Fetishizing Purity

Like the Sexual Revolution it abhors, Purity Culture is both extreme and flawed. A review of “The Scarlet Virgins.”

In 2008, TLC launched a new, family-friendly reality show which answered the question (for anyone who ever wondered), “What’s it like to have 17 kids?” The show was called 17 Kids and Counting, and it depicted the everyday life of the Duggar family, who, due to their religious beliefs, do not use birth control: hence, 17 biological children, all from the same two parents. 17 soon became 18, then 19.

Criticized by many for their ultra-conservative lifestyle, 19 Kids And Counting nevertheless amassed a loyal and surprisingly large following who, turned off by the sex, drugs and violence served up in most of television land, appreciated its “wholesomeness” and “family values.” As the oldest of the Duggar children began to enter adulthood, the family introduced an almost-forgotten word back into the pop culture vernacular: courtship. The Duggar children, instead of dating, follow a strict set of guidelines set by their parents, the goal being to avoid sexual activity, or anything close to it, before marriage.

When I first heard about the Duggars, I immediately recognized all the tell-tale signs of an IBLP family. What’s an IBLP family, you ask? IBLP (Institute of Basic Life Principles) is the brainchild of Bill Gothard, a self-ordained teacher of a very fringe version of Christianity which began to become popular in the 1970s in reaction to the Sexual Revolution.

Gothard’s response to the permissiveness of the times was to emphasize authority, then pile rules on top of rules. Everything was to the extreme. Modesty meant shapeless denim jumpers. Sexual purity meant that even the most innocent interactions with the opposite sex were suspect. Music with a back-beat was forbidden, even if the lyrics were Christian. The sheer mass of rules was dizzying, and they were constantly being added to. You never knew what was going to end up on the blacklist next (Cabbage Patch Dolls being a memorable example).

My family was involved with it briefly when I was quite young, and even after recognizing its problems and leaving, my parents continued to use some (not all) of the curriculum for several years. Suffice to say that my own family’s experiences with the teachings of Bill Gothard, as well as experiences that friends who grew up in IBLP have shared with me, have made me very, very cautious about anyone who promotes this way of life. This is why the Duggar family, with their happy, wholesome 19 Kids and Counting has always left a sour taste in my mouth.

Not everyone felt this way, though. A number of my Christian friends — especially, I noticed, those who had grown up in non-Christian homes — were impressed by the contrast of the Duggars’ high sexual standards in the midst of a sex-saturated, pornography-devouring culture that had given us 50 Shades of Gray and Game of Thrones. After all, how could the Duggars’ extreme commitment to sexual purity possibly be a bad thing?

I wished they could understand where the Duggars were coming from, and that there is a dark side to the teachings that they were living out.

“Somebody needs to write a book about this,” I remember thinking. “Not someone who just wants to play ‘Trash the Duggars’ — which became quite a sport when stories from Josh Duggar’s past surfaced — or is bitter against Christianity, but someone who can separate sexual legalism from the Gospel, who can handle the subject graciously, without judgment.”

Rebecca Lemke’s new book, The Scarlet Virgins, is exactly the book that I was hoping for. Lemke’s book is not specifically about Gothard’s teachings, but it encompasses them within the term that Lemke uses to describe a broad movement that preached a “virginity at any cost” gospel: the Purity Culture.

The Christian homeschooling community that Lemke grew up in was heavily influenced by the 1997 Christian bestseller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book written by a then-21-year-old Joshua Harris, which set out to provide Christian singles with a practical guide on how to stay sexually pure in their romantic relationships until marriage. Lemke’s mother later recalled that the book was looked upon in their homeschool co-op as “a second Bible”:

“And therein lies the problem. The book was written by a fallen man and is not inspired by God, yet people used it as a ‘second Bible’.”
“This is a common trend in legalism,” Lemke writes. “People like Bill Gothard and Joshua Harris were esteemed and worshiped as idols within many conservative Christian communities.

Joshua Harris never wrote that his words were on the same level as scripture, but with claims like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye shows what it means to entrust your love life to God” (from the back cover of the book), many people took his practical tips as edicts from God. If Purity Culture leaders had simply said, “These are the steps that I took to avoid sexual temptation, and they helped me,” their advice would probably not have been harmful. It’s when leaders begin to burden their flock with extra-Biblical “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” (also known as adiaphora), and emphasize one’s ability to live up to these standards over grace, that human advice crosses the line and becomes legalism. This binds the consciences of their listeners with rules that are not of God, but of man, and, as Lemke discovered in her own life, it is not without consequences.

What had begun as an emphasis on virginity morphed into what could be done to avoid even getting close to losing one’s virginity. Kissing was treated as a gateway drug to sex, and then hugging was treated as a gateway drug to kissing, and so on, until many couples weren’t even allowed to have a private discussion before they got married — let alone touch one another. All affection and emotional bonding were deemed dangerous.

“Danger” was the over-arching association that Lemke had with sex growing up. As she reached puberty, instead of being encouraged to welcome the change from little girl to young woman, she and her friends were coached by parents and other adults in their circle on how to “keep men from stumbling” (a concept I also grew up hearing from the Gothard ministry material).

. . . some women in the group began correcting our bra straps and chastising us for being a temptation to the boys. We were no longer regarded as children or friends; we were dangerous temptresses who would lead our male companions astray.

This approach to modesty is an identifying feature of Purity Culture: girls as young as pre-teenhood are given the impossible goal of avoiding every kind of dress or behavior that might draw men into lust. Lemke recalls even being told not to wear sandals, “presumably because someone’s husband had a foot fetish.” In IBLP, I recall an example where girls were first told to wear black pantyhose under their long skirts so that they wouldn’t have anything that looked like skin showing, then thrown for a loop when some anonymous man expressed that he found black pantyhose to be provocative. This does not take very long to become sinister. What girls (including Lemke) learn from this is that 1) men are a perpetual threat and “merely a stray bra strap away from losing control of their barely-restrained sexual urges”, and 2) that, as Lemke put it, “if I got caught in the crossfire, I had only myself to blame.”

If this response sounds far-fetched, consider the heart-breaking story that Lemke shares about how certain adults responded to the rape of one of the community’s young girls by her teenage brother, who had assaulted her at knife-point:

Later on I overheard the adults discussing the rape. At least a few were sure that the police were making the entire thing up. “She must have done something to provoke him,” another parent added. The general consensus was that if she was raped, it was her fault.

For a then-ten-year-old Lemke, this response understandably helped to set the groundwork for an irrational fear of men, sexuality, and her own body, as well as anxiety that, if she were ever raped, she would be held responsible.

The Purity Culture is similar to the “Prosperity Gospel” in that it promises certain earthly blessings if one follows a prescribed formula. Young people were taught that if they could stay virgins until their wedding night, they were guaranteed the reward of blissful sexual intimacy after marriage. For many, reality did not match up with what was advertised. After being taught fear and shame about their own sexual nature in order to achieve the goal of wedding night virginity, newly-married students of the Purity Culture were expected to suddenly (and improbably) graduate from “virgin to vixen” as soon as they left the altar. Ruled by the fear of inadvertently leading their future spouse into sexual sin with their bodies up until this point, brides soon discovered a new fear: that now, if they failed to satisfy their husbands sexually, they would only have themselves to blame if their husbands were unfaithful.

As a child I was taught that a man’s need to cheat was the result of his wife not being desirable enough. This clashed with the fact that we were supposed to be innocent virgins, naive to the way of sexual relations, on our wedding night.

Under the best of circumstances, it typically takes time for a newly-married couple to learn how to best satisfy one another, and thus intimacy should be seen as something that needs time and mutual effort to develop fully. If you are expecting this timeline (as my husband and I were, thanks to wise counsel from married friends), this process can be deeply meaningful and a beautiful expression of love, but if you have been told that God will reward your ability to stay pure with mind-blowing wedding night sex, and then all you feel when you come together with your spouse is a paralyzing sense of shame, the results are soul-crushing. Lemke shares her impressions from her wedding night — the moment that was supposed to “make up” for all the years of waiting:

The logical emotion was supposed to be happiness, especially after waiting for so long to be able to have sex without shameful remorse or guilt. This was the plan. This was the promise made by many. But, as I stood there, I felt sick beyond anything I’d ever experienced in my entire life.

I can remember these promises too. The hype of unwrapping “the whole package” in one glorious night, having given nothing away — not so much as a hug or a “piece of one’s heart”. But far from providing the promised reward of an immediately blissful sexual union, Purity Culture teachings often leave married couples with a suitcase-full of lessons to unlearn before they can even begin to learn healthy intimacy. These lessons — that sex is dirty, that “healthy” men are insatiable animals and “good” girls are not interested in sex, that our bodies are something to be ashamed of , as well as too many others to mention— are ones that never should have been learned in the first place.

Criticism of the Purity Culture is often met with a deep-seated resistance within some Christian cultures. I believe this is because we like for things to be black and white. If x is bad, then the opposite of x must be good — we know the culture’s idolizing of sex is wrong, and Purity Culture looks like its opposite. But often what we perceive as one sin’s “opposite” is actually just another face on the same old coin. The further the two “opposites” back away from each other, the more alike they begin to look.

The temptation to combat hedonism with legalism is beguiling. Parents are taken in by unrealistic promises about being able to protect their children from the consequences of sexual promiscuousness — consequences that many parents have suffered themselves. The wilder the hedonism gets, the more appealing the temptation becomes to answer it with rules and regulations that are from man, not God. But God makes it clear that this is not the way to draw near to him in Isaiah 29:13:

These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. (emphasis mine)

We have to be willing to call out teaching that puts words in God’s mouth in order to get a certain result, no matter how innocent it seems or how desirable the result may be. The Scarlet Virgins graciously yet honestly reveals the fruit of sexual legalism, and shows us exactly what is “so bad” about Purity Culture.

Rebecca Lemke is a blogger and published writer whose work can be found in The Federalist as well as here at Iron Ladies. Her book “The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation” is available for purchase on Amazon.