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.
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”
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.
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.
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.