The Purity Movement Isn’t Just Failing, It’s Backfiring

The purity movement has been around for long enough now that it’s cultural commonplace. Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with true love waits ideology as well as the concept of purity rings and, in the South mostly, purity balls. Some states still implement abstinence-only sex education curricula and the market for purity rings is still strong. In just a few days the church I grew up in will be hosting Moral Revolution, a crusade for the “naked truth about sexuality” — complete, of course, with chastity vows at the end.

I’m going to paint a picture today about this movement, about Christianity, about red states, and about the conservative American South. We are nearing the end of the third (or fourth if you start in the Reagan years) decade of the purity movement, and I think it’s healthy for us to evaluate both the success of the movement and the ideology behind it.

The Guardian recently published this brilliant Life and Style article by Amy Deneson detailing her experiences with her purity ring growing up in a conservative Southern church. It’s a compelling account of the distress brought into a young person’s life at the hands of her chastity vow and the purity culture around her. What was supposed to be a good thing, a noble thing, “no longer felt empowering.” In fact, it came to feel like slavery.


I suspect that Amy’s story is not isolated. I echo many of her sentiments having been raised in a fundamentalist church myself, even for being in an area of the country where purity ideology is less pervasive (the Pacific Northwest). Take a look at the above chart, the most recent Gallup poll on religiosity in America. Specifically, pay attention to the pocket of most-religious states (Bible Belt) in the southeast, the pocket of less-religious states in the northwest, and the section of the rust belt that looks like it might be in-between.

Let’s compare this with a few other maps. This is the most recent map of teen pregnancy in the United States drawn from data by Martin, Hamilton, Ventura, Osterman, Curtin, & Matthews (2015) as published by the CDC:


Here’s a similar map published by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, breaking down teen birth rates into five sub-groups instead of three:


Do you see that streak of teen pregnancy across the most religious states in the country? Unfortunately that is just the beginning. What follows is a series of maps charting the spread of various sexually transmitted diseases in the United States from the most recent (2015) STD surveillance report published by the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention:

You can see the clustering of reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea concentrated right in the Bible Belt both by state and by county (an important distinction). Even more interesting than that are the charts for syphilis:

There’s an obvious clustering of increased syphilis infection in the less religious and more liberal states to the west where homosexuality, one would imagine, is more commonplace. Or is it more commonplace? There are still several states in the Bible Belt with syphilis infection rates not just competing with but significantly exceeding the west coast states with trends by county affirming that the pattern is pervasive across land mass and that large urban centers aren’t, in effect, tarnishing the reputation of the rest of the state.

While we’re talking about homosexuality in conservatives, take a look at this data from the General Social Survey (GSS) put out by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago:


Statistically, according to this survey, you’re just as likely to have participated in homosexual sex as an evangelical no matter which brand of Christianity you observe; the real variance is in your willingness to identify as a homosexual depending on your denomination.

According to this 2016 CDC report about 6.2% of men in the general American public report having participated in homosexual sex. Meanwhile this recent Gallup study of 120,000 people, the largest single study on LGBT distribution of Americans on record, reports that 3.4% of Americans identify as homosexual, corroborated by NORC GSS statistics that estimate that figure at 1.2%. In other words, the distribution of homosexual identity and behavior inside and outside the church is the same.

Utah, a state known for both its religiosity and conservatism (it consists of a large demographic of Mormons and voted Republican in all of the past four elections), recently declared pornography a public health crisis in response to an epidemic of hypersexualization in prepubescent children. Porn-consumption in Utah is astonishingly high, even for a red state. In this 2009 study by Benjamin Edelman Utah swept all four measurable categories for highest rates of porn consumption.

The same study showed that of the ten states with the most porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users, eight were red states. One of the remaining two states was Florida, a Southern swing state, the other being Hawaii (blue). States from the top-ten that are in that religious southern pocket include Mississippi (one of the two  most religious states in the country according to the Gallup survey), Oklahoma, Louisiana, and West Virginia.

Meanwhile Boz Tchividian, founding attorney of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and grand-son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, has been busy addressing an epidemic of child sex abuse in Protestant churches, universities, and other organizations. As reported in this 2014 article by the Shoebat Foundation, Tchividian is,

“convinced that the Protestant world is teetering on the edge of a sex-abuse scandal similar to the one that had rocked the Catholic Church. He is careful to say that there’s not enough data to compare the prevalence of child sex abuse in Protestant and Catholic institutions, but he’s convinced the problem has reached a crisis point… But Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, and schools have been worse than Catholics in their response.”

The data is shocking. Of known data from sex abuse cases in mission organizations, twenty-five percent are perpetrated by repeat offenders. As Tchividian says, Protestants can be very arrogant when pointing to Catholics over sex abuse scandals, but available information shows that the crisis is as bad or worse in Protestant churches and has been largely swept under it rug. As an American child you are more likely to be molested by someone you trust in a Christian church than by a transgendered person in a public bathroom. Yet the silence from Christian institutions is, as they say, deafening.

So what is going on? What is this discrepancy all about? Where is the disconnect between purity culture and actual purity? The story we hear in church so often is that Christianity is being assailed on all sides by the demoralizing principalities and powers of promiscuity in secular culture, and yet by these measures it seems that Christians are having more trouble with sexual purity than anyone else. Put another way, Christian moral alarmists are right to say there’s an epidemic of sexual demoralization happening right now in America, but perhaps the only reason it feels so imminent is because the worst of it is happening right under their noses in their own Christian circles. Could the purity movement actually be backfiring?

In short, it is backfiring. A study by Brückner & Behrman (2001) quoted by Amy Deneson shows that while purity pledges are 34% more likely to delay sexual intercourse (88% of purity pledgers still reported premarital intercourse) they are one-third less likely to use protection after becoming sexually active. To the contrary, 2015 and 2016 research again from NORC’s GSS data presented in the Archives of Sexual Behavior show that millennials as a whole have less sexual partners and participate in less adulthood sex than either Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Not only are Christians struggling to maintain their purity pledges, but scientists are finding that millennials, a generation known to be less religious overall, are actually more pure.

The key to understanding this trend I think has to do with understanding how fundamentalism and repression work.

You may have heard of the white elephant trick. Let’s say I order you not to think of a white elephant, and then ask what you are thinking about. You’re thinking of a white elephant of course. Picture this on a much larger scale. Imagine I remind you every day not to think about white elephants. I talk high and low about how terrible white elephants are, how disgusting they are, how God designed us for such greater things than white elephants. I give you a ring to remind you not to think about white elephants, and you sign a vow not to think about white elephants. We do this song and dance about the white elephants continuously for 18 years.

This is a recipe not for a person who grows up to hate white elephants, but for someone who is obsessed with white elephants. You may have heard it said that repression breeds obsession. I believe that repression is obsession. This kind of polemical opposition is destined to backfire. Put another way, when Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks “whether ’tis nobler in the mind” to “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them” he is sealing his own fate to be ended by the very thing which he stands to oppose.

Untitled Diagram

Couple this with the fundamentalist attitude towards crime and misbehavior. This attitude is a combination of the “hard on crime” approach we see expressed in conservative social policy with the famously rigid conservative moral sense of loyalty to ideologies and social and political groups. As behaviors are more rigidly repressed, obsessive behaviors emerge that transgress boundaries. As these transgressions occur, the fundamentalist instinct is to double down on the letter of the law: greater burdens of guilt, shame, and punishment are applied that increase the magnitude of the repression in an honest attempt to control the behavior. This serves to magnify the obsession, and so on. This is the fundamentalist feedback cycle.

John 8 tells the account of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery and brought into the streets by Jewish leaders to be stoned to death. When Jesus announces that he without sin ought to cast the first stone, one by one they leave. When they are gone, Jesus asks,

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

What Jesus preached, and what so many modern Christians miss, is that the entire story of the New Testament is about the transition of practicing holiness through actions into a holiness of the heart. Matthew 5, which I quote so often, teaches us that the sin of looking at a woman lustfully is not in the act of adultery itself, but in the heart attitude of lust. The sin of murder is not because of the action of murder, but of the heart attitude of rage that is conducive to murder. And it teaches us, we always forget, that condemnation begins and ends with the One who is without sin.

We have to hack the cycle somewhere. The solution to this crisis is not double and triple doses of repression, purity rings, or chastity vows. Those are certainly noble goals. But it is time to purge our discourses the idea of irreparable sexual pollution, or the feeling that frank talk about sex in the church is distasteful or sinful. If we want to take the New Testament seriously we have to believe that the sin of premarital sex is not the act of sex itself, but the heart attitude that belies it. It’s time relax our judgement and our boundaries a little bit. It’s time to get beyond the act of sex and dig into the psychological needs that casual sex feeds. Forget prayer groups, let’s all join therapy groups.

Cover photo is protected under a creative commons license and is free for use in the public domain.

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