The Picture of Purity: A Review of Talking Back to Purity Culture

May 6, 2021
Title: Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality 
Author: Rachel Joy Welcher
Publisher: IVP
Publishing Date: November 10, 2020
Pages: 216 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0830848164

Many of us remember the 90s and what has become known as purity culture.  It was a time of promoting abstinence, purity rings, purity pledges, and purity balls. Purity culture developed as a response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Children of the 60s were now parents and looking to develop a way to promote a biblical approach to sex. Many evangelicals were responding to the AIDS crisis and the rise of teenage pregnancy. Sexual promiscuity was accepted and even celebrated. Purity culture filled a void of educating youth on the risks of sexual behavior outside of Gods design. But did purity culture overstep, harm, and make promises that are not actually biblical? Is purity culture a reactionary mirror of secular cultures idolization of sex? 

In 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris, was a pivotal book written by a 21-year-old man who swore off dating and kissing until marriage. The book sold over a million copies and was foundational in the purity movement. Harris stated that the practice of dating was broken and often a great obstacle to couples, so he promoted serious courtship only with a clear intention of marriage. He warned that kissing often lead to premarital sex, so he encouraged couples to wait to kiss until marriage. Harris promoted abstinence due to biblical principles, but some critics say it overemphasizes sex, deemphasizes grace, and assigns rigid gender roles. 

In Talking Back to Purity Culture, Rachel Joy Welcher raises concern that purity culture elevates sex to be the trophy received if purity is maintained until marriage. She cautions that purity does not promise a happy marriage or a fulfilling sex life. Welcher maintains biblical principles of sex within marriage but asserts that God does not promise rewards if you save yourself for marriage. Some of the people interviewed in the book state their story of saving themselves for marriage” only to be surprised that their marriage was less than perfect, and their sex life was disappointing. Welcher states that pursuing sexual purity to earn Gods approval is just one of our many misguided motivations” (p. 138).  

A concern about purity culture is that purity is primarily equated with virginity. Welcher asserts the authority of ScriptureGods sovereignty in all things, and opens dialogue regarding misinterpretations that purity culture has created. Welcher contends that purity is much more than our sex lifeit is a way of life in thought and action. The Bible commands us to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Welcher warns that purity culture portrays the act of sex as the way to lose purity. In the Christian life, our pursuit to become more like Christ is much more than our sexual nature. We are to pursue the holiness of Christ in all areas of our lives.  

Welch addresses some of the rigid gender roles within purity culture include a message that males are highly sexual and cannot be expected to stop these inclinations. Therefore, it is a woman’s responsibility to maintain purity in the relationship; women are placed on a pedestal of self-control, and men are unable to control their lust. These ideas can then be turned into a belief of the moral superiority of women. When we teach men that they cant control themselves, we demean their dignity as image-bearers” (p. 116). Our Christian values clearly indicate that both men and women are made in the image of God, and God clearly promises he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Cor. 10:13).  

With the idea that women must be the protectors of sexual purity, there is a message of how women must behave. Women must dress modestly so they do not cause the men to sin. At some point this rhetoric of modesty begins to feel less about being wise and selfless and more about the sin of having a female body” (p. 43). If responsibility is placed on the woman, it can contribute to blaming the woman in future situationsIf she is assaulted, it can be implied that she brought it upon herself or was flirting and asking for it. These messages blame the victim and take the responsibility from the person that committed the assault. As a social worker, I have witnessed this many times. Women blame themselves even when they did not encourage, promote, or engage with their assailant. I have also encountered many family and friends that blame the woman after they have been victimized, and even shun them for speaking up. 

Several women that saved their virginity for marriage have found the transition to married life a difficult oneThe analogy is often compared to a light switch: their sexuality is turned off before they are married, and suddenly, after marriage, the light switch is flipped on. Suddenly, they are supposed to transform into a sexual being that knows just how and what to do. This is not realistic. There are often struggles to learn how to have sex along with your partner. While this can be a significant bonding experience for the couple, it can also cause despair and frustration.   

Purity culture also gives a message to those who are single. An interpretation develops that singleness is something to survive rather than a time to flourish. Purity culture teaches that we should wait and prepare for our time finally to marrybut what if that time never comes? The indication is that the state of singleness is less than married lifeIn contrast, Paul states “it is better for man not to marry” (1 Cor 7:1). Oftentimes, our culture flips this around. We view singleness as a temporary state that is waiting for a shift to the idealmarriage. 

Purity culture created pain and confusion for those who have endured sexual abuse. Many victims believed that according to purity culture, they were no longer pure, and this created a cycle of shameshame over abuse that occurred at no fault of their own. One victim states: “purity culture unwittingly told me I was already broken, yet simultaneously gave me a crushing weight of maintaining my own righteousness” (p. 110). Sexual abuse or assault is devastating enough, and the shame can block a persons view of the cross and Jesus’ grace. 

Welcher indicates that purity culture made promises that are not congruent to the Bible. After each chapter, she offers several discussion questions and encourages groups of people to read this book together to promote discussion. Welcher ends the book by asking, what will you tell your children?” She answers that the most important thing is to teach our children about the character of our Heavenly Father. That God has rules, He is fierce and all-powerful, but He is merciful, patient, kind, and good. Out of that discussion of gratefulness for Gods grace, we respond to live a life that honors Him. Our purity is meant to be a life-long pursuit of seeking Gods holiness and not a compartment of our person. We need to give sex its rightful level of importance but also denounce the idolization of sex that both secular culture and purity culture portray.  

About the Author
  • Leah Mouw serves as an Instructor in the Social Work department at Dordt University. She has 28 years of experience working in crisis management, adoption, health care, and education. Leah holds a BSW from Dordt College and she received her MSW from UCLA. She currently resides in Sioux Center, IA with her husband and children.

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