Monday, September 19, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: #stillpurityculture

Two cats sleeping together. Image source.
[content note: in this chapter, the writers use arguments, tropes, and language that are 100% purity culture]

Well here we are. Chapter 17 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships, the don't-have-sex chapter. A lot of their examples and arguments are straight from purity culture, and reading this was infuriating.

The approach that this chapter takes is distinctly different from the other chapters. Instead of emphasizing common sense and making decisions based on real-world benefits to yourself, they explain some potential bad consequences of premarital sex and then claim that ALL premarital sex is unhealthy. How do you make that logical jump? Through fear. Through telling people they don't know what's best for themselves. And though "Boundaries in Dating" didn't say so explicitly, that's what they're doing.

But before we look at what this chapter said, I'd like to point out a few things it didn't say. There were two very key purity-culture arguments that were not mentioned in this chapter:
  1. You need to be abstinent because you owe it to your future spouse
  2. Having sex makes you dirty, and that damage is permanent
I found it very unusual that one's responsibility to one's "future husband" was not mentioned AT ALL. Yes, I'm serious- not one word about how losing your virginity hurts your future spouse. As I believe this line of thinking does nothing but cause shame, it's nice to see that it's not here.

And also, when they talk about consequences of having sex, they never say those consequences last forever. In fact, towards the end of the chapter there's a section about "forgiveness" which says, "With [God's] forgiveness, you can start over and be as clean as when you began." This is pretty surprising to me, because in the purity culture I learned, yes you can be "forgiven" but you can never fully undo the damage. That "sin" stays with you for your whole life. It will definitely cause problems in your future marriage. (Otherwise, we won't have enough material for our fear-mongering abstinence-only lessons for teens.)

But "Boundaries in Dating" only talks about the consequences in the present and immediate future, and only for the two people who had sex- not their potential future partners. However, they consistently use language about "giving yourself away" which does imply permanent loss.

Okay let's start at the beginning.

The chapter begins by telling the story of Jenny and Dave:
Physically, they were becoming more affectionate also. Hugs were turning into kisses. They enjoyed the closeness, never thinking they would get into trouble. But kisses were turning into more desire. They were both committed to their values of abstinence before marriage. So, always before it got too heated, they would back off. They both felt comfortable with each other.

Their relationship went along for a while like this, until one night they want too far. They had been lying on the floor watching videos and feeling very warm and close. Beginning with innocent affection, they moved on from there.

Jenny felt as if it had happened almost without her. Her values about physical limits before marriage were strong, but that night her values seemed to be somewhere far away from her awareness as she got lost in the closeness with Dave. It was a little like a whirlwind inside her head, and she really wondered in a way how it had happened.

Afterwards, she felt bad, and was remorseful about having given herself away. She had had no intention of going that far. The guilt was pretty strong, but at the same time she felt confused. Very aware of her feelings for Dave, she began to wonder why loving him physically was so wrong. Everything had felt so right, even if it was wrong. Confusion and doubt began to take over in her mind. She felt herself drifting away from him, even as she was drawn closer. Now she was feeling not at all like her old self, and she wondered what to do from there.

Sound familiar?
Yes it "sounds familiar," it sounds like every purity culture warning I've ever heard about "temptation" and how "one thing leads to another" and you can't trust yourself, you have to live in fear of your own body and your own desires, you have to set very strict rules about never being alone with a boy, never making out, because you never know when you might completely lose control and suddenly you find you've "given yourself away" and you don't even know what happened.

Ugh. It's all fear. I spent so long being afraid of my own body, afraid of what unknown mechanism might somehow, inexplicably, cause me to have sex accidentally (which would of course be my fault).

Yes, this is a common trope in purity culture. A Christian couple is committed to abstinence before marriage, but one night they're alone and kissing and somehow, sex just happens. As I am no longer in purity culture, I no longer believe that it's possible to accidentally have sex. But there must be at least a bit of truth to this trope. For a long time I've wondered what's really going on when people tell stories like this. I have come up with 3 possibilities:
  1. When people are single and thinking about relationships in a purely hypothetical sense, with purity culture as their only source of information, it's easy to make that commitment to not have sex. But then they get into a real relationship and find that it's totally different from what they were taught. They discover that, in the real world, there's nothing wrong with showing affection and love to each other. All those fearful warnings just weren't true. So they decide they no longer believe in purity culture. They no longer believe it's a sin to have sex outside of marriage. And so they choose to have sex- though when they're around church people, they may still claim to believe it's a sin. They may claim that sex "just happened" to them so that church people don't judge them as hard.
  2. People believe it's a sin to have unmarried sex, but in certain circumstances, like at night when they're tired and alone with their partner, they start to wonder if maybe it wouldn't be so bad. I've had similar experiences- in college, at night, hanging out with friends playing cards, when suddenly I wonder what it would be like to kiss that guy. I guess this is what it means when purity culture talks about "temptation." But there's a big difference between thinking it and doing it. You weigh your desires against your convictions, and you make a choice. Maybe you decide, "oh screw it, let's just have sex."
  3. One partner pressures the other into it. Maybe partner A says no and partner B doesn't respect that- they keep pressuring A over and over until A gives up. Or maybe A finds themself too shocked and afraid to really react, and B just does it to them. Purity culture would tell you that A and B are both at fault because when you're alone with your boyfriend/girlfriend, you know this kind of thing could happen.
In scenarios 1 and 2, people are making a conscious decision to have sex. Scenario 3 is rape [or at least, consent in that case is very iffy]. And when I read the account of Jenny and Dave, I find it very suspicious that we only hear how Jenny felt about it. Jenny "felt as if it had happened almost without her." Jenny felt like she hadn't consented. Did Dave pressure her into it, even though he knew she wanted to not have sex until marriage? Why don't we get Dave's side of the story? Is it because there's no way we would believe it if he also claimed it happened to him accidentally?

I can understand why people in scenarios 1 and 2 (and B in scenario 3) would claim that "one thing led to another" or "we stumbled", that somehow they had sex without ever making a conscious decision to have sex, but are at fault for putting themselves in that situation in the first place. In purity culture, no one is ever allowed to say yes, so the only way people can explain their consensual sex (or rape, if you're in scanerio 3) is by claiming sex can "just happen" even when neither partner consents. In other words, it's impossible for purity culture to actually teach what consent is. And as a result, it's impossible for purity culture to make a distinction between sex and rape.

This teaching is so incredibly harmful. It made me terrified of my own body, terrified that I might just go on autopilot and somehow have sex and ruin my purity. And it teaches rape victims in scenario 3 that it was their fault and that it wasn't rape. You were alone with a boy- what did you expect? You were kissing- don't you know that a guy will get all turned on and won't be able to stop himself? You were dressed immodestly- advertising something that wasn't for sale, how unfair to the guy.

It is absolutely NOT OKAY that "Boundaries in Dating" published this purity-culture trope. Most of the book is good and healthy advice, but this, ohhh no. This is the exact same story you hear from all the purity-culture advocates. And it is not okay.

Let's continue. And no, it doesn't get better from here.

Next, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" present us with "The Big Rule" [yes they literally call it "The Big Rule"], which is 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8:
It is God's will that you should be sancfitifed: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.
That passage is printed on page 241 of "Boundaries in Dating", and they spend the next 12 pages going through it phrase-by-phrase, explaining, interpreting, giving examples.

I want you to understand how COMPLETELY DIFFERENT this approach is from anything else we've seen in the book. In the previous 16 chapters, bible verses are typically offered to support the authors' point of view after they've already explained said point of view. The bible verses feel like an afterthought, just thrown in to make a churchy audience happy. Their explanations are not based on the bible at all. In the majority of cases, you could remove the bible verse and you wouldn't have to change anything. They're not an essential part of the point of view presented in this book.

There was only 1 other part of the book where a several-verses-long passage was printed, and that was Psalm 101:2-8, in chapter 6. This was when they were talking about things that were totally unacceptable in a relationship, and they pulled a bunch of examples out of that psalm. However, after listing the ones mentioned in the psalm, the writers added their own list of "destructive" qualities in a relationship, and their list is twice as long. So even in that example, their argument wasn't mainly based in the bible.

In none of the other chapters in the book did they start with a bible passage and use that as the basis of their argument. But here in the don't-have-sex chapter, this passage from 1 Thessalonians defines the structure of the whole chapter. I cannot emphasize enough how different this is.

Anyway, before we get into their interpretation of this bible passage, I would like to point out that nowhere in that passage does it say unmarried sex is wrong. It says we must avoid "sexual immorality", control ourselves, treat each other right, etc. I would like to make the claim that it is possible to follow all of those commands and also have umarried sex. And if you think that this passage from 1 Thessalonians tells us unmarried sex is a sin, then you're coming into it with A LOT of assumptions. Probably the biggest is that unmarried sex is a form of "sexual immorality."

First, let me ask you this: what is the definition of "immorality"? I define it as treating people like things, using them, not treating them with love and respect. This is the biblical definition of immorality, as we can see from Luke 6:31, Romans 13:9-10, and many other verses about love and how we should treat each other. (I'm just kidding about the "biblical definition of immorality" though. There are lots of verses that support my view on immorality, but the bible is not a dictionary. There's no such thing as "the biblical definition of" anything.)

So, if immorality means "not treating people with love and respect", what is sexual immorality? It's hurting people, treating them like objects, not showing love, in a context related to sex. That's it. (Credit: I think I first heard this line of reasoning from Fred Clark, though I can't find the exact post where he wrote about it.) Why on earth would all premarital sex count as "sexual immorality"? If you follow principles about respect, consent, and communication, then it doesn't hurt anybody.

Okay, so under this ideology, what counts as "sexual immorality"? Rape is sexual immorality [note: I shouldn't have to say this, but the rapist commits sexual immorality, the victim does not]. Cheating on your spouse is sexual immorality. Teaching people that their sexual orientation is unacceptable to God is sexual immorality. Forcing a rape victim to "confess" her "sin" is sexual immorality. Advocating for "family values" or "religious freedom" as a way to fight against equal rights for LGBT people is sexual immorality. Shaming a woman for "immodest dress", claiming that you know from her clothes that she doesn't respect herself, is sexual immorality. Teaching women that they have a duty to have sex with their husband (and there's no such thing as marital rape) is sexual immorality. Telling children that their lives will be ruined if they have sex before marriage is sexual immorality.

When we look at the Thessalonians passage, we will find that it is telling us to treat others with respect and not act out of lust. All of this is consistent with my definition of "sexual immorality," but has nothing to do with the question of whether or not anybody is married. Using marriage to define sexual immorality is completely illogical.

Spock says illogical. Image source.
Yet for some reason, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" think this Thessalonians passage gives us a command to not have unmarried sex and the reasons for it. That's not how I read it.

(Okay one more objection I should address: You might disagree with my definition of "sexual immorality" because the original audience would have understood it to include premarital sex. Okay, sure. In their society, which didn't have birth control, women didn't really have rights, and women were seen as less valuable if they weren't virgins, then yes, it was actually immoral for a man to have sex with a woman if they weren't married. There were huge risks and consequences, which disproportionately fell on women. Now, however, we don't have that situation- now what's immoral and actually causes real-world damage is teaching purity culture.)

All right, so "Boundaries in Dating" first highlights the "holy and honorable" bit from that bible passage. They say that sex is very very special and valuable, and therefore you shouldn't give it to someone if there's a risk you could break up. They say, "It is the highest value that your body possesses to give to someone you are in a romantic relationship with." Yeah, this is purity culture rhetoric, VERBATIM. Ugh.

To illustrate their point, the tell the story of Amanda and Monte. Monte said he wasn't ready for marriage yet, but definitely would be in the future. Amanda believed that yes, he would be "the one", so they started having sex. Later Monte decided nope, he didn't want to get married, and so they broke up. Amanda was devastated. "She thought they would be together forever and she had given all of herself to him. So she felt as if a lot of herself went away as well. In short, she had spent it all, and was left with nothing to show for giving herself away." Yeah, the whole thing is full of "gave yourself away" language. It makes me sick.

Then, to make things even worse, they tell another story. There was a man (who isn't given a name, for some reason) who was planning to get married to his girlfriend. But they didn't have sex yet, because he had "had a few experiences like Amanda." They ended up breaking up. But it wasn't that bad for him, compared with previous breakups, because they had never had sex.

Then this:
What is the first lesson here? It is that sex is set apart for a purpose, and has great value. It is for lifelong commitment and needs to be esteemed. In a physical and spiritual sense, it is all you can give someone. Therefore, it should not be given away lightly. In the same way that you do not give your life away to anyone but the person you marry, so your body should belong only to the person you marry as well. It is all you have. Don't throw it away. Give it to someone who is going to give himself to you forever. [italics in original]
Holy crap this is full-blown purity culture, and it is TRIGGERING AS HELL.

Ai yo, where do I begin?

The assumption behind this is that sex- a physical action- is connected to emotions in a very specific way that's THE SAME FOR EVERYONE. That's a bizarre assumption. In the real world, sex can mean different things to different people. I think it's very common that sex has deep emotions attached to it, but that's not always true. A lot of people are able to have casual sex, without a deep emotional connection to the other person. In my opinion, the important thing is you have to know yourself. Know what kind of emotional meaning sex has for you, and based on that, you can make decisions about the type of relationship in which you would be willing to have sex. (And it's no good to pretend there are "no strings attached" when there actually are, or to use sex to try to fill some other emotional need. But the healthy approach is to know yourself and that your emotions and mental health matter. Just telling people "don't have sex" doesn't solve those problems.)

(And I would also like to point out this bit, about the nameless man who broke up but fortunately didn't have sex: "It was as if he had held on to himself until it was safe to let go, and since it never was safe, he had lost her, but he still had himself intact." This equating of marriage with total safety is really unhealthy. [And directly contradicted by chapter 11 of "Boundaries in Dating", which warns against making a huge commitment too fast.] Marriages can end, through divorce or death. Just because you promise for forever doesn't mean it will really be forever. Abuse exists. Marital rape exists. Nothing is ever completely safe. Purity culture's promise to navigate you from the safe state of singlehood through the horrible minefield of dating to the ideal utopia of marriage is one of its strongest selling points. I'm not okay with any ideology which buys into this view of "safety.")

Also, "Boundaries in Dating" is playing a very dangerous game of measuring the depth of a relationship based solely on how far you've gone physically. This is a key idea in purity culture, and it's so wrong. (Purity culture is completely OBSESSED with sex.) They're saying that a breakup where the partners had had sex is worse than one in which they hadn't- as if sex is the most important measure of a relationship. That's ridiculous. There are so many other factors at play here.

AND HOLY CRAP that stuff about "It is all you have." HOLY SHIT that is harmful. So if you have sex with someone and then break up, you're completely ruined and empty. You have nothing. You are worthless. Now, none of those things are said explicitly here. They don't talk about sex having consequences that last forever, and they don't say "your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your husband." [As I've said before, I hold responsible every adult who has ever just sat by quietly when someone said that vile, misogynistic garbage fire of a sentence, rather than falling out of their chair in a shocked and appalled manner.] "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't specifically talk about long-term or permanent consequences of having sex. But when they talk about "giving yourself away" and how sex is the most valuable thing you can give, that "it is all you have" [this is literally a quote from the book, page 243], is there any other way for their readers to understand it? How could it mean anything other than "you've lost everything and you're ruined forever"?

If you don't believe unmarried sex causes permanent damage, then for god's sake don't use language about "giving yourself away." If you give something away, it's gone. It's not yours any more. You do not have it any more. That's a permanent loss- unless the other person decides to give it back, but you never hear anyone talk about giving someone's body back after they break up.

This crap about "it is all you have" is completely unacceptable. (And it stands in direct contradiction to examples in previous chapters of "Boundaries in Dating" where people had sex and broke up and things got better.)

The next section focuses on the "self-control" bit of that Thessalonians passage. We read the story of Josh and Marty. [Marty is a woman.] Josh wanted to wait til marriage, but Marty wanted to have sex. When Josh said no, she would try to pressure him. Then Josh started to realize that there were other areas of the relationship where Marty couldn't take no for an answer. When they disagreed, she would try to pressure him into doing what she wanted. "he realized that she was unable to be happy if she was not getting her own way, and sex was just a sign of an overall character issue that she had in delaying gratification."

Okay, yes, I agree, this is a problem. Trying to coerce someone into sex is definitely sexual immorality. Because it's disrepectful and shows you don't care about what the other person wants. Not because you're not married. Guess what, even if you are married, it's still not okay to pressure your spouse into having sex when they don't want to.

Their point is this: you don't want to be in a relationship with someone who can't sacrifice and make compromises. But guess what? That has absolutely nothing to do with premarital sex. Guess what? You can have self-control, respect people rather than pressuring them, be willing to accept delayed gratification, AND ALSO have premarital sex.

And this line of thinking- that "self-control" is a reason not to have sex- comes dangerously close to the belief that avoiding pleasure just for the sake of avoiding pleasure is a godly thing. Previously, "Boundaries in Dating" has taken a strong stand for the idea that your emotions, needs, and desires matter, that it's not healthy to always "deny yourself", and you shouldn't submit to people who treat you like your own needs don't matter. But you can't preach that refreshingly healthy view while also believing "self-control" is a reason not to have premarital sex.

Ugh. It makes me so angry. The majority of this book is good, healthy advice based in reality, and then there's this garbage about not having premarital sex, a total departure from the tone of the rest of the book. This chapter is like "here's God's rule, and here are some reasons that don't actually adequately justify it, filling in the rest with straight-up fear will be left as an exercise for the reader."


Okay, up next is the section on "passionate lust." Here, read this paragraph, and then we will laugh at the irony together:
Basically, a healthy person is someone who is integrated. What that means is that all aspects of a person are connected and working together. Sex is connected to love, relationship, and commitment. The body, the soul, and the mind are all working together. Like we said above, the body is given 100 percent to someone who gives you 100 percent of everything else. If someone has not married you, then they have given you less than 100 percent, so they get less than 100 percent of your body.
First of all, there are ex-purity-culture bloggers who have writen about how purity culture is essentially a gnostic heresy. Purity culture is all about how the body is bad and you have to control your body and deny your body's desires. OF COURSE this leads to a separation of the self from the body. So I find it hilarious that "Boundaries in Dating" is claiming that this purity culture crap has anything to do with a healthy integration between body and soul.

Furthermore, how can they say "Sex is connected to love, relationship, and commitment" but teach that (before marriage) you should have love, relationship, and commitment but NOT have sex? Doesn't that seem like an unhealthy and unnatural split? I now strongly believe that it is very unhealthy to artificially ban sex from a committed and loving relationship where the partners feel that it's the right time to share their sexuality with each other (note: the commitment level at which sex feels natural will vary from person to person, some people have casual sex and that's fine, some people wait til marriage and that's fine). In order to keep themselves from having sex in a loving relationship where the emotional connection matches the level of the emotions tied to sex, they have to keep telling themselves it's so wrong, it's so evil, all sorts of bad things will  happen, God will be hurt, etc. The more comfortable and committed they feel together, the more outlandish and over-the-top scare tactics they need to force themselves to believe in order to "stay pure."

[In my 2012 post "How far is too far?" Finally a REAL answer, I presented the mind-blowing idea that the different dimensions of connection in a relationship- physical, emotional, etc- should match. You decide "how far" you should go by what level of physical closeness feels like it accurately reflects the emotional connection you have. I still believe that. But back then, I was in #stillpurityculture, so I said OF COURSE the emotional connection and commitment of marriage is the correct level for sex- which directly contradicts that whole idea, actually- and is what "Boundaries in Dating" is trying to do here. I did not know that the emotions tied to sex could be different for different people. The writers of "Boundaries in Dating" are professional psychologists with a lifetime of experience. What's their excuse?]

And this stuff about "100 percent of your body" is also ridiculous. When they talk about "sex" in this chapter, I'm assuming they're referring to vaginal intercourse (though other sexual acts are also not allowed, obviously). To be clear, "Boundaries in Dating" does not offer an explicit definition like this- I'm assuming it because that's what purity culture/ society in general typically means by "sex." It's so weird that they're using language about "100 percent" when they're talking about something that, in its most basic form, just involves a penis and vagina and no other body parts. If you have vaginal sex but not anal sex, does that mean you haven't "given away" "100 percent of your body"? If you have vaginal sex but your partner never rubbed the back of your head with their hand, does that mean you haven't "given away" "100 percent of your body"? If you have vaginal sex but never show your partner any ultrasound images of your internal organs, does that mean you haven't "given away" "100 percent of your body"?

If you have sex with one partner, then break up, then have your appendix removed, then have sex with a new partner, does that mean that your ex got "100 percent of your body" in a way that your new partner never can, because they can't be anywhere near your appendix? What if you start dating the surgeon who performed the operation? Wait, does a surgeon have "100 percent of your body" in a way that a sexual partner never can?

My point is, "giving away your body" is a euphemism for performing acts which stimulate certain areas [genitals, skin, tongue, etc], which definitely ARE NOT "100 percent of your body". And as a math person, I believe it's utterly ridiculous to attach actual numbers to a euphemism which doesn't literally describe the act to which it refers.

But that "100 percent" crap is straight-up purity culture rhetoric, and it is not okay.

All right but anyway, I told you this section of the chapter was on "passionate lust." That whole bit about how the love and commitment in a relationship should match the level of sexual intimacy (which I agree with, and that's why I think, for most people, it's healthy to have unmarried sex) is used here to warn us against having sex in a relationship that's not very deep. We read the story of Janet and Steve, who were having sex, but it turned out that Steve wasn't really able to connect with Janet in other aspects of the relationship. So the writers are using "lust" to mean pursuing sex too much at the expense of developing your abilities to actually love people and have healthy relationships. They say "Sex during dating often hides a person's lack of relational skills." Yeah, I agree, that's a problem. But it definitely doesn't mean all unmarried sex is unhealthy. That would be quite an illogical jump to make.

Yes, it might be good for some people, who wonder if they're having sex too much and it's causing problems for them in other areas, to abstain for a while. But if you don't have that problem, then this "lust" stuff is not a valid reason to forbid you from having sex. [note: I want to be clear, when I say "not a valid reason", I'm talking about people making rules for other people. If you're thinking about what choices you want to make in your own personal life, you don't need to come up with some justification that other people will judge to be a "valid reason." "I don't want to" is a good enough reason. It's your life, your choice.]

They also mention "sexual addiction" and tell us the story of Sally, who felt like she was "unable to stop" sleeping around:
As we began to explore the issue, I got a commitment from her to get some support that she could call in case of an "emergency," and to promise me that she would commit to abstinence so that we could find out what was driving her to this dangerous behavior. (The risk of HIV is higher than many realize when engaging in promiscuity, and it does not mean anything that the person has passed a test recently. The virus could be in the undetectable time period.)
I'm showing you all this paragraph because it's a surprising departure from all the other straight-up purity-culture arguments in this chapter. They used the word "dangerous" and then explained that there is a risk of HIV transmission. Wow. This is shocking to me- usually when purity-culture promoters say sex is "dangerous", they're talking about getting your heart broken and losing your purity- diseases and pregnancy are the least of your worries.

Anyway, turns out Sally's father had left when she was young, so she was always looking for attention and approval from men, and that's why she had sex so much. Yes, this isn't healthy. For people who are trying to use sex to get love and approval because they have emotional issues they haven't worked through, abstinence can be a really really good and healthy choice. And these writers are psychologists- I can believe that they meet a lot of people in that situation, and see that it's helpful for those people to stop having sex. But there is absolutely no justification for extrapolating from there to the very extreme idea that everyone shouldn't have sex before marriage.

The next section looks at this bit of the Thessalonians passage: "In this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him." They basically just rehash points made previously in the chapter, about how premarital sex is emotionally unhealthy, so by having sex, you are wronging your partner by putting them in an unhealthy situation. (Again, it's very surprising to me that there is no talk of wronging anyone's "future husband.")

And there's this:
If you say you are a person of love, then you won't wrong someone you love. You will wait. You will respect them enough to not push them or use them in this way.
Ugh. Why is "waiting" equated with love and respect? Here, go read Libby Anne's post on why this way of thinking is completely backwards.

In the next section, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" take the Lord's name in vain by claiming that God believes we shouldn't have sex before marriage. And that this is an important test of whether a person is truly devoted to God or not. There's also talk of how we belong to God and therefore we aren't allowed to make our own choices about this. This is completely contradictory to eveything else in "Boundaries in Dating," which is grounded in the idea that our needs matter, our emotions matter, our desires matter, and we should do what benefits us and helps us have healthy relationships [ie have boundaries and don't let people walk all over you]. The whole "you belong to God" thing says that we have a God who walks all over us. And this blog post is getting too long so I decided to write a whole separate post on why "you belong to God" is really messed-up.

"Boundaries in Dating" says it's important that you're with a partner who obeys God instead of only looking out for themself. If they are willing to have sex before marriage, what happens when other temptations come along? Maybe they'll treat you wrong because following God's rules isn't important to them.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it doesn't realize that people choose which version of God to believe in. If you're a selfish person who wants to mistreat people, you can totally find a version of God who will approve of that. It might even be a version of God who forbids sex outside of marriage. Look at all the ex-complementatian bloggers who write about how complementarian men use their theology to get away with mistreating women.

If you're the kind of person who only treats people with decency because your God forces you to, it's all too easy to come up with excuses for why your God is totally fine with the way you mistreat certain groups of people. (See: hating the sin and loving the sinner.) If you're the kind of person who truly does respect others, then you don't need a God to make rules for you.

"Boundaries in Dating" is trying to argue this: If your partner is willing to obey God and not have sex before marriage, this proves that they are good and moral and will respect you. But it could just as easily go like this: If your partner is willing to obey God and not have sex before marriage, they feel they are making a big sacrifice and they deserve a big reward, therefore after you are married, you owe it to them to have sex any time they want, and they won't respect your "no."

There are purity culture women who can tell you they totally didn't realize how manipulative and abusive a guy was because he believed in no-sex-before-marriage and covered it all in religious language.

Now that they've finished going through all their reasons not to have sex, they sum it up with this bit, which is their answer to the question "How far is too far?"
But, as you embrace your sexuality, do so with self-control, sanctity, high esteem, lovingly and not lustfully, sacrificially and not "wronging" someone, and in submission to God. Then, when you are dating, you will have built in some very good limits and expression of your sexual person. You will know, for example, how far is too far. You cannot act out inappropriately with these guidelines in place. They are appropriately confining.
Umm. Yeah, I agree, all of those are very good guidelines, which people absolutely should use to answer the question "How far is too far?" But no, those guidelines do not lead to the conclusion "it's only okay to have sex with your [opposite-gender] spouse." And the answer to "how far is too far?" is going to be different for different people in different situations. It's based on the mapping between emotions and physical actions- and there's no "one size fits all" for what that mapping is.

In the final section of this chapter, we read something that goes against the purity culture I learned. I was pretty shocked. The section begins with the story of Angie:
Angie was twenty-four and disillusioned about sex in relationships. Having slept with more guys than she even wanted to think about, she had a "what's the use" feeling. And it started, she said, when she was fifteen. As she put it, "Once I had made a mistake, I thought that I had already blown it. I had not saved myself for that one person whom I would give my life to. So, with the next boyfriend, and the ones after him, I thought, What's the difference? I already blew it."
Okay first of all, I wonder where she got the idea that once you have sex once, all is lost and you might as well go have sex with everybody. Oh wait, no, I don't wonder, she got it from ALL THAT CRAP ABOUT "giving yourself away" and how if you have sex you're making your body cheap and worthless, and how "it is all you have" [again, this is a literal quote from page 243].

Also, I'd like to point out, this is the only time in the entire chapter that there is any mention of a future spouse benefitting from one's abstinence. It's kind of odd that the writers don't comment on Angie's reasoning about her future "one person"- if they really diasgree with purity culture's insistence that virginity is owed to one's "future spouse", they should SAY SO.

Let's see what the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" have to say about Angie:
That was before she understood the way that God looks at our failures. He does not look at us like a piece of porcelain that, once broken, is always broken. He looks at us all as broken people whom he makes new again. With his forgiveness, you can start all over and be as clean as when you began.

Wow. This very much flies in the face of everything I was taught about purity, back in the day. The "broken piece of porcelain that can never be fixed" metaphor sounds EXACTLY like something you might read in a purity culture book. Yes, you can be forgiven, but you will always be damaged goods. You can never be as valuable as a virgin. That's what purity culture says.

The idea that there exists forgiveness for "sexual sin" that can actually make you completely pure again is shocking to me. I guess it means the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" don't value virginity; they value abstinence. They don't care about the checklist of things you may or may not have ever done one time in the past; they care about your current habits and what kind of person you are now.

This is orders of magnitude more healthy than "you are damaged goods" but it is #stillpurityculture, so... yeah.

So they talk all about forgiveness and how you can grow as a person and develop healthy relationship habits for the future, and then this:
So, ask him for that forgiveness now. If you do not know Jesus, ask him to be your Lord. Turn to him in faith and he will cleanse you. And then walk in that state of being guilt-free. It is a strong state indeed. And if you do, then you can wait on the real thing.
Yes, the chapter ends with a ****ing altar call.

All right, so that's chapter 17. I'm really unhappy with how they wrote this chapter. It's different from the others- it starts with a bible passage, calls this "The Big Rule", and spends the majority of the chapter examining and interpreting the passage. This is so completely different from all the other chapters, which had bible verses mixed in but the authors' main points were not dependent on them. It gives some examples of why unmarried sex could be unhealthy, and then makes the illogical leap to say that EVERYONE shouldn't have unmarried sex. This is so so so incredibly different from the shockingly healthy advice in previous chapters that said that your own needs and desires matter and it's important to really know yourself, to rationally examine the situation that you're in and see how different choices might affect you and your partner.

It almost feels like a betrayal. If this was a standard purity-culture book, the majority of the stuff in chapter 17 would sound pretty normal. But this is a book that, over and over again, has shocked me with how many basic, foundational principles of purity culture it directly disagrees with- principles like "having a past is bad" or "the man has to be the spiritual leader" or "you have to be super super committed from the very start" or "it would be disastrous if anyone ever compared their partner with their ex." But now in this chapter they're just recycling the same garbage you hear from all purity culture promoters- warnings about how people accidentally have sex, language about "giving yourself away", etc.

This is really disappointing. Yes, it would be much much healthier to teach kids the principles from "Boundaries in Dating" rather than the purity culture I was taught. But I'm still not okay with it. "Boundaries in Dating" is #stillpurityculture. It still promotes fear of the unknown rather than logically evaluating a situation and the real-world risks and consequences of one's actions. It still teaches that you're not able to make your own decisions because you belong to God and you have to obey God, no matter how arbitrary and harmful the rules may be. It still says that "self-control" is a reason to abstain from sex, as if pleasure is intrinsically bad and it's godly to deny yourself pleasure for no real reason.


The title for this post, #stillpurityculture, is a Twitter hashtag started by Emily Joy and Bethany Suckrow, to point out that IT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH when people criticize purity culture but still believe unmarried sex is inherently sinful. See Emily Joy's video for more.

I agree. It's not possible to create a healthy view of sex while still believing that all unmarried sex is inherently sinful. But #stillpurityculture is an important phase that a lot of people go through when they question purity culture. You can read this post and this post, from when I was in the #stillpurityculture phase. Logically, I could see all the reasons that purity culture was wrong, but I still had SO MUCH FEAR, so I wasn't able to actually honestly consider the idea that premarital sex might not be a sin.


A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)

Previous post: Set Limits Early

Next post: Some Practical Things

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