Tag Archive | Purity

Can we learn from this?

I was all set to post something else today.  I’d even finished writing it yesterday.  Now it’s going to have to wait until tomorrow, because yesterday I read this great post over on From Two to One.

I think I should let Danielle’s words speak for themselves, in part because (and this is not a criticism) she’s younger than I am and entered into her relationship and marriage with her husband after Joshua Harris’ book was published.  I got married the same year the book was released and it was entirely irrelevant to my life because I had been in a relationship and then engaged before the book came out.  However, I will note that I’m not a fan of Harris or his notions about relationships.

That said, what really struck me in Danielle’s post was this:

The most important factor in the distinction between Jessica and Libby’s views on this second point – that you shouldn’t necessarily date unless it could potentially lead to marriage – is context. In Jessica’s case, she was raised in a predominantly Catholic home, which despite the Catholic Church’s frenzy over contraception and abortion, is way less obsessed with purity culture. Jessica also did not date in her high school and much of her college years. In contrast, Libby grew up in a family and community heavily influenced by the purity, Christian patriarchy, religious right, and related movements.

Yes.  That, right there, is an important distinction.  (I believe this is significant beyond the realm of dating, love, sex, and marriage, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post.)  For those who had their religious formation in a restrictive environment and then removed themselves from that world, Harris’ book is likely to bring up a whole lot of feelings.  Even for people like me it can induce strong reactions, in part because I had no exposure to that culture until well into adulthood—and quickly discovered that it was not for me.

I was a parent before I even heard of such a thing as “purity culture.”  I knew of exactly two people during my high school and college years who believed in a sort of magical soul-mate non-dating type of relationship.  Both of them were certain that the man God had ordained for them would one day appear, à la Snow White’s “Someday, My Prince Will Come.”  I am not exaggerating at all when I say that one friend believed she and her future husband would gaze into each other’s eyes and just know they were meant to be.

Other than that, I had “purity training lite.”  I learned in my first church that I was not supposed to have sex before I was married, but that was about it.  My first church was much more hostile toward gay people than toward dating couples.  I had no idea that there was such a thing as purity rings, purity balls, or parent-arranged/parent-approved courtship.  After I got married, I heard about Harris’ book, of course, but dismissed it as irrelevant and never read it.  It wasn’t until after my daughter was born that I learned the rest existed and that there was a whole culture surrounding it.

For that reason, I can easily dismiss Harris and his ilk.  I don’t have to rebel against an entire culture in which I was raised.  I don’t have to assert my sexual liberation or rail against the idea of “falling into sexual sin.”  I’m free to agree with anything that might be of value in those books, while rejecting anything that is inappropriately restrictive.  I’m even free to toss the whole thing out the window and find better sources for relationship ethics.  My children are free to do the same.

But for those who have been wounded by that culture, it’s not so simple.  They’ve seen the damage that can be done at the hands of parents, pastors, and teachers who demand compliance with Harris’ ideas.  They see people still suffering in oppressive religious environments and they want to set them free.  Sometimes that comes out in healthy ways; sometimes it doesn’t.

Ultimately, what I took away from Danielle’s post is that I could stand to be more generous myself.  I need to be willing to consider carefully whether it’s the message or the packaging that I don’t like.  Danielle seems to have been able to do exactly that in her own reading of Harris’ book, and she seems to have been capable of forging her own path as a Christian feminist.  I think that’s a life story we can all learn from.

So, what’s purity about, anyway?

After my post last week, a friend retweeted it like so:

I liked her question.  I do think it’s important, something we should consider carefully as people of faith.  I don’t think I could fully answer it just yet, but I have an idea where we might start.

First, I don’t think that purity is merely a state of dress/undress, specific expression of sexuality, or internal thought.  It’s not about adhering to a set of rules about where the line of premarital physical expression lies.  It’s not about how much skin is or isn’t showing in public.  It’s not about avoiding anything that might cause arousal.  While those may all be ways that an individual person expresses purity, they aren’t actually purity in and of themselves.

Part of the reason why those rules and behaviors can’t define purity is that for many of them, there are further questions.  For example, is a couple who were intimate before the wedding, but then got married, still “impure” now?  Is a person who was raped “impure”?  Is it “impure” to wear a bathing suit, since more skin is showing than in pants and a shirt?  Do the same rules apply to men and women?  Is a hormone-fueled erection in math class “impure,” or only if it was caused by “lust”?  And how might “lust” be defined, anyway?  Leaving aside the question of whether homosexuality itself is sin, if one thinks it isn’t, then are partners “impure” if they are in a long-term relationship in a state where marriage isn’t legally possible?

Another problem with the set of rules is that they have to be defined very specifically and may vary from person to person.  For example, one woman I know is a very attractive person.  She wears clothes that flatter her and that feel good to her.  Her blouses are often cut lower than something I would wear, but she never looks immodest to me.  I suppose there are very strict people who might not like the way she dresses, but most people would not take issue.  Yet I’ve seen lists of “appropriate” clothing that would exclude most of what she wears, because there is too much bare skin exposed.  On the other hand, I’ve seen people wearing more clothes than she does who definitely have an air of overt sexuality about them.  There is clearly something about the underlying attitude that contributes to immodesty.

I think the clothing issue bothers me more than just about anything else.  I’ve heard guys say that girls and women should show “respect” for men by not dressing in certain ways.  Personally, I believe that if your respect for another human being starts with what you’re wearing, you’re coming at it from an entirely wrong angle.  This is true about purity and modesty in other ways, too.  The rules aren’t the launchpad for the respect.

While I don’t have a concrete, clear definition for either purity or modesty, I do think that the place to begin is long before the rules on how to get it right.  Respect for others doesn’t come from thinking about how we can keep each other “pure.”  It starts with thinking about others as real people, people who have opinions, ideas, feelings, needs, interests, beliefs.  Respect involves treating other people how we want to be treated and placing them above ourselves.

If we see others as being whole, three-dimensional people, it becomes easier to show respect.  It becomes easier to believe that the way to get others to take an interest in us is not through flaunting our bodies or sexuality, but through taking an interest in who they are as people.  It becomes easier to avoid things that objectify people for our own pleasure when we see them as complete beings.  It becomes easier to respect our partners in our intimate relationships by mutual love and care.

It’s not the Purity Manual for Impure Christians, a set of rigid rules and lines we mustn’t cross, that will keep us on the right path.  It’s seeing each and every other person as uniquely made in the image of God and treating them accordingly.  Come to think of it, that system would work pretty well for all sorts of things: Gossip, rudeness, disrespect for authority, lying, bullying, poor management of money, ignoring the poor and needy, and so on.

Huh.  Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind, after all.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Cover Up


Modesty, © 2005 Nancy Breslin

Last week, an acquaintance shared this article about a woman who was confronted by another woman from her church regarding how she was dressed.  The link to the article was accompanied by this acquaintance charging women to “have your husband inspect your outfit before you leave the house!”

I shared that with my own husband.  He looked at me, his eyebrow raised in puzzlement, before he burst out laughing.  He told me that he couldn’t imagine me doing that, nor would he want me to.  He and I have an ongoing agreement that we are both adults and do not need to be monitored like small children who don’t know any better, so I wasn’t really surprised by his reaction.

The thing that stood out to me were the particular criticisms of the writer’s clothing.  The woman who confronted her wanted to know,

Do you think wearing your shoulders out is okay for other men to see while they are trying to worship?


Don’t you think your high heels with your toes out are a bit much?

She was not only fixated on the specifics of the clothing she found objectionable, she was placing it in the context of how it would affect the men in the church.

This is a problem.

I agree that there are standards of dress and that modesty is a good thing.  Where I disagree is why.  In fact, it’s why I dislike modesty culture just as much as I dislike the “immodest” styles that are available.  It’s not the outfit, it’s the motivation—on both sides of the Great Purity Divide.

Ironically, I dislike the purity movement for exactly the same reasons I don’t like porn and provocative clothing.  In both cases, the catering is done for the benefit of men.  And it’s why I don’t give a rat’s butt about a woman wearing a cami with her bra straps showing, or a bathing suit that doesn’t make her look like she’s pretending she doesn’t have boobs, or a pair of sweat pants that says “sweet” on the rear, any more than I care about baggy dresses and “mom jeans.”

When clothing is chosen with men in mind, it doesn’t matter whether it’s chosen to entice or to “respect.”  In both cases, the motivation is someone outside the woman choosing the outfit.  That’s not healthy for anyone.  Here’s why, and these apply in both situations:

  • It reinforces the imbalance of power.  Here’s the idea: Men have power, women don’t, therefore everything we do as women must be done keeping men in mind, including how we dress.  What a terrible way to live.
  • It implies that men are only ever interested in one way of interacting with women.  It causes a relationship between men and women that is entirely based on sexuality, rather than mutual respect.  On the one hand, skimpy clothes are intended to be sexually arousing for men, which objectifies women.  On the other, “modest” dress assumes that men are looking at women as mere sex objects and that their bodies must be hidden to prevent this.
  • It sets up an impossible standard for women.  Either she must conform to a certain kind of physical beauty or she must conform to a certain kind of moral purity, but the lines are never clear enough and the rules are never specific enough.  How thin is the ideal body?  How big do breasts need to be in order to be perfect?  How many inches above the knee is too short?  What constitutes too tight?
  • It makes women responsible for the actions of men.  Either we’re supposed to show off our assets so those clueless men finally take notice, or we’re supposed to cover them up so those oversexed men won’t be distracted.  It’s classic blame-the-victim.  When a woman seen as attractive is single, people wonder what her flaws are that she couldn’t land a man.  When a woman is assaulted, she’s often asked what she did to provoke the attack.
  • It assumes that male-female pair bonding is the ultimate goal for every woman.  Female clothing is supposed to be chosen to please our future husbands.  This ignores the fact that there are lesbians and women who don’t want to get married.

Ultimately, what’s more important than the dimensions of the clothing is that a woman chooses it with no one in mind except herself.  A woman who is empowered does not choose her clothes based on what anyone else thinks she should wear.  It is my belief that if more women dressed in ways that made them feel good about themselves, we would no longer need to continue to argue about what constitutes appropriate clothing and where the modesty line is.

Under Lock and Key

So I know I’ve already had one post about this topic this week, but thanks to an email I received the other day, I’m back to it again.  After reading the email, I resisted the urge to rip my hair out at the roots.  Instead, here is part of the text, with my comments interspersed:

I have a friend named Paul who told me about the wedding of his daughter.  He said that part of the wedding ceremony was the passing on of a single gold key on a necklace.  When his daughter was a young girl, just entering puberty, Paul gave her a gold key on a chain.  He also bought one for himself.  He told her that he wanted her to wear the gold key around her neck to represent her commitment to sexual purity.  That she would remain a virgin until marriage, guarding herself from any form of sexual expression or experience that would dishonor God and be harmful to herself.  And then He would wear one around his neck as well to reflect his commitment to guard and protect her as her father.

Does anyone else find this kind of…creepy?  I am all for parents protecting their children.  But I do not—NOT—want my daughter to pledge her virginity to her father.  If she chooses to pledge her purity to anyone, it ought to be God.  And while I applaud parents who care about their children, I don’t think this is the way to do show it.  Parents should have open communication with their kids, not superficial pledges based in patriarchal customs.  Not to mention how weird it makes me feel that a father would have this conversation with his prepubescent daughter.

And protect her he did!  They had a rule that before a boy could take her out on a date, he had to meet Paul and ask his permission, which weeded out more than its fair share of suitors.  Those young men willing to meet him were engaged in a conversation that would involve Paul talking to the boy about the key.  He would tell them how precious his daughter was to him, how prized she was in his eyes and in God’s.  And then he would ask the boy point blank:  can I trust you with my daughter?

Again, yay for the parent meeting potential dates.  It’s a good idea to know who your kid spends time with.  Not so yay for the creepy stalker behavior and talking to people you (or your kid) may not know very well about her virginity.

At her wedding, here’s what happened.  She gave him her key back, representing that she had fulfilled her pledge to remain a virgin until marriage.  Because she had.  And then, as part of the ceremony, she publicly thanked him for how he had raised her, because now she was giving the most precious gift she could give to her husband.  Then Paul took the key off of his own neck, and gave it to her husband, saying that now the mantle of protection and integrity was his responsibility.

Aaargh!  Aaargh!  Aaargh!  “Her most precious gift”?????  I really, really hope that young woman had something to bring to her marriage besides her lack of sexual experience.  Because if that’s the best she can give her husband, that marriage is doomed.  And if her husband would have rejected her because of her past, then he has issues, too.  Ugh.  Don’t even get me started on the passing of the key representing how her husband now “owns” her and is responsible for not only protecting her (whatever that’s supposed to mean) but for her integrity.  Last I checked, my integrity rests on my shoulders.

It also occurs to me that the creepy factor has not disappeared at the wedding.  Why, oh why, does this father have anything whatsoever to do with his adult daughter’s state of virginity?  I would hazard a guess that the bride is still fairly young (I honestly can’t see a thirty-five-year-old woman not demanding that key back ages ago).  But I’m sure (well, I’m hoping, anyway) that she’s over eighteen, probably somewhat older.  So what the heck is Dear Old Dad still doing protecting her purity?  I don’t believe that it’s his business anymore.

Of course, I should note that I think this particular story is an urban legend, Christian-style.  I know that people actually do this sort of thing, but this specific story just sounds like the sort of drivel that gets shared in spammy emails, but isn’t factual.  It’s meant to have the same effect as all urban legends: To teach us some moral lesson.  I want to believe that this purity pledge culture means well.  I really do.  Except that it all just comes across as closer to “your cow for my daughter” than helping young people navigate their relationships.  This is a side effect of some of the other things I’ve talked about this week—idolizing virginity, the male gaze, and double standards for men and women.  Is this the message we want to send to our children?

The problem with things like the purity rings or the “sex key” is that they stand as an external measure of someone’s worth.  That daughter only has value as long as she keeps her key on and her legs together.  I know parents want to look out for their kids and want them to make good decisions.  But in this case, should that daughter lose her virginity before she’s married, she loses much more than that.  She loses at least some of her worth before her father.  If you think I’m exaggerating, try again.  I’ve seen it happen.

What’s sad about that is that it isn’t an accurate representation of the way God deals with us.  We never lose worth in God’s eyes.  I may not like some things my kids do.  But I will never, ever extract a promise to “be good” regarding any behavior.  And should either of my children have sex before marriage, I will consider it a) their choice, not mine, and b) not my business, as it’s between them and their partner (and God).

I see no support in the Bible for this purity culture crap.  I have nothing at all against waiting for sex until marriage.  I support it.  I commend it.  But pledging to one’s parent to remain a virgin isn’t in Scripture.  I see no evidence that this is how we should treat our daughters.  (Or our sons, for that matter.  I can’t envision myself exchanging purity rings with mine.)  Instead, we should be helping our children—both boys and girls—make healthy, wise, moral decisions in their lives.  We should be empowering them to trust God and make their commitments to God, not to us.  And that’s something you actually can find in the Bible.