The purity movement backlash has been an interesting phenomenon in that otherwise-still-evangelical Christians are speaking out against it. Most conservative Christians who are doing this are disavowing purity culture, not abstinence. There are plenty of people who have been deeply hurt by purity culture that would still very much advocate for abstinence until marriage.
Purity culture is when virginity is made into an idol so that it is more important than grace. Women and even little girls are sexualized as objects of temptation. Women are blamed for men’s lust to the point of being excluded and discriminated against. Men’s groups only discuss avoiding porn and not pursuing Jesus, and, in extreme cases, harassment and even rape is excused by their sexual attraction to their victim (whether it’s her too-tempting clothing, smile, or empathy).
Purity culture is a graceless movement of intense legalism that turns life into an endless series of things to fear and avoid and perfect, from hemlines to emojis. And the promise at the end of the obstacle course is that you earn marriage. If you work very hard and can stay pure enough to deserve it, God will reward you with a spouse, presumably by around age 25.
This doesn’t fit in well with a calling to celibacy or things like queerness. Sure, you can be affirming and modify it: “It doesn’t matter what gender you’re into but stay pure for marriage.” But that hasn’t taken off to quite the same extent.
Taking off my purity ring
I like the word queer. It’s fine if you don’t. I know its history. But among its other merits, it just fits me so well. Like many who choose to identify by it, I have always been a little different. Many kids, especially nerdy ones, grow up to say such things, looking back. But most of them find someone who fits their quirks just right. Someone who takes them out for “coffee or you know, drinks or dinner or a movie … for as long as we both shall live.” 1
Despite having a deep love of the classic romances of our time (yes, I am including You’ve Got Mail, the source of the quote above), I never concerned myself too much with finding a partner to match my oddities. I was told by everyone in my life, real and fictional, that it was just the way the world worked. Someday I would fall in love with a boy, and we would be part of the great circle of life.
“She was a girl, he was a boy, can I make it any more obvious?” 2
I did date as a teenager. By 12, in fact, there was immense social pressure and little else to do in my small town, so we paired up. I went on to capitalize on this addictive high of increased popularity, feelings of imagined passion, something to contribute to the currency of social drama, adhering to a norm, and genuine friendship with the kind, sweet, smart boys who were caught up in the same dance (often literally) and chose me. It’s still hard to parse through what of that “love” was a search for belonging and affirmation and acceptance, what was teenage hormones, and what was something much purer than that.
There are many types of love, and defining them is not always as cleanly cut between brotherly friend and admirer and young romance. They are all real.
But as later puzzle pieces fell into place, what I had always assumed was just the wrong timing or a lack of affection on my part became more and more obvious the older I grew. High school homecoming and prom faded into memory, college passed with no Prince Charming, and young adulthood was complicated enough without adding in heartache over romance.
One day I looked down at the purity ring I had purchased for myself after years of listening to BarlowGirl, Rebecca St. James, and Superchick. What was it I was waiting for again?
I knew all the sermons by heart. I sang the songs and may have even signed some pledge or another at a youth girls’ retreat. I was so wrapped up in my attraction to being a “cultural rebel” that I didn’t notice until my mid-20s that I wasn’t really attracted to … well, anyone. I thought being a “radical” Jesus freak was the answer to my oddball feeling. That wasn’t helped by trendy names and themes like “outcasts” and “being on fire for God.”
A large college ministry at a charismatic missions-driven church fed this further. If I just loved Jesus hard enough and let my little light shine, it was no wonder that I felt different from this dark world.
Except the differences were most prominent in the church. Especially when it came to romance and sex. The truth was, I didn’t need to try to wait. It was all too easy to sing along to “no more dating” and “you need that boy like a bowling ball / dropped on your head / which means not at all.” (Real Christian pop rock lyrics. Seriously!) I thought I was being radical and different by abstaining from something everyone else was doing, but the real difference between my peers and I was that not once had my ring been called upon to serve its purpose.
I was part of the five percent. The virgins in our late 20s.
Waiting wasn’t hard for me because, the truth was, I didn’t want it. Any of it. Dating, sex, marriage, kids… I didn’t regret the low-key teenage romantic relationships I’d had and the experience of participating in a social norm, but the purity ring was supposed to symbolize a meaningful commitment that would one day be replaced by a wedding ring. It was supposed to be a reminder to resist temptation. But the temptations in my life looked a lot more like being a Hermione-esque know-it-all and eating too much ice cream. They don’t sell rings for keeping your ego in check or refusing to give in to petty gossip or choosing generosity over envy.
Now those are temptations. Sex? Nah. I didn’t really get why people wanted it, much less made such a big deal of avoiding it.
So while working at a company owned by the very corporation that funded and marketed the True Love Waits movement that popularized the purity ring madness of the 2000s, living in the “buckle of the Bible belt,” I decided my purity ring was a lie.
I wasn’t waiting for anything. Not because I’d changed my beliefs or met a person I wanted to sleep with, but because I had no use for it. There was nothing to wait for.