I am a devout Catholic. I am a feminist. I am single. I am not a virgin, but I have come to believe in the virtue of chastity and I am earnestly striving to embody that virtue in my life and in relationships, and to live with a pure heart. I believe part of that means reserving sexual intercourse for the Sacrament of Matrimony. I also believe that most of the purity and chastity and abstinence-only rhetoric that exists out there in mainstream Catholic/Christian circles and in Youth Ministry circles is harmful, misguided, and deeply sexist.
As a single, female millennial, this topic is close to my heart because sex and marriage are pretty relevant to my generation, as well as to this season of my life personally. We constantly read about the prevalence of hookup culture andrape culture (#metoo), or about why men won’t marry women anymore, as well as articles lauding or decrying sexual freedom and liberation. In the U.S., our culture is becoming more starkly divided and polarized between progressives and conservatives, and largely along topics most closely concerned with sex and family planning (eg: abstinence-only education, abortion, birth control access, gay marriage, etc.). There is so much screaming and anger and hurt and frustration that no one is hearing each other. We have to find a middle road. We have to examine our own biases and faults, and rectify our wrongs. As Christians, we need to re-think the “purity culture” we’ve been promoting.
What is “purity culture”?
Purity balls. Purity rings. Virginity pledges. Modesty blogs. All of these are primarily targeted at young Christian (primarily conservative) women, and from an incredibly early age. Due to the disproportionate emphasis placed on young women - rather than young men- to remain “pure,” imbalance and inequality is rampant. Young women are taught to believe that their virginity is one of (if not THE) most important things about them. They are taught that their purity is equated with possessing virginity, which is equated with their value and overall dignity. Meanwhile, men are taught to value (some) women’s virginity (much more highly than their own), which then makes virgin women a kind of commodity to acquire.
(Women) are taught that their purity is equated with possessing virginity, which is equated with their value and overall dignity.
While purity balls are less common among Catholic Christians, they’re rooted in much of the same purity culture that is shared between Catholic and Evangelical Christians. Purity balls reflect, perhaps, the extreme end of purity culture, where young girls’ purity is connected with their fathers’ pride and the virginity pledges these young girls make are to their fathers. Girls learn that maintaining their virginity is a behavior that is linked with pleasing their dads and receiving their love and approval. (Talk about enmeshment… that will have to be another blog post.)
You don’t see purity balls for young men and their mothers, where young boys promise their moms that they will remain virgins. Not that I’m saying we should - but because of this imbalance, young girls learn that they are meant to be the gatekeepers of purity, of sexuality, and that they are responsible for upholding the behavior of men. And if they aren’t pure enough, then these women are responsible for leading men into sin. Which makes sense, right? Because “men just don’t know how to control themselves,” and …”because men are just so much more sexually driven than women are.”
These perspectives, whether held consciously or subconsciously, fail to characterize men and women realistically - missing both their equal innate, holy, human sexuality and their equal capacity for self-mastery. And these perspectives are deeply harmful when they become a central part of our socialization. Let me explain.
How “purity culture” affects young minds
I majored in Psychology and I work in Youth Ministry, and from having been a teen and from working with teenagers I know this: they’re young and, yes - horny; they have still-developing prefrontal cortexes and slightly immature impulse control. Their beloved, blessed, and swiftly changing human bodies are flooded with hormones and their minds are inundated with sexualized images in the media that they’re constantly absorbing through screens. The topic of sex is deeply important to teens, so it’s incredibly vital that they are educated about it scientifically as well as spiritually, emotionally, and ethically, ideally from an early age, before the hormones kick in. The thing is, teenagers are becoming young adults, and the way their sexual identities develop in these years can have tremendous impact on their personal development and relationships into their adulthood. And each of them as an individual contributes to a larger society and culture, and ultimately how we form society and culture influences how we shape the world around us.
This understanding is consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s understanding of chastity:
Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is "an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life. (2344)
But unfortunately this is not the message that is often conveyed.
“Purity Culture” messages getting sent to teens
This summer I was at a Catholic youth conference with my teens where one of the speakers, known for speaking about the topic of chastity, stated, “when you have sex with someone your souls become one soul.” This person was speaking about the importance of reserving sex for your future spouse, and not having sex with “someone else’s future spouse.”
My gut tightened, my fists and jaw clenched, and I seethed with frustration that a person in a position of respect and influence in the Church would say that to a room filled with impressionable teenagers. To me, that borders on spiritual abuse. While I do believe the speaker’s intention was benevolent, and their approach to talking about chastity is to overly spiritualize and romanticize sex, love, and virginity, in the hopes of making chastity appealing to young teens, that approach is still a problematic and harmful one.
First of all, from a theological standpoint, that statement is simply not true. Your soul is eternal and it’s YOURS - nobody else’s. While sex does allow spiritually and physiologically for deep intimacy with another person, you still are your own person. But, to suggest otherwise to a room full of teenagers who are not theologians, especially when some of them might already have had sex with people they do not plan to marry is basically saying “if you have already done that, well, then your soul is infinitely bonded with that other schmo’s soul and now you can never share your soul, or heart, or life with someone you might one day like to marry” or “you should probably marry that guy/girl you lost your virginity to because now your souls are one soul.” (The latter idea was the prevalent mindset less than a century ago. In the 1950s, my grandmother at 15 was coerced to marry the man she lost her virginity to and conceived my mother with - he was 18. He was abusive and they divorced two years later, yet she wasn’t able to get an annulment from the Catholic Church until the 1970s, and refrained from receiving the Eucharist for decades).
At a different youth conference I attended five years prior, I attended a workshop with my teens led by another speaker who took a more fear-based approach to talking about sex. This speaker took the scare-tactics approach, exclaiming the staggering statistics about STIs (“One in four of you in this room has Chlamydia!!!”), and went on to exhort “if my kids ever had sex before marriage I’d wring their necks” and even saying “sex isn’t about love” (in response to the question of “well, what if I feel like I’m in love with a person?”). Again, this is deeply spiritually abusive, yet this speaker is considered a well-reputed “chastity” speaker. If teens are effectively being scared into abstinence, then that may lead to all kinds of neuroses and/or sexual dysfunction in their adult lives - and if the scare tactics don’t work, then you’ve lost their trust and perhaps even pushed them away from not only chastity, but their deeper faith and relationship with God.
Not to mention, being chaste isn’t solely about abstaining from sex before marriage.And you can still be pure and chaste even if you’re not a virgin, whether you’re unmarried or married.
But that is not the message that “purity culture” evangelizes. Often the Church relies too heavily on instilling a fear of Hell (because fear is an effective motivator of behavior), but ultimately, that is not what we as Christians are called to orient around. Jesus repeatedly encourages us not to fear, and to be led by love.
A working definition for “chastity”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. (2337)
If chastity is about inner unity and integration, then why does purity culture lead to such a disintegrated understanding of self and sexuality? For one, we don’t talk openly about sexuality with young people, but rather - with fear and anxiety, and that fear and anxiety is what we instill in young people, which carries over into adulthood. Or we talk about sex in vague, oversimplified, or over-romanticized terms, leading to unrealistic expectations around sexuality, and how very human it is.
How can we integrate something in ourselves that we fear or that we don’t understand or know much about?
How can we integrate our spirit with our flesh if we are taught that our flesh is intrinsically sinful or depraved?
Keep reading Part Two of “Problems with Purity Culture” here.