexualized society. In addition to encouraging abstinence, programs should provide information about sex, consent, and contraception. 

In the 2005 study "After the Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges," research scholars Hannah Brückner of Yale and Peter Bearman of Columbia found that 88 percent of purity pledgers had premarital intercourse. Although pledging did delay sexual initiation in younger teens by 34 percent, once they did engage, they were one-third less likely to use protection.

Additionally, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy estimates that 80 percent of unmarried 18- to 29-year-olds who identify as evangelicals have had sex. An estimated 64 percent have done so within the last year.

“Abstinence-only education tells young girls what to do instead of trusting them to make wise decisions,” West said. “Women who grow up in purity culture don’t understand how to protect themselves because they’re not taught what consent means. Comprehensive sex education is huge; we need to give our children the tools to make wise decisions and be discerning.”

But more importantly, the Church needs to drop the word “purity,” West posited. “Scripture says that none of us are pure, so to have it be this one-sided thing rather than a complex issue, I just don’t think that term works the way it’s been used,” she said. “We need to reshape how we talk about it and understand that people are complicated; it’s not just behavior vs. sexuality.”

Breaking the shame

West, who today blogs about her story, said that addressing what she previously saw as taboo has played the biggest role in the healing process. “The more we can support one another and talk openly, the stronger we become,” she said. “That’s been huge for me over the last few years.”

For Klein, breaking the shame also started with breaking her silence.

“I sometimes joke that my interviews were 12 years of narrative therapy,” she said. “Telling my story and listening to the stories of others was a deeply healing experience.”

Discovering she wasn’t alone in her struggles with sexual and gender-based shame, fear and anxiety, she said, provided a great deal of comfort.

“I needed to hear that I wasn’t experiencing these things because I was ‘bad,’” she said. “I was experiencing these things because I was taught to! Because I grew up in a movement that believed these things would protect me.”

Today, she runs the nonprofit, Break Free Together, which works with churches, among other groups, to create opportunities for community story exchanges. Story exchange, she said, helps individuals release shame and claim their whole selves.

Still, churches involved in the Purity Movement need to “own the damage that they have done to so many,” she said, adding: “If the damage, however unintended, is not confessed, trust will never be repaired between the church and the young people it hurt.”

The Church, she said, must embrace a healthier more holistic sexual ethic, acknowledging the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of the issue instead of over-simplifying it.

“Growing up in the Purity Movement, I was given just one tool with which to make all of my relational and sexual decisions. It was a kind of ruler with a line etched into it: ‘if you pass this line,’ it was said ‘you will be impure,’” she said. “That ruler — the one tool the Purity Movement gave us — is not even remotely useful in all kinds of situations. It offers either shame or nothing at all (depending on who uses the ruler and how) for rape survivors, for people in abusive relationships, for people choosing to have sex outside of marriage, for married couples, and for many others.”

“Rather than a ruler, I wish I had been given a Swiss Army knife with a range of values that I could use to make decisions, reflective processes, and a truly nonjudgmental community to whom I could bring my whole truth without fear of shame or rejection,” she continued.

Teaching old truths through a new lens

For Jeremy and Audrey Roloff, who openly discuss their struggles with premarital purity in their book A Love Letter Life, part of the answer lies in acknowledging sexual brokenness within the Body of Christ. Failing to do so, they pointed out, gives Satan fertile ground to reinforce feelings of shame, isolation and secrecy.

“If we could meet youth where they’re at in their journey, which is inundated with sex everywhere, and meet them in this struggle, let them ask questions and walk alongside them instead of giving them the blanket cliche answer, because that doesn’t allow them to navigate everything in between,” Audrey said.

“In this culture, where sex is so rampant, it’s about teaching them these old truths through a new lens,” she added.

The evangelical piety of the 90s and 2000s, Jeremy added, misled teens into believing that abstaining from sex will lead to personal fulfillment and marital bliss. Ultimately, he pointed out, it’s a selfish theology that misses God’s good and perfect vision for sex.

“Purity culture says to be pure so that you’ll be self-fulfilled and so that God will bless you instead of pursuing purity because that’s God design,” he said. “We’re called to be pure and holy people, and that has to be our default position — not just, ‘sit six inches apart.’”

“Teens need a God-centered perspective; they need to understand that sex is designed to be perfect and beautiful," he added. "It’s the way we engage with a specific human to experience a relationship. It’s designed by God for communication and oneness. We need role models to offer this hopeful perspective.”

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