The History of Purity Culture: What is it and How has it Influenced Sexual Behaviors?

What is purity culture?

Purity culture is a term used to describe a conservative Christian ideology that promotes sexual abstinence before marriage.

Purity culture is often the norm in many Protestant evangelical churches, and it's also seen in some Catholic communities. Purity culture aims to ensure that individuals maintain self-control concerning their sexual urges.

Purity culture teaches people that sex outside of marriage is shameful and can hinder their ability to have a healthy marriage. The practice reinforces that premarital sex - including masturbation or kissing - is sinful and needs to be confessed to God.

Some extreme forms of purity culture even go as far as condemning certain sex acts and practices within marriage that don't lead to procreation, such as the use of condoms.

The Purity Movement's History and its Contribution to the Church today

The Purity Movement's history started back in 18th century America when it was first introduced as part of a movement called "the Second Great Awakening." The Second Great Awakening was an evangelical Christian revivalist movement that began around 1790 and lasted until 1840. Christian leaders of the time preached the same message: salvation through righteous living and personal restraint.

The Purity Movement, which started around the 1990s, had similar goals to the Second Great Awakening. However, the message was strictly on sexual abstinence before marriage. The purity movement message spread throughout evangelical churches through purity rings, purity pledges, and purity balls. And while it did not succeed in its original goal, it did manage to influence many churches today with its teachings on sexual purity and modesty.

What is the Bible's Role in Purity Culture?

Many verses within the Bible are used to solidify teaching around purity culture. Some verses include:

  • For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ESV)
  • But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28 ESV)
  • But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. (Ephesians 5:3 ESV)
  • You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14 ESV)

Biblical figures addressed sexual acts outside of marriage because they were forms of idol worship. From Old Testament to New Testament, sex within marriage created a distinction between who served God/Jesus and who served other gods.

How Does Purity Culture Affect Women?

Purity culture has placed a lot of social control on women. Purity-based theology forces women to be submissive and obedient to men, which is apparent in women's clothing and behavioral expectations. This ideology also teaches women not to express their sexuality or desires, as it is believed that this will lead them to sin and impurity. Additionally, women are often instructed to dress modestly to prevent men from lusting or pursuing them sexually.

Purity culture is not just a religious belief but also a worldview that impacts women. It uses religion as an excuse to control women and keep them "pure." The ideology of purity culture affects women in many ways, like preventing them from speaking openly about sexual abuse, dating, and relationships, or contraceptives. It also teaches women to suppress their own needs for sex, causing sexual repression.

Remnants of purity culture are also seen in workplace and school dress codes, where rules emphasize more modifications to women's attire than men's. Women are also blamed if they are sexually harassed due to purity culture, especially if their attire is deemed as immodest.

When it comes to relationships, women are to be valued for their virginity. Virginity determines if they get married and if that marriage is successful. Despite many advances in social change, this conservative view is still held by many.

How Does Purity Culture Affect Men?

The impact of purity culture on men is very mixed. Some men face just as much pressure to maintain their sexual purity as women. They are given purity rings and make pledges to wait until marriage. Men under strict purity guidelines can also feel sexually repressed or shame of normal sexual desires.

Another side of purity culture teaches that men are valued for their sexual prowess; they're encouraged with scriptures like "he that findeth a wife findeth a good thing." Men who grow up in this form of purity culture may feel pressure to get married and have sex because it is seen as an accomplishment. They also may have unrealistic views of women regarding their role in society, identity, and sexual nature. These men are often given leniency if they have sex before marriage. Since they are natural pursuers, it is up to women to have sexual restraint if/when approached. Furthermore, men are given the perception that they have to be masculine and dominant to succeed, which can be damaging.

In either case, purity culture breaks down the reality of sexuality and norms in forming relationships with men.

Is purity culture a positive or negative influence on the Christian faith?

Purity culture is a negative influence on the Christian faith. Christian faith should be about following Jesus and living in his teachings of love and acceptance. 

Purity culture teaches young people to focus on the judgment they receive if they have sex before marriage rather than the joys that come with sexual intimacy. It also teaches them that sex is something dirty or shameful and needs to be hidden. Churches should teach that sex is a gift from God and encourage healthy dialog surrounding sex, intimacy, and marriage.

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