New Perspectives on Christian Purity
by Dianna E. Anderson
Chapter One: I Was a Teenage Virgin
The lights are down low, and the dance floor is lit and waiting. Soft music is playing over the speakers. A row of young women, dressed in their finest, fanciest clothing, are waiting on one side for their dates to come ask them to dance. There’s not much middle school fidgeting and nervousness about who’s going to ask whom — each girl knows exactly whom she’s going to dance with and she’s known him her entire life. She’s made pledges and vows to this person already in the evening, and is now ready to spend time dancing and celebrating with him.
Their dates — their fathers — and they are ready to celebrate the commitments each of them made tonight. Each father committed to being a good, godly, guiding force in his daughter’s life. And each daughter committed to keeping herself pure and unsullied until the day her father gives her away to her husband. This is a purity ball.
According to statistics, of the hundred young girls gathered tonight, eighty will not make it to their wedding night as a virgin. Sadly, some of them have already been violated sexually. Still more will be coerced into sexual encounters they don’t want to have by a boyfriend, by an acquaintance at a party, by someone they trust. More will fall in love and say yes to someone who, for one reason or another, they will not marry. Many others will realize that they are not attracted to men or that they are unable to marry. Purity balls — a growing but still obscure phenomenon — started in Colorado in the mid-1990s. But the zeitgeist that made them popular had been building for decades, snowballing in intensity in the United States for years.
I was brought up in the evangelical purity movement. At fourteen years old, standing in front of my entire church with my parents, I pledged to save myself for marriage. I delved into reading the guides, learning about purity and how to keep myself pure, for years. I held myself and others to the high standards of purity that the church set for us.
One of the most disappointing moments of my young life came when I was brave enough to say to one of my best friends, “I think I like you as more than a friend.”
We were at a small Christian college together. He had transferred there during my sophomore year. We’d met at a Christian summer camp a couple of years before. I’d liked him for years. I had a habit of falling in love with the guys who were my best friends, leading to nights of crying myself to sleep in my dorm room. Influenced by the archaic gender roles taught within the purity movement, I was determined that the man should make the first move — were I to say anything, it would upset the balance and ultimately doom the relationship. So I pined, sometimes not so quietly, hoping that the men I was falling for would somehow read my mind.
By the time I was a junior in college, I’d decided that being honest was a better policy than sobbing into my pillow. Telling a boy I liked him was scary, but it would spare me the pain that came with the “friend zone.” So one October Sunday, I decided enough was enough, and sent my friend Ethan an e-mail: “Let’s go on a walk. I have something to talk to you about.”
“Sure. Meet me after church.”
I threw on my oversize college hoodie and ran a comb through my short hair. I was much more concerned with what I was about to say than with what I would look like while saying it. We met in the lobby of the dorm we both lived in — he on the first floor and I on the third. We headed down the sidewalk in silence. I was figuring out how to say things, and he was clearly waiting for me to speak.
“The thing is, Ethan” — I stumbled over my words — “I like you as more than a friend.” I watched him carefully to see his reaction.
His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “That’s what I thought you were going to say.”
Here it was: my rejection. In my gut, I knew this would happen, but I wasn’t prepared for why. Ethan had had a girlfriend previously and they’d broken up a few months before. He explained, “I sort of thought this was coming. But I don’t think you want to be in a relationship with me. I have too much baggage.”
“Baggage? What baggage? What are you talking about? I can handle anything.”
We were stopped at a light, waiting for a walk signal to cross.
He looked straight at me. “I’m not a virgin, Dianna. My ex and I had sex, and that’s not what you want.”
I was speechless. And not because he assumed I wasn’t prepared for a relationship with a guy who was experienced. But because he was right — I wasn’t. I instantly reshuffled his position in my life from “potential suitor” to “damaged goods — not marriage material ever.” The look on my face gave my thoughts away, and he turned back toward campus, explaining, “I can tell by the look on your face that you’re not ready for any of this. I need to deal with this sort of thing myself. I don’t think I’m prepared to get into a relationship with someone who doesn’t know these experiences and that’s really all I can say about it.”
My thoughts ran rampant: Did I even know him? Why couldn’t he have waited? What other sins were people hiding from me?
Our environment, permeated by purity culture, commanded that he be ashamed, a pariah, and that I judge him. Ethan was just one in a long string of friends I would judge for their sexual choices. And I felt justified in judging them because my theology and culture justified it. I had to shame my friends for their choices, I thought: it was the only way they would learn.
That conversation is one of many I regret. I lost a friend that day, though it took a few years for the relationship to fully fall apart. I have regretted nothing more in my life than that I wasn’t a true friend to those who were suffer- ing under the weight of such shame, a friend who could help them understand that God does not function in a culture of shame.
A few years later, I found myself on the receiving end of the same type of judgment when I began to opine that perhaps the Bible wasn’t as clear as we think it is on the issue of premarital sex. I’d not even done anything sexually “sinful” at that point, but as I began to study the issues more, I received a flurry of messages from family members that I was choosing feminism over Christianity and justifying sinful living. One message said I was questioning the Scripture about sex because I couldn’t get Christian men to sleep with me, so I was moving toward feminism to find people who would. Ouch.
I realized how wrong I’d been to judge Ethan. I examined my sanctimonious declarations about virginity. I faced the culture I’d been hiding behind, one that heaped shame on others. Purity culture says what matters most about a person is whether or not they have had sex in the “wrong” ways. It makes wearing a white dress at her wedding the marker of morality for a woman.
I began to pray about how to atone for my sins of shame and gracelessness. Over the course of preparing to write this book, I spoke to Christians aged twenty to fifty, from various faith backgrounds, all over the United States — missionary kids, women of color, suburban whites, women who like women, and men who like men. Across the spectrum, they reflected on a culture of judgment, pain, and shame. They had experienced these things because of choices they had made and options that had been taken from them. I listened to story after story of being unable to feel close to God because of shame, being kicked out of one’s home, losing friends, separation from one’s faith community. No atonement was good enough, no sacrifice or apology could erase the shame these people bore. They were forever marked with the scarlet brand of “slut” because they had not waited until their wedding day.
A generation of Christian women and men, girls and boys, is broken and hurting from the sexual dysfunction and shame of purity culture. Many grew up being told over and over that their virginity was the most important thing they could give their spouse on their wedding night, only to reach that point and realize that having saved themselves didn’t magically create sexual compatibility or solve their marital issues. Many soon divorced. Still others sat silently in their church groups, wondering what virginity could possibly mean for them as people who had been victims of incest or abuse or who felt attracted to the same gender.
We’ve been told a lie that our worth lies in what we do (or don’t do) with our genitals. According to the proponents of Christian purity, we are “damaged goods.” We are afraid to own our physicality. We do not know our own bodies and, therefore, we do not truly know ourselves. We are afraid to express ourselves sexually. We do not have language to talk about the nuances of existing as a sexual being.
This book aims to develop a Christian ethic that doesn’t center around saying no, but through which we learn how to say a “godly yes.” We are not broken and we are not alone. As God’s creatures, we are created to be expressive, to love and live without shame. God does not function in a currency of shame and stigma. God does not cast us out of community; God loves us through community. God’s children are never “damaged goods.”
The roots of shame run deep, and it takes patience, challenge, anger, and grace to pull them all out. My hope is that you will find help on these pages to break free from shame and to avoid passing the sometimes well-intentioned lies of purity culture to coming generations.
I love the Church, and I believe firmly that in teaching purity doctrines and promoting purity culture we have lost our way. We have forgotten justice and mercy in the name of legalism. We have deviated from a God of grace and love and mercy and instead embraced a cold, distant, heartless God who does not care about individual contexts and individual experiences. We in the American church have allowed political interests and sinful systems to dic- tate our theology. We must examine ourselves and the pain we cause, then take responsibility for the shame we heap on believers and say to ourselves, “No more.”
Youth are leaving the church in droves, many because they feel they cannot live up to its demands about purity. It is time to create a new way of thinking, a new way to love our neighbors as Jesus commanded. That means Christian life that expresses a healthy sexuality of mutual pleasure and mutual consent.
Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the following in “God’s Grandeur”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . .
As God’s people, we have tried to quell the flames, tried to make God’s grandeur fit into our predetermined boxes and theories and theologies. It is time to listen for the Spirit that hovers over the world and, as Hopkins says, “broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” God is in the pain, the hurt, and the shame. God is with the ones, like Ethan, whom I once called damaged goods. This is a chance to listen to the Spirit of Truth about what sexual purity really is.