The Harm of Purity Culture

Dcs. Lindsay Fertig-Johnson

Director of Development & Public Relations

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I grew up in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and from a very young age I was exposed to purity culture. In junior high I signed a pledge that I would remain faithful to my future husband and abstain from sex until marriage. (The joke would be on them when I would go on to marry a woman.)

I remember one time I was handed a chocolate kiss and told to unwrap the tip of it. Smell it. Taste the tip but refrain from eating the whole piece.

“See how difficult it is to not eat the chocolate?” The leader said.

“This is because you already had a taste of what is to come. If you want to hold to your vow to abstain from sex until marriage you must refrain from everything that leads to sex. This includes kissing and all forms of touching.”

We were then instructed to pretend the chocolate was our virginity and not eat the candy until noon the next day.

I ate the chocolate the second the leader left the room. Later that night I felt guilty for eating it and prayed to God for forgiveness because I gave into temptation.  I was a 12-year-old sugar addict who thought I was going to hell because I consumed a piece of chocolate.

Later, in my early twenties, I became a victim of sexual assault by a person I considered a friend. Rather than become angry or hold that person accountable, I remember asking God for forgiveness because, once again, I felt that I gave into temptation. It was because of purity culture, and the way I was conditioned to understand intimacy, I felt that I did something wrong.

My story with purity culture is just one of many. These stories have different characters, plots, and outcomes. Some stories, like mine, include assault. Some stories include shame, while others include misunderstandings. What all our stories have in common is that the Church and society has failed us when it comes to topics of sex and intimacy by trying to cover them up with an abstinence band-aid. Rather than talking about the expansiveness of sex as a beautiful gift from God, the Church has instead forced us to shove this gift into a locked box only to be opened (in a very heteronormative way) by a man and a woman on their wedding night.

The sex positivity movement that many of us are encouraging is about embracing all forms of sexuality, sexual expressions, and identities. It is about understanding of the expansiveness of sex, and the ways in which sex is experienced in our daily lives. Recognizing the gift of sex outside of marriage, within marriage, with one partner, no partner, or many, we are called as a Church and society to have a better more positive approach to our conversations around sex and intimacy that include understandings of the fluidity of sexual desires, or no sexual desire.

Rather than having conversations around sex that are based in purity culture, what would it look like if we encouraged conversations based on consent and boundaries? What if, rather than encouraging young people to abstain from sexual desire, we have conversations around wants, needs, and respect?

With over half of woman and almost one in three men[1] experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, the criminalization of the sex industry, and the higher incidences of sexual assault and harassment faced by women in low-wage work[2], it’s time that we think and address how we talk and fight for justice around sex and intimacy. The sex positivity movement also means we must work decriminalize and advocate for the rights of excluded workers, like those in the sex industry. We can’t just change the narrative; we must work towards justice.

Justice for those who have been harassed and assaulted.

Justice for those who stories have not been believed.

Justice for those who are too afraid to tell their story.

Justice for those whose rights have been ignored.

For everyone with a story like mine, know that I am with you. I stand by you, and I will fight for and alongside you.

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