Saturday, June 15, 2013

Future? Past? It's All the Same in Purity Land!

Purity culture can be incredibly hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. It's sort of about abstinence, and it's sort of about fear and shame, and it's sort of about avoiding emotional pain, and it's sort of about gender stereotypes, and it's sort of about waiting, and it's sort of about earning a happily-ever-after marriage... How does it all fit together?

Future husbands: your future wife does not belong to you, a blog post I read a few days ago, gets to the core of purity culture, and I'd like to elaborate on some of the ideas there. But first, go read the whole thing. It's really good.

Wedding of the future. Image source.

So here it is, the entire premise of purity culture: All of my romantic/sexual interactions belong to my hypothetical future husband. I owe him all of that. I owe him my virginity, my first kiss, all of that. If I say "I love you" to a guy, if I date a guy, if I have a really serious crush on a guy, years and years before ever meeting my hypothetical future husband, then I've wronged said husband and need to apologize. Because all of that was supposed to belong to him. (And I suppose it works the other way too- a guy's romantic/sexual life belongs to his hypothetical future wife. But seriously, purity culture is much harder on women than men.)

(Oh and did you notice? In purity land, everyone is straight, and gets married exactly once.)

According to this line of thinking, the ideal situation is I get married to the first guy I have a really really big crush on. Because to be so obsessed and smitten with someone means I've given him part of my heart. And then I can't give my WHOLE heart to my future husband.

Back when I believed in purity culture, I really believed that I must follow all the rules and force myself to not have feelings- I mean, it's normal for me to be attracted to people, that's fine, but from there it's a slippery slope to getting all emotionally invested, which is of course a betrayal of my future husband. (Ya know, assuming he exists.) So I better repress those feelings right from the start.

And you may notice so far in this post I've only talked about my feelings, not things I actually do. So let's move on to the "what I actually do" part. According to purity culture, if I go on a date with a guy, if I hold hands with a guy, if I say "I love you" to a guy, if I kiss a guy, if I have sex with a guy, etc etc etc, then I'm "giving him part of my heart." And if I end up marrying a different guy, well, I owe the dude I marry ALL the pieces of my heart, but I've let those other guys take what belonged to him.

To do ANYTHING with a previous boyfriend is a wrong against my future husband.

And of course this leads to girls feeling like "damaged goods"- like I'm dirty and impure and no boy could ever love me because of what I've done. Dude, I've felt like that in the past. I felt so terrible, wondering where I could ever find a guy who could forgive me for what I did with my ex-boyfriend. And I've never even had sex. But I've failed to be "pure" in so many other ways, according to purity culture.

Image source.

All right, full disclosure here: I do believe premarital sex is a sin. [edit, several years later: okay I no longer believe it's a sin] I know that there are Christians who disagree, which is fine, we can talk about that- I'm willing to say maybe it's not a sin in certain circumstances. And I definitely wouldn't judge other people for having sex, I'd definitely never treat anyone like they're "dirty" or something- that's just wrong.

But the reason that I'm not having sex (and that I'm overly careful/conservative in terms of dating and physical affection and such) is not because of what I owe my hypothetical future husband. No, it's because of ME and MY emotions. I don't want to be in a situation where my perceived physical/emotional connection to a guy doesn't match our real-life commitment to each other. (See also my post "How far is too far?" Finally a REAL answer.)

So it's about ME. It's not about some guy who may or may not exist, whom I may or may not have met yet.

Which brings me to the question, what do I owe my hypothetical future husband?

Or rather, in a marriage, what do the two partners owe to each other?

Love, commitment, loyalty. Helping each other, communicating, respecting each other, encouraging each other. Keeping their marriage vows. Etc.

I've never been married, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say the thing that matters in a marriage is the kind of person you are IN THE PRESENT. Not a checklist of physical things you may or may not have done with other people a long time ago.

My past matters only to the extent that it shapes and affects who I am today. And that is what I owe a potential husband: being the kind of person who is a good partner for him now and in the future. Why would it matter what I've done in the past?

Image source.

But purity culture doesn't see it this way. Actually, purity culture seems to not understand the concept of time. Really.

All this talk about "my future husband" and how I'm supposed to be not doing all these things in order to be faithful to "my future husband." (Lots of girls praying for their future husband and writing him letters. I have TOTALLY done that. Because I like guys so much, but I thought I wasn't allowed to actually DO ANYTHING because purity. Hence the letter writing. Those emotions have to go somewhere.) Apparently, it is God's will that I marry one specific guy- we're destined for each other. (Like I said, in purity land everyone is straight and gets married exactly once.) And apparently I'm supposed to live as if I'm already married to him. 

Except I don't know who he is yet. What could go wrong?

I've even heard people say I shouldn't kiss a guy until I'm engaged because "you're kissing someone else's husband." As if time doesn't exist, and that just because he's (maybe) going to marry someone else in the distant future means we should think of him as being with that someone else throughout his entire life.

As if my true identity, the place I belong, the person God sees me as, is married to Mr. God-Picked-This-Guy-For-Me. And all my life before I get married (which of course occurs exactly 1 time over the course of everyone's lifetime) is just waiting, preparing to be that wife, wondering who God will have me be, wasting time because my life doesn't start til I get married.

(I remember there have been times I've thought about my last name, and how it isn't my real last name, but I'm waiting with excitement to find out what my last name will be. Hopefully something that sounds like a type of dinosaur.)

(And haha, this kind of reminds me of the question the Sadducees asked Jesus in Matthew 22. "What if there was a woman who was married 7 times because her husbands kept dying- so, who's wife is she at the resurrection?" and Jesus was like "this question doesn't even make sense.")


Oh, and so many times I've imagined someday, sitting and talking with a guy who loves me, and he looks at me with so much hurt and says, "How could you?" How could I have liked another guy? How could I have had other boyfriends? How could I have shown so much physical affection for another guy?

And in my imagination, I would feel so bad for him, and I would try to make an excuse... "I didn't know you then..." What was I supposed to do with my feelings? How was I supposed to find a husband if I couldn't date?

And then he would look at me again, with so much sadness in his eyes, as if to say it was a pathetic excuse. Because our relationship and commitment to each other would be so real- how could I have ever lived as though it didn't exist?

And I'm not pure. I've failed.

Image source.

And because purity culture doesn't seem to understand the concept of time, it ends up comparing relationships, believing that one's current relationship must outdo previous ones in order to be "really" special. Like how many times have I heard that if you had sex with someone else EVER, then having sex with your spouse won't be "special." As if both relationships exist at the same time, and the only meaningful attributes to measure are the outward, tangible, physical things- and it is therefore impossible to determine which one matters more to you, which person you love more.


There are things I've done with my ex-boyfriend that I haven't done with my current boyfriend. There are things I've done with my current boyfriend that I didn't do with my ex-boyfriend. (And no, I'm not telling the internet what those things are.) But who cares? It was years ago, when I was with my ex-boyfriend. It doesn't matter now.

I mean, it would definitely be a problem if I was constantly talking about my ex-boyfriend and comparing my current boyfriend with him. That would be really hurtful to my boyfriend.

But, umm, I don't.

Really, it doesn't matter. Because I don't think about it. That was years ago. Like I said above, my past only matters to the extent that it affects who I am today. And what I owe my hypothetical husband is to be a good partner- so, that means not constantly telling him graphic details about previous relationships. I do not owe him my past to be a certain way.

The past is the past. There's healing. There's grace. There's redemption. There's learning and character-building. And there is freedom.

So... discussion questions:

Does it matter to you what your significant other has done romantically/sexually with other people in the past? Why?

If we throw out all the ideology about "saving yourself for marriage", and "not giving away part of your heart", etc, basically everything that says you need to NOT do things because you owe them to your hypothetical future spouse- if we ditch that idea, then what reasons do we have for or against doing romantic/sexual things? What principles should we use?


  1. disqus_q8D1UpGiCjJuly 17, 2013 at 12:35 AM

    First of all, I wan't to say that I wish more Christians were willing to speak out about the purity culture in such a frank and nuanced way like you just have. I agree with and identify with a lot of what you have written about above.

    I do however think that romantic history is important to know about your partner not as a value of worth (like what the Purity Movement ends up communicating) but as a measure of person or values that they have. Like I wouldn't want to spend much of an emotional effort on a serial dater who has always had a BF since she was 16 but never for longer than a year or so. Considering I'm 31 and tend to date close to my age, this kind of person would seem to me like someone who maybe has commitment issues or doesn't know/care about what they want long term (maybe codependent too). If she's been sexualy active since then, the questions of "How many?" and "How often?" could be legitimate health concerns and also shows how much they value sex in their life.

    It seems like the Purity Movement is a reaction to the "free love" and inconsequential sex that is advertised everywhere around us. Where it doesn't matter who/what we are, let's get our freak on! Seeing their sensibilities threatened, Fundies then said, "Well, that obviously isn't holy so we have to keep ourselves awesome for God so insted of having sex all the time with everybody, we'll have sex one time with one person."

    Both of these are ludicrous because even though I like the idea of sex being exclusive and special (I've only ever had one partner) I don't believe that losing your virginity necessarily negates that. But I also want to be with someone who has a similar view on its speciality and believe I'd have a much harder time with a girl like the one described above because of that. I don't think I'm being at all wrong or unreasonable in feeling that way.

    I find this think a bit ironic. The Purity Movement says that the world is too focused on the physical part of our relationships, yet that seems to be all they ever talk about.

  2. Yes! Really good points. Someone's romantic history does matter, but it matters because it affects the kind of person they are in the present. Like someone who's a "serial dater" might not be willing to commit to a long-term relationship, like you said. But maybe over time, they change, and then they become someone who is willing to commit- and the fact that they were a "serial dater" in the past doesn't really matter as much any more. But purity culture sees no difference between who I used to be and who I am now.

  3. disqus_q8D1UpGiCjJuly 18, 2013 at 12:41 AM

    I remember reading an article talking about how needing women to dress conservatively is just as objectifying as wanting to see women in only skimpy clothes. The article talked about how both views only take women as what they are in relation to men, their society, or culture and not as people they are.

    I think that is what is happening here too. Churches are objectifying marriage and intimate relationships as a kind thing that if you do X, you will get the best "thing" and if you don't, you won't and could destroy the "thing".

    Nevermind the fact that most of our other great relationships, like our best friend, were never planned or prayerfully thought over. I mean, how crazy would that person be if they were new to town and said "Im just praying that I can find a good friend soon, I know no one here." My reaction is to stop praying and start meeting people, talk to them, and go out for some bowling or something! Most people would see them as sad and socially awkward.

    We have good relationships not because we focus on the relationship but because we focus on the people within it, both us and AND the other person(s). If we focus on marriage as something to get, a goal, or as a pent up ejaclulation of years sexual tension/frustration make an object out of one of the greatest things God wanted us to experience.