When I think about purity culture, I think about my adolescence. And honestly, I get a pit in my stomach. I wanted so desperately to be a virgin when I got married, to give the gift of my virginity to my husband.
And then, at 16 years old, I was raped.
For over a year, I was sexually abused and manipulated. The trauma I faced dealing with that reality was hard enough for any normal girl. Add to that the weight of “Purity Culture” and it was too much to bear. I stayed numb so that I didn’t have to deal with the fact that I felt worthless. I thought I had nothing to offer my future husband because someone had taken it from me.
A Glimpse of Purity Culture
There is a pressure in purity culture to get married at a young age because we're taught that the only acceptable way to talk about sex, let alone have sex, is to get married. There is no open dialogue about healthy sexual desires AND waiting to fulfill those desires until marriage.
There is no open dialogue about healthy sexual desires AND waiting to fulfill those desires until marriage.
Most purity culture couples learned everything they know from a friend, TV, or pornography. There are two huge misconceptions in purity culture that I would like to address because I think they are the source of most frustration for couples who grew up in it, myself included.
The biggest misconception taught in purity culture is that “if you wait to have sex until marriage, your sex life will be 'blessed.'” During these same “if you wait” conversations, we are generally told to stay away from impurities, such as the topic of sex and sexual desires. We are basically taught to stifle any biological desire and pretend that they don’t exist. If they do exist, they aren’t natural, but rather evil. How can young women expect to have healthy, passionate marriages if they're taught to hate the idea of making love?
How can young women expect to have healthy, passionate marriages if they're taught to hate the idea of making love?
This teaching leaves us confused, frustrated, or looking to porn, which both bring their own horrible consequences. We are told “impurities” (basically anything remotely sexual) are evil and something we should avoid altogether. It becomes ingrained in us, psychologically. Then, on the day of our wedding, we are expected to flip a switch in our head and body and make these “impurities” suddenly acceptable and celebrated in the marriage bed. From the moment we exchange our vows, we’re supposed to embrace what we've been told is evil, and rewire a lifetime of negative neuro-associations to sex.
If you know anything about psychology, you know this is nearly impossible. The damage done by purity culture teaching is not just self-esteem issues but also long-term issues for married couples who grew up in this culture. I am 30-years-old and have two children, so I’ve had sex at least twice since I got married. But when the topic of sex or sexual desires comes up, I used to have one of two reactions: I’d giggle like a little kid cause someone said “sex” or I’d change the topic because it was too awkward for me to handle.
We’re supposed to embrace what we've been told is evil, and rewire a lifetime of negative neuro-associations to sex.
I couldn’t carry on a healthy conversation about sex with my husband because I still felt like it was something we should be ashamed of doing.
My husband was a virgin when we got married. He wore a white tux jacket because he was proud that he waited, and he should have been. But he thought that since he waited, our sex life would be incredibly “blessed” and full of immense passion. And since I came into our marriage with “sexual experience,” it was going to be magical, like something out of a movie. Right?
In reality, it was more like a bad sitcom. We couldn’t have an open conversation about sex because it honestly just felt inappropriate. This frequently led to irritation and frustration. When we finally broke through our sexual communication barrier, it was like a literal switch was flipped in our bodies, and sex went from awkward and shameful to empowering and dare-I-say spiritual. When you grow up in purity culture, you don’t understand what sex is because you really don’t talk about it - you talk about how to avoid it.
You don’t understand what sex is because you really don’t talk about it - you talk about how to avoid it.
You don’t understand how powerful it can be, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. We should be empowering sexual purity, but it’s such a rare idea in our culture today. Sex is a powerful thing, but we have belittled it by allowing it to be everywhere and with anyone at any time. When we truly grasp how important sex is, how vulnerable sex is, I think that's when we will grasp how important purity is.
Sex and Intimacy Are Not the Same.
The next issue I see in my own marriage from purity culture is that we don’t know what true intimacy is because it’s only been taught in a sexual context. Ironically, intimacy has been adulterized by purity culture. When I thought of intimacy for the last 17 years of my life, I thought of lingerie from Victoria’s Secret and scented candles, basically anything romantic shows and movies taught me throughout my teens and twenties. But you know what the actual definition of intimacy is? Closeness.
Intimacy has been adulterized by purity culture.
I’ve had to relearn intimacy as a whole in the last few months and discovered that this is a another huge area where purity culture failed me, and fails many young women. Yes - I am 30-years-old and didn't know the difference between intimacy and sex. Though sex is intimate, it's not intimacy. Intimacy is closeness. Intimacy is the bond, the deep connection and desire to know and be known by your spouse. That is what we’re missing in purity culture teaching. We confuse intimacy with sex and oversharing with vulnerability.
I have intimate relationships with my friends. We know each other, and we have inside jokes, but that intimate relationship does not mean we are sexual. Intimacy means we are close, we share bonds. I overshare with many people, but I am vulnerable with very few. I’m selective with who gets to know what about me.
Intimacy is closeness.
Like our mental and spiritual health, we should take our sexual health just as seriously. In a society of oversharing and over-exposing, we are giving everyone free access to our thoughts, but we are unlikely going to post or do something that puts us in a vulnerable position. Why then would we allow someone into such a private, sacred space?
When intimacy is shared, there is an emotional bond that is not easily broken. That’s why intimacy needs to come before sex; you don’t create deep bonds during a one-night stand (although you do create chemical ones, which is why hook-up culture is making us miserable).
Intimacy needs to come before sex.
When you are intimate with people, you are intentional about what they get to know about you and when. You don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position before you can trust them. The same should be said for our sexual decisions. When you can fully trust someone with your most vulnerable moments, you have likely found yourself a partner for life.
Marriage is not just about sex; it’s about having a bond so deep that your most intimate thoughts, dreams, and ideas are heard and protected. Intimacy is not sex; intimacy is a vulnerability in the most beautiful way. Once we understand true intimacy, we will understand why it’s beneficial to wait until marriage. We aren’t wrong to seek purity in our sexual lives, but we need to rethink how we discuss purity and sexuality because the two are inseparable.