I was around twelve years old when I made the decision to save myself for marriage. I remember a woman coming into our class and holding up a blank sheet of paper before telling a story about a girl. After describing the girl’s first sexual encounter, the woman folded the sheet in half. Then she described another, this time crumpling the paper. Then another, crumpling the paper again. And again. And again. Finally, the woman concluded that the girl seemed to have had so many sexual encounters that, by the time the man of her dreams came along, she was so crumpled, damaged and without value that she had nothing left to offer.
I was twelve years old when this woman made my class sign a slip of paper pledging to save ourselves for marriage after a weeklong sexual education course that consisted of no actual education at all — other than a few graphic images of STDs symptoms. The term abstinence education is honestly a generous one; it implies that actual learning took place.
Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with abstaining from sex. I’m twenty-one years old and still a virgin, and that’s okay.
But I hate purity culture.
Purity culture gasps in the presence of a middle school girl’s bra strap instead of holding accountable the boys who are taught that sexual perversion is not only natural but expected. Apparently, God made men unable to control their sexual desire, leaving women to uphold some sort of twisted moral obligation to keep them from “stumbling” into sexual sin. Forget that Jesus said, “And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out” (NIV Mark 9:17).
Purity culture promotes abstinence programs in lieu of actual sexual education. I was 18 years old — 18 years old! — before I found out the clitoris even existed, much less what it was for. Purity culture discourages women from understanding their own bodies and, as a result, leads to a situation where women are made to think that mutual sexual gratification is not always to be expected. Purity culture claims girls shouldn’t have sexual desires even when there’s literally a whole organ in their bodies made for the sole purpose of providing an orgasm.
Purity culture is also trapped within the dichotomy of pre/post-marital sex and forgoes discussion of consent in any way whatsoever, completely ignoring the idea that — gasp — sexual assault can occur within marriage just as much as it can outside of one. Women who have been sexually assaulted or raped are left with no resources or knowledge of where to turn other than the image of a crumpled piece of paper, a chewed piece of gum and a trampled flower that’s lost all its petals.
Purity culture is most pervasive across fundamentalist Christian cultures in the South; however, even in more progressive communities, implicit cultural tendencies are still reinforcing the idea that an unmarried woman’s virginity is the most valuable thing about her — which ironically goes against the teaching of their inherent value as human beings made in God’s image from the very Christ they claim to be following.
To the women out there who have been told they are not valuable, that their bodies — and not their own selves — are the greatest thing they can offer this world: you are valued. You are important. You are loved. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.