Book Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture

Book Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture

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This will be much different than any other post you’ve read here, considering it’s not something about which I typically write. But, I was a part of the book launch team for this book, and reading it opened my eyes to many things I hadn’t thought about before. It’s always good to break out of our preconceived notions of God because God has never fit in a box.

I will warn you: I may have gone off on some tangents here.

As you may have guessed from the book title, the book’s focus is to have a conversation about purity culture: the pros and cons, where it went wrong, and what we should teach instead. Now, you may be asking what purity culture is or wondering if this is something that is even still going on. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be as big as it was in the ’80s through the early 2000s, but the effects are still reaching us. Purity culture was a movement to battle against the sexual revolution and AIDs crisis that began in the 1960s. While the meaning behind it was to be helpful and keep young adults “safe”, it started a snowball effect of other issues that happened in part because of purity culture.

  • It became “unsafe” to be friends with members of the opposite gender, or if you were friends, you were encouraged not to touch each other because that could lead each other into temptation.
  • Women carried the brunt of the weight and were told to cover up their bodies because that inch of skin showing on their shoulders could cause their brother to lust, and that would be a sin.
  • If a sin was committed against a woman’s body, her apparel would be discussed, and often some blame would fall on her because “she shouldn’t have been wearing that”.
  • “Boys will be boys” seemed to be a popular theme, and men were encouraged to “not look”, because they are lustful creatures, and that’s really all they could do to stay pure.
  • Promises were made claiming if you remained a virgin, you would find the perfect spouse and have amazing sex whenever you want, and God would bless you with children.
  • The horrors of premarital sex were talked about, and virginity until marriage became the ultimate goal.
  • Many books and conferences turned “purity” into an idol without meaning to. They also caused divisiveness between genders and those who weren’t as “pure” as their peers.

I can’t say I realized the dangers of purity culture until I read another book that came out this year called Handle With Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert. She noted the rising numbers of young people struggling with feelings of same-gender attraction correlates with the rise of Purity Culture. Her book is based around the need for human touch, and she brings up that perhaps the lack of human touch from the opposite gender caused comfort to be found in the arms of someone of the same gender, and suddenly even friendships weren’t safe from impure thoughts and actions.

“The Purity culture of the ’80s and ’90s bred the physicality of same-gender friendship among my millennial friends. Our touch seemed platonic, good, familial, healthy, even necessary. We weren’t receiving healthy, warm, and biblical forms of touch from anyone else – parents, brothers, pastors, and so on – so we were forced to find it in each other. It was the only place a human could touch another human without suspicion. To feel “turned on” by this kind of touch among same-gender friends would have been absolutely foreign to most of us. That is, until it happened to one of us. And then it was happening everywhere.”

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, Handle With Care

Reading Talking Back to Purity Culture caused me to do a lot of thinking about what I was raised to believe whether it was meant to be that way or not. We didn’t talk about sexual relationships growing up, and even typing this, knowing some of my family members will read it, feels awkward to me. But why is talking about it so uncomfortable, and could that be part of the problem with purity culture?

We don’t talk about purity in the same room as the opposite gender, usually. It’s the most awkward night of youth group because sex is a taboo subject. Except, it isn’t. The world around us is filled with it but in unholy forms most of the time. Maybe if we could talk about it in a healthy way and combat the unholy forms by talking about what makes it unholy, we would lose the awkwardness and make a difference for good.

I am sure purity culture made a positive difference in some people’s lives, but there seem to be far more stories showing the confusion and shame it caused instead of being helpful and leading to holiness. That is where Rachel Joy Welcher comes in and tells us what she has learned after a lot of reading and research. She lovingly and gracefully begins the book by reminding us of what is true. That virginity is not an idol, and purity through our love of Christ is the real goal.

“If we elevate virginity to the point where some feel permanently defeated, then we have ceased to help our brothers and sisters pursue sexual purity.
Not one of us is a crumpled rose, a used car, or an incomplete person. You are a precious image bearer of God. Your purity has already been won for you in Christ, and your dedication to pursuing sexual purity is not defined by your virginity but by your surrender to Christ and dependence on the Holy Spirit today.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

Sadly, the themes of many books Rachel read from the purity culture era often made the pursuit of purity something that would be over once one found the right person and got married. How can one be impure when married and able to experience all the bliss that comes with marriage? Purity culture focused the attention on the end goal of being pure, when in reality, there is no end. As a Christian, we are to be continually striving for purity. That doesn’t end the day we say “I do”. Nor are we guaranteed a happily ever after that gives us what we want whenever we want it.

Whenever a human is involved in something, it’s never as simple as we’d like it to be. In a way, purity culture was the prosperity gospel of the ’90s. Whenever we are told that specific actions will bring blessings to our lives, we need to take that to the Bible and see where it says that. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt stay pure until your wedding night and if you do, you will experience wedded bliss.” I’ve also never found where it says, “Married couples shall always be on the same wavelength, understanding each other perfectly at all times, as long as their spouse was their one and only.”

Maybe I’ve never found that because I don’t typically read translations that speak like that, but I am pretty sure that is nowhere in the Bible. (And by pretty sure, I mean I know it’s not.)

“When sex is the goal of marriage, it becomes easy to idolize. This idolatry is destructive to unity between husband and wife, reducing the beauty and mystery of a lifelong, whole-self union to just one aspect. And when sex is presented to singles as the reward for their purity, it can lead to frustration, depression, and bitterness. For years, it was dangled like a carrot above our heads, and many of us are still working to overturn the idol of sex in our lives.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

Purity isn’t just about what we do with our bodies, it’s about our minds and hearts as well. If we don’t teach our girls that they are wonderfully made and instead teach them that their bodies are something that needs to be hidden underneath shapeless clothing, we’re saying God didn’t know what he was talking about when he said, “It is good.”

When we allow the rhetoric of “boys will be boys” to rule, we take accountability away from the boys, and we also take away their ability to become Godly men. When we tell them to “look away” from women so they aren’t “tempted”, we aren’t teaching them to take every thought captive and submit them to Christ. We’re teaching them that women are things, not people. If we taught boys to look at girls as sisters instead of something that could one day make their physical dreams come true, maybe women wouldn’t have to feel like we aren’t allowed to let our God-given bodies be seen in public.

And this can work the other way, too. Women can objectify men just as much as men can objectify women. It can also go to the other side, where men can lust after men and women can lust after women, but that was a struggle that purity culture didn’t even touch. Purity culture seemed to say, “If you stay pure, you won’t have any problem finding the perfect person of the opposite gender to marry and have many babies with.”

“Marriage is not the goal of purity. Family is not the goal. Sex is not the goal. God and his glory are the goal of purity.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

What about the woman who is attracted to women? Where was (and is) the guidance for her?
What about the man who struggled with attraction to his best friend? Purity for them was not going to be a problem fixed by marriage. Purity for those attracted to the same gender looks a lot more like submitting yourself to God and knowing you’re in this for the long haul. The same goes for those who find themselves single after years of waiting. At what point do they give up and say, “I’m done staying pure. I’ve followed all the rules for so long, and what good has come to me?”

Maybe part of the problem with purity culture is that it makes God into something that serves us. Who doesn’t want to be blessed with good things? I feel like we all want that. But it’s easy to forget that purity doesn’t have an expiration date. We are supposed to continue to strive for purity and to be more like Christ every day of our lives.

As you can probably tell, this book has given me a lot to mull over and consider. I feel like I haven’t even touched the surface of what this book covers, and to be honest, it isn’t a book that you’re going to want to sit down with and take in all at once. I am thankful for the grace-filled way Rachel talks back to purity culture, and this is a book I’m not going to stop thinking about soon.

There were so many good quotes it was hard to pick through them all. Some are pretty long, but I pray they will help us understand the meaning behind this book and why it is so important to read it, especially if you work with teenagers.

“We have a low view of teenagers, young adults, and ourselves if we think that the only way we could possibly motivate someone to follow Christ with their sexuality is by making and believing false promises.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

“We can only accomplish so much with lectures and gimmicks. It is grace that speaks louder. We must talk more about the gospel than we do about lust because Christian obedience is about worship. How do we know who and why we worship if the majority of Christian books for adolescents are about dating and chastity rather than the character of God and the worth of Christ? We must get the first things first.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

“He stands ready to save to the uttermost those who are perishing. We need only come to him. The Holy Spirit will comfort and convict, and our desire for obedience, albeit imperfectly lived out, will be our song of praise for the mercy and grace we have received. Our life with God began in grace and will continue in grace.”

Talking Back to Purity Culture

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