Purity Culture: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

It’s clear that casual sex has become increasingly normalized today. Porn, music, movies, and dating apps have all rightfully taken the fall for this, but there is another culprit that often goes unrecognized: purity culture.

By Marina Camacho4 min read
Purity Culture: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

People are having less sex today than ever before, yet the rate of casual sex is on a steady incline. As seen in media and pop-culture, it’s evident that the attitude towards sex today is rapidly changing and that casual sex has become not only normalized but applauded. Surprisingly enough, purity culture has been heavily promoted for the past 20 years with movements like the “true love waits” campaign fervently pushing abstinence in response to the sexual revolution. So how did we get here?

The Good 

Cultures across the world have traditionally viewed sex as a sacred act, discouraging people from casual sex. Purity culture can be good in this sense because casual sex puts people at risk spiritually, mentally, and physically, and it’s important to discuss why we should be cautious of who we choose to have sex with. 

Spiritually, when we have sex, we intertwine ourselves with another person’s energy, making us vulnerable to taking on whatever energy that person is carrying. We can observe this phenomenon in the human ability to empathize. Picture an angry person standing in the same room as you; the angry person does not have to say anything for you to feel their tension. If you can feel someone’s inner anger from across the room, imagine how much stronger the connection would be if they were physically intertwined with you. When we’re not careful with who we choose to share our bodies with, we make ourselves vulnerable to negative energies, putting our own energy at risk. 

Mentally, studies have shown that casual sex is negatively associated with well-being and positively associated with psychological distress. One study conducted on college students in Canada showed that 78% of women and 72% of men who had uncommitted sex reported a history of experiencing regret afterward. Another study found that both men and women who had ever engaged in an uncommitted sexual encounter had lower overall self-esteem scores compared with those without uncommitted sexual experiences. Engaging in casual sex mentally drains people and often leaves people feeling embarrassed, guilty, and ashamed.

78% of women and 72% of men who had uncommitted sex reported a history of regret afterward.

Physically, casual sex puts the body at a higher risk of catching STDs. According to the CDC, there has been a nearly 30% increase in STDs between 2015 and 2019, reaching an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year in a row in 2019. Sex also causes people to release oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds mother and child upon during birth, nursing, and skin-on-skin contact. Researchers have found that oxytocin is responsible for the pair-bond formation in both sexes of monogamous mammals. In one study, they found that a prairie vole, noted for her cuddling and affectionate grooming tendencies toward her chosen mate, when given an extra dose of oxytocin, increased her affections and stuck even tighter with her partner. Because oxytocin is known to cement the bond between partners, having casual sex can potentially negatively affect future pair bonding. 

The Bad

When researching the rise and normalization of hookup culture, I noticed a trend – most of the stories I read of people in support of casual sex were in support of it because of their history of associating sex with shame. Women especially have been harshly scrutinized and shamed by society for embracing their sexuality. In the book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Linda Klein interviews 80 women on their experience with purity culture and identified in their stories how sexual purity was over-emphasized to the point that these girls and young women began to feel like their salvation and worth depended on it.

Purity culture has been known to reduce the bodies of girls to sexual objects and shift responsibility off men. Because women are taught that their body is a “present” less valuable when “unwrapped,” women begin to view sexuality as a burden to them rather than a natural desire and a gift. This can make women feel uncomfortable with their bodies and feel shame for their sexuality – ultimately taking away from the sanctity of sex rather than magnifying it. 

Purity culture has been known to reduce the female body to a sexual object and shift responsibility off men. 

Since 1996, the federal government has spent more than $2 billion promoting abstinence-only sex education in educational programs for young people. These abstinence-only programs taught children that their bodies were reduced to things like chewed gum, damaged goods, withered roses, and opened gifts if they didn’t remain abstinent. Ironically, the states that promoted abstinence-only sex education also have the highest STD, STI, and teen pregnancy rates. Teaching people to abstain from shame instead of from an understanding of the goodness of sex, the value of sex in marriage, and the science of bonding often makes people resentful, stirring up a desire to rebel.

When we teach people that all of their worth is confined to their purity status, people can internalize this thought process and lose value for their body if they fail to live up to the purity standard. It’s no surprise that when you compare a person’s body to literal trash for not upholding the purity standard, that person will view their body as trash when they don’t live up to those expectations. This lack of self-esteem and self-worth often causes people to seek validation through sexual encounters, contributing to the casual sex trend we see today. 

The Ugly

Because purity culture often presents itself in a shameful, dogmatic light, many people are turned off by the idea of choosing to remain abstinent. Many people tend to feel that the choice to abstain from casual sex is nothing more than a religious rule meant to control them. This can make something beautiful (cherishing your body, energy, and the sanctity of sex) look like something ugly. So how can we reframe purity culture in a better light?

  • Accept that sexual desire is a natural human instinct and the desire itself is nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Dismantle the idea that your worth is solely dependent on your purity status.

  • Practice healthy sexuality.

  • Understand that mistakes happen and it’s okay to accept them and move on to making better decisions. 

  • Make sexual decisions considering the physical, mental, and physical risks of casual sex rather than centering your decisions on shame.

  • Educate people on the power of sexual transmutation

Closing Thoughts

Hookup culture is a problem and purity culture can either contribute to fixing the problem or make the problem worse. It’s important that we stand up against hookup culture by teaching people to love their bodies and cherish their sexuality rather than hating their bodies and viewing their sexual energy as a burden and something to be “fought” rather than utilized. 

We should encourage people to refrain from casual sex out of choosing a higher good for themselves, rather than guilt. Associating sexual desire itself with shame can not only hinder a person’s relationship with themself, but also with their partner, as seen in married couples who were raised in purity culture reporting awkwardness and shame with sex, despite being married. Ultimately, sexual desire is not a shameful temptation but rather an innate human instinct that should be cherished and kept sacred in order to promote optimal human well-being. 

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