CONTENT NOTE: This post contains discussion of a sexual nature and is rated PG-13 if not R; reader discretion is advised.
In the past year I’ve seen quite a lot of criticism of t purity culture and modesty culture prevalent in Evangelical/Fundamentalist circles. One of the people who popularized these ideas is Joshua Harris, through his 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Over the past couple of months he has reached out to those who say they have been harmed by the teachings in the book, with some questioning his sincerity. However this post is not about discussing Harris’s apology; this post is to tell my own purity culture story. (A lot of the stories I’ve read on the damage of purity culture are those of women. I am a cisgendered, heterosexual male who grew up an only child. Thus this will focus more on the impact on males. However the purpose of this post is not to engage in the Oppression Olympics, but to say, “Me too” (according to Anne Lamott, the most powerful sermon in the world); see here .
My first exposure to sexuality was the Bible and devotionals in a teen Bible I used to have. From this I learned that any expression of sexuality outside of a heterosexual marriage is sin, something I just accepted. All I knew about sex was that’s where babies come from and later found out that it involved removing clothing. (I did look forward to discussions on sex in youth group.)
In our church dating and flirting were forbidden(some of my friends got spanked for flirting), even before Harris’s book came out.(For this reason I’m not going to use him as a whipping boy.) However, after the book came out, they showed us the videos associated with the book in youth group. In discouraging dating, the analogy used was a paper heart. They cut pieces of the heart, saying this happens every time you date, so that by the time you marry, all you have is a cut-up heart to give your spouse.(Other analogies I’ve heard when people share their purity culture stories is that of a petalless rose or of a cup everyone spit in, to describe those who have premarital sex. In these stories the sting is directed to the girls.) Later on, our pastor quoted another preacher from the pulpit, asking why is it that in dating/romance do Christians insist on being like The World[TM].
For modesty our rules were more lax than they were for a lot of the people I’ve encountered online: women wore sleeveless tops, shorts, and flip flops. (Trousers were also permitted for women.) However, when swimming, shorts were required. At one camping trip, the homeschooled girls modesty policed the public schooled girls(resulting in tension). The youth leader gathered all of us around the campfire and had them talk it out. The homeschooled girls insisted they were only enforcing the rules. Eventually the youth leader encouraged them to learn and rub off each other.
When we watched TV or movies the guys were always told to look away if there was ANY scene depicting nudity or scantily-clad women(and probably punishment for looking). I adopted it into my daily life. (To this day I jerk away at those sights.) It took me awhile to find out the reason.
One of the older men started reading me Every Man’s Battle and later Every Young Man’s Battle. He’s the one that told me what masturbation is, something our church was not into(because Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart.” [Mt. 5:28] and masturbation almost always involves sexual fantasies.) So thus began a period in which I received regular phone calls concerning how I was doing on stopping masturbation(not very good). There were also claims that masturbation could lead to homosexuality(which is something else considered sinful).
As I mentioned before, I started questioning my upbringing after turning 18, seeing my world as the Cave in Plato’s Allegory, wondering how much of what I learned was just shadows on the wall, that there’s more to the world than just my church hole. When I decided to look up fetishes in the encyclopedia (ritual objects in traditional African religions) I discovered the sexual meaning, and also what sadomasochism is(later I learned the labels “S & M” and BDSM). Discovery of what a sexual fetish is was the beginning of the end of my belief in modesty culture, as I heard nothing from them policing women’s footwear. I also read an encyclopedia article on sexual intercourse, finding out what actually happens.
I wasn’t particularly interested in being horny until I could get married, and thus didn’t want to wait forever. At one point I got called out for looking at the women. After being talked to I was asked if there was anything else. I mentioned questioning God’s existence. I got confronted on this, told this was the last chance God is giving me; that if I don’t take it, He’s getting out the bricks and I’ll cross a line of no return. I was told I’d either go insane, become a womanizer and thus get a venereal disease, or get into a sexless marriage; thus I’d be tempted to cheat, and start a slippery slope towards hell. But, if I went with God I could get married and tell her to put on her teddies(maybe I should look up what that means), and have sex.(Even then that sounded a bit crude.)
I was told when I liked someone to tell leadership, “I like So-and-so”, they’ll talk with So-and-so, pray about it, and see if God might be into it. I was also told that God can bring me a wife here.
My mom got me a copy of Every Man’s Battle. I couldn’t relate, as it was geared towards married guys and includes “cherish your one and only” (your wife), and I had no prospects for marriage. So I started reading Not Even A Hint by Joshua Harris. Harris claimed God’s opposed to lust due to a commitment to our pleasure, not an opposition to it. He also acknowledged it isn’t lust to notice attraction and beauty, to be turned on, to have a strong sex drive, or to be excited about sex in marriage. He says these can become lust, though. He talks about the need for grace and the inability to save ourselves. However there is a perpetuation of gender stereotypes and comp theology. Apart from these, this encouraged me. This is a bit of a long story, so I’ll continue my story in part 2.