Back in the mid-1990s, purity culture infiltrated practically every Christian circle. It was an entire movement. Evangelical teens signed pledges that we wouldn’t have sex until marriage. There were songs, conferences, and devotionals all about how “true love waits.” Some churches even held daddy-daughter dances where the fathers vowed to be the keepers of their daughters’ virtue. A lot of us wore “purity rings.”
Nah, that’s not creepy at all.
Christianity has always had a thing for demanding purity from its members, particularly from its women. But the ’90s and early 2000s saw something of a more frenzied and mainstream purity push—much of which could be traced back to a young and single white guy named Joshua Harris.
Harris was the epitome of the boy your Christian mother wanted you to bring home for dinner. Clean-shaven and on fire for Jesus, he wrote the handbook on modern-day purity culture: I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In his book, Harris asserted that Christians shouldn’t be dating at all. Instead, he urged them to pursue a “courtship.” The point, he insisted, was to find a marriage partner and avoid giving away any part of yourself before marriage.
Nobody seemed to consider that a single white guy who was barely 21 might not be the greatest source of wisdom for a healthy marriage. Instead, millions of churchgoers read the book, and a heightened emphasis on purity spread like wildfire.
The hallmark of purity culture was shame; there’s just no way around it. Harris described being given a dream from God where all the women he’d ever given his heart or body to were standing at the altar on his wedding day. Harris told readers that if they gave away pieces of themselves by being intimate (emotionally or physically) with other partners, they’d have little left but scraps for their future spouse.
It was hardly new for Christian youth to be told they were somehow dirty or damaged by even the hint of sexuality, but I think this push to commit yourself to purity was much wider and guilt-laden than ever before.
Some of my evangelical peers were lucky. Purity culture never seemed to leave much of an impression on a few of them. But for other kids like me, the constant shame-steeped messages about sex and dating left long-term fears.
It didn’t help that I grew up in a dysfunctional home where my mother insisted that her views on God and “right living” were the absolute truth. My mom had mental health issues—and still does—but when I was a teenager, I wasn’t equipped to recognize that nor the dangers it posed for me.
The purity culture lessons that I received from the church and Christian media fit hand in hand with my mother’s rigid beliefs. Multiple adults in authority taught me that masturbation was a sin and thoroughly impure. Abstinence was never about merely refraining from sexual activity with other people; we were also supposed to abstain from sex with ourselves—and from even thinking about sex too much. Lust was never to be entertained unless it was between a husband and wife.
Sexual sin was so serious that we were told masturbation invited actual demons into our lives.
So when people talked about abstinence, what they really meant was total chastity before marriage. It was a nightmare. Kids married too young because they wanted to have sex. Young women found themselves in abusive marriages. Teens and young adults never learned about healthy sex or even how to survive a basic heartbreak.