Why I Won’t Raise My Children in the Purity Culture That Raised Me

Where are my fellow mid-to-late thirties mamas who grew up in evangelical churches? If this is you, chances are you heard about and likely participated in the program True Love Waits. True Love Waits was {and apparently still is} a Christian program most popular in the 1990s, at the height of the “Purity Movement”.  The program, most often sponsored by local churches, challenged teenagers to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. There were ceremonies, rings and promises that frankly, most teenagers {and young adults} didn’t keep. As an insecure rule follower who deeply internalized the messages that sex outside of marriage is destructive, sinful and would completely ruin my future marriage, I did keep the promise symbolized by that James Avery purity ring on my finger. 

Nearly two decades later, I can definitively say that the most destructive force in my adolescence was not sex itself, but the way sex was framed and used as a source of shame and control. 

I’m still a Christian, although what that means in my life has drastically changed since my teenage years. And as a Christian, I struggle with how and what I’m going to teach my children about sex, especially sex outside of marriage. But I do know that the values I want them to embrace are going to look a lot different than the ones I clung to to remain “pure”. I have no doubt that the adults who counseled me did not mean any harm to me or the other teenagers they were leading. But impact is greater than intent, and now, as an adult, I feel responsible to speak out against the destructive rhetoric of the purity culture in which I was raised. I find this kind of teaching problematic for several reasons::

Purity Culture emphasizes girls’ purity over boys’ purity.

Girls are taught from a very young age that their sexuality is a “precious gift” that is meant only for their future husbands. I was taught that if I wasn’t a virgin on my wedding day, I was shortchanging my husband for life. I would be tarnished, dirty, and not whole. I have never once met a man who was given the same message about his wife. Growing up, I went to any number of church camps and mission trips where female modesty was emphasized.  Girls were required to wear long shorts and one piece swim suits. Why? So as not to tempt the teenage boys and cause them to “stumble”. Did they not realize that teenage girls have just as many hormones and are looking at the shirtless boys as well? And the phrase Why would he buy the cow when he can get the milk for free?  completely infuriates me. It frames sex as purely transactional, instead of mutually relational. It implies a woman’s sexuality is the only thing worth investing in- never mind she might have more to offer in terms of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy in the relationship. 

Not only does this unequal emphasis on girls’ purity harm individual girls and women, it harms our society as well. The #MeToo movement, rape culture, and slut shaming are so prevalent in our current culture. They all point to the fact that repressing and shaming female sexuality while giving men a pass {boys will be boys} is destructive and damaging to both men and women. 

Purity Culture makes sex horribly wrong…until it’s beautiful and sacred.

Most religious abstinence education teaches that sex in different contexts means very different things. It completely disregards that sex and sexuality is a healthy, normal part of the human experience {yes, even to those who aren’t married}. By teaching our teenagers to view their normal sexual development as bad or wrong until they say “I Do” is incredibly shaming and can lead to lifelong sexual issues. It’s insane to expect a person who has been conditioned to believe that sex is sinful and dirty her whole life {and for many, this didn’t mean just intercourse} to suddenly see it as beautiful and sacred, just because she now has a ring on her finger. It just doesn’t work that way. It can take some people years and years to overcome those mixed messages. 

Also, in keeping with the theme that her sexuality is a “gift”, women are also taught that after years of saying “No” {and let’s face it, it’s usually on the girls to turn down the boys}, they now have an obligation to their husbands to give him as much sex as he desires.  Again, this sudden shift can often be disorienting and lead to a lot of resentment. It makes no room for discussion about “bad sex” in the context of a marriage relationship

Purity Culture does not teach consent.

In purity culture, you are either a virgin or you are not {and therefore, are pure or you are not}. Those who have experienced sexual abuse can be deeply hurt and shamed by this message. And even if a sexual experience wasn’t “abuse” but happened through pressure or coercion, it can leave girls feeling worthless, damaged and beyond redemption. This teaching also doesn’t teach the basics of consent, whether giving or receiving it. In Purity Culture, it’s all or nothing, which is not how a healthy sexual relationship should work. 

By teaching girls that they are responsible for boys’ thoughts and actions, girls aren’t empowered to make healthy choices about their own sexuality. They may be scared to speak up about what they do and do not like in their marriages, because this teaching says that consent doesn’t matter or apply to marriage relationships. In fact, consent should be of upmost importance to people entering into a lifelong monogamous sexual relationship. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I am going to teach my children about sex and my personal values surrounding it. Of course, my greatest hope is that they are able to have loving, fulfilling sexual relationships one day, absent of any shame and stress. My religious upbringing is still quite ingrained in me, and I haven’t quite reconciled what that means now that I am a parent. I am certain, however, that having or not having pre-marital sex should not be the benchmark of a young person’s worth or Christian walk. 

Did you grow up in  Purity Culture? How has this impacted the way you teach or plan to teach your children about sexual relationships?

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27 Responses to Why I Won’t Raise My Children in the Purity Culture That Raised Me

  1. Phoenix February 6, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    I agree whole heartedly. This program scarred me

    • Elizabeth Baker February 6, 2018 at 10:21 pm #

      I am so sorry you had a negative experience as well- this is why I wanted to tell my story- there are a lot of us, and we aren’t alone

  2. B February 6, 2018 at 7:47 pm #

    I grew up very involved in the church and still am. I participated in a True Love Waits weekend as a young teenager and actually did wait for marriage to have sex – at 29 😱 And I am so glad that I did – that I will only share that experience with one person. I believe that God intends sex for marriage and problems arise when sex is outside of His design… unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, unnecessary heartache. I was never confused that my worth in God’s eyes was determined by my obedience or virginity. I am a sinner saved by grace as much as my husband or best friends who didn’t wait for marriage to have sex. God’s love for me isn’t dependent on the good or bad that I do. I pray that my boys will hold the same values I do, and I will certainly lead them in that direction, but I will love them through whatever choices they make and rest assured of God’s love and abundant grace for them regardless of those choices. I don’t buy the “boys will be boys” nonsense and will teach them to treat women with dignity and respect.
    I do appreciate you sharing your perspective and I am sorry if your experience in the church gave you any message other than you are dearly loved by God and that Christ’s death and resurrection covers the price of all our sin.

    • Deb February 7, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

      I find it very interesting that the author replied to all the other comments, except this one (above), which doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with her views.
      I was raised in the E-free Church and while I personally did not attend a TLW conference, I had many friends who did, and youth pastors who preached in agreement with it. I believe 100% that God has a specific design for marriage and the physical relationship we have with our spouses. Did I make mistakes when I was younger? Absolutely. Do I want my daughter to make those same mistakes. Absolutely not. Regardless of how “natural” it may be for teenagers to want to explore the world of sex, it doesn’t mean they are emotionally/physiologically ready for it. Sex adds a whole extra layer of drama to any dating relationship. No ones worth or value in God’s eyes is diminished by their sin. He died for us because of how much He values and loves us. But it is also because of that love for us that He has certain guidelines, and keeping sex for marriage is one of them. I think TLW takes it to an extreme, but the concept is based on biblical standards. We can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like enough to follow.

      • Elizabeth B
        Elizabeth B February 7, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

        Oh goodness, after I commented on the others I realized how this would look. The truth is, I was trying to get kids out the door for school and I wanted to think through my response to that particular comment before responding. While I agree with you on most of what you said, the point is, as I said in the post, that impact is greater than intent. Whether or not the concept of TLW is based on Biblical teachings, the way it was implemented in a lot of cases borders on (or crosses into) spiritual abuse. There are a LOT of us whose lives, and marriages, have been negatively affected by Purity Culture. And while I do believe God has a design for marriage, sex, etc., I truly do not believe it is the most important aspect of anyone’s life, nor should “purity” (how it’s defined by programs like TLW) be so emphasized as the definition of a young person’s Christian walk.

    • Elizabeth B
      Elizabeth B February 7, 2018 at 3:41 pm #

      B, thanks for your comment, and as I told Deb below, I didn’t intend not to respond to your comment- I just wanted to make sure I had the time to do it thoughtfully, without distraction. Your story sounds very similar to mine- I was 28 when I got married, was and still am heavily involved in the Christian community (although I have struggled a lot with my beliefs/convictions). I’m so glad you were never taught to confuse your worth with your virginity or purity- that’s how it should be. Unfortunately, in many cases, including mine, this was not the case, and it has taken years of struggle to undo those harmful messages. And I’m sure a lot of it has to do with personality- I know people who went through the same programs and received the same messages and weren’t negatively affected. I did deeply internalize the messages, whether intended or not, and there have been negative consequences since. I think the main point I want to make is it’s not the “Pre-Marital sex is a sin and goes against God’s design” that I have an issue with- it’s the way that message is framed and used to shame kids (mostly girls) and is presented as THE standard of a person’s Christian walk. Thanks again for your comment and the discussion!

    • Grace February 9, 2018 at 9:39 am #

      I totally agree with you B! This article sound more like legalism to me. We are not loved by God because of our performance, I mean if we believe what Jesus said. His grace for us is what makes us pure not our actions of our Past. I also believe what B says, it is a blessing waiting to get married to enjoy this beautiful intimacy God created for man and woman (in marriage), “God saw everything he created and he saw that it was good” I personally didn’t wait and I wish I could go back In time and make my story different. I’m going to raise my children both sons and daughters in the grace of Christ, expectant, waiting for the person that God have for them, and teaching them treat others and their bodies with dignity and Respect.

      • Justin February 13, 2018 at 11:14 pm #

        @Grace– Thanks for sharing your perspective here; it’s been very interesting to read everyone’s personal story.

        If you feel comfortable sharing, I’m curious what you mean when you say, “I wish I could go back In time and make my story different”. I understand if it’s something you’d rather keep to yourself, but to whatever degree you are comfortable sharing, could you help me understand what makes you wish you could revise your decisions?

  3. Erin February 6, 2018 at 10:02 pm #

    I agree with you. I grew up with in the purity culture and I didn’t have a healthy view of sex when I got married. I want more for my kids. A friend of mine told me about this set of books called God’s Design for Sex and they are age appropriate for kids. I have the first three since that’s where my kids ages lie and it’s a good way to talk to my daughter about how God made us, why he made us different, what body parts are designed for, how babies are made, why people have sex, etc. it’s opened up a lot of good conversation.

    • Elizabeth Baker February 6, 2018 at 10:20 pm #

      I have heard of these books and really want to check them out. We will do better for our kids! Thank you for commenting!

  4. mar
    mar February 6, 2018 at 10:55 pm #

    This. Yes. This was my adolesence. And I can not even begin to tell you the damage it caused in my marriage because I had “saved” myself for my husband and he had not. It’s not like he could go back and take those acts away but I somehow felt he should because I had done so much to remain pure for him that why didn’t he want to do the same for me? And I had expectations for glorious sex that are simply unrealistic. I thought it was owed to me and when it wasn’t all I had imagined I felt shortchanged by God. Even more than that, I wrapped up my walk in how sexually pure I was. I wore it like a badge of honor. Like my “good works” brought me closer to God. I am struggling with how I will approach this topic as well.

    • Elizabeth Baker February 7, 2018 at 7:56 am #

      Thanks so much for sharing this, M. There are so many of us in this same position- truly wanting to glorify God with our lives and raise our children to do the same, and yet realizing that some of the things we were indoctrinated with just isn’t healthy or frankly, true. I’m so sorry you have struggled with this as well.

  5. Kathleen Forbes
    Kathleen Forbes February 8, 2018 at 6:11 am #

    Could have written this! I’m trying to be much more open with my kids, emphasizing grace and a relationship with God overall. I don’t want shame to be a part of their lives!

  6. Amy February 8, 2018 at 6:14 am #

    I’ll couldn’t agree more. I didn’t wait (but don’t worry believers – it was never good sex b/c I couldn’t relax and enjoy it), but always just knew that the good stuff would come when I got married. Nope. Took years to overcome the feeling that I was still doing something wrong.

    I truly struggle with so many things that I was taught as a child going to an Evangelical, bible-beating, fire and brimstone church and attached private school. Nothing was good enough and every bad thought and feeling (as benign as “I’m mad at my mom”) had to be repented for immediately… If I had died after thinking something not nice but before repenting for it, I was going to hell. Of course I’m still a mess 30 years later as I deeply internalized these messages also.

    Churches now are teaching about a loving forgiving God who wants the best for us, and I think that’s great. Hopefully the shaming is in the past.

  7. JP February 8, 2018 at 7:22 am #

    Im a guy and never thought I would be finding so much I could relate to in a mom’s blog. The negative impacts Ive experienced from purity culture probably place me in a very small minority of men, but the effects are there all the same. I was taught for half of my life that sex outside of marriage was a surefire way to lose favor with God, and that isnt a switch that doesnt just turn off when you get married if youve been faithfully abstinent. Only two years into marriage but confronting the notion that sex is suddenly ok after years of it being wrong is still difficult.

    In hindsight I can see a certain value to teaching abstinence along with other forms of safe-sex practices, but it should never be tied to a lofty idea of purity. Thank you for sharing this – how to teach our future children about this is something my wife and I have yet to decide but I like your approach.

  8. Heather February 11, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Thank you for writing about this subject, I’m from the Midwest, raised in an evangelical church, and was given a pearl ring for my 16th birthday and told to save myself for my husband. That was my only talk with my mom that remotely referred to sex. My parents should have known it wasn’t going to work out when the pearl fell off lol! The effects were long lasting, shame and guilt associated with sex, which eventually lead to rebellion and away from God. I want a healthy understanding of sex for my children and I want them to be able to talk openly with me.

  9. Kk February 12, 2018 at 11:42 am #

    Raised in the church with the same teachings, the ring and all, I truly committed to it and believed it was the best thing for me. Two years after TLW classes I was raped. I felt shame and like it was my fault. I was no longer pure. People in the church found out and actually stopped associating with me. 17 years later and I still feel judged by this and responsible. No young girl should ever be made to feel this way. I hope for so much more for my daughter and will be nothing but open and honest with her.

    • Sue February 13, 2018 at 3:35 pm #

      Ok, I am so sorry to hear you were raped. Rape is horrible. I hope you have received healing from the Lord. -Sue

  10. Sue February 13, 2018 at 3:38 pm #

    I meant to type Kk not ok above .Autocorrect. Sorry.

  11. Chelsea February 14, 2018 at 2:57 pm #

    My child’s school taught her that all girls are flowers and once you have sex your petals have been picked off. Then proceeded to tell them how no man wants a flower with no petals. I’m glad we talk about things and she realized that wasn’t true. I’m just sad for other girls who can’t talk openly about sex with their parents so they may believe that garbage.

  12. Kelli C. February 15, 2018 at 8:10 am #

    Mo Isom is publishing a book on this very topic called “Sex, Jesus, and the Conversations the Church Forgot” on March 6 (but pre-orders are available on Amazon and a few other places). I’m on the launch team and so have received an advance copy. It addresses all of these things and more. I really can’t recommend it enough.

  13. J February 18, 2018 at 9:31 pm #

    In a similar vein, the “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” book and culture has been damaging, as well. It teaches that you should marry the first person you date, and are selling yourself and future spouse short if you get to know members of the opposite sex at all. I am not advocating sleeping around in the least, but I think that going on dates (like my grandmother talks about) and getting to know mnay different people, even in romantic situations, can be very beneficial.

    The whole I Kissed Dating Goodbye pressures young people into marrying the first person who comes along.

  14. Mandy February 19, 2018 at 7:09 am #

    I was raised in TLW culture also, and i was *technically* a virgin when I married. I didn’t feel scarred by the experience but I believe that thaya because in my case my parents were both survivors of childhood sexual abuse who chose to talk to their children about healthy sexuality. Us kids grew up knowing that our parents (and God and church leaders) didn’t want us to engage in teenage sexual behavior including sex outside of marriage however unlike many of my friends we were encouraged to date and enjoy friendships with the opposite sex. I had 7 boyfriends before marrying my husband each with varying degrees of intimacy, always saying to them I’m not having intercourse with you. The ones who respected by boundaries were able tp be my friend after the relationship ended. The ones who tried to push me are dead to me.

    I think the difference here is though the level to which my parents were engaged with my development and how they always made themselves available to listen, not just dictate.

    Also later while still a virgin in my 20s i worked at an Obgyn office where I was literally the only woman in the office waiting until marriage and I becamse certified as a sex-ed teacher. It was not a religious office at all and I think that also helped set my framework of a healthy sexuality because to them it was purely biological.

    Now as a Christian adult i think it is spiritual biological AND emotional, I don’t think teenagers should be involved in that but I also don’t think we should shame them if they do.

    Finally I wholeheartedly agree woth you wuen you say boys aren’t taught these things.

  15. Haley February 21, 2018 at 9:39 am #

    I was just having this talk with a girlfriend he other day! I was raised heavily in the church and never got ‘that talk’ other than what was told to me in church. She was raised by two loving moms who openly talked to her and answered her questions about sex. Unfortunately I was raped in jr. High and spend high school feeling dirty/ used/ worthless/ and unable to give my husband the only thing I thought was important. I didn’t tell my parents until I was almost an adult about the rape because I thought they would send me to military school (the consequence if I had sex before marriage.) I’m still involved in Christianity and are raiseing my kids in the church; however, I will be open and honest. My kids will decide what to do with their bodies and as much as would love to see them wait until marriage, that might not be what happens so I will be there to talk to them if they have and will teach them the proper way to protect themselves. I would much rather see my children be safe in sex than shamed/ taken advantage of.

  16. Annonymous February 21, 2018 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank you so much for your honest post! It’s funny because I was JUST thinking about how to write a post like this and didn’t even know how to begin the daunting task! I’m so glad you did it because you did far better than I ever could!
    I do agree with you, I had the same experience growing up and it was so challenging once I did get married to not view sex as “bad” I was so confused that it was all the sudden okay. I want so badly to find another way to present sex to my kids so that they do desire to wait until marriage, but see it without the negative shadow and just desire to wait if that makes sense. I don’t know how exactly to go about it yet, but I hope to figure it out!

  17. Ellen February 22, 2018 at 6:06 pm #

    I found that most of what you said about True Love Waits was not my experience. I made the pledge and abstained until marriage saving myself from all the stress, heartache and stds sex can legitimately bring. In my church sex was never defined as dirty, guys in my youth group were held as much accountable as the girls and redemption was emphasized over shame. The most important thing I learned was my worth was in Christ so I should not worry what anyone thought. I always felt empowered to speak up if uncomfortable. I learned to communicate sex topics or struggles I had with no shame. My sex life in marriage works because I know how to talk about issues with my trusted partner-a guy in that same youth group who waited too. I know our secular culture never acknowledges youth who actually wait but we did and I will be telling my daughter it’s something she can strive towards.

  18. Natalie February 23, 2018 at 10:14 am #

    I was raised in this same way – not the TLW specifically, but various versions of it. My main issue with it is that is over-emphasizes the role of sex in marriage to the point that I, as a teenager, thought that was the main reason to get married and the only secret I was missing out on if not married. My girlfriends who went to a Christian university with me and I have discussed this at length. We saw many of our friends get hurt in relationships – not because of too much physical intimacy, but because no one warned of the dangers of becoming too emotionally or spiritually intimate before marriage. It stemmed from the belief that the only thing that needed to be saved for marriage was intercourse due to the over-emphasis.

    As a healthcare provider, I see all the practical reasons to remain abstinent until marriage. As a Christian, I hope to encourage my children and the young adults that I minister to that they should attempt to be most intimate with Abba Father and not allow emotional, spiritual, or physical intimacy with another person to take away from that relationship.

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