Purity Culture Messed Me Up. This New Book Explains Why.

I grew up in Purity Culture.

And while, to some people, that probably sounds like a good thing, it wasn’t.

But what in the world could be wrong with promoting purity?


And that’s why I’m so happy about a new book that tells the story of the children of Purity Culture—a book called The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation by Rebecca Lemke.

Purity Is Good

Before I go any farther, I want to emphasize that I wholeheartedly believe that sex is only supposed to happen within marriage, and that any sexual activity outside of marriage, or before marriage, is sin. In no way do I want to endorse sex before marriage, hookups, one-night stands, or anything like that. Nor does Rebecca Lemke. That’s not the point of The Scarlet Virgins.

However, not everything that claims to be “pure” is pure. And so it is with Purity Culture.

To be honest, I have enough of my own thoughts to share about Purity Culture that it’s a little difficult for me to write a straightforward review of this book. It’s easy for me to get up on my own soapbox and start preaching, so please bear with me.  🙂

What Is Purity Culture?

As The Scarlet Virgins shows, Purity Culture grew out of a reaction to the Sexual Revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. As women burned their bras, men went streaking, and hippie couples practiced “free love”, the church tried to help their young people “stay pure”. This effort became especially strong within the conservative homeschool community. It intensified in 1997 with the release of Joshua Harris’s bestselling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The basic message was “Keep yourself pure”.

But what was pure?

This is where Purity Culture went off the rails. In an effort to keep young people from having immoral sex, three destructive messages were given. Sometimes these messages were explicitly stated; sometimes they were only implied or easily assumed by inexperienced young people.

The first was that virginity equaled purity.

The second was that purity could easily be lost by kissing, hugging, dating the wrong person—even having a crush on someone that you didn’t marry.

And the third was that purity, once lost, couldn’t be regained.

Lemke writes:

The [youth] pastor explained that we could never get our purity back – it was like water that had been spit in or gum that had been chewed. There was also no way to clean our purity – like a barrel of wine with an ounce of sewage dumped in, it was spoiled forever. Hell awaited all who didn’t take his message to heart, and with that, we were dismissed. (Chapter 4)

Sorry–You’re “Damaged Goods”

Purity culture has damaged many relationships.

The unfortunate message that resulted from all this was that anyone who wasn’t totally pure was “damaged goods”. This not only included those who actually had sex, but those who had been in a dating/courting relationship that didn’t end in marriage.

Purity culture taught that you needed to be careful not to “give your heart away”. To those such as Joshua Harris or Eric and Leslie Ludy, who came out of the “heavy dating” culture and wanted something different, “giving your heart away” probably meant being in a dating relationship. But in Purity Culture, as Lemke writes, “We were told that having a crush was ‘giving your heart away’…” (chapter 7).

Which made the beginning of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye very problematic. Lemke sums it up:

He opens with a story based on a friend’s dream. There is a wedding in which the bride and groom are standing at the altar. Things get weird when the groom’s exes all walk up to the altar and stand with them. This causes the bride to tear up and ask him what gives. He tells her that while these girls don’t mean anything to him now, he once gave them each a piece of his heart.

The direct quote still sticks in my head:

“I thought your heart was mine,” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”

A tear rolled down Anna’s cheek. Then she woke up. (I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris, Chapter 1)

To this day, I believe that many of those who promoted Purity Culture had the best of intentions. I’m also certain that many parents, including both mine and Rebecca Lemke’s, had no idea what their children were picking up from the culture around them. They had a different reference than we did—for my parents, it was the culture of public and Christian schools and the dating habits of their generation.

I also found it very interesting that for Lemke, like me, purity teachings came from the culture around her, not from her parents. In fact, Lemke never even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye until recently, while writing The Scarlet Virgins. I read it once, years ago, and have forgotten 95% of everything I read. But the principles of IKDG and books like it, along with the culture already set in place by people such as Bill Gothard and church groups such as conservative Mennonites (my background) or fundamental Baptists, deeply influenced those who were part of it.

Unintended Consequences of Purity Culture

The old saying says, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” And so it is with Purity Culture. The Scarlet Virgins details many of the consequences.

Rather than try to describe these consequences to you, let me give you some quotes from The Scarlet Virgins, chapters 5-8:

These concepts drawn from Purity Culture and secular culture were allowed to exist simultaneously in the minds of many, in part because we lacked the appropriate sex education to discern fact from fiction.

Because of the way emotions and relationships were presented to me in the paradigm of Purity Culture, I thought wanting to be wanted was the same as wanting to be sexually involved…

The morning of the following day [after getting married], I found myself crying in the corner of my bathroom having a panic attack… I felt violated just from trying to have sex because everyone had always equated virginity and purity… I no longer cared that I had done the right thing by waiting. What did it matter if I, as a married woman, couldn’t have guiltless sex because my body and mind had been destroyed by the dictums of others?

During my childhood, having a crush wasn’t considered innocent or acceptable. Having a crush on someone who wasn’t your husband before marriage was considered the emotional equivalent of an STD.

I, a naive, young teen who had just begun puberty, was being taught that the dear male friends I had grown up with and had known for many years were merely a stray bra strap away from losing control of their barely-restrained sexual urges. And if I got caught in the crossfire, I had only myself to blame.

The blades were cold as I placed them on my developing breast with full intentions of removing it. Puberty had presented a sense of claustrophobia in my own changing body, and continually being told that these changes were harmful to my male companions fueled my compulsion to mutilate my breasts and genitals. It seemed, at the time, the easiest option.

In keeping with the theme of misguided information through the incorrect usage of Scripture, variations of a “prosperity gospel” are a common theme in Purity Culture… Because of the presence of this prosperity Gospel subtext, many people came away from I Kissed Dating Goodbye with the idea that if they followed the formula, they would experience wonderfully passionate and blissful honeymoon sex. This is not the case, and many people are left to deal with mismanaged expectations.

…those of the Purity Culture movement who issue commands such as “it is unlawful to touch or have feelings before marriage” have a respectable goal in mind. They desire that God’s moral and righteous law pertaining to human sexuality and the purity of the marriage bed be upheld. However, as in the case of the Pharisees, these commands have the effect of insisting that man was created for the marriage bed…

Purity Culture… takes the focus off of Christ and places it onto what we can do to be perfect in this life. It makes an idol out of sexual purity.

…he was the first of my friends to blaze a trail outside of mental soundness and spiritual health in the Christian faith. A staggering amount (though any amount is too much) of my childhood friends joined the ranks over time, being driven suicidal by legalism and, ultimately, becoming apostates.

The Way Back from Purity Culture

The way out of legalistic Purity Culture is difficult. Some people give up on Jesus altogether and become atheists. Others swing away from Purity Culture to the opposite extreme of “everything goes, you’re under grace”.

I’ve been on the journey for about three years now. And it’s not easy. I recently realized that while beliefs can be changed relatively quickly if you discover new information, emotions cannot. You can believe something to be right, yet it still feels wrong to you. This is what was so deadly about Purity Culture: it wasn’t just the bad teaching; it was the emotional bondage and guilt that it put upon people.

The Scarlet Virgins doesn’t go into great detail about how to actually reprogram, although some of that information is also scattered throughout the book. However, in the final chapter, titled “Unlearning Legalism”, Lemke points us in the direction of the truth. While it’s not a full course, it does open the gateway toward the path of life.

I love this particular quote:

His love is the Truth that shines into the lies and cuts through the deception that has tied us down and trapped us.

God’s love sets us free from legalism, our own sinful nature, and from death itself; such is the power of the blood of the Lamb.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you are or were a conservative homeschooler, or the parent of one, read this book.

If you have been involved in a church that taught purity teachings, such as a conservative Anabaptist or Fundamentalist Baptist church, read this book.

If you have been influenced by teachers like Bill Gothard, Jonathan Lindvall, Denny Kenaston, Joshua Harris, Eric and Leslie Ludy, Michael Pearl, Doug Phillips, and/or Doug Wilson, read this book.

If you have gone to a college that has been known to teach Purity Culture-style teachings, such as Patrick Henry, Pensacola, or Bob Jones University, read this book.

Even if you weren’t personally part of Purity Culture, but someone you love was or is, read this book.

You may still believe that there is value in Purity Culture. That’s okay. I still encourage you to read the book and get the full picture of what has gone on, and the effects of Purity Culture.

The Scarlet Virgins: When Sex Replaces Salvation is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

For More on Purity Culture

One problem that some people may claim about The Scarlet Virgins is that it is not heavily documented. A great deal of the evidence presented comes from the author’s own background, experiences, and friends. However, I have two responses. One is that there is little empirical evidence to cite, such as statistics, at this point. The second is that there is plenty of testimony available to those who want to seek it out.

I recommend Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd as a companion to The Scarlet Virgins, because the two books (and subjects) definitely overlap and complement each other.

Other resources:

Life After I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Interview with Sheila Gregoire

Testimonies at Josh Harris’s website

WORLD: Christian Boy Meets Christian Girl


Disclaimer: As part of the launch team for this book, I received a free copy and was asked to review it. However, the content of this review is my own honest opinion and belief.


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10 Replies to “Purity Culture Messed Me Up. This New Book Explains Why.”

  1. I think that while it’s easy to use shorthand to say “this denomination was affected by the purity culture …” the truth is that it was an idea that escaped traditional boundaries. It actually went wider and further because how much it was being promoted by Christendom in general; efforts were made to teach purity ideals to kids from all denominations to some degree. For me, it was taught as “solid Biblical teaching” then they proceeded to use concepts like soul ties, damaged goods, pieces of hearts. A lot of kids might have nothing to do with Independent Fundamentalist Baptists or have heard of most of those teachers – but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t exposed to their teachings in a generic off-brand second-hand sense … which I think is even more dangerous because of the telephone game and how messages that are toxic enough in it’s original form just get worse when repeated off the cuff to another group of people.

    1. Hmm… You make a good point about the “telephone” corruption. Add some immaturity and inexperience into the mix and it gets even worse.

      I specifically pointed out Anabaptists and Fundamental Baptists because they already seem to have had teachings (such as modesty) that laid the groundwork for purity culture to firmly take root. However, I don’t in any way believe that Purity Culture was or is limited to those two groups. I Kissed Dating Goodbye sold over a million copies, and somebody (or a bunch of somebodies) has been reading them. I borrowed it from the public library years ago!

  2. This book arrived in the mail yesterday and I stopped everything and read it in the middle of the day. It took about an hour and a half. I knew that the purity culture/courtship teaching was a false teaching before I started the book. This book showed me more consequences of the teaching that I never realized was happening. It is amazing to me how adding seemingly innocent things to what Christ tells us in His Word can have such unexpected, horrible, extensive, and sinful consequences that one would never expect. Many of these consequences of the purity culture do not show up until a person is in their twenties.

    As Joel’s dad, I did not have any idea until recently how much the purity culture had affected him. In years past I supported the basic tenant that dating should be about marriage, not just to have fun. but I did not buy into the whole courtship thing. In 2011 I wrote that courtship was a false teaching. This book helped me to understand how Joel and others of his generation have been affected by this teaching. It is a teaching that snares and affects impressionable young people with its lies that would not affect a 40 or 50 year old in the same way and it is easy for us as parents to cause harm to our children by what we say or don’t say. Things have changed dramatically from 30 years ago when we got married.

    Jesus likened the teachings of the Pharisees to yeast. The false teachings of the purity culture are also yeast. What is dangerous is not how much a person has been influenced directly by this teaching, but like yeast it multiplies its effect in a person’s life over the years.

    Joel, I’m sorry for all that you have gone through. I’m sorry I did not see the purity culture as a false teaching sooner and warn you. I’m sorry for the influences of the purity culture that I brought into your life and into our home that influenced you. I wish I could go back and do a lot of things differently but we can’t. I will walk with you and your brothers and sisters as we recover from the influences of these false teachings.


  3. Hi Joel,
    Love your article ?. So hard to get the mix of honouring God and His amazing grace, in the balance God intended it to be in.

    We all want to be pure before Him but ultimately only Jesus can make us pure, our challenge is as Paul says not to use the grace of God as a licence for immorality.

    If we do fall and are genuinely sorry and don’t do it again, I believe we are no longer “damaged goods” as you say. However this is not an invitation to everyone to fall.

    Do you think the same applies to divorce and remarriage? Obviously you shouldn’t divorce and remarry but if you fall and do so and are genuinely sorry before God, does He forgive as long as you don’t divorce and remarry again. And your testimony is, that your sin, while forgiven, is not an invitation for everyone to do it?

    I have read your earlier writings on the issue and just wondered if you have had a change of heart?

    God bless

  4. Hi Joel, I am finding your explorations of this subject very interesting to say the least. When I was fourteen I was at a bible study with the friends who had introduced me to Christianity. There was a couple there who were both from Christian families who were getting married. My Christian friend pointed the wife to be out to me and said ” Oh, that’s “Rebecca”, she’s as pure as the driven snow”. “What do you mean”, I asked. She responded that “Rebecca” had grown up in a Christian home, been to bible college and was a virgin. This was significant to my friend because she had been saved out of the hippie movement and had led a very promiscuous life after having suffered sexual abuse. She clearly felt Rebecca to be in a class that she herself was unable to be a member in. I understood enough to realize on some sub conscious level that this represented a contradiction. But not enough to understand why. Her remarks lodged in my heart like a stray arrow that had pierced a joint in one’s armor.

    Later on I realized that this statement about Rebecca was contradictory because, if its true we are all in the grip of sinful depravity which renders even our most righteous act as filthy rags, then Rebecca was NOT pure as the driven snow as my friend thought. Rather she was just as depraved as everyone else.

    She had managed by virtue of being protected and sheltered by godly Christian parents, to avoid a particularly damaging type of sin, she had managed by her mother’s godly example to be raised in a home in which it was safe to be soft and feminine and in which femininity was valued and cherished, and so of course she was different and more feminine and womanly in her personality and characteristics than many hard edged worldly women. Being sheltered from the uglier parts of the world and what it can do to you tends to have that effect. I believe she was a genuine Christian, not merely someone raised in a religious home. Her life had been tempered by her parent’s commitment to Jesus and she reaped many benefits and was a genuinely nice person who was clearly cherished and loved by her parents. But she was not by her own virtue, pure as the driven snow.

    So while I did not fault Rebecca for any of this, it did register on me that this was a damaging contradiction. And worse, most of the church believed and practiced this. I had a pastor who liked to brag about being the recipient of a godly Christian heritage that went back several generations of pastors to when an ancestor gave up booze and began to live for the Lord. He bragged about what a find his wife was, who herself had been raised in a Christian home and was the daughter of a pastor. He liked to mention occasionally that people were jealous of his family and their “health”. It looked a lot more like rigidity and outward approximation to me than inward life. What he was doing was creating class distinctions in the body of Christ. The implication was that this somehow created a filter down effect in which godliness was cumulative by what you inherited, rather than the product of a moment by moment repentant dependence on Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Perhaps it hard started out as an attempt at genuine appreciation for benefits received but at some point it seemed to go off the beam.

    I also attended a private Christian school which used the ACE curriculum. It appeared to be heavily influenced by the Basic Youth Gothard stuff, or at least the thinking was the same. The pastor/principal showed open preference for kids from Christian homes and dismissive disinterest in the ones who weren’t. The school was so legalistic that the girls were not allowed to wear warm pants under their skirts until they got to school in winter even though the pants were removed in order to comply with the dress code once we arrived at school. The message about how responsible we were to avoid making our brothers stumble by too short or tight a skirt, breast emphasizing tops and the like was given directly. We were encouraged to have long hair. We were discouraged from wearing eye makeup because ” the eye is the window of the soul and we were by so doing, drawing men to looking into our souls in a way that should be reserved for our husbands only”.

    The maddening thing about stuff like this is that there is some truth to it. It is somewhat inappropriate to engage in drawing others into any form of too intimate communication if there isn’t some equally serious intention. I have read that in Victorian times, a gentleman didn’t seek and keep a lady’s company unless his intentions towards her were matrimonial. If after a suitable amount of time a marriage proposal wasn’t produced, he was deemed to have trifled with her heart and affections and to be a cad. I think there is some real truth behind this, but the underlying reasons for it were not rooted in gospel truth such as love of God and one’s sister or brother in the Lord.

    It would seem to me that the move of culture away from pursuing God, has produced a blindness and numbness to the meaning and value of things and a lack of reverence for things which should be taken very seriously because they involve God and our fellow man’s hearts . Consequently people can’t even understand why getting married is important over just shacking up and having sex whether one intends to marry or not. Off balance messages unplugged from truth shoot flaming arrows from both sides of the divide.

    Can you imagine what that message would do to someone who was sexually abused most of their life? Or what it does to a person with struggles with sexual purity in their life? it creates the impression that perhaps you could fall once or maybe twice and Jesus could forgive you and cleanse you but after that, purity is forever out of your grasp. Oddly what is intended to keep you pure leaves you feeling irrevocably dirty and unable to be cleaned. It creates a situation where, although all the right “God Talk” is used, the church is in fact, no place for sinners to receive cleansing and be changed. It makes me wonder if the problem is precisely that we have reduced the truth to a bunch of outward behaviours and religious rules that kill people, and at the same time reduced sin and depravity to something that is not THAT bad and can be managed by our own efforts and that this is why the church is full of Pharisees, and other types of Christians who are outwardly godly but inwardly not experiencing anything like real change. Many of us are gasping and asking why we have not yet experienced those rivers of living water flowing from our innermost being.

    It would seem that somehow the purity culture message, which is just another brand of legalism and phariseeism, has managed to locate both our righteous and our value in our ability to keep God’s laws and attain His righteous standards by our own efforts. It also seems to somewhat carry on catholic style teachings about sex under cover of truth. I remember reading somewhere that some catholic teachers used to teach that sex was only for procreation and that the Holy Spirit left the room when a couple had intercourse. So there is this ” the body and sexuality are dirty, not gloriously and wondrously created” sort of thing implied in that whole teaching. It seems that what this teaching in fact does, is move us into position to destroyed by the letter of the law.

    I think there are many of us out there who are thinking ‘ Oh no, I have fallen in the same area of my life again, I have repeated the same failure again, does this mean that I cannot be restored and made clean or have victory? The truth is at stake here. No one needs cheap grace that allows them to continue living a sinning and disobedient life but neither do we need the letter of the law without the Spirit. I like the title of your blog Joel. I too am in search of the real Jesus for I think I have in all these years, not really met Him.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Patti. I appreciate your thoughts.

      You wrote, “It makes me wonder if the problem is precisely that we have reduced the truth to a bunch of outward behaviours and religious rules that kill people, and at the same time reduced sin and depravity to something that is not THAT bad and can be managed by our own efforts and that this is why the church is full of Pharisees, and other types of Christians who are outwardly godly but inwardly not experiencing anything like real change.”

      YES! There is so much of this sort of thinking, which is really on the subconscious level. If you’re a Christian struggling with sin, so often the message is just “try harder not to”. If “try harder” worked, Jesus didn’t need to die. God had already implemented plenty of rules in the Law of Moses that told people how to treat each other properly.

      At the same time, it’s also encouraging to see those who truly understand that the Christian life is not something we live on our own. These people (one of whom is my pastor, thank God) teach us to follow righteousness, while recognizing that ultimately, righteous behavior comes from God’s righteousness within us.

      You might also enjoy a post I wrote a year ago: http://www.joelhorst.com/2018/07/17/finding-the-truth-about-debt-free-virgins-without-tattoos/

      Blessings to you!

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