The term purity culture has an array of definitions. Literally, it stands for the promotion and active encouragement of sexual abstinence before marriage. It originated as a term used by conservative Protestant Christianity but can be treated as a blanket term for the concept of virginity, which is still endorsed by all the major religions today.
It is quite paradoxical how sex is something no one even in the 20th century talks openly about yet it always seems to linger in whispers and scandalous headlines. The clickbait-like appeal of a concept so hushed up and borderline uncomfortable does bring up an important question. Why is something so natural often looked at with shame? Why are the majority of society's efforts directed towards controlling sexuality and policing the lives people lead in their own bedrooms?
Such complex questions of course have even more warped and convoluted answers. The foundation of purity culture lies in the social construct of ‘virginity’. It is an idea that seems to have enjoyed a rather influential and gossipy position in history that people have looked at with an almost morbid obsession.
So where did this idea of virginity come from?
It originated in primitive societies once humankind began to settle down and the basis of property, possessions, and inter-tribal rivalry arose. It was of imperative importance to increase the population so there were more helping hands in the clan. Controlling children helped in getting a hold over wealth and political power. Since society was majorly patriarchal during those times, men established this as a method to hegemonize women and be sure of the paternity of the offspring.
This postulation over the years infused with religions that came up became a significant aspect of society. As a result, many myths were propelled by this culture and it is important to do away with them.
Most religions draw relations between virginity and purity along with encouraging the suppression of sexual urges to the point where lustful thoughts are equated with sexual intercourse. Shame has been attached to all who engage in a lifestyle that is even slightly divergent. Along with physical changes, many believe that losing one’s virginity will alter their psyche as well, which explains why it is given such importance. This, of course, has no scientific basis as consensual sex has shown no evidence of permanent psychological changes.
Interestingly, society often is less punishing to men who engage in premarital sex as compared to women. People prefer policing women over realizing the outdated composition of their own views. Virginity cannot be empirically proven. There are no guidelines set to establish someone’s status and no scientific backing has been given to the view that premarital sex is bad, which is a belief advocated for by purity culture. There is also no evidence of female reproductive organs ‘rejecting’ any form of sex outside marriage, although this belief is paramount in many religious theses.
Traditionally, virginity and purity at large have come to be associated with women having ‘unbroken hymens’, which in turn is correlated with abstinence from premarital sex. This, according to purity culture, preserves the sanctity of a long term marital relationship and is commonly treated as a parameter for judging a person’s character. Such presumptions are exceedingly problematic considering the fact that many women are born without hymens and several also rupture because of non-sexual activities like athletics.
Though the hymen may tear during sex, it will heal like any other cut on the body. It does not shield the entrance like some gate, it is simply a tissue that tightens the opening of the vaginal canal. Having sex often does not permanently loosen the vagina and it only tightens slightly like any other tissue if not used for a while. There are no permanent effects caused by penetrative sex.
Moreover, premarital sex often helps couples realize their sexual compatibility. Frequently, people on the asexual spectrum do not realize their identity before marriage and it often leads to many difficulties later because of the stigma and refusal to even have conversations about sex. Therefore, communication and even the act of safe sex between consenting adults who may not be married should not be subject to the shame that purity culture attaches to it.
When we do examine these beliefs, they come across as extremely conservative and discriminatory. Traditional heterosexual sex viewed through the lens of procreation is the only form encouraged and eligible under these societal norms. The entire definition of what is considered sex is flawed. Virginity and what one considers sex is highly subjective. It is crucial to realize that sex differs from person to person and relationship to relationship.
Safe spaces and conversations around topics related to sexual health must be brought up in our discourse. Purity culture is restricting the right to proper sex education to many who desperately need it. This has a very harmful effect because it promotes misogyny, spreads misinformation, and leads to way more unplanned pregnancies. People have the right to know how their bodies work regardless of religious beliefs.
As something that has no physical manifestation, virginity should not factor in or contribute to the strength of the relationship. Healthy conversations about safe sex on the other hand should be encouraged. However, no one should be forced to engage in it simply because many nowadays considered sex to be an achievement.
This article isn’t aimed at ridiculing those who don’t wish to have sex before marriage, it is simply to reduce the discomfort surrounding the notion. At the end of the day, it should be a well-informed decision everyone can make without any societal or ideological pressure.