Why I Can’t Trust You With The Term “Purity Culture”

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:

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.


22 responses to “Why I Can’t Trust You With The Term “Purity Culture”

  • Siggy

    I used to read a lot of atheist blogs, which didn’t include Libby Anne, but were certainly adjacent to her. So I was only familiar with the original meaning of “purity culture”, associated with purity balls and abstinence-only education. I was not aware that the term got misused on tumblr or in fandoms.

    My experience with criticisms of purity culture, was that they almost always focused on how bad it is to not have sex. That is, the criticisms mostly took the “sex-positive” perspective, and generally ignored the other side of the coin, where purity culture considers sex within marriage to be a moral duty. When I started talking about asexuality to atheist audiences, a lot of the attitude was, “Christians must love that”, because atheists were used to a very one-sided criticism of purity culture–and because they assumed purity culture was ubiquitous among Christians.

    So even when people use “purity culture” correctly, I tend to be a little bit suspicious. But if someone used “purity culture” the other way, I would just be confused.

    • Coyote

      Yeah, that’s not something I ended up contextualizing very much in this post, but that’s one of my hangups around the term, even in original usage — even people who are talking about actual purity culture don’t always word their criticisms in a way I can stomach. Which I really resent, frankly, because running into the “abstinence until marriage? that’s stupid, you should just have sex already” response was what kept me entrenched in conservative politics for an unnecessarily long time. And the whole “Christians must love aces” thing, of course, was why I felt compelled to put together Aces in the Church. So that’s why I devoted a section here specifically to the sexual violence aspect, since apparently it’s really easy for some people to gloss over or neglect to notice. It’s like they get the point where they conclude “wow, I would hate that” and then don’t pay attention to the rest… And that’s a really crucial piece of the puzzle to me considering the whole “sex is a special gift” undergirds the whole rationale of the thing (at least, in how it presents itself — ulterior motivations are another story).

      Anyway, fun fact, I’ve already gotten a couple comments on Pillowfort from people who were surprised that this was the original meaning of the term.

    • e.g.

      Yeah, I haven’t seen this use of the phrase “purity culture” either. Huh.

      For what it’s worth, Libby Anne herself definitely does discuss and critique how sex is compulsory in a purity culture marriage, and the complete absence of a consent framework within purity culture.

  • raavenb2619

    It’s interesting how your subconscious will absorb info. I definitely think of “purity culture” as referring to it’s original meaning, so the broader use of it as a stand-in for any ideology one dislikes feels odd, but also…vaguely familiar? I’d also say that I don’t think the linguistic shift is necessarily ill intentioned. It probably started as a very slight broadening that got passed down, and as it broadened, it became easier to use it as a stand-in because it was less specific. But a lack of ill intentions doesn’t mean there’s a lack of ill effect.

    I was going to say something about linguistic prescriptivism, but I appreciate that you’ve made it clear that you’re coming at it from a different angle. Linguistic shifts happen naturally, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be informative of something. Do you know if there’s a name for this culturally focused descriptivism?

    • Coyote

      Hmm. Can’t say I do, honestly. Linguistics isn’t my specialty — my academic background is in the critical areas of communication studies, where at this point, we kind of take it for granted that you can criticize the implications of how people talk, as long as you’ve got an actual point to make. Criticizing the “love is love” slogan would be in the same vein here.

      Also: I don’t like to project intentions onto people before I can be sure, so I kinda went into this without any expectations either way — and so far, I’m really happy with the kinds of comments this is getting on Pillowfort. People there have been mostly giving it a “huh, I had no idea, good to know” kind of reception.

  • demiandproud

    You’re saying a lot of what I’ve been trying and failing to say to people about why asexuality to me is so fundamentally different from being an abstinent/celibate Christian, to the point where I so hate being mistaken for one. Thanks for saying it. I may steal some of your lines.

  • luvtheheaven

    Oh… Gosh. This + Siggy’s comment are so important and I came at it much from Siggy’s perspective I think. But i have read Libby Anne’s and Samantha P. Fields’ writings on it as well and do really associate it with rape culture because of Samantha’s blogging activism especially.

    But I had no idea people on Tumblr started using it another way – that not believing in forgiveness post about how purity culture is about a person can’t have any bad at all in them has over 12k notes!! Wow I’m kinda just shocked.

    • Coyote

      Yep, it’s not just some rare niche thing. For examples I made sure to pick posts that had a fair number of notes, demonstrating how many people have bought into the idea, or at least had contact with it. And like I said, several folks over on PF have been surprised.

      • luvtheheaven

        I just saw “purity culture” come up in the fandom context right now! Now that you’ve pointed it out to me in seeing it! https://twitter.com/elliottdunstan/status/1182082911216033792?s=19

        • luvtheheaven

          Now that you’ve pointed it out, *I’m seeing it. I’m primed to notice it all of a sudden, perhaps lol

        • Coyote

          “somebody legit went from ‘don’t shut down ao3 for bad content’ to purity culture in like 4 tweets”

          Alright let’s see what’s getting called purity culture this time. *scrolls down*

          Ah. Objecting to dubcon, aka fictional works about (usually sexual) dubious consent.

          This is what I mean about uses of “purity culture” that are entirely contrary to actual purity culture. What does this have to do with Christian sexual-abstinence-until-marriage pledges? Nothing. The closest connection there is just, ostensibly, the general category of “people talking moral stances that I disagree with.” There has *got* to be a better way to talk about this.

  • Siggy

    From what I know of Libby Anne, I believe it. I think Libby Anne’s critique got filtered as it was passed around the atheosphere.

  • Klaaraa

    Another common (?) use of Purity Culture that I have read but you haven’t mentioned is in criticism of the rad-fem idea that lesbians who have never had sex with a man are inherently better/more typical/more worthy/more “real” than lesbians who have been with a man before they came out, or have been with a trans Person, or have been raped…
    Not that this very important, but, also a Thing.

  • Klaaraa

    People use “Purity Culture” to criticize other people’s unironic use of the concept of “Gold Star Lesbian”.

  • Rachel

    Having seen posts like the kind you linked (I lurk on Tumblr out of… apparently masochism?), I find that I can’t be too harsh on the people using “purity culture” as a term so broadly (not that I disagree with your criticisms). For many of them, best as I can tell, “purity culture” is the most immediately accessible term that encompasses moral absolutism and shaming tactics. I find it hard not to sympathize with people noticing patterns and calling it like they see it. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well… It’s hard not to see what’s going on as an extension of Christian purity culture, just with a new paint job and a new target. They use many of the same ideological underpinnings after all.

    As for the vaccination example, while I agree that one is particular is more of a stretch, there is more context than that post shows. Namely that the “purity culture” of anti-vax DOES come with its own corollary of “thou shalt” rules. Mostly lots and lots of pseudo-science/alternative medicine garbage.

    But you are absolutely correct that the people using purity culture are pointedly forgetting the other half of the equation. They are missing the fire because they are focusing on the smoke.

    • Coyote

      They use many of the same ideological underpinnings after all.

      Do they? I haven’t been able to find the precise pattern in these examples. I’ll concede that maybe there are better examples to look at, though (I was just pulling from what I could find).

      If the pattern is just “having rules,” though… that’s way too vague and general for a comparison, I’m afraid.

      • Rachel

        Thanks for the reply.

        Here is a link that might help to succinctly clarify a lot of what you are seeing people on Tumblr reacting against. It frames most if not all of the topics you linked as examples of “purity culture” (fandom shipping and character nonsense, the black-and-white thinking, etc) in light of conservative Protestantism:

        https://star-anise.tumblr.com/post/167675291124/grison-in-labs-jumpingjacktrash

        …Okay, in hindsight that vaccine one was a bit of a reach on my part. Upon further reflection, I think we might be talking on different wavelengths, so I’m not certain how well I can pose a convincing supporting argument.

        I guess my TL;DR version is: given all of this taken together, I find it preposterous that Tumblr purity nonsense developed completely independently of the Christian purity culture that you are describing. If anything, it seems likely to me that one is an offshoot or derivation of the former, or at least next door neighbors. For that reason, I can’t help but see why people are making this connection.

        • Coyote

          Hm, okay. I’ll take a look.

          baffling how much of this site is just conservative protestantism with a gay hat

          So, some things they’re attributing as conservative Protestantism, here:
          -black and white morality
          -people who act right are better
          -equations of womanhood with softness
          -aggressive desexualization (??? not my experience but ok)
          -platitudes
          -no time for nuance
          -soundbites instead of critical thinking
          -ingroup and outgroup dynamics
          -protect children
          -moral judgement

          ……Here’s where I take issue with that: most of that list is just describing intellectual shallowness in general.

          I mean, I’m definitely not saying conservative Protestant thinking *doesn’t* contain those things. It’s just that this is way too general to warrant the analogy. It’d be like saying “Egypt is basically just America” because people in both countries wear shoes.

          Anyway, I don’t really think [whatever phenomenon they’re describing] is baffling, for the record. The idea that Tumblr makes people more inclined to oversimplify things, use mental shortcuts, lose sight of nuance… these are all old critiques. Very, very old critiques. And to explain why Tumblr culture is Like That, I think you need to also look at the real common denominator here: the site itself.

          I’ve got another post on this topic planned for this month, but just for the time being — I think the Tumblr reblog system, for one, can partly explain why the rampant hostility and oversimplifications there are so out of control.

This comment section does not require an account.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: