19 Nov Reflections On Purity Culture: Why We Need Another Way
During my late teens and early twenties, I was involved in a ministry that I tend to speak well of because the people were so wonderful and they loved me so deeply. We spent most of our time talking about Jesus, and even in the midst of despair we always heard there was more grace.
They had some strange rhythms, though, and one of the most disconcerting was the way many of the small groups began every week. They would ask everyone in the room to rate their week on a scale of 1-10:
10: You had anal sex
9: You had oral sex
8: You fooled around
Porn put you at a 5 or 6 and masturbation had you in the 2-3 range. If you were a 1 then your week was virtually perfect (sexually speaking). They opened this way so they could identify who needed the most time to talk, with priority going to the 10s and then on down the line.
Those weekly meetings came to mind when I watched a new documentary on Vimeo called “Give Me Sex Jesus.” The point of this post is to tell you to go watch it, but it would be wrong to drop that story without pausing to make a few observations:
First, that’s messed up.
Second, I can’t think of anything more shaming than asking already-ashamed adolescents to announce their sexual encounters to a room full of people they hardly know.
Third, despite the ministry’s insistence that our sexuality should not be our main focus, that exercise screamed otherwise. If someone’s sexual choices deserve to be the sole determiner in how one rates their week, it’s only reasonable to feel it’s the most important thing about a participant’s week, which implies it’s one of the most important things about that person’s identity and faith. When we consider all the fears and anxieties gripping a teenage boy in a given week, I can’t think of many things that matter less than whether or not he masturbated earlier that week.
Fourth, even though there were messages about God’s love and grace, the existence of the exercise inevitably caused the girl who made out with her teammate to believe she was a little naughtier than she was before they made out (and that God probably didn’t like her quite as much as God liked her before they kissed).
Fifth, the exercise had the unhelpful side effect of creating a scandalous buzz afterward (“Can you believe RICHARD did THAT? I wonder what he meant by ‘racy’?”)
This was the baggage I carried into my viewing of “Give Me Sex Jesus” when I watched it last week. The documentary traces the rise of “purity culture” in Christian communities, which gained momentum in the 90s and still pulses through our communities today. They interview the founder of the True Love Waits movement, along with Bill Bright’s gay grandson, couples who saved their first kiss for the wedding, and academics who have researched the movement extensively. The film is surprisingly charitable to everyone interviewed: while I gather the directors are critical of the movement, they capture the complexity of each story with generosity.
This is an important documentary for Christians to watch. What we do with our bodies matters, but the nature of the Christian push for sexual purity has been devastating to many people of faith. I’m not simply referring to teaching that encourages people to abstain from sex outside of marriage. It’s the idolatrous obsession with sex (or not having it) that shines through the barrage of prohibitive lectures. It’s the message that sexuality is gross, sinful, and scary until the wedding night when our longings become radiant and our bodies worthy of praise. It’s the sense that one’s goodness is contingent upon a perfect sexual scorecard.
Even if a community doesn’t ask their participants to rate their weeks based on sexual behavior, many churches convey an overall message that God’s delight in them is almost entirely related to the extent to which they abstain from sex. Then when sincere Christians find themselves expressing natural longings for affection in ways their leaders have railed against, they inevitably believe they’re tainted and less worthy of love. Even those who remain chaste often internalize tremendous shame about their bodies.
It’s easy for posts like this to stir a reaction of fear. If we go soft on sex, some say, then we’ll find people doing it in church restrooms before long. That’s not my goal. My concern is that when people wonder what Christianity is about, they have every reason to believe (based on what they’ve seen and heard) that the core message of Christianity is “don’t have sex.” Then this God who’s all about redemption—a God who delights in human beings—sounds like a tyrant who holds our collective internet history in one hand and a planet-size paddle in the other. So much love and delight goes unspoken and unknown.
There’s a place for casting a positive vision for sexual expression, but teaching on sexual purity has been taken to such an extreme that we’ve missed the beautiful whole. Perhaps we need some perspective. This film offers that perspective by holding a mirror up to our message and offering an image of our community that’s both troubling and true. A story that Jesus loves every human and came to restore what’s gone wrong has been reduced to a message of “don’t have sex.”