By Rachel Baker, Crosswalk.com
Recently I wrote an essay about the damage purity culture had done in my life. As I wrote I reflected upon the innocence of my daughter, who at the age of 5 is already becoming aware of her little body.
As her mother, I hope to instill a depth of confident within her soul. I want her to know her value as a girl and a beloved daughter of God. This means that the way I choose to talk about her body, or likewise not talk about her body, requires a complete overhaul from the culture in which I was raised.
As a child of the 90s, raised in a first-generation Christian home, words like “purity” “virginity” “modesty” and “abstinence” were common vernacular in my youth groups and church functions.
The first glimpses of “purity culture” manifested in youth swim parties. The boys ran bare-chested around the pool, meanwhile the girls all but drown in oversized tee-shirts that covered our “shameful” bodies.
Something about this picture felt wrong and unfair, but how does an 9-year-old express something she cannot articulate?
Later, in high school, I experienced, like most of my church-going-girlfriends, more of the same. Summer camp guidelines stating, “appropriate swimwear,” meaning one-piece bathing suits, no tank tops and shorts with a specified length.
Again, the boys ran free of incumbrances while many of the girls rolled their shoulders forward collapsing their budding chests, so as not to draw attention to the fact that puberty was in full effect.
As summer fades into memory and cold weather ensues it’s often easy to relegate thoughts of purity culture to wardrobe choices associated strictly with warm weather. However, the reality is that purity culture is far from a seasonal situation. The premise seeps into the daily and is a difficult mentality to overcome.
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What Exactly Is Purity Culture and How it End Up So Toxic?
The “purity” movement was originally used in evangelical circles as an attempt to promote a biblical view of purity as held in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. The emphasis was to live a lifestyle of “being set apart” for marriage.
Often the message conveyed to young and impressionable girls was that their bodies must be kept holy and pure for their future spouses. This is all well and good--but an undue amount of responsibility fell on the girls in the room, and implicit, shameful messages about their bodies crept through.
While physical purity is certainly a Biblical principle, the over-emphasis on the physical, specifically women’s bodies, could have very well played into a myriad of issues from self-esteem issues on the mild side to body-dysmorphia, anorexia and self-harm on the more severe.
Responsibility was placed on women to “maintain purity” at all cost whereas men (and young men) received “get out of jail” cards of sorts. If any impropriety or physical relationship, or even lust, occurred between a man and a women then certainly the failure was on the part of the women.
The long-term effects of this mindset are just now being discussed and dissected within and outside of the church, meanwhile a whole generation of women have rationalized away sexual assaults and objectification.
If you, like me, were raised in the era of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and were damaged or shamed by toxic purity culture, take heart, healing is possible!
While I do have to assess certain mindsets that I carry to this day, the ability to identify what is actually scripture verses what is culture is one step towards better understanding Biblical purity and God’s heart for his children, sons and daughters alike.
If you’re seeking to undo the damage of purity culture in your life, read on for 4 ways to start this journey.
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1. Recognize the Changing Nature of Culture
The term “Purity Culture” arose in the early 1990’s as a response to the previous generation’s experience with the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Parents of faith wanted better and different for their children.
Regrettably, the pendulum swing away from sexual freedom to a focus on sexual purity became quickly twisted. While the intention of instilling a mindset of purity into young and budding minds was at the heart of the movement, so too came body-shaming, an inadvertent emphasis placed on sex, and the devaluization of women and girls.
As I have sought to better understand purity culture, and its manifestation in my own life, it’s helpful to take a wider look at culture. Through evaluating the character of God, I have to remember God’s consistency above all else.
Despite culture shifts, the reality is that God’s desire for his people remains steadfast. Cultures and civilizations rise and fall, and yet God remains the same. And the good news is, however you may have been hurt by purity culture, it wasn't God doing the hurting!
Hebrews 13:8 states, “Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday and today and forever.” So, while “purity culture” was a passing fad with prolonged effects, God’s call on lives of his people has never changed.
His love for you remains steadfast, whether or not damaging interpretations are in vogue.
We need to remember, that as Christ-followers, we are called to be above the ever-changing tides of culture. Anything we apply to our lives, purity culture or otherwise, must be able to stand up next to God’s consistency.
If it can’t, then perhaps whatever movement we’re subscribing to has more to do with our culture, than it does with God.
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2. Seek Sanctification over Perfection
As a young woman, I associated my faith with purity. When I failed to achieve the standard of purity that I had been taught, the concept of grace was lost on me. I remember the analogy of being “chewed up gum” that a youth leader had once shared with all the girls during a retreat. I was “chewed up gum.” It felt like that one sin cut me off from God and there was nothing that could change it back.
When we define ourselves by our sin rather than our sacredness, we miss the heart of God. Yes, God wants us to turn our backs on sin, but our pursuit is to be on holiness. Purity is one such aspect of holiness, but in no way the whole lot. 1 Peter 1:16 prompts: “for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
The Christian understanding of “holiness” means living a life that is set apart and for the glory of God. This is a life of discipline, and righteous living. Holiness is not a one-time badge of honor, it is something developed over a lifetime as we are refined by Christ through faith.
One side-effect of the purity culture movement was a standard of perfection that few can achieve. Rather than focusing on sanctification, spiritual growth, biblical literacy, and spiritual gifts in boys and girls alike, the emphasis was placed on sex and sexuality. This was often directed towards girls.
Females became responsible for holding the line, covering up their bodies, and staying pure for marriage. It somehow became their job to protect boys from their own urges and thoughts; what an amazing amount of pressure that was and is!
Again, it is certainly true that God's desire for his people is purity. But purity is not this fragile thing we make it out to be. Our purity is a daily offering of devotion to God that starts with our hearts and grows with time. Sanctification is the goal; not perfection.
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3. Focus Your Energy Forward
I wonder if I had understood my value as a child of God as a little girl if I might have chosen differently for myself as a young person. If I truly saw myself the way God sees me might I have sought holiness; might I have forgiven myself for my shortcomings and returned to the church sooner?
Having an adult comprehension of what God desires of me has brought me freedom, but what about my daughter, or the kids in my church’s youth ministry? What about the young people who are growing up in the faith, now?
And what about those who are still grappling with the after-effects and damage caused by purity culture?
Perhaps the next best step is to pursue reconciliation, first individually, with both your body and mind. Process what you’ve been taught and hold that up against the word of God. Then, use that freedom and healing to become an advocate for those around you who have yet to find their voice.
Dig in deep with your local church, start a conversation with your pastors and youth leaders. Help create an awareness and a space for discussion.
I have found that sometimes there is just a lack of self-awareness in the way that purity is discussed in our local churches. We so often hold tightly to the teachings of our culture, and want to forcefully lean on a few scriptures, using them like law rather than adhering to the heart and whole of the text.
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4. Forgive Failures
The little girl in me sometimes wants to cry out to the voices of my past and say, “Why!? Why dear pastors and youth leaders and parents, why didn’t you teach me (and us) better? Instead of teaching me how shameful my body was and how I carried the burden of protecting boys from themselves, why didn’t you teach me my value? Why didn’t you give me a voice or protect me?”
There have been seasons in my life where the only emotion I could muster around this issue was sheer anger, but as the seasons pass and God continues to refine my heart, as I seek holiness, I am brought to forgiveness.
I’m learning from my own mistakes as a woman in ministry, as a wife and as a mother. I’m learning that I truly don’t know what I don’t know. And so, I seek wisdom from those who have gone before me and learned a thing or two.
I seek wisdom from the young women who allow me to mentor them. I see wisdom from the word of God and the voice of His Spirit in my soul.
Ephesians 4:32 puts it plainly, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
I fully accept God’s forgiveness in my life. I finally live in that freedom, although I must confess that freedom has been hard-fought.
If I get to revel in that freedom, how much more am I called to extend grace and forgiveness?
Be the Change
Before writing this article, I reached out to several friends and polled them about their experiences with purity culture. The stories that I received gutted me and brought me to my knees. One friend still can’t bring herself to wear a two-piece bathing suit, the thought alone wreaks her with shame and guilt.
Another friend recalled being shamed by her youth pastor when she was in the throes of puberty. The attention he drew to her clothing choices still rippling into her mind decades later.
I wish these were the only stories I heard, but there were so many more. There were stories from parents who were trying to teach their daughters holiness, and yet have to fight to undo the damage caused by their children’s pastors and youth leaders.
I believe that we have an opportunity to speak life over our children, to open up the dialogue around tough issues, and to ultimate point our children and the church towards righteous living.
As it is written in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
If we point our young people towards this higher calling, I wonder if the issue of physical purity might just take care of itself.
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