A brief note about the title: the “you” here may not be you personally, and it’s not that the term “purity culture” doesn’t have its place. Rather, there are specific uses of this term that have put a dent in a speaker’s credibility for me and impeded their argument. In those moments, I’ve wished for the words to explain to them what I thought they were doing wrong. This post is my attempt to put together those words: first by explaining the origins of “purity culture,” leading into my understanding of its key traits, and then contrasting that against the kind of usage I see a problem with.
[Crossposted to Pillowfort.]
Where Did “Purity Culture” (The Term) Come From?
A comprehensive examination of the origins of purity culture itself could be the subject of an entire book, so I’m not going to get into all that here. As far as I’m concerned, in order to understand “purity culture” itself as a term, everything you need to know about the movement begins in the 1990s, with a few key developments to set the stage.
In 1993, the Southern Baptists launched True Love Waits, a group best known for its efforts to promote so-called virginity pledges. That term is technically a misnomer, since said pledges do not involve a pledge of lifelong virginity so much as a pledge of virginity until marriage. The original True Love Waits pledge consisted of the following: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage.” Note the use of “sexually pure,” specifically, to mean sexually inactive.
In addition to pledges, the movement gave rise to the popularization of purity rings: a piece of jewelry, promoted by programs like Silver Ring Thing, intended to represent an associated pledge of sexual abstinence until marriage.
From there, the concept picked up steam and, at its fringes, even developed an assortment of more extreme philosophies and practices. For example, 1998 was the year that saw the first purity ball, a celebratory and overtly-gendered event promoting abstinence-until-marriage to young women and girls. The year before that, though, was the year that Joshua Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an influential book whose publication has since been discontinued. It was so influential, in fact, that an entire documentary (I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye) was created about its criticisms and the evolving views of its author.
All of this was coming together into more and more of a movement, but among its adherents, it initially didn’t go by any particular name (aside from names like Christianity, sexual purity, and the names of various specific programs such as True Love Waits). The earliest uses of the term “purity culture” I’ve found online date back to the year 2008: two articles on Pop Matters and Boston Today about Sex and the Soul by Donna Freitas, discussing a contrast between “purity culture” and “hookup culture.” Both terms are implicitly defined in terms of where sexual expectations fall on a kind of timeline: either very early on in a relationship (aka “casual sex”) or strictly only after a wedding (aka “abstinence until marriage”).
I suspect that Donna Freitas might technically have been the first to use the term “purity culture” in this way. However, I would say that at least partial credit for popularizing it should go to Libby Anne, a Patheos blogger who has written reams of criticism on the subject since 2011. Since then, “purity culture” has entered into circulation online as a term for a particular set of sexual tenets & practices within conservative (mostly American) Christianity.
In the present day, the rhetoric of purity culture is still being circulated by groups and organizations such as True Love Waits, Desiring God, and Braveheart. For contemporary examples of criticism, you can look at Libby Anne’s recent posts as well as the No Shame Movement.
Purity Culture and Sexual Abuse
There are many criticisms of purity culture and how it harms people (young women especially), and I’m not going to rehash them all here. What I am going to do is highlight one of the criticisms that I think tends to go under-emphasized: the fact that purity culture tells you to have sex.
Purity culture says that sex is holy. Purity culture says sex is beautiful. Purity culture says sex is a man’s need and a woman’s purpose. Purity culture says say yes to sex you don’t want. Purity culture says your body is not your own.
Purity culture says the only kind of consent that matters is the wedding ceremony. Purity culture says once you’re married, you stay married. Purity culture says that married people have sex. Purity culture says that married sex is mandatory, that your consent doesn’t matter, that saying no isn’t an option.
Purity culture is sexual violence.
Defining “Purity Culture”
Here are the intertwined discursive features which I think “purity culture,” as a term, can be useful to describe, for pinning down a specific sexual ethos & strain of rhetoric within conservative (esp. American) Christianity:
- a deliberate, intentional, pervasive use of the words pure and purity, as contrasted with defilement and loss, to describe a set of idealized sexual practices
- an attention to the timing and circumstances of sex and sexual activity, framed all but exclusively in terms of a marital vs. nonmarital distinction
- a teleological view of life, courtship, and marriage: you date so that you can marry so that you can have marital sex, which is posited as a universal end goal for everyone
- an authoritarian invocation of divine guidance/divine right with regards to sex and sexual ethics (i.e. God chooses your future spouse)
- a premise of marital sexual fidelity that precedes the marriage itself – that is, promising sexual faithfulness to an unknown future spouse that has not even been met yet
- a notable absence of attention to consent or any consent frameworks other than the marriage contract
- a laudatory framing of marital heterosexual sex – ex. as a gift from God, as beautiful, as good, as holy, as something that everyone should aspire to
- an adherence to traditional gender roles that emphasize a husband’s “needs” and a wife’s sexual submission
- a Christian repentance framework which says that your old ways can always be renounced and that this ethos can be embraced at any time (but the sooner the better)
The (Mis)appropriation of “Purity Culture” To Mean Basically Anything
In college, when I read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, I remember being confused by some of it. In the section on “Myth Today,” he has this whole spiel about how, when meaning becomes form, “meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains,” and I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe I still don’t.
But I feel like I get it now.
In recent years, I’ve seen “purity culture” (as a term) take off in a new way. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what exactly to call this new use of it or even how to characterize its common threads. On the one hand, it seems especially common on Tumblr and among people who are past or current Tumblr users. On the other hand, there are still people on Tumblr who use it accurately, and the renegotiated use of it has also spread to other sites besides. I’m not sure I can even say for sure where it started. All I can tell you is that it is inconsistent – sometimes wildly inconsistent – with the features I described in the section above.
For example, I have seen “purity culture” used to mean any of the following:
- unwillingness to compromise
- being anti-vaccines
- thinking it’s bad to like fictional characters who do bad things
- backlash against certain kinds of shipping
- real-life violence in response to ship fanart [cw: graphic discussion of injury]
- making excuses for fictional bad behavior
- not believing in apologies or forgiveness
- thinking it’s abnormal to disagree with your friends
What on earth does any of this have to do with anything?
While some of these patterns do seem to go together, the only real common thread that seems to unite all of it is simply “doing something bad.” The rationale for repurposing and flattening the specific term “purity culture” for all this — as opposed to, for ex., absolutism, irrationality, iconoclasm, ship wars, black-and-white thinking, punitive morality, ignorance — usually goes completely unstated. “Purity culture” is being emptied out of its specific origins, meaning, and history in this process, using it as a blank slate onto which people project whatever problem du jour.
I’ve asked folks about this before, and they’ve sometimes told me that they do see a connection, there, that justifies the analogy. Here’s the biggest flaw I see with that: in a lot of cases, the analogy simply doesn’t hold up. Too many times, I’ve seen “purity culture” applied to rhetoric and practices that involve a) the absence of the actual defining traits of purity culture and instead b) the presence of traits that purity culture, by definition, doesn’t have. Comparing the rhetoric of your opponents to purity culture doesn’t make any sense when they aren’t invoking purity by name or using any of the rhetoric of purity vs. defilement. Comparing fandom ship wars over erotic fanfic to purity culture doesn’t make sense because purity culture would condemn the whole lot of you for writing erotica in the first place. Comparing moral opposition to fictional sexual abuse with purity culture doesn’t make sense because purity culture doesn’t care about consent and, in fact, even encourages marital sexual abuse. Comparing the absence of repentance frameworks to purity culture doesn’t make sense because that’s not necessarily one of its attributes and, honestly, I expect you to be aware that forgiveness and repentance are Christianity’s whole shtick. I know that the term encompasses a range of practices, but it strikes me as a problem if people are using “purity culture” in a way that wouldn’t include the True Love Waits Bible I had as a teenager.
If these analogies are actually intended as analogies, rather than just plain ignorance as to the actual source of the term, then they are not insightful commentary. If there is some common thread between these deployments of the term and where it came from, then in many cases, it appears to be a common thread so general that the analogy is unnecessary. Fear-mongering and harassment, for example, are not exclusive to any one group or religion.
Unfortunately, this repurposing of the term is spreading and taking root, in fandom contexts especially. For example, the Fanlore Wiki now has an entry on Purity Culture in Fandom that appears to have been created in 2018. Currently, that article starts out right off the bat by saying “Purity culture is an environment that developed mainly on Tumblr.” If somebody could go fix that, that would be great.
And yes, I know. I know, I know, I know, I know, things change, language changes, terms develop new uses and meanings over time, I know. I know. I’m not against change in general. I’m against this change, and here’s why:
If all you’re getting out of the term “purity culture” is “overly stringent, overly restrictive standards of morality,” then you are brushing off as irrelevant the part where purity culture gives its blessing to nonconsensual sex. The misappropriation of the term “purity culture” that empties it out of its particularity, its history, its sexuality, its Christianity, means reducing it to “absurdly high standards,” to the exclusion of how the real thing necessarily encompasses rape culture. “Purity culture” as a term is necessary because of a phenomenon of real life sexual abuse. The English language already has terms for moral absolutism, stubbornness, iconoclasm, shame tactics, or whatever else you might actually mean. So when you dilute this far more specific term without a single comment on its origins, I have to wonder if the Christian sanctification of sex and marital abuse even registers to you as a part of it.
To me, those are phenomena worth naming. An entire manipulative subculture, with institutional funding and real weight behind it, worth naming. If you think that’s not as important to preserve a specific name for, if you’d rather use it for something else, I know it’s not in my power to stop you. I just want you to know, I may end up concluding that you & I have different priorities.