I spent years of my life addicted to hardcore pornography. I also spent years of my life growing up in an ultra-conservative “sex is for men, women don’t want it” culture. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the latter can actually be more damaging than the former.
Well because when you sugar coat poison it tastes less like poison. When you teach falsehood in the name of Jesus, people are more likely to internalize it and frame their entire worldview around it.
I was originally going to hand a post like this over to my friend, Sheila Gregoire, because she asked how the purity culture message negatively affected her female readers. I came at it from a different angle of how the purity culture negatively affected my view of my husband.
Sheila recently wrote a series on Christian teachings of sex and how some popular marriage books get it wrong.
My husband and I are reading one such book (not the one Sheila mentions) and every chapter it seems there is something we read that screams gender bias and very standard, “All men want is sex and women just need to give it.”
Turns out, for me, the false teachings of the church had more of a negative impact on our newlywed sex life than my past in pornography could have ever dreamed of having.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, allow me to explain.
What is the Purity Culture?
The purity culture is a phrase used to describe a system of beliefs prevalent in the church. It sprung up, I think, in the early 90s. There was this revolution, brought on by books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye (which the author has since renounced), And the Bride Wore White, purity rings, and even a popular Christian song by Rebecca St. James.
To be clear, I don’t fault these people. Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, just released a documentary detailing the impact his book had on culture and, in essence, regretting that it was misused. (Find info on how to watch it here)
That’s an important key here. Passionate, even sometimes truthful messages, were misunderstood, misinterpreted, misused, and, in many cases, abused.
The foundation of the purity culture was simple- we believe God’s design for sex is that it takes place within marriage.
That’s the bare bones.
Then everyone added their own flair. Next thing you know, you have purity pledges, and purity rings, and purity balls, and this firestorm of “purity” happened. A basic, Biblical concept morphed into this out of control movement of rules and regulations, and it varied depending on how deep a dive your church community took.
That basic concept- God’s design for sex is that it takes place within marriage, and we honor Him by waiting- evolved into seminars and conferences, and more books, and books for the books.
And with that evolution came new, and painful, untruths.
In an effort to make sex sacred, we made it something scary, and we lied about it.
Instead of being honest about the goodness and greatness of sex, championing it and being its biggest advocates, we wrapped it in barbed wire, covered it with proximity mines, dug a moat around it and filled the moat with alligators.
We used harsh, demeaning language, comparing people to chewed up bubble gum, greasy cheeseburgers, and used goods, completely removing any mention of grace for those who struggle or healing for those who had their innocence taken from them. We took a message of abstinence and correlated it with the Biblical idea of purity, which has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with worship.
We are worshiping sex. We worship virginity and modesty instead of worshiping God, and that’s wrong.
That’s first commandment kind of wrong.
That’s exactly the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing, and that’s why people are getting hurt.
Lest you think I’m being overly dramatic, I want to share with you a story we were taught as teenagers at a co-ed chapel at church camp. This was from the lips of our youth pastor, and was the entire point of the chapel service.
Our youth pastor, Mr. B we’ll call him, shared the story of Big Bertha. Big Bertha was very… fat. Not politically correct, but I can’t exactly demonstrate his charades via blog post.
As the story goes, Bertha was fat because she loved to eat pie. Bertha had a pie problem. Every day, as she walked to school, she had to walk by this pie shop. There were big beautiful pies in the window. Every day she saw the pies and it made her mouth water. She would walk by people carrying pie boxes down the road and the smell would make her stomach grumble.
Well, one day, Bertha had enough! She crashed through the pie shop display window and ate the pies.
If you’re missing the analogy, allow me:
The point of this illustration was that, we, as women, should care for our brothers in Christ. It’s not their fault God designed them to love sex (the pie), and every day, they are assaulted by pie. It’s everywhere. It’s in media, on magazine covers, in their classrooms, at the beach…
So who can blame them when they lose control and… view porn, act out sexually, even rape.
I wish I were making this up.
(The only pushback for that illustration was a morbidly obese camper who felt offended by his calloused charades of Big Bertha.)
We, women, were being taught that if a young man in our midst lost control it was not his fault.
Bertha couldn’t help it that she loved pie, just like our brothers in Christ couldn’t help it that they want sex so much.
So, even if a decent, modest Christian woman got raped, it was probably because of all the scantily clad women her attacker had just seen at the beach. The sexual tension just built up in him until he couldn’t take it anymore. Which is why we need to be extra careful to not do anything even remotely sexual around our brothers in Christ.
That’s why, in our particular youth group, guys sat on one side, girls sat on the other, and girls had to wear knee-length gauchos/cullotes and non-white t-shirts when swimming. The swimsuit underneath had to be one piece. No tankinis or high cuts allowed. (Guys were allowed to wear t-shirts and swim trunks).
It’s why we shouldn’t wear makeup or have more than one piercing in each ear (I have no idea), and why any sleeveless shirts had to have straps at least 3 fingers in width (whose fingers? I don’t know). We weren’t allowed to wear pants at all and skirts had to hit below the knee. Girls couldn’t wear denim at all, because only worldly women wore denim (not lying). Our shirts couldn’t have V-necks or wording across the bust. Your bra strap should never peak out of your shirt and you shouldn’t be able to see the clasp through the back of your shirt- because then you’re tempting a man to imagine what your bra looks like. Necklaces needed to stay above the neckline of your shirt so it wouldn’t “draw a man’s eyes down.”
You could say my church took the purity message to the extreme. What should have been abstinence and basic modesty, turned into a harshly regulated dress code demanded so we could “keep our brothers from stumbling.”
Imagine coming from that background into marriage.
I was terrified to marry my husband. Love him dearly. But you know what I was afraid of? I was afraid that the moment I was “his,” I would be his “sex toy.” That this man who had waited 33 years (we were both virgins when we were married) would lose all control. I imagined his lack of self-control meeting my trauma and envisioned panic attacks and all sorts of horribleness.
Pornography didn’t teach me that. Christians did.
Christians taught me that my body exists for my husband. Christians taught me that his needs were primary and that if I wanted him to be nice to me, I had to sleep with him. Christians taught me that if I didn’t put out, I would be to blame for his straying. Christians taught me sex was the most important part of our marriage, regardless of sexual trauma in my past.
To be fair, not every Christian believes this, but the culture I grew up in, did. However, it’s not exactly uncommon thought in Christian circles. Some popular Christian books teach this.
Women existed solely to fill the needs of men. That’s it.
Christian men would constantly argue that their wives owed them this. It was their “payment” for the man bearing the burden of the household. Christian men would say that rape in marriage is impossible because a husband has a “right” to his wife’s body.
I was terrified going into our marriage, not because of what I saw in pornography, but because of things Christians had taught.
And you know what happened?
Turns out they were all wrong.
My husband (and I choose to believe many upstanding Christian gentlemen on this planet) has a remarkable amount of self-control, humility, and patience. That self-control confused me at first.
I thought his self-control (which is a fruit of the Spirit that we’re all supposed to have) was demonstrating a lack of interest. It made me self-conscious. At times it made me insecure. I wasn’t pretty enough. He wasn’t ripping off my clothes every time he saw me.
He wasn’t acting like I had been taught men act.
To be fair, not all Christians teach sex the way I had been taught, but many do. Many teach that men simply can’t help themselves. They enslave men to a sexual desire that nowhere in Scripture are they ever given permission to be enslaved to. Throughout the Bible, the teaching around sexuality centers on self-control and honoring each other and God. It does not focus on a man demanding what he wants “because Jesus said so.”
We might not realize it, but in our warped teaching of sexuality, we’ve told men they can’t be what they are supposed to be. We’ve told them they are sexual animals driven by impulse, but that’s not what God says about them. Don’t go whining about culture’s “attack on masculinity” when in the next breath you’re going to emasculate men in the name of “purity” and “Biblical sexuality.”
One of the worst things Christian teachings of sex can do is paint men as animals with no self-control.
Coincidentally, this is exactly how pornography portrays men.
Let that sink in for a bit.
When your church teaching leads you to the same conclusion about sex as pornography, something is very wrong.
When the teachings of your church cause the same damage as pornography- teaching you that men are sexual animals with no sense of self-control and that women exist solely for the pleasure of men- that’s not Jesus they’re teaching. That’s poison.
In many Christian communities, the view of sex is causing damage- to marriages, to relationships, and to the reputation of men. It’s time we get back to a message of sex that portrays men as loving defenders instead of helpless predators.
We are supposed to have a different message than pornography. We are supposed have an alternative narrative and it’s time we started sharing it.