I wish I still had my copies of the popular sexuality and dating books from my youth so I could see which quotes I highlighted as a 15-year-old. I’m sure there is a list somewhere in my handwriting titled “What I Want in a Future Husband” (though, to be honest, it was probably pretty short: Jonathan Taylor Thomas).
While writing Talking Back to Purity Culture, I reread fresh copies of those books. As I revisited the words that had so shaped me and my peers, I felt the glass cracking under the weight of my internalized beliefs. I felt embarrassed realizing that so much of what I had accepted as true had nothing to do with biblical sexuality or the grace of God.
Before You Meet Prince Charming by Sarah Mally depicts a woman’s heart as a chocolate cake. If someone eats a piece before the party (i.e., marriage), the cake, and consequently her relational worth, is no longer whole. In the introduction to Every Young Woman’s Battle, Stephen Arterburn warns female readers that every time a man has sex with a woman, he takes “a piece of her soul.”
Alongside these unbiblical messages about human worth that fly squarely in the face of the theology of the imago Dei were the false promises of marriage, great sex, and children for anyone who practiced premarital celibacy. But it was, perhaps, the overarching message that women were responsible for the sexual purity of both genders that burdened me the most as a teenager growing up in the church.
In their book, For Young Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice report that “teenage guys are conflicted by their powerful physical urges” and “many guys don’t feel the ability or responsibility to stop the sexual progression.” Their conclusion for women? “Guys need your help to protect both of you.”
Despite Jesus’ words to the contrary, I remember believing that men truly couldn’t control their lust if women didn’t take on the responsibility of dressing and acting in ways that squelched it. These books made it clear to me that the responsibility for sexual sin and temptation—even assault—fell squarely on the shoulders of women. I couldn’t believe some of the lies I saw sandwiched in between Bible verses or the tactics that were used and the carrots that were dangled. I cringed. I cried. And one time, I threw a book across the room.
There is a growing movement of conversative Christians who feel a holy discontent with the way the evangelical movement has approached the topics of sex, marriage, and gender. We have seen harmful and unbiblical teachings perpetuated for far too long, and a needful reckoning is taking place.
Any new rules might look different, but they can quickly become just as dogmatic and extrabiblical. Plus, black-and-white regulations on these topics—things like whether to kiss outside marriage or when teens can start dating—can diminish our need to study God’s Word, practice discernment, and develop our own convictions.
Certainly, children and teenagers need guidance, and creating family rules and structure is wise. But we underestimate adolescents if we assume they are unable to wrestle with these issues. Give them a chance. (You can always use your veto power!) Having conversations may feel more intimidating than simply laying down the law, but in the end, this gives your children the tools to navigate these issues with wisdom and discernment, long after they leave your care.
Purity culture started with biblical concepts. Holiness is biblical, as are warnings against fornication. But I wonder how things would have been different for so many of us if, instead of church youth group turning into yet another dating versus courtship debate, we had deep-studied the attributes of God together. Or if, instead of putting on a modesty fashion show, we had pored over the Gospels and the life of Christ. To isolate and overemphasize certain ideas from the Bible risks misinterpretation, but it also risks creating our own version of Christianity, righteousness, and even salvation.
We are imperfect disciples, continually grappling to understand God and his Word better. We will make mistakes along the way, and this will demand regular reflection. Reassessment. Reforming. Humility is required not only for conversion but also for the entire Christian life.
In everything we do, say, and promote, we must take time to step back and ask ourselves, “Is this really of Christ?” It is exhausting but holy work.
R. J. Welcher