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The flaws of the purity culture movement

The flaws of the purity culture movement

My youngest daughter just turned 13. Which means some important conversations are scheduled between the two of us — including about purity and sex.

I recently read a New York Times article about the purity culture movement from the 90s, and I found myself nodding along in agreement through much of the piece. It was a strong reminder of the weight this conversation with my daughter will have.

As a ‘failed’ purity pledger and now marriage counselor, I can attest – the Church has major blind spots when it comes to marriage and sexual purity.

I should frame my position by saying I stand firmly and unapologetically behind God’s design for sexual purity. Sexual morality is a big deal, and the scriptures make that plain. As Christians, our sexual ethics are not manmade, they are God ordained and do not change with the tide of culture.

And at the same time, it is also true, that if all we’ve done to prepare for marriage is to abstain from having sex until our wedding day, we will be poorly equipped to sustain that relationship for the long-haul. Which is why the purity pledge model has failed and wounded so many of us. It was one-dimensional leaving a generation to wrestle with guilt, shame, and relational unpreparedness.

My hope for parents, youth pastors, and fellow counselors is that we learn how to effectively talk about sex and healthy marriages. I’ve found these three things will help us do that well: 

First, we must recognize that sexual purity is only one component of a God-honoring relationship. We do not downplay its importance, but neither do we idolize it above the other aspects of a healthy marriage. 

In our household a 13th birthday means a special date night is coming where I will gift my daughter a traditional Irish Claddagh ring. It depicts hands, a heart and a crown symbolizing friendship, love and loyalty. I love this opportunity to remind my children that dating and relationships are multi-faceted. I want them to know their overall well-being and standing with God is more important than any one piece of their dating experience.

In contrast, those who slip on a purity ring simply pledge sexual abstinence, which is a good thing. But it’s not effective to only tell someone not to do something. The purity pledge fails to teach us how to deal with desire and sexual temptation other than to label it as “bad” so there has to be more to the conversation.

Secondly, we must end the sex ‘cone of silence.’ As a whole, Christians are terrible at talking about sex. My one-time pledge in college didn’t equip me to maintain a purity commitment. I still didn’t know how to deal with lust or temptation, and none of my friends talked about sexual struggles so we all suffered in silence.

But it’s not just young adults. I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve counseled who react to this topic like middle schoolers – and they’ve been married for decades! Unfortunately, many of us, myself included, weren’t taught how to have healthy conversations about sex.

My parents never talked about sex when I was growing up. I barely even remember them being affectionate toward one another, something I’m intentional about in my own home. When I kiss my wife and my kids say “ew,” I’m quick to correct them. What they’re seeing is a wonderful expression of my attraction to my wife, something that is definitely in their best interest as they learn about healthy relationships.

Instead of teaching young people to deny God-given sexual desires, let’s help them learn to talk about sex. I want my 13-year-old daughter to feel she can talk to me about anything—especially sex!

Third, it’s vital we proclaim God’s ability to redeem and restore. I remember the guilt and shame that hung on me like a dark cloud when I broke my purity pledge in college. The fear that I had ruined my future marriage and my sexual relationship with my wife forever was heavy. No one was there to tell me that God could redeem and restore my virginity.

When I give my children their Claddagh ring, I love to emphasize the different aspects of a healthy relationship and teach them that they will likely fail at every aspect – before and after they get married. Not only will we stumble in our physical desires, but we’ll also let our partners down emotionally, spiritually and relationally. Thankfully, God is making all things new. When we know our setbacks are redeemable, we can truly prepare for a marriage.

There’s a reason the purity pledge movement seemed to be a fad that didn’t last – it didn’t work. A study showed that over 80% of professing Christians were still having sex.

But we know the benefits that come from saving sex until marriage, and we’ve seen the destructive nature of ‘hook up’ culture, so we have to find a better solution that purity pledges. With a goal as important as healthy marriages that glorify God, we have to talk about more than sexual purity and encourage believers to be prepared for everything marriage brings.

So, let’s spend more time preparing for our marriage than our wedding day. Let’s talk about sex and virginity without ignoring everything else that goes into a healthy marriage. And let’s declare the truth that God redeems and restores all things, including your virginity.

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. He has been married to his wife, Erin, since 1992.

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