Reapproaching purity culture as a parent

Written by Carlie Cleveland
Published on August 31, 2021

When we talk about “purity culture” in the Church, it’s often followed by stories of hurt, anger, and regret. 

So, what is purity culture, and why are people so upset about it? How did something that set out to be so well meaning and helpful hurt so many? 

What is purity culture? 

Purity culture is a subculture within Christianity and the Evangelical Church that started, and was extremely popular, in the 1990’s when premarital sex, death from AIDS, and teen pregnancies were sky-rocketing. 

Purity culture generally focuses on virginity being the primary way to stay “pure” and often promotes courting instead of dating, symbols of purity vows (like purity rings), and focuses heavily on modesty. 

Teens in the 90s were encouraged to make pledges to remain abstinent until marriage, and events like “purity balls” were held for fathers and daughters to encourage women to practice abstinence. 

Many popular purity culture leaders taught teens to wait until marriage for kissing, cuddling, and sometimes even hand holding. Although it’s not as common now, purity culture is still relevant and practiced in some Christian communities and churches presently.

How good intentions became harmful 

God’s Word instructs us in many passages throughout the Bible to save sex for marriage, be faithful to our spouse, and to never take advantage of someone sexually (1 Thessalonians 4:3–8), so how did well-meaning purity culture become so harmful? 

A major problem with purity culture was that it regularly put focus on the ideas and regulations of popular authors and speakers rather than encouraging people to dig deeply into God’s Word. 

Books like Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” became an icon for the purity culture movement, and often replaced scripture and Bible teaching as the main focus of youth groups. 

A popular message was that women were like flowers, gum, or presents. Everytime you dated a boy or were physical with them in any way, you were like a flower whose petals were getting torn off, a piece of gum getting chewed, or a present being unwrapped, and who would want you if you were used? 

This idea was one of the many that was especially harmful to survivors of sexual abuse. Purity was frequently equated with virginity. The idea was that if you lost your virginity, you lost your purity. This led people to believe that being sexual in other ways was fine because virginity was the only thing that “counted.” 

There was not a lot of room for the healing and renewal of people who had sinned sexually in the past or for new believers who had sex before coming to Christ, and there wasn’t a reason to repent and be renewed by God. If your purity was gone forever after having sex, what would be the point in staying abstinent? 

Many teachers emphasized that you could not be in control of yourself. Temptations could become too great if you went too far, and you would not be able to exercise self control. 

Oftentimes modesty was a responsibility for women and was taught alongside the idea that men had weak minds and could not resist the temptation of a woman.

Moving forward with Jesus 

It’s easy to see how well meaning people got carried away. The intention to keep kids from harming themselves was never wrong. But, an “ends justify the means” mindset took over, which said that even if the guidelines weren’t provided in the Bible (or Bible-based), it was worth teaching because it would keep kids out of trouble. 

Fear tactics and shame became major players in purity lessons, and the Bible became an extra in the purity culture production. 

Hope is not lost, and we don’t need to throw the baby out with the purity culture bathwater. The journey forward starts with removing what is not of God. We have to pray for God’s wisdom. We must weigh out what is the Bible and what is tradition. 

Sorting through purity culture myths 

A part of moving forward is separating culture from truth. The Bible doesn’t say, “you can’t control your body.” 

God says we can and should be in control of our bodies (Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:13; 2 Peter 1:3–7), we are responsible for our decisions (Galatians 6:5), and no temptation will be too great for us to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13). 

The Bible doesn’t say, “your purity is the same as your virginity.” God commands holistic purity of our tongues (Proverbs 13:3; James 1:26; James 3:3–12) , our thoughts (Philippians 4:8), our hearts (Matthew 5:8; 1 Timothy 1:5) , and our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). 

The consequences of connecting your mind, body, and spirit with a person who is not your spouse can be extremely harmful, and have very real lasting effects. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), and we can choose to honor God with them everyday. 

The Bible doesn’t say, “the burden of modesty is on women, and men’s minds are weak.” Modesty is a way to use our clothing as a tool to show the world who we are. 

In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul addresses women and explains that women should dress in a way that shows they are respectable people who follow the living God. He says their good actions should be more of a priority to them than their looks. God says that men are responsible for their thoughts, and they are not weak or incapable (1 Timothy 5:2), but rather the opposite. 

The way we move forward is through prayer, guidance from the Lord, and through the Bible. We have to strip back opinions, books, and Christian media and look at what the inspired Word of God says. We have to look at the context, dig deeply, and ask God to give us wisdom. 

We have to look at purity as a whole. We have to take the complete, hyper-focus off the purity of our bodies alone and look at the purity of our speech, actions, minds, hearts, and bodies together. 

We need Jesus. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us. We need God and the Bible 

We have to stop letting fear and shame shape the way we teach purity. Scaring or pressuring people into acting a certain way doesn’t change their hearts. God is not of fear, shame, or of guilting people into submission. God gives us freedom from sin and shame so we can live in a way that honors him (Galatians 5:1). 

His Spirit sets us free from fear and gives us power, love, and self discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). The transforming power of God’s glory changes us (2 Corinthians 3:17–18). Desiring to follow Christ and honor him changes how we think, act, and live. 

The gospel is what changes us. If people don’t have Jesus, we need to share the gospel with them. If they do have the gospel, we need to encourage them in it. 

When we cultivate a true desire in children to follow God because he is loving, good, and holy, it changes them on a deep level and provides more than surface level, temporary results. We can re approach purity culture together, without fear or shame. We can make purity about serving Jesus again.


Looking for other related resources?

Talking About Sex: Big Words for Little Ears

‘Meet them with Jesus’: Responding Biblically to Our Kids’ Problems

Reflections in the Mirror

Tough conversations with our kids

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Carlie Cleveland

Carlie Tice Cleveland is the founder and director of The Real Truth Ministries nonprofit organization. The Real Truth Ministries specializes in sexual assault care trainings along with other specialized, proactive sexual assasult prevention trainings for churches pastors, schools, families, and other organizations. Carlie is a Jesus follower, wife, a 78-3C state certified sexual assault counselor, and a survivor. She is passionate about God’s word and empowering the Body of Christ to fearlessly stand for the voiceless. Carlie enjoys teaching and discussing God’s Word and engaging the Church by writing Bible studies and by lifestyle blogging. She seeks to encourage believers to dig deeply into God’s Word and care for the hurting with the loving arms of Jesus. She loves her husband, her border collie, the beach, fashion, cooking, and books. You can find her on Instagram at @CarlieRaeCleveland and at https://www.carliecleveland.com/.

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