Purity rings and “True Love” vows started being a thing in teen entertainment in the 1990s. And everyone from Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers have tailored their images at one point or another with a promise of chastity. That promise allows for teenage fans to be titillated by sexual imagery, but remain “wholesome” and “safe” enough to be marketable to conservative parents. However, the damage done by messages which preach “good girls wait” and the shame of sex is widespread and deep. Moreover, all of this shaming dished out through messages of purity doesn’t even get the desired result of keeping children “innocent” from sexual experiences.
By 18-years-old, 65 percent of young adults have had sexual intercourse. That number goes to 93 percent by age 25. When it comes to abstinence and vows of chastity, at least one study conducted of “virgin pledgers” found 61 percent break the vow and have sex before marriage. And even among the 39 percent who claim to have kept their vow of no sex, 55 percent admit to partaking in oral sex. Also, young people who’ve taken purity pledges were (surprise, surprise) less likely to use condoms than those who didn’t, since it’s likely a family where things like chastity vows were important also made sure sexual ignorance was important, too.
The United States (and its various state governments) has spent billions over the past three decades on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Re-branded as “sexual risk avoidance,” government support for these programs has increased dramatically under Donald “I pay porn stars hush money” Trump and Mike “I can’t trust myself to be alone with a woman” Pence. But all of the government-funded ineffective sex advice has also been buttressed for decades by a prosperity gospel. Evangelicals, like Harris, enter onto the stage and tell parents concerned about their children having sex they can add another layer beyond “Just Say No.” They advocate even removing the concept of dating, making relationships into a family decision directed by Christian values (which remove an individual’s own wants and needs), but make it palatable by promising this regime will ultimately lead to God’s favor and a better marriage.
Joshua Harris: I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.
Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.
The result of this new evangelical philosophy was more teenagers marrying the first person they “courted,” even when they didn’t really like the mate they were now committing to spend the rest of their natural lives with. Some people became so intimidated by the standards put upon them of what a “good” relationship should entail, they never attempted to meet anyone at all. And for those who were sexually abused, some thought of themselves as too damaged to deserve a good relationship. According to at least one person who posted about the effects of Harris’ book on their life: “I feel the only man I deserve is one who is broken like me.”
There’s also the idea of how all of this sets people up for disappointment and failure. If people buy a car, they take it for a test drive. If someone mortgages a house, they have an inspector look at it. But in the realm of personal and sexual chemistry, blind luck and trust in God’s will is going to save the day for the long term with marriage? Expecting great sex on the first time out when someone’s entire life has been spent living in ignorance of sex, and deeming it inappropriate and “dirty,” is like expecting someone to drive like they’re in Fast & Furious the first time they hop in a car. The same thing goes for building a new family home life when someone has spent their entire life sheltered. Whether one thinks it’s a good idea or not, living with someone allows a person to see their partner’s quirks, realize whether or not they want to come home to that person every night, and build intimacy in a relationship both emotionally and physically. These are aspects of life which take work and effort, have ups and downs, and are based in mutual respect of the other person’s feelings, instead of fitting into preordained gender roles and stereotypes.
Everyone has their own story and circumstances, but the first time I had sex the experience was fun and exciting, but also awkward and embarrassing. My first time was in a car. My partner climbed over on top of me while I was in the driver’s seat, and “Little Doctor RJ" was so excited he decided that was a good time to climax. I spent the next five minutes stalling for time until I was “ready” again, and the entire time I was pissed at myself for not being ... better.
I always think of that when I read stories about people who’ve waited until their wedding, and how their ignorance and inexperience probably makes them feel as if they’ve done something wrong. I was able to realize that sex is not always like a porn film, and received more “practice” over time with different partners. But what about the people who feel like they’re being punished on their honeymoon when things like that happen with the person they’ve been promised a sexual reward?
From Katelyn Beaty at Religion News Service:
Sexual prosperity theology was supposed to combat the mainstream culture’s embrace of no-strings-attached sex and sex education in public schools. Purity culture arose in a time when the traditional sexual ethic looked increasingly prudish, unrealistic and kind of boring. Writers like Joshua Harris, Josh McDowell and Eric and Leslie Ludy held out the ultimate one-up to secular licentiousness: God wants to give you a hot spouse and great sex life, as long as you wait. The giveaway of any prosperity teaching is an “if/then” formula: If you do this, then you will get this. If you put a $100 bill in the offering plate, then you will get tenfold back. If you stay chaste now, then you will later be blessed by marriage and children.
Like all powerful myths, it offers the illusion of control in an unpredictable world … In the wake of [Harris’s] announcement, several Christians wrote to me with their stories of marital difficulty and heartache, even after having upheld the sexual prosperity gospel. Women wrote of enduring abusive marriages because they thought that was their “reward.” Men wrote about grappling with their spouses’ infidelity and divorce. Single Christians shared their stories of waiting, and waiting, and realizing that perhaps the reward for prolonged virginity would never come.
Mark Yarhouse, a psychologist and researcher who teaches at Wheaton College, offers sex therapy to couples. One couple came to him because the wife experienced pelvic pain penetration disorder and hadn’t been able to consummate the marriage several years in, despite the fact that the couple’s first kiss was at their wedding.
“Not being able to consummate their marriage was a source of both grief and also anger toward God,” Yarhouse told me. “She had to process assumptions she held that if she saved more for marriage, she would receive from God the blessing of a good sex life with her husband.” When prosperity teachings fail to pan out, it not only puts the teaching in question, it also calls into question the very goodness and faithfulness of God.
Three of the women with whom I discussed the idea of living with their boyfriend each gave a reason for not doing it. It was more about how it fit a conception of what someone believes is right, rather than what they actually want. But this also true for greater aspects of their relationships which they’ve shared. They all would handle their relationships differently, but are held back by family, religion, or just preconceived notions of what matters to actually live their wants.
- Raven is a 23-year-old African-American woman, raised Baptist, who told me “good girls” don’t live with their boyfriends, even though she sits on her phone most of the day wanting to be with him and complains to everyone else when she can’t be. She recently was looking for a place to live, but wouldn’t ask her boyfriend to share an apartment because Raven felt living together should be a “reward” for putting a ring on it.
- Lizbeth is a 21-year-old Latina student, who is among one of the most politically active people I know, especially in her interest in women’s issues. Liz and her boyfriend have been together for years, but her interactions with him are what I would expect for someone in high school because of her family’s strict Catholic upbringing. She can’t even go over to her boyfriend’s place, and the time Liz spends with him either has to be at her home, where her parents can supervise, or cleared in advance with her father. When I mentioned the idea of Liz and the boyfriend living together, this woman who is so strong in a lot of ways said: “I can’t because my father would kill me.”
- L’Allie is 24 years old and studying to take the MCAT for medical school, and is with a guy who she’s been seeing for years. However, the “seeing” part consists solely of time spent hanging out together on campus. L’Allie is Palestinian and her parents don’t approve of her boyfriend because he’s Pakistani. He’s not allowed in her home, and she can’t be with him on anything which could be construed as a date. When she recently had an appendectomy, the boyfriend had to be updated on her condition through a friend. She’s attempting to get the imam at her mosque to speak to her parents about the situation. And if L’Allie should get into med school, it will be the only medical school she’s applying to—the one in her hometown—because she can’t leave to study away from her family.
At least a few conservative voices are wondering aloud if shame is really the best idea when it comes to telling teenagers how to find love.
From David French at National Review:
I was a youth pastor for a few memorable months at the height of the courtship craze. The year was 1998, I was a youth volunteer at a small church in Georgetown, Ky., when our youth pastor left … The youth ministry had gone all-in on purity culture. The previous youth pastor had even declared “no date ’98,” placing a moratorium on every kid in the youth group: not even a single date for the entire year. When it came to relationships, it would be “courtship” (tersely defined as parental-supervised visits and outings) or nothing … I think it did something even darker — in its effect (if not its intent), it reversed the gospel message, teaching Christian kids that they risked being defined by their sins, not by Christ.
It worked like this — sexual sin stained young persons, even if Christ forgave them. They would walk into marriage diminished in some crucial ways. The white dress, fundamentally, was a lie. And the message wasn’t confined to sexuality. Did you drink? Did you smoke a joint? Each one of those things altered a person’s self-definition. They were no longer “pure.” They could never be “pure” again.
All too many times, I saw the despair. A young person would come to me and say, “I screwed up.” They would really mean, “I’m ruined.” Their storybook dreams were dead. A 17-year-old with (God willing) 70 years of life ahead of him would approach me carrying the awful burden of thinking that he had defined his life forever. He was no longer — and never would be — the person he wanted to be … One of my first acts as youth pastor was to lift the ban on dating. Ending legalism is not the same thing as sanctioning sin, and I have no idea if there was more or less extramarital sex as a result of the dating ban or the purity rings. But it was incumbent upon me — in the limited time that I had in leadership — to tell the truth, and the truth was that legalism is its own kind of sin. To create burdens where Christ did not is an act of arrogance. It’s deeply harmful.
And, sadly, it’s a way of life in all too many Christian churches.