This is not who I am.
April 6, 2021 8:51 PM   Subscribe

A Christian “purity” movement in the 90s promoted a biblical view of abstinence before marriage. But two decades later, followers are grappling with unforeseen aftershocks. RetroReport has the story.
posted by Toddles (172 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
I went to a tiny evangelical christian high school around this time and one of our teachers did not even kiss her husband until their wedding day.

Well, allegedly. One thing I learned since graduating is that there was a lot going on behind closed doors.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:12 PM on April 6 [22 favorites]


I'm certain it varies, but I'm also certain a large majority of christian people, even devout, still cycle through the same human narrative everyone else does. They just use christianity as a vehicle or language.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:17 PM on April 6 [4 favorites]


I grew up catholic and knew that a lot of the abstinence messages I was hearing weren't right, but I couldn't quite articulate why they seemed out of touch. Then in college a friend pointed out two long-term trends: people are getting married older, but going through puberty younger. Given that, what do you think is going to happen?

It's easy to be glib about this now. But the pain described in this article is intense and sad.
posted by medusa at 9:41 PM on April 6 [31 favorites]


I remember when kids were doing driver’s ed, there was this program where kids signed a no drunk driving pledge card, and one of the teachers involved was also pushing this purity pledge card at the same time, like some sort of general sin two for one deal. At the time I thought it was funny because it’s not like teenagers are incapable of lying. What’s gonna happen to a kid who signs a V card pledge and has a summer camp fling? Do evangelicals do excommunication? I hope most of the folks wrapped up in that denial mindset have navigated their way through but this article seems to indicate otherwise.
posted by Mizu at 9:51 PM on April 6 [3 favorites]


Sure, this kind of thing sounds good when you think you're only waiting until sweet 18 to get married and bone, but what would these purity people do with someone like the likes of me, who hasn't a hope or a prayer of ending up with anyone and is waaaaaaaaay past 18? Or that "shomer negiah" blogger years ago? I used to have one friend in high school--obviously we drifted apart--but she was Mormon and I heard that she didn't get married until her 30's, which I didn't even know was POSSIBLE in Mormon culture. How the hell did that happen?

I also have a relative who's been married well, a lot. Her fourth(!) husband said he wanted to wait until the wedding night. And by "wait until the wedding night" he apparently meant "say that he never actually wants to have sex." I think "wait until the wedding night" might very well be a bad idea in this day and age if you want the marriage to last, rather than "these teens are young and horny and we're just hoping they wait until they're legal to have babies." I guess this makes sense for teen marriage, but for grown-ass adults? It doesn't seem like the system is set up for that. Though I will note the NYT recently had a mid-20's couple wait for the altar to kiss for the first time. But it just seems unreasonable to ask, particularly if anything about your relationship is vaguely adult.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:51 PM on April 6 [11 favorites]


Man. I grew up adjacent to this; I was a teenager in the 1990s and this was unavoidable, even though my parents were Catholic and viewed pop evangelicalism with a very jaundiced eye.

It was so alien to me in so many ways; my mom had been talking to me about sex, calmly and factually, basically my entire life, and even my religious education (CCD; I went to public school) was pretty calm and factual about sex. (We had an anti-abortion CCD teacher in 8th grade who was also heavy into the rhythm method, and tbh even the nuns thought that was weird, and a bunch of our parents were like, "Uh, no, don't listen to that guy; you need to use condoms. I mean, don't have sex in high school. But if you do, USE CONDOMS." "But he said condoms are a mortal sin?" "Well, the priests in the 70s told everyone to use condoms, and mortal sins are why you go to confession. USE CONDOMS.") And I specifically remember our 7th grade public school sex ed teacher, in like 1992, who taught the girls (b/c of course we were separated), tell us that sex was FUN, and that she really liked having sex with her husband. This caused a bit of a sensation! She said, you know, you'll probably have some sex that's not so great, especially at the beginning, but really what you ought to be after is someone generous, that you like and trust, and can have really good, fun sex with. She was like 40 and had two kids! Her husband was also a teacher at the junior high! She explained how oral sex worked! There was a lot of giggling in his class!

And meanwhile, all this purity culture stuff was bubbling up nationwide, and promise rings and purity rings and girls promising their purity to their dads (DEADASS CREEPY EVEN IN 1993, WE ALL THOUGHT SO).

But. But! NONE OF US WERE HAVING SEX. None of us agreed with this creepy evangelical purity culture stuff that was EVERYWHERE, but none of us were having sex! My parents were towards the extreme devout end of the local spectrum, and even my parents were like "Here is how you buy condoms, and Jesus Christ, please use them." And when the New Yorker came out with Red Sex/Blue Sex in 2008 (by which time I was married), it was such a fucking relief in retrospect, because it gave so much context for my teenaged years. I grew up in a blue state, and so, the article told me, I was likely to DELAY my "sexual debut" for a few reasons: 1) People around me had healthy and realistic attitudes about sex; 2) Peers who had sex made responsible choices about birth control and STD prevention, and abortions were an option (if not discussed much publicly); 3) Both boys and girls were expected to be high-achievers and not to fuck up their lives and college ambitions with teen pregnancies. Like, honestly, I didn't know anybody who had time to have a sexual relationship; we were all studying until midnight and back at school for early bird classes at 7 a.m. to fit in the maximum number of APs. (That's not quite true, I can actually go through my high school crowd and tell you exactly who was having sex, beginning when, and with whom, but they were mostly summer relationships because people didn't have time during the school year.)

But it was such a strange time to be a teenager, when evangelical Christians were all over the culture very loudly NOT having sex ... and then getting pregnant as unmarried teenagers. While everyone I knew was fine with premarital sex, but hardly anybody I knew was having sex! (And they were definitely not getting pregnant from it.) I have one set of evangelical cousins, and one got his girlfriend pregnant when he was 17, and the two of them had to WRITE A FIVE PAGE LETTER and send it to all of their relatives confessing their sexual sins before they could get married. OH MY GOD IT WAS SO CREEPY. I was sixteen, and I was horrified. (And I'd been a theological pain in the ass since I was seven years old, so this wasn't new for me or anything, but all the citations to Scripture seemed very very incorrect to me and I wanted my parents to explain all of them and justify them and they were like "LOOK YOUR AUNT IS WEIRD, OKAY? We're not going to justify her weirdness, we are not in favor.")

So later on I went to graduate school in the South, and I went to Protestant seminary, and I saw first-hand how fucked up people were who'd grown up in these purity churches. Those of us who grew up Catholic or Jewish or mainline Protestant had a normal range of hangups about sex, but people who grew up in evangelical purity churches, even if they'd come to view that experience from a more adult and worldly perspective, even if the knew how it had fucked them up, really struggled with sex, and sexuality, and marriage, and relationships. I keep thinking of stories I want to put into this paragraph about people who were fucked up by purity culture and then going, "NNNNNNNNggggggg, maybe I shouldn't put that one, that guy really struggled." But suffice to say, there were a LOT of people who were REALLY messed up by purity culture -- some of whom went through therapy about it, became pastors and got married (in some order), and later divorced because they couldn't find their way to a healthy sex life.

I feel like I should have a neat summation to make here, but I don't; it was just a WEIRD time to be an American teenager, and I know a lot of people whose lives were really fucked up by purity culture. So instead I'll leave you with the funniest thing my devout Catholic mother ever said about sex, which has become a family legend. I am the oldest, and when Mr. McGee and I were engaged, he came to visit for Xmas at meet my siblings etc and my mom said, "We'll have him sleep in the family room on the pull-out couch." (Expected and fine, no beef; my youngest brother was like 11 at the time so even if my parents hadn't been pretty devout they may have had us sleep apart anyway.) And I said, "He can totally sleep on the trundle in $YoungestBrother's room, he won't mind!" And my mother said, "No, I think we won't force him to share a room with your brothers until you're married!" And I said, "But mom -- once we're married, won't he share a room with ME?" And there was a very long silence and she said, with vast chagrin, "I'm going to have to think about that."

(And like let me be clear that while my parents pro forma didn't let their engaged children share rooms with their affianced partners, they were 90% unbothered by us living together before marriage and had excellent tips on how to fill out the Catholic Church forms so that your addresses seemed different and you didn't have to argue with the priest about it. (My mom was 10% bothered when one of my siblings moved in with an SO before getting engaged because she thought you should be engaged before living together and lying to your parents and the Church about living together, that is the natural order of things.))
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 PM on April 6 [188 favorites]


Remembering I'm glad I'm not Christian and not born before 1980.
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:01 PM on April 6 [7 favorites]


Perhaps the article mentions this — though I’m now so over Fundamentalist prescriptiveness as to be unable to stomach reading the article — but there was a hugely influential book that came out in 1997 called I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

It was written by a young evangelical man who based his premise on his own experiences in relationships and finding a spouse. He urged his fellow Christians to hearken back to a more courtship-based model, rather than going on dates. The book received a very positive response in the evangelical youth pastor community at the time and was lauded as a model for young people seeking a mate according to Godly principles.

The Wikipedia article tells a fairly concise story of the grim aftermath. The book was criticized for its regressive views on relationships, the author eventually changed his mind about the central thesis, recanting and rejecting his own book. Later, he left Christianity and he and his wife were divorced.

Watching from a front-row seat as this particular star flared in the evangelical firmament, and then exploded into a supernova and then disappear, all within about 20 years, I’m reminded of just how much of what my former coreligionists believe and say is really the Doctrine of Man, and is as ephemeral and subject to flaw as any other aspect of human culture.
posted by darkstar at 10:23 PM on April 6 [26 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: But it was such a strange time to be a teenager, when evangelical Christians were all over the culture very loudly NOT having sex ... and then getting pregnant as unmarried teenagers. While everyone I knew was fine with premarital sex, but hardly anybody I knew was having sex!

I wonder if it's easier not to have sex if it has been presented to you as one practical consideration among many, and harder not to have sex if it has been presented to you as the Overwhelming Irresistible Demon of Lust who will conquer all of your inhibitions if you give in to so much as a kiss.
posted by clawsoon at 10:31 PM on April 6 [75 favorites]


...I’m reminded of just how much of what my former coreligionists believe and say is really the Doctrine of Man, and is as ephemeral and subject to flaw as any other aspect of human culture.


(Er...in this case, my use of the term “Doctrine of Man” is inapt. I’m intending instead to refer to human-generated dogma, as opposed to an ostensibly scriptural doctrine of humanity.)
posted by darkstar at 10:40 PM on April 6 [4 favorites]


But it was such a strange time to be a teenager, when evangelical Christians were all over the culture very loudly NOT having sex ... and then getting pregnant as unmarried teenagers. While everyone I knew was fine with premarital sex, but hardly anybody I knew was having sex! (And they were definitely not getting pregnant from it.)

Yuuuuup it was wild getting lectured endlessly by the evangelical groups in my public school about the perils of premarital sex and teen pregnancy abortion and how they would ruin my life when having sex was just not even on my radar. Some of those Purity Group people had two whole kids before I even "lost my virginity" but sure, I was the one who "couldn't wait."
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:44 PM on April 6 [30 favorites]


Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, gets three paragraphs in the article.
posted by miguelcervantes at 10:44 PM on April 6 [11 favorites]


This isn't just a movement from the 90s though. It's still going on. I work with someone who imposes this creepy shit on their kids.

I had a few bad sexual experiences at really too young of an age but I don't feel I was harmed by them. On the contrary--I think there's a lot to learn about sex, physically and emotionally, and (obviously!) you learn by doing. I mean, you learn only by doing. When I read that NYT item about the couple who decided only to hold hands before getting married I was horrified. Actually I'm horrified that they ran that piece. The whole thing is so unwholesome. Yuck.
posted by HotToddy at 10:51 PM on April 6 [7 favorites]


There was an interesting article about “exvangelicals” recently in The New Republic: Can Religion Give You PTSD? by Stephanie Russell-Kraft.
posted by Kattullus at 10:54 PM on April 6 [7 favorites]


Just a note that the photo caption refers to "a biblical view of abstinence before marriage," using the word "biblical" in the very idiosyncratic Evangelical sense of "something an Evangelical believes." Evangelical beliefs are typically self-described as "biblical" even if a reader of the Bible from outside their tradition might have a hard time finding those beliefs in the Bible and might even get the impression that some of the Bible's writers held quite different beliefs.
posted by straight at 11:19 PM on April 6 [103 favorites]


But it was such a strange time to be a teenager, when evangelical Christians were all over the culture very loudly NOT having sex ... and then getting pregnant as unmarried teenagers. While everyone I knew was fine with premarital sex, but hardly anybody I knew was having sex! (And they were definitely not getting pregnant from it.) I have one set of evangelical cousins, and one got his girlfriend pregnant when he was 17, and the two of them had to WRITE A FIVE PAGE LETTER and send it to all of their relatives confessing their sexual sins before they could get married.

So really the whole purity movement was not about not having sex? It was about . . . making sure kids wouldn't prepare to have sex by using birth control when the inevitable happened and they did have sex? Which maximized very young pregnancies, forcing early marriages on the luckier girls and consigning the rest to dreary and impoverished single young motherhood, but trapping them all in the Evangelical subculture?
posted by jamjam at 11:46 PM on April 6 [46 favorites]


From outside, the appeal seemed to be a LARPish sort of drama, acting out bad romance novels. The increased social control benefited the adults who weren’t playing.
posted by clew at 11:55 PM on April 6 [13 favorites]


Which is not itself uncommon in adolescence, v useful in testing out possible selves, but the never-always-purity plots were unforgiving. As the article says.
posted by clew at 12:27 AM on April 7


the appeal seemed to be a LARPish sort of drama, acting out bad romance novels

The appeal, as advertised to me as a young evangelical, was that abstinence was supposed to make future relationships stronger and deeper. In one respect, what I was taught was true. Deep friendship and mutual respect really are the basis of successful long term relationships, and it really can sometimes be a mistake to make raw physical attraction the first thing you think of when dating.

The harm being done to me by the doctrine of abstinence was not apparent to me at the time, nor did it seem burdensome. It is possible to be so inexperienced as not to know what harm inexperience can cause.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:29 AM on April 7 [14 favorites]


Oh it me!

I grew up in a small louisiana city, and this was like my life? We did virginity pledges in the public middle school and they were taped to the walls outside the science classroom. It was a super big deal with one declined. Also, the whole concept of second virginity sort of popped up, that you could just make the pledge or whatever and prayermagic your way out of sin I guess as long as you never did the thing again (until marriage). There was so so so so much going on there.

The mix of sexual abuse in my life with the added complication of purity culture is something I'm still sifting through (along with being gender queer, and marring a woman) so my poor brain got absolutely zero guidance on this stuff other than tons of dysfunctional messaging until I was in my mid twenties at the earilest. I'm dutifully still untangling all that bullshit. Because occasionally I find myself with a firm belief about something and I'm like wait, that... Makes no sense at all and seems harmful.

I think the hardest part of the messaging was clear instructions that you weren't suppose to have desire. There was tons of camps and bible studies and prayer groups for teens about avoiding thoughts about sex completely and a failure to do so was bad. And what to do instead which was mostly focus on bible study.

I really wished this stuff was talked about more. I feel like my experience was on the extreme side (and it likely was) but the resources about it are fairly slim.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:35 AM on April 7 [35 favorites]


I was raised fairly catholic and this evangelical purity thing always seemed deeply creepy to me. Sure, my very catholic mom had some stories about women she knew getting shit from their families for getting pregnant before marriage, but those were always presented as the bad old days, with the judgy relatives as the villains, meant to illustrate the term "bigot".

My mom certainly wasn't a proponent of casual hook-ups - her own stories feature a fair share of hopeful suitors dumped quickly and unceremoniously for getting too pushy too fast, but I always took these stories to be about "having good boundaries" rather than purity. Sex, as presented by mum, should be reserved for relationships with at least long-term potential to minimize unnecessary risks to health and heart, but waiting until marriage seemed a bit excessive.

I was completely sexually inactive as a teen, because I was focussed on academics and other ambitions, also, a late-bloomer anyway. Any sexual hang-ups I do have have nothing to do with my catholic upbringing. All my catholic hang-ups have nothing to do with sex. It's perfectly possible to make both of these issues sufficiently fraught without tieing them together at all.
posted by sohalt at 2:07 AM on April 7 [21 favorites]


Which is not itself uncommon in adolescence, v useful in testing out possible selves, but the never-always-purity plots were unforgiving. As the article says.

To me, one of the most damning indictments of "purity culture" came from Elizabeth Smart in discussing her kidnapping and captivity. She has noted that her shame from losing her purity (from being raped, mind you) fundamentally broke her and made her easier to control. Unsurprisingly as an activist today, Smart has been an outspoken critic of purity culture.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:08 AM on April 7 [81 favorites]


The aftershocks were not unforeseen to anyone outside the Evangelicals, and probably to most of those within it. Worrying about collateral damage when promulgating poorly-sourced anti-life ideas is sort of their bread and butter.

Also, Onassis straight points out above, “Biblical” rarely means “founded on stuff in the Bible.” It more often means “made up by a guy in 19th C, maybe 18th C if you’re lucky.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:49 AM on April 7 [27 favorites]


One of my wife’s friends from high school described her summer Bible camp as a “fuck party.”
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:58 AM on April 7 [14 favorites]


Youngsters wore purity rings, signed purity pledge cards and attended purity balls

I guess the purity balls are empty now?
posted by biffa at 4:02 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


firstdaffodils: Remembering I'm glad I'm ... not born before 1980.

As a member of Gen X, I have to observe that a lot of this stuff started getting weird precisely for those born in 1980 and after. The whole movement started picking up speed right at the time someone born in 1980 would have been entering their teen years.

For those of us who grew up in the 70s and came of age in the-80s, especially in liberal blue states, it was a bit of a magical time for a lot of this stuff and it didn’t seem like those who came after us had as much fun. I went to a very large and well known public high school in the Boston area and really everyone I knew drank, practically all of them smoked weed from time to time, and if they weren’t sexually active to one degree or another it usually wasn’t for lack of trying. Sex education was good, condoms were sometimes even given out for free, many of the young women “just happened” to have been prescribed the pill to “help with their tough periods,” and teen pregnancies, to the extent they happened, didn’t seem to result in teen births. I remember my mother leaving pamphlets on my bed and when I said someth8mg like, “What even makes you think I’m doing these things?” she fixed me in her gaze and said, “Kid, I was in Italy for high school.” There was still some icky societal pressure on the young women not to be “easy,” but overall everyone I knew viewed sex as a good and fun thing and I can’t think of any classmate who seemed to be “saving it for marriage,” never mind loudly and openly proclaiming it. The whole deal with kids being brainwashed into choosing not to drink, not to smoke weed and not to have sex, from my perspective, really come into its own starting with those born around a decade after me.
posted by slkinsey at 4:21 AM on April 7 [54 favorites]


> condoms were sometimes even given out for free

I don't remember being given any condoms in high school, but I started university in 1992 and everywhere I went during frosh week the organizers of whatever event I was at threw a handful of condoms at us. By the end of the week I had a drawer full of them and I was like "I appreciate your optimism about my ability to get laid, but..."
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:33 AM on April 7 [36 favorites]


grappling with unforeseen aftershocks

I'm adopting this euphemism.
posted by srboisvert at 5:01 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


I got my purity culture in the 1980s, when it was still artisanally crafted by individual churches. None of this mass-produced 1990s purity culture sludge for me.
posted by clawsoon at 5:08 AM on April 7 [26 favorites]


Every kind of artificial taboo only spurs desire and curiosity and creates another underground.

Part of me wishes that real sex education was a regular and normal part of our culture. Like, teaching kids that there are lots of ways to give and receive squirmy toe-curling orgasms without a pregnancy risk. That the answer to "If you loved me, you'd do this" should always be "If you loved me, you wouldn't have said that." That as long as they are smart about it -- using birth control, choosing partners wisely, appreciating monogamy, not taking unnecessary risks in the heat of passion -- they can explore and grow their sexualities in ways that won't give their parents nightmares and will get substantially less pushback from said parents as a result.

Or a big chunk of American parents could simply declare "Keep it in your pants and submerge your urges until you're married" and hope for the best.
posted by delfin at 5:27 AM on April 7 [14 favorites]


This past month I've realized that Purity Culture is a way of sexually abusing children and teenagers. Not just because it screws up future sex for them, but because it allows and encourages weird adults -- often weird adult men -- to be personally involved and invested in the sex lives of teenagers.

Lately I've been seeing all the latest re-evaluations of Britney Spears's life and career. I was of age to be a prime Purity-Culture target, though we weren't nutty enough to have its weirder aspects -- and lemme tell you, Mainline Protestant Reticence can be a Great Thing here. I knew at the time that Purity Culture was weird, gross, patriarchal, was going to give people complexes, and thought it was counterproductive because it encouraged teenagers to think even more about sex. Like, why would you send them to giant rallies and movie nights and father-daughter dances and lectures and stuff all about [not having] sex when maybe a sport or video games might have kept 'em busy a little longer. Plus abstinence-only sex education was like abstinence-only driver's ed -- just tell them they don't need to drive around in the cemetery or parking lots, they'll die -- but as soon as they get a license they'll know everything and can drive a Ferrari on the Autobahn.

But seeing, for example, the way Britney Spears and her contemporary young women celebs were not just sexualized, but publically questioned by adults in media about their sex lives, I finally realized how viscerally wrong this is. Like, whatever you believe about sexual behavior before marriage, there used to be generally accepted ethics about who could talk to your kids about your kids' sex lives, and in what way.

Like, doctors need to ask them questions for medical purposes. A counselor who notices signs of abuse might ask. And parents -- yes we want them to have good boundaries -- but parents also might ask. And most people think that teachers and religious leaders can and should give teenagers scientific and ethical advice about sex -- and that they should give advice when teens come to them with questions. But you wouldn't be okay with your kids' gym teacher pulling them aside and saying "Tell me exactly what you did on your date last Friday." You would call the damn cops.

And yet Purity Culture encourages this. It gave a veneer of respectability to all those adults who stuck a microphone in a 23 year old's face and asked if they were virgins. It's just the same as the creepy Olsen Twins Countdown Clock that ran at the same time, it was just "for their own good".
posted by Hypatia at 5:33 AM on April 7 [90 favorites]


Born in 87 and my parents absolutely didn’t push this purity stuff on me, but they also didn’t talk to me about sex at all. My “talk” was “hey you’re about to go to middle school - you know what sex is right? Ok good.” And my school had very perfunctory sex ed until much later. And my friends didn’t talk about it with each other until much later. So everything I knew about sex basically came from 90s pop culture.

Let me tell you, I passively absorbed some fucked up ideas about sex. Bear in mind I was also totally unaware that I was a lesbian, which added another twisted layer to my confusion. In particular I remember believing that “men only [or primarily] want one thing” and I would need to be constantly on guard and would always have to be the one to set boundaries. I remember thinking it was nebulously shameful to fantasize about sex and certainly to masturbate, which I didn’t even attempt until late high school and didn’t really get the hang of until college. I also remember picking up Lysistrata in middle school and being SHOCKED that the women in that story liked sex so much that they were reluctant to give it up. I had been under the impression that the best it got for women was “kinda nice.”

I didn’t have any teachers or faith leaders or relatives telling me any of this stuff. I just picked it up, and nobody told me any different.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:46 AM on April 7 [16 favorites]


I've just spent the past 10 minutes or so trying to google a very specific Oprah clip from 1992 or 1993, namely the one that put our class president (and son of the school nurse), S, in a debate with a purity / abstinence push in their school to really no avail. We were an early adopting school that put condom machines in our bathrooms - I can't imagine we were the first, but somehow - when we went from inter school debate to, we're ordering a machine - that made national news and Oprah caught wind. And the discussion was on sex education, teen pregnancy and reality. So Oprah flew him and his mother out to Chicago, along with someone that attended a school advocating purity.

A bit of background on my school is that our school had gone through an intensive sex education program over the past year which included peer moderation, a true random assignment to a group of 8 students for each and every grade level. We had projects, education, discussion, debate, conversations on topics including reproductive health, teen pregnancy, how to apply a condom, consent, BSDM, fisting, and sexually transmitted diseases. This was not normal for the 90s, and I still wonder whether it would be considered normal now. While not everybody was having sex, and there were very teen pregnancies, we were in a progressive highly educated area... resulting in awareness of what could happen. We were the target demographic of the original Degrassi Junior High and I'd bet a number of kids had the reality of teen pregnancy etched into our heads from it. So... lively discussion, debate, and then the Student Council says, hey what if the nurse gave out condoms... and then, what if someone still doesn't feel comfortable talking to the nurse? And so a condom machine was put to vote school wide and we said yes.

So here's S on Oprah, having been prepped debate style with teen pregnancy rates for the US, for the state of Maine, and for some part of the south where the teen who had signed a purity pledge was from. Long story short, teens had/have it hard enough. Purity culture takes away even more. Teen pregnancy rates are up, as are STD rates in abstinence only education environments. When a teenager does have sex and they can talk about it with peers and their peers are equally educated, they can do safety checks, they can get an appropriate sounding board and quickly correct mistakes. Whereas, with purity culture, kids start policing and shaming eachother, meaning that if and when the levy breaks - there is no support system for those who need it. More importantly, few people have the facts and can cogently develop a plan with what to do next (abortion, adoption, teen parenting). And turning your back on a 'lost cause' just turns a group of people into an STD petri dish.

So yeah... that's after the discussion of whether or not people were virgins... which on national television, S, said he still was, but more importantly, when he could choose not to be - he was informed with how to do so safely.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:47 AM on April 7 [15 favorites]


I'm wondering whether all this is coming to Australia. Australia has had almost continuous conservative governments since 1996, which, since the early 00s, have been pursuing a strategy of trying to establish a US-style culture of right-wing religiosity that they could build an indomitable voter base on. For about a decade, for example, the federal government has funded religious counsellors in all schools (with a ban on overtly proselytising, though one drafted so loosely as to be effectively unenforceable), and banned secular consellors. Meanwhile, evangelical churches like Hillsong are growing rapidly, and one of their number is PM, and looking at almost certain reelection. Recently there was a poll that showed that younger Australians are less secular than Generation X, so it may be sinking in.
posted by acb at 5:56 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


I came here to second that the whole purity/all-I-need-is-daddy thing was obviously-at-the-time and remains hypercreepy, but Hypatia has a powerful insight, I think.
posted by mhoye at 6:02 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


Also, Onassis straight points

Just back to say I have no idea what autocorrect was doing, since it replaced “as” with “Onassis.” New personal best, I suppose.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:02 AM on April 7 [13 favorites]


I recommend Reconceiving My Body by Gil Hedley. It's a memoir of his buying into Catholic anti-sexual ideas. I'm not sure when, but the book came out in 2000.

He was a serious believer and deeply into the theology as well as the ideas about what a good person was. He had serious backaches and in the process of curing them, came to the conclusion that Catholic theology was deeply wrong.

Anyway, (aside from my being curious about whether back problems are more common among people who bought into purity culture) I suspect the biggest problem are caused by teaching that sexual desire is evil rather than the lack of sex.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:03 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


This seems like a good place to drop in the Garfunkel and Oates song, The Loophole. (CW: bad words).
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:17 AM on April 7 [13 favorites]


A little context here. Before the advent of The Pill in 1960 there was no way to have an on-going heterosexual relationship without a significant risk of pregnancy. Especially so, because birth control was illegal in many places until the Supreme Court decided Griswold v Connecticut in 1965. Abortion was illegal in most places until Roe v Wade in 1973.

The net effect was strong discouragement of sex outside marriage for secular reasons, but which provided cover for all the people who saw it moral terms. The rules and bans were seen as helping young people "avoid the occasion of sin" to use a Roman Catholic phrase.

And, as noted, aftershocks continue.... I admit that when some athlete or celebrity is described as having a couple of children with his girlfriend or "fiancé", some inner voice asks "why aren't you married?"
posted by SemiSalt at 6:21 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


~~2010ish I was in high school and chik-fil-a sponsored purity cards that promised us a free chicken sandwich if we promised to abstain. Sadly, I did not live close enough to a chik-fil-a to take advantage of this. I mean, nothing about the idea sat well with me, but free food is free food, especially when you're a teenager.

I seem to recall something in Cameron Esposito's memoir about purity culture providing cover for closeted queer folks in straight relationships.

Anecdotally, I was talking to a friend who grew up Catholic. She said that she was comparing notes with other Catholic girls in her cohort, and all of them had been introduced to sex toys / had their first sex toy bought for them by a non-Catholic girl their age. To be quite frank, I think being the person to introduce someone to a vibrator is a much higher honor than being a first kiss.
posted by snerson at 6:32 AM on April 7 [19 favorites]


This seems like a good place to drop in the Garfunkel and Oates song, The Loophole. yt (CW: bad words).

I was planning to mention that one too.
posted by Gelatin at 6:34 AM on April 7


There was a Catholic high school in my home town and I was friends with a few kids who went there, and anecdotally-speaking it sounded like there was a lot more action going on there than at my godless secular school. My wife also attended a Catholic middle school (her parents weren't really even Catholic, it was just a better school than the one in her neighbourhood) for a few years and even that was enough to (by her own admission) kind of warp her thinking about sexuality for a while.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:45 AM on April 7


I am vaguely older than the people in this article (GenX) and was raised as a Catholic. I did not have sex until my (first, mmhmm) honeymoon at age 24. As a teen I didn't want an STD and didn't want to get pregnant and not having sex guaranteed that. I was (am?) a rule follower and that kind of PSA/Propaganda worked REALLY WELL on me.

0/10 do not recommend. Be safe but also sleep around as much as you want before committing to exclusivity. Taste the rainbow, babies!
posted by kimberussell at 7:02 AM on April 7 [14 favorites]


Telling an adolescent they shouldn't do something "because I said so" is a strategy that almost guarantees they'll do it on the sly. I do wonder how much of that strategy is part and parcel of the madonna/whore dichotomy that ensures men get away with this kind of "sinning" because there's no tangible proof but women must pay incredibly steep social prices for getting pregnant (prima facie evidence of sin).

I have extremely hostile thoughts about what they've done with Christ's teachings.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:04 AM on April 7 [22 favorites]


White evangelical purity culture is just so much white supremacy wrapped up in their sexual dysfunction and misogyny.

They’re about racial purity, and sexual purity of the child-bearing women is essential to that project.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:06 AM on April 7 [36 favorites]


As someone once said about evangelical teenagers in America, “[MISOGYNY REDACTED]”
Just wanted to point out how fucking gross this is.
posted by disconnect at 7:06 AM on April 7 [17 favorites]


I was born in the early 70s, and I definitely perceive myself to be a few years too old for this stuff. (I also didn't grow up in the right cultural milieu, but that's a different issue.) I actually have a theory that you can date it to a pretty specific moment, which is right after the introduction of antiretroviral drugs that made AIDS no longer an automatic death sentence. That happened, if I remember correctly, in 1996. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was very strong incentive not to stick with abstinence-only purity bullshit, because our parents were scared we were going to get AIDS and die. There was always going to be at least a little bit of "having sex before marriage is a terrible sin, but if you do it, you must use a condom," because everyone has always known that abstinence-only doesn't work, and parents weren't willing to literally sacrifice their kids' lives to it. I think that the abstinence-only purity thing was a reaction to the end of the AIDS crisis (or the perception of the end of the AIDS crisis) in the US. And that's why I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published in 1997, and the first purity ball was, according to Wikipedia at least, held in 1998.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:11 AM on April 7 [12 favorites]


It’s an article that focuses solely on dissidents, and literal apostates like Josh Harris. There are tons of evangelical churches with parking lots of full of the minivans of people who grew up in 90s evangelical pre-marital chastity culture, and their 3-5 kids. The reporters couldn’t talk to one of them? They wouldn’t write a story about being brought up in the chastity culture of Arab Muslim immigrants or of Chassidic communities that way.
posted by MattD at 7:13 AM on April 7 [8 favorites]


There was still some icky societal pressure on the young women not to be “easy,” but overall everyone I knew viewed sex as a good and fun thing and I can’t think of any classmate who seemed to be “saving it for marriage,” never mind loudly and openly proclaiming it. The whole deal with kids being brainwashed into choosing not to drink, not to smoke weed and not to have sex, from my perspective, really come into its own starting with those born around a decade after me.

Same here; I hit puberty in the early 80s and started college in the late 80s, and the concerns about premarital sex were mostly about AIDS prevention. (Well, in my case there was also some added I-was-raised-Catholic stuff, but some of it was self-imposed.)

But I vividly remember a conversation from when I was 16 between myself and my two high school besties, during which we all discussed what our personal sexual boundaries were and why we set them. We all agreed that we didn't want to go around and have sex with just anyone, but we all also agreed that we didn't want to "save it for marriage" either, because you want to know what you're getting into before you marry someone. Or, as my BFF "S" said, "You don't want to wait until after you've married the guy to find out he's into whips, chains, and snakes." And that seemed absolutely sensible.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:15 AM on April 7 [25 favorites]


It’s an article that focuses solely on dissidents, and literal apostates like Josh Harris. There are tons of evangelical churches with parking lots of full of the minivans of people who grew up in 90s evangelical pre-marital chastity culture, and their 3-5 kids. The reporters couldn’t talk to one of them?

What would the point be, exactly? To argue that the people harmed by purity culture really weren't? Not to mention that, as has been pointed out by several people in this thread, those people were victimized by the culture as well, so you're not going to get the defense you might think. Not all devils need advocates, and it's okay to point out how some culture harms people without providing a counterpoint.

They wouldn’t write a story about being brought up in the chastity culture of Arab Muslim immigrants or of Chassidic communities that way.

You're joking, right? Those cultures are routinely called out for their abusive sexual cultures without providing counterpoints.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:24 AM on April 7 [27 favorites]


There are tons of evangelical churches with parking lots of full of the minivans of people who grew up in 90s evangelical pre-marital chastity culture, and their 3-5 kids.
I actually think it would be super interesting to interview them about what they think about this stuff. My sense is that there are a lot of Millennial Evangelical women who are somewhat critical of some aspects of Evangelical culture, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were one of them. I'm also curious about whether purity balls are still happening, because you certainly don't hear a lot about them anymore.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:30 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


I'm not gloating, but I had the uncanny good luck to hit adolescence and young adulthood in the 1960's in a progressive college town and was also raised a Unitarian. I'm sure you can put two and two together...
posted by jim in austin at 7:36 AM on April 7 [5 favorites]


1992 high school in small farm town. Sophomore 'Health' class was abstinence only using the Sex Respect curriculum including the tape metaphor and secondary virginity. Ugh.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 7:41 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


Because occasionally I find myself with a firm belief about something and I'm like wait, that... Makes no sense at all and seems harmful.

The story of my life.
posted by pee tape at 7:49 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


Hahaha...I'd never heard the term "secondary virginity" before, and wow, what a concept! Religions are great at coming up with loopholes, I'll give them that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:50 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


.. expected to be high-achievers and not to fuck up their lives and college ambitions with teen pregnancies. Like, honestly, I didn't know anybody who had time to have a sexual relationship; we were all studying until midnight and back at school for early bird classes at 7 a.m.

This is true! A combination of red-state bad ideas and blue-state achievement pressure made me too afraid to have sex at the time. When it was within my reach, I couldn't get over the questions: how to birth control? What if someone hears us? What if those creepy guys are taping us from the ceiling?* I have to take off my boots; what if my feet smell bad? Having any of these problems seemed life-ending at the time, so I pretended to be too smart and dedicated to have sex.

I did in fact have the idea that it was some kind of character flaw or at least a lapse to have sex in high school. That wasn't good. And yet at the same time I was receiving excellent, then-progressive sex education ... none of it added up socially.

I regret all that. It did real harm to my ability to form relationships in the future. And I am sure it is doing the same now to kids in the same position.

----
* A real concern. Long story.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:51 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


This piece on virginal influencers by Anne Helen Petersen goes well with this look back.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:54 AM on April 7 [11 favorites]


I associate the purity stuff with a lot of the other weird big box church stuff that started to swirl around in the 90s, even though I’m not sure that’s where it started. I was born in 1979 and occasionally try to tell younger people that there was this big pop fundamentalist takeover of a lot of Christian culture in the 90s which spread its tentacles everywhere but I don’t know if they really get what I’m saying. In the 80s all my family members said gesundheit! and we weren’t terribly cultured people. It was weird when suddenly literally every one started saying “bless you” to a sneeze. It wasn’t always like that. And then “have a blessed day” started...and my 15 year old step kid just thinks that’s normal and not creepy the way I do.

I went to high school in a small town that was about 15 years behind the times, and in the mornings the teen mothers lined their baby carriers up along the front sidewalk, waiting for the bus that would take them and their babies to vocational school (which included child care). Sex was not a big taboo, though there was obviously a lack of proper sex education. By the time I got to college, there were roving groups of girls in khaki maxi skirts handing out purity literature.
posted by acantha at 8:00 AM on April 7 [12 favorites]


They wouldn’t write a story about being brought up in the chastity culture of Arab Muslim immigrants or of Chassidic communities that way.

I distinctly recall a piece about Brooklyn Hassidic discontents which touched on these issues; I believe there was a sexually-frustrated young ex-Hassidic man who hadn't ever developed the skills to talk to women and not immediately get horny, and he ended up working in a Williamsburg bike kitchen or something.
posted by acb at 8:01 AM on April 7 [7 favorites]


Hah. I grew up in an official Southern Baptist Convention registered church in Asia and yup we were immersed in this purity culture, the whole I Kissed Dating Goodbye, True Love Waits, and I pretty much married within the culture too. Think about it, Western originated evangelical purity culture meets traditional conservative Asian culture? The adults were ecstatically indoctrinating us in it, lol.

I suspect any impact it had was muted because of the crossover with traditional Asian attitudes towards premarital sex. There was also the whole cultural expectation that you live with your parents until you get married, then you move out, which made it a tad more inconvenient... not that it didn't happen anyway. Many people I knew within the culture had plenty of sex (the unrepentant rebels) and many didn't, some going so far as to save their first kiss for the wedding altar (the content conformists). The handful that I am on close terms with seemed to do just fine. Both extremes seemed happy: perhaps it was the ones caught in the middle and were unable to pick a side that suffered the most internal strife. Some even married each other, from opposite groups. The ones I'm not so close with, who knows: we are quite adept in our ability to hide dysfunction under a veneer of contentment.

I realise I need to qualify that I am definitely speaking from a position of privilege, as was made clear in the film Crazy Rich Asians, where the Evangelical Christian movement in Asia is traditionally linked to socioeconomic privilege (not even just talking about money, but about being highly educated with access to resources and information, having familial support, social networks, role models, etc). I Kissed Dating Goodbye and True Love Waits were great aspirations in the same way we viewed the idea that our Asian families wanted us to all be Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers after scoring straight As in our exams, and we were already resigned to the idea of trying hard and probably falling short anyway...
posted by xdvesper at 8:01 AM on April 7 [13 favorites]


chik-fil-a sponsored purity cards that promised us a free chicken sandwich if we promised to abstain

McMess-Of-Pottage
posted by Cardinal Fang at 8:01 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


My dad (a Boomer) was a big believer in saving himself for marriage. His solution was proposing to every girlfriend he ever had. Which, you know, doesn't seem like how that is supposed to work.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:02 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


Coincidentally, I just read this:
In her memoir, fashion writer and editor Gabrielle Korn connected the hypersexualized fashion trends of the 2000s to her experience of gender, sexuality, eating disorders, and sexual assault. The looming possibility of low-rise jeans being cool again has taken on an almost apocalyptic aura in the wider culture, as though nothing could be more catastrophic.
My half-baked theory is that our culture shifts back and forth because we tend to associate trauma with the specific details of how fucked-up attitudes about sex were imposed on us. So if you grew up in a hypersexualized environment where sexual freedom was everything and relationships were expected to be unstable, and had a personality which found that frightening instead of freeing, you might like the idea of giving your kids a super-structured purity-culture upbringing.

And if you grew up in a repressive purity culture environment where commitment and conformity and stability were everything and relationships were expected to never end, and you had a personality which found that prison-like instead of comforting, you might like the idea of encouraging your kids' sexual freedom.

So there were the flapper '20s, then it flipped over to the Silent Generation and Eisenhower '30s-'50s, then back to the free love '60s and '70s, then the Reagan '80s and purity culture '90s, then the low-rise jeans 2000s and Glee 2010s. And now we've got Kanye West and Justin Bieber going to church.
posted by clawsoon at 8:08 AM on April 7 [16 favorites]


DirtyOldTown: His solution was proposing to every girlfriend he ever had. Which, you know, doesn't seem like how that is supposed to work.

I think that's exactly how it's supposed to work. Who's most likely to stay in church? People who've delayed having kids, gone to college, seen a bit of the world? Or 18-year-old newlyweds with a kid on the way who have no idea what they're doing and could really use the support of a community like a church?
posted by clawsoon at 8:11 AM on April 7 [17 favorites]


slkinsey: As a member of Gen X, I have to observe that a lot of this stuff started getting weird precisely for those born in 1980 and after. The whole movement started picking up speed right at the time someone born in 1980 would have been entering their teen years.

It's probably not coincidental that Reagan rode to office with a big wave of support from the Moral Majority (quote-endquote) , and his eventual attorney general, Edwin Meese, was probably best known for the Meese Report on pornography. (Also for being corrupt, although he managed to weasel out of being formally charged; as with the popular televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart both (temporarily) falling from grace due to extramarital affairs, hypocrisy was the name of the game.) I think that the same evangelical generation that helped make porn more popular (by ceaselessly railing against it, they just made it seem naughtier and more thrilling) might have been a bit alarmed when their own kids started hitting puberty.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:15 AM on April 7 [5 favorites]



I think that's exactly how it's supposed to work.


Is it though? The theory is supposed to be that you will only have sex with the person you marry. Offering to marry everyone you want to have sex with seems to be complying with the letter of the rule while getting the spirit of the thing exactly backwards.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:19 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


The theory is supposed to be that you will only have sex with the person you marry. Offering to marry everyone you want to have sex with seems to be exactly backwards.

I think you're missing the subtext that you're not supposed to want to have sex with anyone except for your One Twue Wuv.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


Although if the argument is that they know that will happen and it's part of their unstated con to get these kids married and trapped, I don't think I diagree with that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:21 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


The theory is
“You’re only supposed to have sex with your wedded spouse. Get married and you can have sex. The love-or-not issue is what the support of the Church is for, to help process that dysfunction. Just so long as only married people have sex.”
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:31 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


Do evangelicals do excommunication?*
Not officially, but in my experience they do "disappointment" very well.

I was raised Evangelical in the opposite of Southern (Minnesota, uff da) but this is all very familiar to me. I'm still dealing with the deep shame at the parental and religious disappointment because I failed at this impossible pledge. A pledge that I made as a child, and failed at because I grew up to be a hormonal teenager who met another hormonal teenager and I didn't really learn how to say "yes to this but not to that" because I was taught that the answer was always supposed to be an emphatic, holy "no!".

My best friend has two daughters and mentioned offhand that they were going to a Daddy-daughter ball at their church. I begged with her to please, please don't put her kids through that, it's horrible to set them on a narrow path as kids and teach them that any deviation means they're ruined and unholy and an unredeemable disappointment and this and that and aughh. She gently told me that at their church it's just a fun thing where the girls get to wear ball gowns and drink tea out of fancy teacups, and there's none of the shaming like we got at when we were kids. She went through all that crap as well and is now determined to make sure her daughters are supported instead of shamed. Man. Didn't I smash all that down into the dark safety deposit box of my memory, never to be thought of again? I guess not.

* I finally get around to commenting on the second comment in this post, because I am always running behind
posted by Gray Duck at 8:39 AM on April 7 [22 favorites]


seems to be complying with the letter of the rule while getting the spirit of the thing exactly backwards.


Something many adherents of religions have shown themselves remarkably adept at doing.
posted by darkstar at 8:40 AM on April 7 [10 favorites]


Not just because it screws up future sex for them, but because it allows and encourages weird adults -- often weird adult men -- to be personally involved and invested in the sex lives of teenagers.

My oldest child, adopted in their late teens, was raised in a religious environment that was definitely harmful and abusive. Perceived as female at the time, they "got engaged" to their father when they were 12—complete with ring which they were supposed to wear until they took it off to put on a husband's ring when they got married. To prepare them for future relationships, their father took them on "dates," and when they got to college, they were expected to "date" their older brother, who was at the same school. In practice, they struck a deal with their brother to hide what they were really up to from their parents—a kind of mutually-assured destruction, like, "if you tell mom and dad I'm doing X, I'll tell them you're sleeping with your girlfriend." Then they came out as genderqueer, their parents cut them off, and somehow they ended up living with, and eventually, adopted by us.

This kid of mine, now 26, is awesomely genderqueer and queer generally, smart, creative, generous, loving, kind. But also still dealing with serious mental health issues that stem from/were definitely exacerbated by their upbringing.
posted by Orlop at 8:44 AM on April 7 [38 favorites]


My family tried very hard to indoctrinate us with the view that sex before marriage was an unspeakable sin and I'm so grateful that the overall culture and education system here provided a sanity check. It probably helped that my parents were so over the top about religion that I was backing away from it even as a young teen. They were very, very unhappy that we were taught sex ed in schools, but thanks to that (and far less religious friends, and the arrival of the internet) I had a clue about birth control once I got to that point, and thankfully never had to deal with an unwanted pregnancy or STI. I really feel for people who grew up with everyone around them believing the same nonsense.
posted by randomnity at 8:50 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


as with the popular televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart

The latter of whom gave his name to the sin of swaggarcy, or embezzling parish funds for prostitution.
posted by acb at 8:51 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


Do evangelicals do excommunication?

I understand the equivalent is denying you potato salad at the potluck.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:53 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


clawsoon: I got my purity culture in the 1980s, when it was still artisanally crafted by individual churches.

Also known as "micropruderies".

Gen Xer, here, from Texas, and that's where I got my purity culture, as well.
posted by syzygy at 9:02 AM on April 7 [33 favorites]


Nadia Bolz-Weber's interview with Josh Harris is an interesting listen (audio and transcript).

NBW: So, um. So tell me what happened in your own life, that sort of where things got so unraveled that you thought, oh my gosh, I perpetuated ideas that not only were hurtful to people and now I see it, but also maybe even hurtful to me and I have to extricate myself from the whole system that created it. I know it had something to do with you leaving a large church you led, right?

JH: Mhmm. It took me going through massive personal pain. It took me failing in my own church in different ways. It took my church melting down for me to kind of hit the pavement and go, maybe I don’t have all the answers here. All of that had to happen before I was willing to start listening to people. And even then, I was terrified.

Well, it actually took anonymous websites where people started sharing their stories and the things that had happened to them for some of these stories to start to bubble up, because that was the only safe place that they could actually do that.

And that was the beginning for me of realizing, oh, my gosh, like we say we’re about grace. But there’s like the exact opposite of grace happening in the actual cultural experience of the church.

JH: And I started seeing how negative that was. And I and that was the first moment where I thought, is my book a part of that?
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:06 AM on April 7 [8 favorites]


> His solution was proposing to every girlfriend he ever had.

My wife and I have been watching a number of pre-WWII movies lately, and many of them - across a bunch of different genres, not just romances - include a man and a woman who meet during the course of the film and as far as the audience can tell barely know each other but fall "in love" and get engaged. These scenes make a bit more sense when you view them through this sort of lens.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:08 AM on April 7 [11 favorites]



The net effect was strong discouragement of sex outside marriage for secular reasons, but which provided cover for all the people who saw it moral terms. The rules and bans were seen as helping young people "avoid the occasion of sin" to use a Roman Catholic phrase.


Which reminds me of the idea that "Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
posted by ocschwar at 9:10 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


I got my purity culture in the 1980s, when it was still artisanally crafted by individual churches.

My school tried that (though we did the health class video and conversation about puberty and skirting the edges of sex in the 5th grade) but the school was small and the first girl pregnant in the end of 7th grade and another married by middle of the 8th grade, so they saw the writing on the wall. Didn't get condoms but they gave up on abstinence and just prayed with the 'please for the love of god be careful' thing.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:15 AM on April 7


Or, as my BFF "S" said, "You don't want to wait until after you've married the guy to find out he's into whips, chains, and snakes."

There's an old Mad Magazine gag about this, by Dave Berg.

MOTHER: There are two pieces of advice that you should follow with men. One, never sleep with a man until you're married; and Two, never marry a man who snores.

DAUGHTER: Then how am I supposed to know?

As strange as it may sound... I hear these kinds of debates very often in the fanfic community. My fandom of choice involves Parisian teens (15-ish) involved in a complicated first-crush arrangement with each other, for instance. (Which should identify it nicely.) Most of their peers are paired off already, including two loosely-acknowledged LGBT pairings, which is STARTLING considering the network that airs it. It's aimed at a youthful audience, so in canon, the characters shall remain chaste forever and the kiss is the ultimate expression of romantic intentions. But in fanfic... it seems both unrealistic for the teenage cast to not feel such urges and desires to some extent, particularly when romance is one of the show's major themes, but to address it courts the dreaded Underage tag and/or the stigma of deliberately sexualizing teenagers whose source material avoids that.

I do my best to portray the cast as cognizant that sex exists, that it is a natural thing, that most Parisian parents are less likely to come thundering down on necking teens than (let's say) Bible Belt Americans, and that they probably know people who are engaging in it... but that it's also a huge relationship step, that it carries very large implications (physical and emotional), and that being that many of them have little or no experience even dating, it is on their list of desires but is also just a LITTLE bit less scary than the show's archvillain as well.

And that seems realistic to me. They're not diving on each other like hungry dogs with chew-toys, but they're also neither up for sainthood nor oblivious. If only real life was that easy to navigate.
posted by delfin at 9:19 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


His solution was proposing to every girlfriend he ever had.

My father-in-law really believes in marriage. That's why he's done it seven times.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:24 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


Didn't get condoms but they gave up on abstinence and just prayed with the 'please for the love of god be careful' thing.

I went to Catholic all-boys high school, and I believe the only thing the health instructor -- a gruff ex-Marine -- was allowed to teach was the rhythm method. (That, and showing us a film on "emergency childbirth" that I think was supposed to put the fear of pregnancy into us?)

But, he told us in no uncertain terms that we were not, repeat not, going to get some nice girl pregnant, period, and we got the message.
posted by Gelatin at 9:28 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


So I went to school with a girl that seemed pretty quiet and friendly, she worked in the high school bookstore with my girlfriend. What I didn't know at the time was that she lived in a evangelical household like this (pre Purity Ball bullshit) and was quietly suffering.

Thankfully Maggie escaped all of that and went west to LA to work as an actress and writer. She created the Hollywood Purity Ball to give this whole thing a massive middle finger and I couldn't be happier for her.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:29 AM on April 7 [7 favorites]


I also think that "Purity Culture" and "abstinence only" comes from a refusal to acknowledge emerging adults. For example my mom got married at 19 in the 80s. Young, but an adult. She had me, planned, at 20. And although there were some things about my rural working-class upbringing that made it hard to go into a upper-middle-class world later, at least the adults around us realized that we were going to be adults in a few years. This, I think, gave some credence to the idea that we should actually be prepared for sex, marriage, and children, because that's what we would do, and soon. For example, we could take child development classes in high school, but no one thought that encouraged girls to become teen moms!

So in "mainstreamed" evangelical culture you have a situation where you hope that young people will marry, have sex, and raise children, but you don't actually train them for that part. It's all focused on saying "no." Because people actually are living in a society where middle-class people frown on teenage marriages and not having a career or going to college, etc. And feminism, thank goodness, has made it possible for girls to take academic subjects. Whereas "you will know only babies and housework" is left to separatists and culty folks.

There were a lot of not-great things about the 19th-century and 20th-century culture that encouraged women to focus on getting married young and having a bunch of kids, but at least those cultures gave women the information they thought they needed for adulthood-at-the-time.

So yeah, the generation of ~35 year olds who were told "No, no sex, no babies", but also married later (or didn't marry) are now that generation who are constantly infantilized by the media and say they don't feel like "real adults". And I wonder how much of this is tied together -- not saying that if they had comprehensive sex ed they would feel better -- but that I think some of this is all coming out of the same background.
posted by Hypatia at 9:33 AM on April 7 [24 favorites]


It’s an article that focuses solely on dissidents, and literal apostates like Josh Harris. There are tons of evangelical churches with parking lots of full of the minivans of people who grew up in 90s evangelical pre-marital chastity culture, and their 3-5 kids. The reporters couldn’t talk to one of them?

I don't think they need to. I know more than a few people who bought into the purity thing, got married, had their kids (in at least one case, had their quiverful) (yeah), and are still vehement Trump supporters. This isn't the article about them. This article is saying that what used to be an evangelical political monolith is finally crumbling, and the purity push of the 90's looks like it may be proving to be one of the fracture lines.

I also know people who are asexual by choice, either temporarily while they look for a hopefully-permanent relationship or for the forseeable future, and it seems to be working for them. "Purity" is an icky word with a lot of negative and judgy connotations, but the choice of whether and how to address your own virginity / abstinence / sexuality / promiscuity / celibacy is your own business and we should be careful not to assume that everyone who does something outside the norm is doing so because of pressure - even when that person is religious.
posted by Mchelly at 9:34 AM on April 7 [10 favorites]


The "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" mention has suddenly reminded me of a weird tangent - the people who proudly said that "dating" was bad, so instead, they were "courting". I remember several conversations in the 90s where people tried to explain the difference to me, but...it sounded more like a semantic difference more than anything else. (This site seems to suggest it's more a matter of intent - like, "dating" is if you're just doing it for funsies, and "courting" is if you're specifically hoping this person is a potential partner - but "I hope this person is The One" happens a whole hell of a lot in dating too, so I still don't see the difference.)

Kind of like similar conversations I had at that same time with people swearing up and down that grouping animals into "Species" was tantamount to Satanism, and that grouping animals into "Kinds" was much more Godly - but not being able to explain the difference.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:41 AM on April 7 [8 favorites]


In high school, I was close friends with a couple who were a) saving their first kiss for marriage and b) would occasionally complain that no one took them seriously when they said (at about 16) that they were going to eventually get married. By senior year it came out that he was ready to ditch the relationship, but didn't want to actually break up, so was biding his time until they went to different colleges and figured they'd just drift apart at that point.

Anyway, they broke up and she had her first kiss with someone else not too too long afterwards. I got the impression that was a bit of a lot for her to deal with, although that wasn't the sort of thing we talked about.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:43 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


But, he told us in no uncertain terms that we were not, repeat not, going to get some nice girl pregnant

I can see a flaw in this argument.
posted by acb at 9:44 AM on April 7 [17 favorites]


I grew up Catholic in the 90s. I will never ever forget the creepy priest saying that “to encourage a person to wear a condom is like encouraging a thief to wear a rubber glove, as to prevent leaving a fingerprint.” He talked about sex every Sunday, and parents would literally cover their kids’ ears during the sermon.

My parents sat me down once they found out (via eavesdropping on the cordless phones in the house next door on my dad’s police scanner) that a teenage neighbor was pregnant. My dad told me that if I ever got pregnant in high school they would disown me, and if I ever had sex in high school I would wish I was dead.

My brothers and I never dated anyone until well into college. I did not introduce my boyfriend (now husband) to my parents for years despite living in the same metro area. My brothers and I were all kinds of messed up when it came to dating and adult relationships. I don’t know how much is due to purity culture or fucked up parents, but damage was done.
posted by Maarika at 9:45 AM on April 7 [16 favorites]


Just back to say I have no idea what autocorrect was doing, since it replaced “as” with “Onassis.”

More evidence that autocorrect is the enemy. As a Nobel laureate once wrote:
Money doesn't talk, it swears.
posted by y2karl at 9:48 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]


I'd like to thank the commenters so far for not falling down the hole I was worried about going into this thread. This conversation online tends to jerk too far the other direction and start shaming or alienating virgins, talking like sex is inevitable, that people who haven't had sex or aren't sexually active are brainwashed/broken/incomplete. Reading that version of the thread posted (barely, in my time zone) on Ace Day would have been too much. Y'all are pretty cool.
posted by skymt at 10:00 AM on April 7 [28 favorites]


As strange as it may sound... I hear these kinds of debates very often in the fanfic community.

No one who's in the fanfic community will find this strange at all, purity culture is ALL OVER fandom and I personally think it's the creepy adults Hypatia was talking about who bring it there.

You have, simultaneously, teens who grew up as kids on the internet where you can't really get away from seeing sexual stuff everywhere because the big social networks don't have good filtering or moderating tools; and adults who come in, take their discomfort with that, and magnify it by telling these kids over and over that they are victims, they are being harmed. They can't possibly be consenting to seeing these images and reading these words, their brains won't be fully developed until they are 25.

But of course they are teens, they are curious, so putting more warnings up, more 'you must be 18 to join this channel' and more 'you must be 18 to read this story' just makes them want to click through more. And then they are totally scandalized so they must share this horrible thing with each other immediately, but only so they can condemn it, of course.

And instead of focusing on real warning signs of creepy behavior, and the importance of maintaining privacy and boundaries (which tbf, are hard to enforce on modern social media)...there's this demonization of anyone who writes sexy fanfic as at best, a weirdo, and at worst, a 'pedophile' and nevermind that the characters are teens in the canon but in my story, they are 35 year old divorcees falling in love for the second time, or whatever.

If you aren't around the community, you might not know how bad it's gotten. But it is pretty bad, and I think it's as damaging as the purity culture stuff discussed in the article, except for the fact that it's voluntary and you can just change your social media handle and walk away.
posted by subdee at 10:04 AM on April 7 [16 favorites]


I do think it is worth noting that American evangelism is also looking back and re-assessing purity culture, and the general conclusion is not "hey, we got that exactly right!" The current discussion has been largely framed by the book Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality by Rachel Joy Welcher. This review in Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, will give you a sense for it, for those with an anthropological curiosity about what's happening within the movement.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:13 AM on April 7 [6 favorites]


This (fascinating) recent This American Life about using robot babies to show high school girls how much is involved in caring for a real baby and (in theory) dissuade them from making irresponsible life choices had an interesting outcome: while both of the subjects were exhausted by the experience, the self-described "theater nerd" actually ended up less dead-set against having a kid early, but the evangelical marry-and-have-kids-asap one (who has one of the more...interesting voices you've heard on the radio in a while) emerged much more leery of the whole idea.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:16 AM on April 7 [5 favorites]


Perhaps the article mentions this — though I’m now so over Fundamentalist prescriptiveness as to be unable to stomach reading the article — but there was a hugely influential book that came out in 1997 called I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

I grew up in not just purity culture but courtship culture and it was a real headfuck. The idea was that you were not supposed to form any romantic relationships whatsoever with people of the opposite gender until your parents and their parents had sanctioned a Relationship Oriented Toward Marriage for the both of you. The effect of this was that I was terrified to even talk to girls, because the possible outcomes were all impossible for a fourteen year-old to navigate: either you became friendly with someone who would distract you from your One True Romantic Relationship with your spouse, or you put yourself on rails to get married.

I literally did not have any female friends until junior year of college. My first serious relationship, which was during my senior year of college and the year or so after graduation, could not survive the weight of the expectations that I had internalized about relationships, even though it was not a "courtship" relationship. When that relationship ended I had no ability to conceive of being in a second romantic relationship because relationships were supposed to be for life, that was God's plan. At age 23, because I'd already broken up with one girl, I believed it if I got involved with anybody else I would be stepping outside of God's will for my life.

Thinking about this now, at 40 years old, married 10 years, it seems silly and overwrought, but going through it was traumatic and awful not just in an ordinary breakup sort of a way but in an existential, this-concerns-your-immortal-soul sort of a way that I am sure impacted my mental health during that time. Courtship and purity culture need to die in a fire.
posted by gauche at 10:21 AM on April 7 [36 favorites]


Hypatia is on to something significant, I believe. Purity is an aspirational, middle class thing.
If you go back in history, at least in Europe, formal weddings were only for the upper and middle class. The majority had common law marriages.
Anyway, as so many white middle class phenomena, it is about fear. Fear of loosing status and fear of poverty (not exactly the same, though almost). Maybe that is what fear of God really is.

That said, I grew up in a sex positive family in a sex positive society, and I still feel my attitude towards sex is messed up. Popular culture plays an important part, and so does the group culture in whatever youth group you are part of. In particular, I think we were very influenced, even as we joked about it, by American movies and thus this confusing American dating and sex culture (that I to this day do not get). Today, this seems to be even worse because of the internet.

I still can't see any pattern that explains how some of my friends and family figured out how to build stable relationships and some didn't.

One of the things I think is really hard to understand for humans, even as it contradicts logic (that this should be hard to understand) is that we exist wholly within culture. There is no "natural" state outside culture, where you do the "natural" thing. The ability to build a content life is the ability to navigate the culture(s) you are given.

Some days ago, I was collecting links for an FPP about the multitudes of ways young people identify themselves sexually. I find it very positive that they feel comfortable enough to be who they feel they are. But I didn't make the post because as an older person, I think a lot about how one changes during life, and how it can feel limiting to restrict oneself to one specific gender or sexuality. Obviously I am very aware that some people are working on this very issue, but I couldn't find resources I found nuanced enough. I wish that young people never felt a pressure to identify themselves as anything. This is a bit off-topic in regards to the subject of purity culture, but as someone suggested above, purity culture can also be an escape-way for someone who is perhaps homosexual or asexual, or just exploring those options.
posted by mumimor at 10:21 AM on April 7 [20 favorites]


Fear of loosing status and fear of poverty (not exactly the same, though almost). Maybe that is what fear of God really is.

Made explicit in prosperity theology, and implicit in so much religion adjacent to it.
posted by Drastic at 10:30 AM on April 7 [7 favorites]


I do think it is worth noting that American evangelism is also looking back and re-assessing purity culture, and the general conclusion is not "hey, we got that exactly right!"

Yes, but respectfully, American evangelicalism has spent so long focusing on the question "how do we get sexual morality right?" to the utter neglect of other questions like "how do we treat the homeless as though they were Christ?" that a re-assessment, even a critical re-assessment, still strikes me as paying attention to sexual morality over and above so many other things which are more explicit commands.

A friend once explained to me his Christian witness -- that is, how he was living differently due to his being a Christian -- was that he and his fiancee were sexually abstinent from each other until marriage. I told him that nearly everybody who is not already in Christian purity culture assumes that two people in their 20s who identify as each others primary romantic partners are sleeping together. The only way for that to be your "Christian witness" is if you tell people that that's what you're (not) doing.
posted by gauche at 10:41 AM on April 7 [23 favorites]


gauche: The idea was that you were not supposed to form any romantic relationships whatsoever with people of the opposite gender until your parents and their parents had sanctioned a Relationship Oriented Toward Marriage for the both of you.

This is how European royalty did it in the 1300s, which I guess makes it an example of cultural practises slowly making their way down from the top of the class ladder?
posted by clawsoon at 11:02 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]


This is how European royalty did it in the 1300s, which I guess makes it an example of cultural practises slowly making their way down from the top of the class ladder?

LOL - but also those days, the marriage would be between teens or even preteens. Which fits fine with some evangelicals.
posted by mumimor at 11:10 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


My Minnesota Catholic teen experience involved youth pastors earnestly telling us about their own journey and how they met their one and only *~*soulmate*~* who was *~*chosen by God*~* and saved themselves for marriage and how it was such a beautiful gift on their wedding night knowing they were both Pure for each other, as we all shifted awkwardly in our folding chairs and tried to forget this overly intimate talk ever happened. This was all in the early 2000s and it felt like there was a lot of evangelical purity culture rippling outwards and influencing Catholicism, especially in youth ministry. Organizations like Young Life were appearing and reaching out to teens at multiple Christian churches within the same town, so there was a lot of cross-pollination, at least where I lived. We got sex education at public school but it was "abstinence positive" and harped on how much an unplanned baby would drag you down and ruin your goals. Which wasn't incorrect, but there was a lot of "abstinence is the only 100% effective birth control, anything else is a risk" etc.

My mom went a little haywire when I got my first boyfriend, at 17, and I had to do a lot of sneaking around and fibbing after it became clear she wasn't going to be reasonable about any of it. At first she was worried we were having sex. Then I told her -truthfully, if a bit annoyed- to please not worry, my boyfriend and I had discussed it and decided we were not ready. She immediately began panicking because I had TALKED about sex with my boyfriend...and totally ignored the part where we'd maturely decided to not do it. She'd wait up until I got home at curfew. Took random trips to the basement if my boyfriend and I were downstairs watching a movie. Heavy interrogations in college: a camping trip? with who? are you sharing a tent? with who? etc. I noticed none of this was repeated with my younger brother when he turned 17.

She apologized for all of this, one day out of the blue when I was in my twenties. Her own mother had been dead for a few years at that point and she had stopped going to church, and was slowly coming out of her strict Catholic upbringing. I appreciated the apology and understood her struggle. But in some ways the damage was done - I had been secretly seeing a doctor and getting pelvic floor physical therapy because I unconsciously tensed up so much if someone/thing tried to penetrate me that sex was painfully impossible, no matter how enthusiastic I was mentally. There's multiple causes, but "a strict conservative education with negative attitudes towards sex" is one of them. It took a couple years to figure out what was happening and find a specialist, and another year to retrain my body to not do that. Ironically, my mom's worst fears never came to pass because I was not physically able to have sex until I'd been married for several months. I'm recovered now, have been for years, but I worry I'm unknowingly passing on negative attitudes to my own kids, so I try to watch out for that.
posted by castlebravo at 11:45 AM on April 7 [37 favorites]


after reading more of this thread, I want to recommend the movie Yes, God, Yes (currently on Prime in the US). I think the story would speak to a lot of mefites, and the lead, Natalia Dyer, is a genius at conveying the sheltered teenage "oh my god, really" of figuring out the how and why of your peers and sex and religion all at once.
posted by snerson at 12:03 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]


Purity is an aspirational, middle class thing.

IIRC Olwen Hufton, in her history of women in Western Europe, says that birth and marriage records suggest that bourgeois families of the 18th c. were about the most successful ever in Western history at actually preventing pregnancy before marriage. (I recommend that book all the time, it is fairly sprightly reading while organizing huge quantities of changing and contrasting social possibilities, expectations, outcomes. )
posted by clew at 12:04 PM on April 7 [10 favorites]


(Content warning for suicide at the end, and BDSM reference before that.) I was born in the 50s to fundamentalist parents who raised me as a Southern Baptist. My understanding was that sex was supposed to be wonderful inside a faithful marriage and sinful outside of one. There weren't purity balls but I didn't need one to become warped about sex. Like, I lost my virginity quite young and it terrified me, so I basically decided it hadn't happened and didn't have any more serious sexual activity until college.

My knowledge of sex was both limited and unrealistic. I used to talk about sex with my best friend, also female, but it was all theoretical. Like, guys can't have multiple orgasms but we can! (As it turns out, nope, I can't.) I remember going to my senior prom with a guy who I wasn't into but he was my age and a safe choice. I was in a community theatre group that year and an older man (25!) heard I didn't have a date to the prom and asked if he could take me. I agonised over it and then discussed it with a trusted adult (I was so lucky to have one, she was in the theatre group) who agreed that if I was uncomfortable dating the older guy I should say no. Here was my dilemma: He might want to have sex with me. If he did, I would have to say yes because sex was supposedly fun and cool and it would be impossible to justify not wanting to have sex with him, I would be forced to as a way of saving face so I'd just better go with someone else.

That was what I thought the culture was saying. I had to have sex, whether or not I wanted it, while my mom was all, don't be "easy," while my body was a constant shifting tide of desire. It was exhausting. Getting married in my early 20s should have solved that problem but nope, we weren't all that sexually compatible. I only discovered, in my 50s, that I was a kinky person, primarily sexually submissive. Honestly, I think the reason why being tied up was so thrilling to me was because I was no longer (in my mind, in my fantasy) responsible for having sex. I could enjoy it because it was being "forced" (not at all, always consensual play) on me.

How fucked up is that? So fucked up. It makes me so so so angry that it is always assumed (wrongly) that people regarded as male will have enjoyable sex automatically while people regarded as female do not have the same right to pleasurable sex and are rarely taught and encouraged to seek it out. Both of those things are problematic but as a cis gal, I've suffered a lot from the bad-sex issue. (This is a general rant and not true universally, I know that.)

One of the worst aspects of purity culture, lower-case, is teens (often girls but not exclusively) who are harassed after sending pics of their breasts or nudes to someone they like, photos that then get shared within a school and the teens then get harassed and bullied. Some of them kill themselves as a result. When I discovered this had become a thing in the US, 10 or 12 years ago, I was living in Sweden where such an outcome in a traditional Swedish household is basically unthinkable. But my kid was born in the US and culturally American in many ways so I marched over and said hey, this is a thing. And then we discussed why it had become a thing in the US and how Sweden was probably different but she should let me know if she got in a jam.

TLDR: Fuck the Southern Baptist church, fuck patriarchy, fuck misogyny, fuck bad sex, fuck shame, and goddamn the crazy quiverful folks like the Duggar (?) family who put a framed photo of the family's patriarch as a teen boy in the dorm room of their young daughters. I have never ever been truly comfortable in my body while having sex. Part of that is my ADHD but I swear, a bunch of that is from my ex-church warning me about damnation. I am sorry that the 90s kids got extra trauma around the purity thing. Alas, there was a fair amount of it available before that and even today in some households.

Thanks for the post, OP, and sorry for the long response, I just can't even.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:41 PM on April 7 [34 favorites]


P.S. Please note that my BDSM experience is personal and individual and not meant to suggest that other people who enjoy being submissive do so because of religious weirdness, your mileage may vary, yadda yadda. Also, that is just my guess about me. Could be wrong.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:45 PM on April 7 [6 favorites]


Born in 1980, lived in fairly-secular Houston until I was fifteen, where we got fairly comprehensive sex-ed from the school (definitely not abstinence-only, though Texas almost surely adopted that in the post-Ann Richards years.) In addition, my mom pulled together a weekend sex-ed course hosted at our church, but not conducted by our church, for all the kids my age in the neighborhood, seemingly to make sure that we actually knew stuff.

Then we moved to small-town Oklahoma, and man alive did I experience this Purity bullshit. As a dude, the bulk of the pressure wasn't on me but good god we were still absolutely swimming in it, at least for the period (a year or two) when I glommed onto the church group for my new friends. My best friend was really into the lingo of it, because he was a super-horny young dude and so said "courting" so much that to this day that word, used as a verb, is about the grossest thing that someone can say to me in English. Once he and his GF were having just tons of sex, something which they only told me about but which, of course, everyone knew, the youth pastor called them into the office for a shaming session in which I was included at their request, which involved the youth pastor basically badgering them into telling him everything they were doing. Thankfully, this also got that youth pastor fired, later that day, I believe, but it was still damaging and super-creepy.

At some point in all of this, while at a regular 11:00 Sunday morning service, all of the teens in the congregation were called up to the front, at which point the Purity Pledge thing was foisted upon us in front of everybody, which was awesome. Real, real cool move. This also involved promotional material passed out for whichever company was making "purity rings," and so once we were in the car, my folks asked me hesitantly if I wanted one, and once I gave my emphatic "NO" you could feel the fresh air rush back into the Lincoln Town Car.

I'm the youngest of four, see, and the youngest by a bit. My siblings had been teenagers in the eighties/early nineties. And while my mom was "Wait for marriage" in her own life, this culture really squicked her out. Rightfully so. I think, from experience, it worked well-enough for kids, particularly girls, who were realistically treating "Wait until marriage" as "wait until college," which many of them wanted to do anyway, and this was a very convenient cover. For those coming from already oppressive households, though, it had to feel like whatever escape the outside world might offer was being sucked away.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:30 PM on April 7 [11 favorites]


I had completely forgotten (until I followed the link above to the webpage for the Talking Back to Purity Culture book) that one of the big earmarks of late 90s-00s purity culture was the promise of amazing married sex. It was going to be literally glorious. It was extremely cool for young adults (especially engaged ones) to effuse about the amazing sex god was going to give them in return for waiting (2-6 years, on average) for the lifetime partner he had sent them. Young Adult pastors groomed their entire edgy schtick around haircuts and straight-talkin' about that amazing married sex in a way that was almost inappropriate and probably made a lot of people either tingle or cringe or maybe both.

And now I am unsurprised that the re-examination of purity culture is being led by the women who were raised in it. I suspect a whooooole lot of women would like to have a word with the fucking manager (literally) about how that promise worked out in the real world.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:40 PM on April 7 [46 favorites]


I was a young teen during the heydey of those boy bands and girl acts who marketed themselves with virginity pledges and purity rings. I guess this was later than what's being talked about here -- more early aughts, but I grew up in a very churchy place. It was weird even then. You'd finish English class and a friend would show you the card their church had given them where they signed their oath of virginity. I remember one of the most popular girls from my middle school -- she was gorgeous -- showed up to sophomore year of high school visibly pregnant. I can still remember that visceral feeling of shock. I don't think I realized how good I had it with my parents until I saw someone pregnant at my age. My parents definitely discouraged me from having sex, but also made sure I could access birth control. And they never directly said it to me then, but I definitely understood that I shouldn't extend the benefit of a doubt to strange adults who were overly interested in my sex life.

Toward the end, all the virginity pledges gave way to stories (urban legends?) about good Christian girls having anal sex and giving blowjobs to keep themselves pure for marriage. I don't really think there was a lot of that going on, but there was enough joking about it that people didn't really want to market themselves as professional virgins anymore.
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:53 PM on April 7 [8 favorites]


The whole deal with kids being brainwashed into choosing not to drink

Every time I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park (pre-covid), there was always a table from the local MADD or SADD with pamphlets. If you signed a form pledging not to drink, you got a coupon for a free small soda. Since I don't drink, I always made sure to sign, and also to congratulate them on their good work since it's a thankless task but an important one.
posted by Melismata at 2:19 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]


I grew up in the fundamentalist Baptist cullture and it's definitely fucked me up too. (In lots of interesting ways that I keep discovering after even years away!) I'm a man in my 30's and there is this deep undercurrent of shame that even now makes it difficult for me to form romantic connections. It really sucks, and I know it was even worse for the women in that culture.

One event that sticks out in my memory from my tiny Christian high school was when a girl the grade above me got pregnant. She was brought before the church and made to confess before the whole church. I do not recall the boy being brought up, because of course he wasn't. Even then, in the deepest part of my indoctrination, that felt wrong and unfair. Now it makes me incandescently angry.
posted by JDHarper at 2:36 PM on April 7 [24 favorites]


Except that MADD is just the modern Temperance movement.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:37 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]


For those asking about the people that never left Purity Culture, I'm p sure they grew up to be the Fight the New Drug people
posted by fluttering hellfire at 2:51 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]


Ok, so that reminds me. I absolutely never knew anyone who took a purity pledge about sex, because I'm too old and the wrong religion. But I spent my junior year of college in Ireland, and I met a lot of people who had "taken the pledge" to practice "total abstinence," and in that case, it was abstinence from alcohol. It was associated with something called the Pioneer Total Abstinence Society, which was a Catholic temperance group. They had pledged not to drink until they were 18, and in some cases I think people took the pledge not to drink alcohol ever. Everyone treated it like a bit of a joke, but it was definitely a thing. I wonder if the whole purity pledge thing was borrowed from temperance-related abstinence promises.

I was also intrigued about the bit where Joshua Harris describes purity culture as Christian veganism. I think there might be something to that, and it also reminds me a bit of straight edge. There is a whole thing about self-denial as a marker of identity, and I think it might be particularly attractive to teenagers. Older people tend to be a little less all-or-nothing in their thinking.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:09 PM on April 7 [12 favorites]


"The "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" mention has suddenly reminded me of a weird tangent - the people who proudly said that "dating" was bad, so instead, they were "courting". I remember several conversations in the 90s where people tried to explain the difference to me, but...it sounded more like a semantic difference more than anything else."

The thing is that a lot of the ideas of "courting" are not that bad ... they're just built an underlayer of misogyny and puritanism around sex, so that in practice they manage to become wildly creepy. But like, it's healthy for high school students to hang out with a big group of mixed-gender friends, with some (but not too much!) benevolent parental supervision. It's usually not great when a teen couple become involved in each other to the exclusion of everything else and start cutting off their friendships! Parents should know their kids' friends! (And should be the kind of parents that you can, you know, introduce your friends to without worrying they'll freak out.)

But all those things should be happening not because of a pathological fear of sex and "saving it for marriage" but because in high school you're still learning who you are and who you want to be and doing that within a supportive community and family where there are caring adults in the background that you can turn to if you fuck up or get in trouble, and who are able to step in and say, "Thiiiiiiiiis does not seem healthy." And just generally because making permanent life decisions that close off entire areas of life to you while in high school is deeply problematic. (I mean, just think of people like Britney Spears who become famous young, or elite gymnasts who commit their lives to gymnastics so young -- some people come out of all of that okay, but quite often those scenarios where teenagers are making adult decisions are abusive, and even people who navigate it okay often talk about how much they missed out on by choosing a life so young.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:18 PM on April 7 [11 favorites]


I haven't had a chance to read all of the comments (I've read a lot of them) but I just want to express my gratitude that religion-induced PTSD is being talked about. I've been working through religious PTSD from my teenage years to now, in middle age. The cost of it to my life and well-being has been incalculable and overwhelming, and I've always felt weak and embarrassed about how much pain it has caused me (especially given that the people I'm close enough to to open up to about it have typically been fairly dismissive and even patronizing).

I'm so glad these conversations are taking place. They are long overdue.
posted by treepour at 3:31 PM on April 7 [16 favorites]


Being raised Catholic, I always had a "get out of jail free" card in the form of holy confession. Also it helped a lot that I could never get a girlfriend.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:33 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]


My private fundamentalist school in the 90s produced a significant number of virgin births. It's how you knew the whole thing was Real.

Do evangelicals do excommunication?

At least in the communities I grew up in (more fundamentalist than evangelical, but there is significant overlap), there's a thing called "church discipline" which they will kick you out of the church and any church they have fellowship with if you repeat bad behavior and don't atone for it. Let's just say a lot of those virgin births led to some of that activity.
posted by General Malaise at 3:35 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]


I once had this girlfriend when we were in college. She had in her car a laminated picture of a high school boy in a sports uniform with some bible stuff on the back. Most of her friends had the same picture in their cars or wallets. A funeral memento from a popular classmate who had suddenly died of meningitis in junior year of high school. Creepy, but no big deal.

We dated a few weeks, no sex, good times. One day she shows up at my house at like 2 a.m., tells me to jump in the car, drives to a park, and initiates very enthusiastic, aggressive, and uncomfortable front seat car sex. Sure, why not.

We finish, she throws the laminated picture out the car window and tells me to get lost. Confusing, but just a short walk home for me.

She did not talk to me for some time, I had to get the story from one of her friends. My premarital sex performance review had been shared, I got an "Acceptable, needs improvement to meet expectations for the role", but at least it was better than married friend's review.

What happened is that their catholic high school had been trying to do the purity pledge thing with very little success. A few virgin births, a few people openly boasting about their sexual exploits. Their main angle was the premarital sex is a sin and does not even feel that good, marital sex is wonderful and holy and angels sing and you touch the face of god or whatever.

Popular kid had just started having premarital sex and telling friends that it was actually kind of enjoyable. Popular kid dies suddenly. Popular kid's mother stands up at the funeral and tells the kids present how popular kid's last words before he went in a coma were how much he regretted premarital sex, and his last wish was for his friends to make a purity pledge in his honor, thus the laminated card.

Popular kid's mother would call the kids every couple weeks to ask if they were keeping the pledge, to ask them to tell them about their temptations and fantasies so she could coach them out of sinful thought. Popular kid's mother would remind kids that dead boy was watching them, and how disappointed he would be if they broke the pledge.

The day of the night of the unexpected car ride was when the first person to get married in the group had come back from her honeymoon, married to another purity pledger. Newlywed bride confesses that marital sex had not been that good actually, more crying than angel songs, more pain than ecstasies. Newlywed bride was destroyed, and groom was not doing much better.

Cousin of dead popular kid breaks down and tells the story that when popular kid died the priests and nuns at the school had not wasted a single minute to start telling popular kid's mom that popular kid was probably going to hell, because of the sex and not having time for confession before the coma, but maybe if mom went along with this little plan to get kids to pledge purity, and the kids followed through, then maybe popular kid could get a fast pass through purgatory or something and go to heaven.

At the time I had no idea how to think about the whole incident. I think I mostly felt good that I had a weird sex story to tell. Now I can not begin to imagine the position dead kid's mother was put in. How much unnecessary suffering everyone involved had to go through. It has been decades, sometimes I run into one of the people from the group, some seem to be doing well, some are hardcore into purity and sex and alcohol abstinence.

But the priests and nuns got their 300 purity pledges signed.

I've seen evil, these priests and nuns are on my top ten. The damage so deep, the stakes so fucking low.
posted by Dr. Curare at 4:30 PM on April 7 [75 favorites]


I really wish that instead of focusing on how masturbation was like prostitution (which of course makes you “bad” because they are both abuses of your body before God), or on what diseases you would get and deserve if you had premarital sex, my middle school sex-ed had maybe spent like one single day on consent. All this time you’re spending enforcing purity norms is time you could be spending helping people figure out how to have fun without hurting each other. I just hope things are different for the kids of today.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:03 PM on April 7 [21 favorites]


There are tons of evangelical churches with parking lots of full of the minivans of people who grew up in 90s evangelical pre-marital chastity culture, and their 3-5 kids. The reporters couldn’t talk to one of them? They wouldn’t write a story about being brought up in the chastity

Hi. My wife and I grew up in the Evangelical church in the late 80s and early 90s. Neither of us had sex before we were married. Thirty years later we're still married and sex has been one of the most consistently positive parts of our relationship. (The word "most" is doing a lot of work there. We have problems and are not always happy.) I think that, for us, it's been helpful that sex has only ever been a thing between the two of us.

But!

Lots of people have VERY different circumstances, relationships, desires, temperaments, and histories than we do. The fact that this has worked out for us seems much more like a happy accident of compatible people meeting and living in fortunate circumstances than some sort of ideal everyone should follow or proof that we made better choices than other people. Lots of people try to do things like we did and it doesn't work out. Lots of other people have very good relationships that are different from ours in about every way you could think of.

Anyone who says "Hey look, our relationship worked; you should do what we did!" doesn't know how survivorship bias works. At best I can say it's possible to have a pretty good relationship if you don't have sex before you get married.

And maybe I'm even wrong about how things worked for us. Maybe things have been as good as they are in spite of rather than because of the choices we made. Maybe we'd have a much better sex life if one or both of us had more experience before we were married.
posted by straight at 5:29 PM on April 7 [23 favorites]


I had completely forgotten (until I followed the link above to the webpage for the Talking Back to Purity Culture book) that one of the big earmarks of late 90s-00s purity culture was the promise of amazing married sex.

Yeah the review in Christianity Today points out that Jesus doesn’t actually promise anyone a loving spouse, hot sex life, and happy healthy biological kids. Eternal life, sure. Worldly things like goods, honor, child, spouse.... ehh.

And of course many people are really suffering from the lack of those things! loving relationships that you feel good about are important to a full life! But the prosperity gospel doesn’t work for sex either.
posted by Hypatia at 5:41 PM on April 7 [10 favorites]


One of the other factors about the widespread purity culture of the 80s/90s that can't be ignored is the specter of AIDS. There was a lot of adoption of "You must remain PURE or you will DIE" going on among the purity fanatics.

There weren't enough copies of Sassy going around to combat that or the fact an entire generation of gay men just vanished. And the Reagan/Bush administrations didn't give a shit about it.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 5:41 PM on April 7 [25 favorites]


I grew up in an evangelical church in the 80s-90s. For context, we withdrew from the SBC on account of it being "too liberal", and we went through a major theological overhaul when we embraced reformed theology/hypercalvinism once people decided that it was too stressful to feel personally responsible for your neighbors being condemned to hellfire because you weren't aggressive enough in your witnessing. So, rather on the conservative, hellfire-and-brimstone side of things - profoundly wary of "the world" outside the church doors, deeply proud to feel hated for their beliefs.

I want to talk a little bit about the long-term effects of signing a purity pledge card, both for myself and for some other folks my age.

We all had to sign purity pledge cards when we were adolescents. They sprung it on us at a camp event - naturally, we were all called up to a brightly-lit stage and asked to sign and pin little cards pledging our virginity until marriage. Most of us had no idea what sex actually was, just that it would spiritually mutilate you if performed outside the bounds of a heterosexual marriage conducted within the church. Like a lot of things, we were asked to take it on faith that it was bad unless reserved for very narrow circumstances waiting for us somewhere on the other side of age 18.

Later, when my mom summoned the courage to ask me if I'd been sexually active when I was 16, and I said yes, the reaction was two-fold. One, tears. Two, fury that I'd violated a sacred pledge that I'd made in front of the church (and, by extension, their peers). The church doesn't equip people to talk about sex outside of a biblical framework, so we haven't acknowledged sex for the last twenty years (unless it's to hear someone decry homosexuality or be told obliquely about how I've aged out of being a viable father.)

I got off easy, largely because I left the church and Florida when I turned 18, and never seriously looked back. Friends of mine who were outed as fornicators but wanted to remain in the church, or get married in the church - i.e., stop living in sin - were often "churched". Being churched meant being called on stage, in the middle of services, and giving a full accounting of your sexual sins before the entire congregation and begging forgiveness. I'm sure there are passages in the bible that can justify such acts of accountability, but I guarantee no one other than young teenagers in love ever got the treatment. Naturally, the guys were generally cast as young men who got ahead of themselves, and the girls as inadvertent temptresses who invited disaster into the relationship. I don't know how truly rehabilitated folks who were "churched" were after confessing, but having grown up around the weekly spectacle of prospective church converts confessing all kinds of adultery and rape and felonious behavior to sincere applause before baptism, I have a feeling the community moved on pretty quickly after some counseling to re-integrate the couple into the fold. I'm sure that my friends who had to stand on that stage, in front of parents and strangers and little kids, never forgot it.

Ironically, I think that if I did have someone that I could have talked to at least a little frankly about sex, I would have ultimately had less of it, or at least been more discriminating. I had some terrible experiences that I can never discuss with anyone, and my life was seriously derailed for years while I privately dealt with the consequences of trying to make choices that felt right for myself. While I was always welcome back in the church - perhaps with a little "churching" - the fact remains that ex-evangelicals often have zero support from their prior community and are badly equipped to find a new community that doesn't feel deeply suspect for being tainted with secularism. To this day, I feel like a spiritual exile (from what, I don't know) on account of my experiences, and it is a source of continual pain and private, bedrock shame.

I'm rambling a little bit, but this topic is so important to me, and has been so hard to talk about for many, many years. The evangelical movement is responsible for abjectly failing to teach respect and responsibility, misleading young people about the serious, potentially lifelong spiritual and emotional consequences of sexual activity (both good and bad!) and misleading them about what to expect, and literally setting a stage for lifelong guilt and dysfunction. I hate their perversions of gender and their failure to defend the young from emotional trauma and misinformation. It was profoundly irresponsible to try to replace helping people adapt to an entirely natural aspect of life with grotesque burlesques of sex education and stylized rituals that did nothing but gratify the sensibilities of church leadership.
posted by Transmissions From Vrillon at 6:50 PM on April 7 [34 favorites]


I went to a single sex catholic boarding school in the 90s. Broadly, the entire experience reinforced my existing atheism. My face, the first time I saw dead Jesus hanging over the altar at 12yo, must have been priceless. So the sex ed thing slid right off. I put it all in the 'crazy shit catholics do' basket. When my girlfriend would pick me up from the dorm in the afternoon and we disappeared for hours, no one asked any questions. I don't think anyone believed we were playing checkers.

What was extremely damaging was our education about homosexuality. Which was none. It wasn't a thing that existed. I mean, it was known to exist, but in the same way murder and rape is, in extremis. Definitely not a thing normal people did.

Ben was a boy in my class who died, he was only 16yo. It was a great tragedy, a traffic accident, or so it was called. Ben was eulogized and services held, prayers offered. Everyone had so many nice things to say about him, he was so sweet and kind and generous, such a loss. What no-one said was that he was gay and he died by suicide.

I learnt this from Lachlan, Ben's best friend. He was always so cool and sharp, he'd quote Wilde and Morrissey and have us laughing our asses off (at the time I never made the connection). The color drained out of him when Ben died. The only thing that animated him anymore was anger at the prayers and solemn praise. He said they didn't really know Ben, not like he did.

He would never tell me why. I was homophobic, EVERYBODY was homophobic. There was no way he could be 'out' at that school. One night he sneaked out of the dorm to a construction site on the campus, he took a few dozen paving stones and spelled out BEN in giant letters in a field. It must have taken him all night. For this he was expelled.

It was actually after I left school when someone asked me if there were any gays at the school. I thought about it and suddenly realized Lachlan and Ben were gay! Now it made sense! And it made the tragedy so much worse, poor Lachlan, he had no-one to talk to.

I can only wonder that the school must have known about this and decided to erase it, and Lachlan. So, y'know, fuck 'em, buncha jerks. For me, that moment when I figured it out, all the indoctrination and homophobia just made me reel. I was part of it.

Yuck. Damn them for what they did to Lachlan and Ben.
posted by adept256 at 7:12 PM on April 7 [47 favorites]


I had a weird split upbringing. My parents were former Catholics who'd migrated into a fairly leftist Episcopalian church, so they were sexually conservative, but in an old-fashioned way. You weren't supposed to have sex before marriage, but it wasn't this subject of fevered focus. On the other hand, my extended family...a number of them were either fundamentalist Protestants or charismatic Catholics, and they were definitely on the "purity" bandwagon. So I saw the phenomenon, but partially from the outside. It always seemed sort of tacky and silly to me (I hate to say it, but a way my Episcopalian liturgical snobbery served me well), yet there was no doubt of the havoc it could wreak. My uncle ended up disowning two of his daughters for having premarital sex--and so did their brother. I agree with whoever said earlier that the really innovative harm was the shift to the intense adult interest in the details of teenagers' sex lives that is just wildly inappropriate, and the personalization of it. Before I threw off religion, I would probably have thought that my having premarital sex would be morally wrong and would disappoint my parents (I became agnostic early enough that this is a theoretical question), but I wouldn't have thought of it as violating some sacred pledge I'd made to save my purity for my dad. Ewwwwwww.
posted by praemunire at 7:19 PM on April 7 [7 favorites]


Sometimes I thank the baby jesus that the only threat I had from teenage sex was the shotgun leaning against the wall in my girlfriend's parents' bedroom and that it wasn't actually directed at us. That and the actual threats which were communicated soberly in the sex ed curriculum at public school every couple of years.

Things could have been very different if my mother's vague attempts at giving her kids the church bug hadn't worn off so early. My dad was quite the asshole, but his open contempt for the churchy Baptist busybodies who made up such a large part of our small city served me well, as did being exposed to enough of it to eventually realize how right he was.
posted by wierdo at 7:40 PM on April 7


The thing is that a lot of the ideas of "courting" are not that bad ... they're just built an underlayer of misogyny and puritanism around sex, so that in practice they manage to become wildly creepy. But like, it's healthy for high school students to hang out with a big group of mixed-gender friends, with some (but not too much!) benevolent parental supervision. It's usually not great when a teen couple become involved in each other to the exclusion of everything else and start cutting off their friendships! Parents should know their kids' friends! (And should be the kind of parents that you can, you know, introduce your friends to without worrying they'll freak out.)

Right, but....all of that is also true of "dating".

The impression I got was that the real reason people were calling it "courting" was because that was what The Bible called it, and that was it. "Dating" was something heathens did - it wasn't in the Bible. However, the Bible talked about something called "courting", so....let's just use that word for it instead and just say it's different. ....Oh, whoops, almost forgot to add in the no-sex stuff.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 PM on April 7 [1 favorite]


Being churched meant being called on stage, in the middle of services, and giving a full accounting of your sexual sins before the entire congregation and begging forgiveness.

Wow, struggle sessions but with Jesus. Incredible.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:07 PM on April 7 [6 favorites]


Grew up in Kansas, but in a non-religous conservative family. So hard to hear what all of you had to deal with...hugs to you all.
posted by Windopaene at 9:14 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]


However, the Bible talked about something called "courting", so....let's just use that word for it instead

Sigh. The word "courting" is not in the Bible. Some people claim they can find the concept of courting in the Bible, but I think it's a huge anachronistic stretch.
posted by straight at 9:20 PM on April 7 [18 favorites]


Thanks to everyone who share here. I keep finding stuff that I'm like oh yeah THAT totally happened too.

I really focus on the intersection of trauma and purity culture, because I was already dealing with so much trauma and purity culture really reinforced that I was suppose to have complete control over my thoughts and feelings and clothes and be the modest no one will ever have sinful thoughts about me. It also enforced the ideas that my abuse was because of attraction, not power.

As a teen who had very symptomatic PTSD in high school, and being in the church, it was kind of known what was going on with me... But those adults really just basically were like yeah that's tough just don't have sex , and don't wear those clothes or listen to that music or and all the things that they wanted. I took from it that i was clearly broken and had no good options but to fumble through and try to make up for my life by being a better Christian which was a cycle of never being good enough for anyone because purity culture is unachievable.

Out of my extended family raised in the same time period 4/5 girls had kids before 20 in some type of marriage or not marriage situation. I'm the only one who went to college, and delayed getting married, and I got married at 25! These are white adults whose parents and grandparents had college degrees. I really think purity culture helped keep and reinforce some massive disfunction and abuse and really changed our trajectories in ways that were unexpected.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:01 PM on April 7 [7 favorites]


Meatbomb: Wow, struggle sessions but with Jesus. Incredible.

Struggle sessions got started with Bible Communism, so it's not entirely surprising.
posted by clawsoon at 11:55 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]


"The impression I got was that the real reason people were calling it "courting" was because that was what The Bible called it, and that was it."

Uhhhhhhh it does not, at all, anywhere. And there is no concept in the Bible of women being courted and choosing among suitors; marriages in the Bible are arranged among families, communities, and religious groups. Courting is a wildly anachronistic idea. Women having anything so say about who they marry is a wildly anachronistic idea. Men trying to persuade the women is FLATLY ABSURD.

And like, let's be extremely clear that in the Book of Ruth, when Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz's feet, and Ruth sneaks to his bed in the middle of the night to uncover his feet, RUTH IS HAVING SEX WITH HIM. "Feet" (like hands) is a euphemism for penis, and people covering or uncovering their feet in the Bible are either taking a piss or having sex.

I don't know who tried to tell you there's courting in the Bible, bit they were very wrong and clearly had not actually read it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:00 AM on April 8 [25 favorites]


"Feet" (like hands) is a euphemism for penis, and people covering or uncovering their feet in the Bible are either taking a piss or having sex.
I'm choosing to believe you on this.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:08 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


WOW, I had no idea that so many MeFites have gone through this. Hugs to all of you.

My granddad was a great fan of The book of Ecclesiastes, and I think this was his favorite verse:

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

Granddad's "christianity" was something wholly of his own invention that had originated with his parents baptizing him as a protection against antisemitism, and it was mainly a practice of reading Ecclesiastes every now and then, and quoting from it frequently. I recommend. Maybe I should move to the US and start the church of mumipops.
posted by mumimor at 1:46 AM on April 8 [18 favorites]


The cost of it to my life and well-being has been incalculable and overwhelming, and I've always felt weak and embarrassed about how much pain it has caused me (especially given that the people I'm close enough to to open up to about it have typically been fairly dismissive and even patronizing).

treepour, that totally sucks. Fuck those folks and also, hugs to you (if that's your thing) and to anyone else here who needs 'em. This stuff is so hard. Knowing that I'm not alone doesn't make things easier, exactly, but it does help. Thanks to all who shared their stories, it's appreciated.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:14 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]


UK ex-evangelical atheist here. Nominal Christian family, got serious about evangelicalism during from about 16 to 21 i.e. sixth form and university, through the activities fo the Christian Unions in those places, including the one once ragged on by Aleister Crowley (no, really), de-converted in my mid 20s.

There were some differences from the US purity culture and the culture in my bit of UK evangelicalism at that time: I don't recall the whole courtship leading to marriage thing being a big deal, in fact a leader my church (Anglican, but very Reformed) once said that he was a fan of short trial relationships for Christians so they could get to know each other (of course, it goes without saying that there would be no sex involved) and then part without rancour if they just didn't get on. I think there might be an American influence from stuff like the "I kissed dating goodbye" book these days, but I've been out of it for 20 years, thank Dawkins.

That said, there were some horribly familiar things in the article. I remember that the culture seemed to encourage the meta-conversations about a possible relationship, which IME are absolutely the most awkward way to attempt to go out with someone. I think I went through about 3 rejections from Christian women to whom I carefully suggested might like to be my girlfriend, before I finally had my first relationship with a Christian after slow dancing with her in a nightclub and going back to hers for a kiss and a cuddle. God singularly failed to strike me down for this heinous behaviour (in retrospect, that's because he doesn't actually exist).

From time to time, a church leader would embarrassedly mumble about masturbation and everyone would feel "convicted" and stop doing it (for, oh, at least a day or so). People in those single-sex prayer groups would mutter about non-specific problems with women, and you'd know they'd been reading the "if you look at a woman with lust in your heart" bit from the Sermon on the Mount and were considering walking around with their eyes closed because they just couldn't stop themselves. And as for people in relationships trying to reconcile what they were up to with what the church was saying...

If you control someone's sexuality, you pretty much control them, especially if they're young and full of hormones. The evangelical attitude to sex is about control, and about selling the idea of Total Depravity (and hence selling the cure, a PersunnulRelationshipWivJesus) by convincing people that in this area, they really are depraved for thinking and doing stuff which is mostly harmless and in many cases actively positive. Recalling how easily I fell for this deception makes me feel a little stupid and rather angry.
posted by pw201 at 3:14 AM on April 8 [9 favorites]


The impression I got was that the real reason people were calling it "courting" was because that was what The Bible called it, and that was it.

If "courtship" were a Biblical term it would have been used to describe the way kings would casually rape women. I can think of at least four instances where this is a significant plot point, e.g.: The Book of Esther.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:06 AM on April 8 [4 favorites]


I don't know who tried to tell you there's courting in the Bible, bit they were very wrong and clearly had not actually read it.

I took that as a given, to be honest. ;-)

If "courtship" were a Biblical term it would have been used to describe the way kings would casually rape women. I can think of at least four instances where this is a significant plot point, e.g.: The Book of Esther.

And among the people I spoke with, their unfamiliarity with stories like this is why I was fairly certain they weren't actually reading the Bible itself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:08 AM on April 8 [8 favorites]


If "courtship" were a Biblical term it would have been used to describe the way kings would casually rape women. I can think of at least four instances where this is a significant plot point, e.g.: The Book of Esther.

Which also gets me to my favorite passage in Esther: "when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, she obtained favour in his sight... and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter."

Scepter. Right.
posted by Mchelly at 6:21 AM on April 8 [13 favorites]


It's super weird when you pause to think about it, because the Bible has a whole lot to say about a whole lot of different kinds of human relationships, but modern companionate marriage where love and sexual satisfaction matter is definitely not one of them.

It's easy to skip over that, because we're all so used to the structures and conventions of Evangelical thought, and we're also used to the fact that they say things are biblical that are not biblical in the slightest and they choose such weird hermeneutics for biblical interpretation. But the Bible is a terrible, awful place to get advice on how to conduct a modern, two-person companionate marriage where the two people are seen as equal (even if they have different "roles") and where they're supposed to love each other and find sexual satisfaction in each other. Especially if you read the Bible literally. I'm trying to think of a biblical marriage that looks anything at all like what Evangelical purity culture says marriage should be like, and I am coming up blank.

Like I mean we can definitely extrapolate from what God and/or Jesus seem to value in the Bible what their feelings might be about modern companionate marriage? But the Bible does seem like a uniquely terrible place to be getting advice about modern marriage.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:41 AM on April 8 [20 favorites]


SAUL: Bring me the foreskins of 100 Philistines as a bride price.

DAVID: What are you going to do with 100 foreskins?

SAUL: *pauses* Never you mind.
posted by delfin at 7:52 AM on April 8 [5 favorites]


Which also gets me to my favorite passage in Esther: "when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, she obtained favour in his sight... and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter."

Scepter. Right.


* looks left and right furtively, then leans in confidentially *

I once read a piece of erotica in which a modern-day Jewish husband and wife celebrated Purim privately by role-playing that exact scenario.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:32 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


When I was in college my new Freshman roommate got a serious boyfriend pretty quickly. It was easy to figure out that they also had started having sex. Since she was raised seriously Catholic, I was pretty sure she was not on birth control. Her friend and I had an intervention and then dragged her off to the health center to get birth control. She did not want to go on birth control, because she already felt guilty about having sex, but if she actually went on birth control then that would mean she was planning to have sex, which to her mind was worse than just having it sort of happen. She was so freaked out about it that when they took her blood pressure at the health center it was so high they were worried she could not take the pill. They gave it to her anyway and had her come back so they could retake her blood pressure later (it was fine, and fortunately she did not get pregnant).
posted by gudrun at 8:46 AM on April 8 [11 favorites]


I grew up in an ultra-Calvinist environment in the 90s, and the Purity movement and Josh Harris were such a big part of my teenage sex and relationship education. I bought into it with such gusto (probably in part as a way of trying to understand some early childhood sexual trauma and my own confusing sexuality). Fortunately, I moved out of my parents' house at 18 and quickly began questioning everything, leading to me change a lot of my thinking and beliefs about sexuality, gender, sex before marriage.

But that shit runs deep! I'm now at 35 and after a year of intense therapy finally pulling out some of these very poisonous narratives that I didn't seem to get away from with my first "deconversion".

I'm happy to see the hating on Esther as I remember being told to be like her, follow her example, and it was only recently that I saw how much part of me still believed that I should. Spoiler alert: this is terrible advice and does not help you resolve sexual trauma or have a happy marriage.

Let me add my story of harm to the list: I quickly rejected the "purity" rules once I left home, but still ended up in an early marriage and with problematic dynamics, especially around sex, and with very unhealthy ideas about boundaries and "martyrdom for the greater good". It's taken me years to work through the layers of shaming, this idea that Very Bad things are waiting for you if you don't follow the rules, and that desire is something to be locked up in very tight little boxes.
posted by brambory at 8:55 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


True Biblical Marriage: Twice claim your hot wife is your sister and let both the Pharoah of Egypt and the King of Gerar fuck her because apparently when God was displeased the first time you just blew that off (Genesis 12 & 20).

(Scriptural analysis side note if you want to take a 15-minute whack at reading like a Bible scholar, I really thought this would be a throwaway 2-sentence comment but then I got excited, sorry:)
Actually Genesis 20 is great because it's a clear retelling of the earlier story in Genesis 12 but while Genesis 12 is pretty straightforward Ancient Near Eastern mytho-weirdity where powerful deities act in strange ways with little to no explanation, Genesis 20 has later editors (I think you're seeing at least two editorial hands in Genesis 20) with a much more complete theology of what God is like injecting a little morality play and God talking a bunch, AND you can see the work of clearly different editors in Genesis 20, where one says the king "took" Sarah, and then in the very next bit God is like "... that's why I didn't let you touch her." And then Abimelech is rightly pretty grieved that Abraham lied to him and objects to God about it, and God's like, "I know, bro, you're cool" BUT THEN "closes the wombs" of all of Abimelech's household in punishment anyway (this is almost a throwaway line right at the end of the chapter), and Abimelech is like, "Yo, what were you thinking?" to Abraham and Abraham replies with some semantic games to try to make it seem like he wasn't actually LYING, and Abimelech has to pay restitution to Abraham for ... being lied to and doing nothing? I mean, no, clearly the restitution here is because he fucked Sarah, but some of the later editors are deeeeeeeply uncomfortable with that conclusion and layer on God talking to Abimelech and Abraham playing semantic games.

Anyway if you take a minute and read Genesis 12:10-20 as the brief, older source material, and then read Genesis 20 as a later retelling, and take a minute to actually read the story in Genesis 20 without letting your brain go on autopilot (which people do all the time when reading the Bible, because they already "know" what it says, and/or they've only ever heard it read in ponderous preacher moan, and/or they don't really care), you can pretty easily see that you've got one guy trying to retell Genesis 12 with a bit more style, and then a second guy going "HOLD UP, this makes Abraham look like a lying dickhead and raises questions about Sarah's sex life, there must be SOME kind of explanation for this that fits with God choosing Abraham and Abraham following God ..." but each layer feels an obligation to preserve the earlier holy stories so they can't just delete them entirely.

And then for extra credit you can jump ahead to Genesis 26, where now ISAAC is lying about REBEKAH being his sister and not his wife, to Abimelech in Gerar, for the same reasons as Abraham did in Genesis 20 (and 12), and it's a much cleaner retelling with a clear narrative throughline and we've settled on a story where the wife does not have sex with the king so the theology is much more clear and much less troubling and INTERESTINGLY God's been removed from the story. God tells Isaac to move to Gerar, but Isaac decides all on his own to lie because he's scared, and Abimelech figures out Rebekah is Isaac's wife without divine intervention because "When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah." (Gen 26:8) which is a FASCINATING little detail -- like apparently while pretending to be brother and sister they're just hanging out at the palace and getting it on in the garden or something? And Abimelech just happens to see them through a window?

But anyway you get a nice clear throughline from the mytho-weird story in Genesis 12, to the dueling edits in Genesis 20 that are trying to sort the theology, to a much more theologically clear story in Genesis 26 and you have done some neat exegesis in seeing what the stories actually SAY and finding the odd bits and being like "huh. That's weird!"

(And then you can google "genesis 12 and 20" and read a whole bunch of Biblical literalists trying to fit all three stories together with no logical contradictions AND with the characters not being complete douchebags and see how labored it all is that way, and that is called "eisegesis" where you already know what you want to find and so you read that into the Bible come hell or high water or Abraham clearly prostituting his wife.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:08 AM on April 8 [20 favorites]


I've mentioned this before here on MF, but I think it does it has its place in this thread.
My own view on religion was very inspired by the above mentioned mumipops, but also by my strongly atheist dad and his fanatically atheist mum who were also both very strong on the Bible. So when I was younger and a bundle of energy and somewhat more fanatically atheist, I would sometimes take on religious people like this. They would do their proselyting and I would ask:

m: well, I take you have read the Bible?
religious person (rp): I have
m: I'm sure you are aware that the Bible has been translated?
rp: yes, but our religious leader was inspired by God
m: that's fine. Did they know Hebrew, or Aramaic or Greek?
rp: I don't know, I don't think so
m: well, let's take a look at my collection of Bible-translations, I'm a big fan of Genesis and Ecclesiastes, and after that we could take a good look at Matthew. Do you like tea or coffee?
rp: mmm, it seems I have an other appointment now, I'm sorry...

In other words, not only do many Christian sects read the Bible selectively, as we know they do, they know that they read the Bible selectively and are not able to handle someone who has actually read the Bible and knows what is in it.
Also, read the Bible, it's the best cure against fundamentalists. It's full of complexity and contradiction, like all the other great religious texts of this world.
posted by mumimor at 9:13 AM on April 8 [11 favorites]


Courtship” as a terms comes from the 1570s to describe “courtly behavior”; being mannered, polite, respectful, and generally behaving yourself as if you were “at court”, aka in the general circle or, if not the actual presence of, the monarch.:
Meaning "the wooing of a woman, attention paid by a man to a woman with intention of winning her affection and ultimately her consent to marriage" is from 1590s. By 1830s it was used of a period during which a couple mutually develops a romantic relationship with a view to marriage.
Paying court to” someone’s daughter is not a Biblical thing, it’s just an old-fashioned and conservative view of what is proper. And by extension, what God agrees with.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:47 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]


I grew up in an ultra-Calvinist environment in the 90s, and the Purity movement and Josh Harris were such a big part of my teenage sex and relationship education.

It always blows my mind that people who think they can be saved forever just by saying they love Jesus also call themselves Calvinists.

Weirdly enough, Greek myth, and notably the Odyssey, do contain rough approximations of suitorship and of the idea, if not the ideal, of companionate marriage (Menelaus and Helen [!], Odysseus and Penelope). While we don't have much evidence of social customs of the actual period in which these stories were set (around 1200 BC), we do know that the classical Greeks who adored these stories had no such practices. Athenian women in particular were staggeringly restricted for a relatively poor society.
posted by praemunire at 10:00 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]


I would (also) like to take this opportunity to say that I grew up in a weird southwestern Ontario christian community in the 90s, right around the time of the so-called 'Toronto Blessing', and we were getting all kinds of influence from US megachurches as well, and all of this thread is hitting home and making me feel very much not alone. Thank you!

I've spent so much time thinking and reading and writing and dealing with trauma over this (to the point of taking a minor in world religions to try to contextualize my experience) that I could probably write pages here, but I think a heartfelt 'thanks for letting me see that I'm not alone' is enough for now.
posted by jpziller at 10:06 AM on April 8 [6 favorites]


srsly the whole point of calvinism is that it’s not up to you

(Oh: it never really was)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:05 AM on April 8 [3 favorites]


I'm choosing to believe you on this.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:08 AM on April 8


Oh yeah totally. My understanding is that in general, linguistically, words for body parts in ancient languages are difficult to translate and meanings often shift. Like really, when Jacob is wrestling with God, does God really ‘touch his hip’ to overcome him? Or did he whack him in the balls? Occam’s Razor people.

Also Mordechai was more likely Esther’s ‘uncle’ instead of her uncle.
posted by bq at 12:39 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]


I once read a piece of erotica in which a modern-day Jewish husband and wife celebrated Purim privately by role-playing that exact scenario.

Also, I recall a song, Brooklyn Queens by the 90s rap group Third Bass (who were Jewish) using “sceptre” as a very transparent metaphor along those lines, even to one not versed in that part of the scripture.
posted by acb at 1:13 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]


I set a goal for myself to read the bible cover to cover when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and I made it all the way to Psalms before petering out. I remember reading all the bible stories mentioned in this thread and sitting with that weirdness and not knowing how to square it with sunday school. I didn't stop going to church until I left home for university, but I believe that actually reading the bible planted seeds in me that would help me think critically about Christianity later.
posted by jomato at 1:17 PM on April 8 [4 favorites]


My understanding is that in general, linguistically, words for body parts in ancient languages are difficult to translate and meanings often shift.

Which is why I'd like to see just a bit more humility and skepticism when people are claiming "X here definitely means dicks." Like these people 2-4 thousand years ago had radically alien ideas about love and marriage, but they definitely got horny exactly the same way I do and used all the same euphemisms for dicks that I would use.

(Y'know, just like how today everyone gets horny and uses euphemisms for dicks exactly like I do.)
posted by straight at 1:21 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]


The brand of ultra-Calvanism I was raised with was keenly aware that "you're already preordained to go to heaven or hell" doesn't inspire that keen focus on proving yourself in this world...so the argument we were taught went something like this: most people are going to hell, but God, in his infinite wisdom, chose you to go to heaven, not because of anything you did, but just because he was so kind. What kind of a monster would you be if you didn't try to repay/acknowledge this by following his commandments to your utmost power? You got the golden ticket to heaven! It's the least you can do! And if you can't do that, or at least make an effort, then maybe you're not one of the preordained chosen after all...you shall know them by their good deeds and all.

For me, the whole Purity Culture thing wasn't about getting a place at the table, but about paying back / absolving my guilt for supposedly having this place.
posted by brambory at 1:39 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, since we're talking about euphemisms for body parts in translation, the Artscroll publishing company, which right now is probably the #1 best-selling Hebrew/English publisher of Jewish religious books, just plain threw their hands up when it came to translating Song of Songs into English and just went with an "allegorical" translation based on commentary. I mean, the Hebrew text is right there, and it says what it says, and most of the people buying and reading Artscroll books are people who have at least a passing familiarity with Hebrew, but - and I am not kidding here - the preface to their translation says "The literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false," so therefore they don't even bother to provide it.

So instead of saying "your breasts," you get perfectly cromulent translations like "your twin towers of Torah, Moses and Aaron." Again, I am not making this up.

(my twin towers of Torah, Moses and Aaron, bring all the boys to the yard...)
posted by Mchelly at 2:12 PM on April 8 [26 favorites]


"I recall a song, Brooklyn Queens by the 90s rap group Third Bass (who were Jewish) using “sceptre” as a very transparent metaphor along those lines"

Isaiah 56 talks about eunuchs and how God will not let them be "cut off" although they cannot have descendants, but will make for them "a monument and a name," (or "a memorial and a name") which is "Yad Vashem" in Hebrew, and the name of Israel's Holocaust memorial (because it is dedicated to remembering an even more gruesome "cutting off" of entire communities' peoples and futures and lineages). But "yad" is more literally "hand," and when it is used for a monument or a memorial, it's a pointy or pillar-type monument (like an obelisk maybe). It's also used euphemistically to mean penis (alongside like 6 or 8 other words in Biblical Hebrew, which is a lot for a language with only 10,000 extant words). It seems like there's a bit of wordplay going on there, with the eunuchs who have no penises and therefore no descendants receiving the promise of a "yad" -- a hand, a pointy monument, a penis -- that will enable them to be remembered. (Honestly the wordplay in the Hebrew Bible is one of the most delightful parts, and the wordplay alone makes the study of the language well worth it.)

"Which is why I'd like to see just a bit more humility and skepticism when people are claiming "X here definitely means dicks." Like these people 2-4 thousand years ago had radically alien ideas about love and marriage, but they definitely got horny exactly the same way I do and used all the same euphemisms for dicks that I would use."

I have an undergraduate and a graduate degree in theology; I feel relatively confident about my dick accusations. (And they definitely don't use the euphemisms I would use, calling penises "feet" is dead weird IMO.) But yeah, the Bible writers had a whole bunch of euphemisms for penis and there are surprise penises popping up all over the Hebrew Bible ... or else people are circumcising some awfully strange body parts and inanimate objects.

ANYWAY to return to the main point, yeah, the Bible has much weirder things to say about sex than Evangelicals admit, and parts of it are also much, much hornier than Evangelicals grapple with. And the elevation of 20th-century middle-class companionate marriage as experienced in the era of post-WWII prosperity in the United States specifically to "THE ONLY TRUE BIBLICAL MODEL OF MARRIAGE" is staggeringly dishonest, ahistorical, jingoistic ... you get the point. And I say that as someone whose beliefs around sex and marriage were deeply formed by Christianity, but Christianity that says "so this book, it's 19-25 centuries old and that introduces some very specific attitudes tied to time and place, and nobody has told it about drunk driving but that's still a sin, okay?" and not a Christianity that says "this book was dictated by God 2000 years ago (in English or at least with the intention that it BE in English) specifically for the use of 20th century middle-class white Americans and embodying all of their cultural attitudes and prejudices as the perfect rendition of what God was after 2000 years ago." What incredible hubris!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:11 PM on April 8 [23 favorites]


I grew up in American evangelical churches and attended evangelical schools until high school in the mid 90s. I was wholly devoted to the religion until 1999 or so. The sexual purity obsession was one of the factors that hurt my ability to recognize my own asexuality well after I rejected the beliefs it was founded on. I assumed for the next 15 years or so that there was something wrong with me, as I discovered that sex was just okay, that I was never really driven by lust or desire in that way. The purity obsession helped reinforce the notion that sex and desire for sex were expected, and so my sexuality was performative.

Now, obviously I can't say that this was the only factor making this realization difficult for me -- popular culture in general has treated asexuality pretty shittily -- but it was certainly a strong factor among them.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 5:19 PM on April 8 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: everyone gets horny and uses euphemisms for dicks exactly like I do
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:02 PM on April 8 [6 favorites]


Mordechai was more likely Esther’s ‘uncle’ instead of her uncle.

I don't know where people get the idea that Mordechai was Esther's uncle. The text (Esther 2:6-7) explicitly calls her the daughter of his uncle. That is, she was his cousin, not his niece; and he was raising her "because she had no father or mother ... and when her parents died he took her as a daughter."

Regrettably, a lot of people even today would absolutely understand that a respectable single woman must be a daughter or a wife, or (at the very least) a widow-in-mourning.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:03 PM on April 8


That feet = penises confusion, does that mean the ritual foot washing Maundy thing is going about it all wrong?
posted by b33j at 9:08 PM on April 8 [8 favorites]


Translation from ancient languages is hard, and there is no one solution. It shouldn't be possible to be a pastor without some knowledge of that. I am not a theologist, but as I understand it, it is fairly mainstream to acknowledge that the Bible is a compilation of several different texts by different authors at different times. (So not the word of God). The application of basic critical reading would suggest that the same words don't have the exact same meaning and/or connotations when they are written decades and centuries apart. Heck, even literature from just fifty years ago is hard to read for young people today, which I experience every semester in my teaching.

Today I finally saw the video in the article, and was shocked-but-not-really shocked by two things: that Harris went to theology school after he stopped as a pastor. So he was out there preaching without any knowledge about what he was talking about. And also: he was (and is) hot. So all the while he was sending extremely mixed messages.
This was what really confused me when I lived in 1990s USA, the sick mixture of hyper-sexuality and "purity" cult. It is sad to see how damaging it was, but not surprising. I remember going to a mandatory lecture at the hall where I lived, about AIDS. It was not just confusing, it was anger-provoking for all of us international students who came from different cultures. And this was in NYC. Normally, I'm the person who would raise her hand and ask WTF are you even talking about? But this was so over the top absurd.
posted by mumimor at 1:36 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]


Today I finally saw the video in the article, and was shocked-but-not-really shocked by two things: that Harris went to theology school after he stopped as a pastor. So he was out there preaching without any knowledge about what he was talking about. And also: he was (and is) hot. So all the while he was sending extremely mixed messages.

Harris was the 'chosen one' of a senior pastor who also never went to theology school, so he was basically groomed in to it from his early 20s. He was then senior pastor of a megachurch for a decade before a set of sex abuse scandals in the church made him realise that he was out of his depth, and he left to go to theology school. He responded poorly when members of his congregation were accused of sexually abusing children, and from what I've read he would agree with that.

I don't think it's reasonable to blame him for being attractive, although it's fair to suspect that his book but written by a less attractive man would not have sold as well as it did. One of the features of the book is that it basically promised that if you followed the rules you would have a happy marriage with a beautiful partner and a great sex life. It's not mixed messages so much as overpromising and underdelivering.

The whole thing feels like an example of how everyone, even the golden child, in a dysfunctional set up is being damaged.
posted by plonkee at 4:24 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]


In American English, people who want to be pastors go to Divinity School, and earn a Master of Divinity, or M.Div., which is a professional degree geared towards the practice of ministry. A good one is academically rigorous. There must be a minimum of 72 hours of course work for the school to be accredited; generally it is a 3-year program. It will involve coursework on theology, but also requires courses geared towards pastoral counseling, the practice of leading liturgy (classes on writing sermons, how the mass is structured, how to lead a liturgy without feeling like a dork), and classes on the cultural context of pastoral practice in that denomination's or religion's tradition. For example, at competitive divinity schools in the American South, such as Duke or Emory, you will absolutely be required to take a class in Black church studies, because you absolutely cannot be a competent practicing pastor in the south who doesn't know the history of the Black church in America. During the two summers of your three-year program, you will generally have placements in churches that are supervised by credentialed pastors. If you had inadequate philosophy or theology credits as an undergraduate, you may be required to knock off some classes in that before you can begin your graduate program, similar to the way people who don't take a pre-med track in college may have to do some scientific course work before beginning medical school.

Theology, by contrast, is an academic degree. It may be housed in the graduate school, or the Divinity school, and obviously there's a certain amount of coursework overlap, but it is geared towards the academic study of theology, rather than the pastoral practice of ministry. I have an MTS, or a masters in theological studies, a two-year graduate degree that can be a terminal degree, or can be geared towards preparing for going on to PhD studies. There's a great deal of overlap; for example, my Hebrew Bible and New Testament classes were shared with the Divinity school. But I took no classes in pastoral counseling, and I had to take certain graduate courses that my colleagues in the Divinity school did not. (I did take some classes in liturgy at the Divinity School, but that's because my academic interest is in liturgy, that is atypical.) I would not be eligible for ordination in any mainline Protestant denomination (or Catholicism obviously) because I do not have the requisite professional degree.

Anyway, we all would have wanted Josh Harris to go to Divinity School and get a Divinity degree, rather than a theology degree. Two defining characteristics of fundamental evangelical churches, and especially megachurches, in the United States are that they are typically not affiliated with a larger church body (such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Presbyterian Church USA) and they typically do not require their pastors to have MDivs, or any college education whatsoever, let alone graduate education. Instead, church leadership is based on charisma, connections, and how good the pastors are at bringing other people in; being good at packing a church is seen as evidence that you are meant to be a leader and that you are inspired or ordained by the Holy Spirit, so you don't have to jump through all the hoops to get actually ordained by a denomination.

It's obvious how such a setup is open for abuse; these pastors are like homeopaths claiming to be doctors, or sovereign citizens being their own lawyers. Only in some ways, it's more dangerous, because most Americans have no idea that there even is a professional degree in ministry or what would go into such a degree, So intelligent people who would never go to an uncredentialed doctor or lawyer will say that, you know, Josh Harris seems like a pastor like every other Christian pastor in America, what's happening at this church is what happens at every other church, it's fine and normal. (I mean, not to pick on Josh Harris, who is one of the few who has had a very public reckoning with the consequences of an uneducated kid being placed at a position of spiritual responsibility over a congregation.) Some of these pastors have almost no traditional education at all; they're home schooled, and then they may go to Christian academies for high school, and then unaccredited Bible colleges that have basically no traditional college coursework, but just teach you how to read the Bible literally and provide the sheen of respectability of being able to say, "I went to college." So you can end up with pastors in charge of these mega churches who can't do any more math than very basic arithmetic and have never even been exposed to it, and whose knowledge of American history is totally shaped by fundamentalist Christian homeschooling curricula; who have never been exposed to any science at all.

And, maddeningly, they think their education is the same as yours, or more rigorous than yours, because they had a "classical education" with all of the traditions and rigor that implies, while you, you poor benighted soul, went to public school where they teach new math and everything is about your feelings, when state-of-the-art for 1850 is obviously better. This is how they end up so ignorant they have no idea how ignorant they are, and they have literally no means of judging it, because they are deliberately kept from ever exercising critical thought, while being told that they are actually receiving a much more rigorous education than people in traditional schooling. And this is why talking to fundamentalist evangelicals can be such a strange experience, because you literally don't have a shared reference on the world, and intellectually they are more like time travelers from 1850 than people who live in the 21st century. A lot of them honestly do not know a lot of basic medical information about bodies and about sex, and you will say things like, the pill doesn't cause abortions, it prevents conception. And some of them are lying liars who lie, who know exactly how conception works. But a lot more of them honestly do not know, and honestly think you're making your claim from a place of ignorance, and they have no structure or framework for understanding what you're trying to tell them, because they are time travelers from 1850. They think you are the lying liar who lies, who's just making things up out of whole cloth, because Louis Pasteur isn't even going to arrive at the germ theory of disease until later in the decade. It's not an accident that a lot of what they teach about conception and gestation is basically homunculi theory from the 17th century; they really do think that's a tiny fully formed person the minute the sperm gets in the vaginal canal. The ignorance about theology offends me on a personal level, and I think is pretty aggravating to everyone who's had even a passing exposure to the history of Christianity. But it can be impossible to overstate how deeply ignorant about literally everything about the world some of these people are.

Some fundamentalist evangelical and megachurch pastors do have relatively traditional educations and preparation for pastoral ministry, but many more do not, and this is how you end up with these desperately ignorant leaders who are almost always good looking and charismatic (literally from the word charism, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit), but who know very little about the Bible, nothing about Christian history, and come up with insane bullshit like the prosperity gospel or purity culture. (Not that people with M.Div.s can't also come up with this type of insane bullshit, especially when the financial incentives are amazing.)

(Apologies for any weird typos, I was using speech to text and I hope I caught them all on preview.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:10 AM on April 9 [42 favorites]


Thanks as always to Eyebrows for her excellent explanation. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA, our pastors have to take both Greek and Hebrew and have enough reading knowledge to be able to read the Bible in its original texts. All of our pastors have to pass a series of grueling tests including a notoriously difficult exam on Biblical knowledge. It is a very rough educational experience on a lot of talented people who would likely make great pastors in other ways, and some folks even give up and seek either alternative jobs or alternative denominations to be a pastor, but it does mean we don't have pastors who think the word "courtship" is in the Bible.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:18 AM on April 9 [10 favorites]


Eyebrows and hydropsyche, both your comments are really interesting.
The country I live in has a state religion, which is IMO very problematic, albeit not in the ways one might imagine. For instance religious freedom is a very strong value here, and the state church is very outspoken in its support of outside religious groups. That is a good thing. What I hate is the way it is assumed in a myriad of contexts that every Dane is a Christian, when at least 10% and more likely 50% of us are not at all. For instance, the church tax/tithe is integrated into our national tax bill, and you can opt out of it, but I haven't because it is a bit of a pain to get your atheist parents buried, and I don't want to burden my kids with that. Also, I support the maintenance of our ancient churches.
But one of the consequences of having a state religion is that all pastors within the state church have to be educated along the lines described by hydropsyche. I even thought of applying for theology in spite of being an atheist/mumipopist, because it is a really good education which is useful in many other contexts. When you have gone through the bachelor and masters program, you will be eligible for a fairly paid civil service job for as long as you like, often with a house included. Our local pastor has reemerged from life as a pensioner (from another parish), because he missed the job, and as far as I can hear from social media and local talk, he is both doing a great job that I can support and having a blast, at 70 + years old.

There is a shortcut, similar to the divinity degree Eyebrows describes, but you need to have another academic degree in order to enter that.

I hope there will eventually be similar educations available for Rabbis and Imams in this country, right now that is an issue, connected to the baseless assumption that we are all Christian.

BTW, home schooling and independent religious schools are legal here, something that surprises many who imagine we are a godless socialist country. But both are tightly regulated. No one gets to deny basic science.
posted by mumimor at 7:12 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]


I'd written this and has been sitting on it before eyebrows made her amazing comment above.

For Harris anyway, you have to understand the culture of youth groups and evangelical places is partially to recruit young youth to focus on gaining positions of power in the church. There's lots,way even more than other groups, opportunity of kids to use their fevor into getting positions of leadership in the youth group and then broader church. He was clearly on that pipeline, and some adults and entire orinixations helped him decide to help him get in front of people, and I'm glad that as an adult and looking back he's able to understand his role in all of this. He made alot of actions as an adult which were very harmful, and I think him coming to an understanding about that this the best outcome that he could have, even though it doesn't absolve him of responsibility.

The thing is that these church groups really emphasize being the most of something and the best at parroting the thing, so the kids who get these positions aren't critical thinkers as much as they are literal rule followers. It's not what you would be actually looking for in leadership skills. It's not what you are looking for in pastors and in ministry, it is all about blind acceptance and enthusiasm, to go out in front of people who aren't in these communities or in the communities themselves and spout the word.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:12 AM on April 9 [8 favorites]


I kind of always knew there was a meaningful difference between a degree in Theology vs a degree in Divinity, but now I understand both what that difference is, and why John Goodman’s character is the only one addressed as “Doctor” in The Righteous Gemstones; he’s the only one who bothered to get a degree before becoming a minister.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:40 AM on April 10


The metaphor I thought of later on, that I wish I'd used, is that a Divinity degree is like a medical degree, in that it prepares you to take knowledge of theology/biology and use it to help actual humans -- but also a whole lot of related knowledge that helps you deal with the human parts of it, and the practice standards, and everything else.

Whereas a theology degree is more like a degree in biological sciences, where you're certainly aware that the work you do is used by ministers/doctors, but under no circumstances should you personally be allowed to go ministering to/doctoring on other people, because you do not have those competencies. Some theologians/scientists work directly on issues they intend to be directly useful to ministry/medicine; others work on more arcane areas just to find out, or thinking they might be useful in the future when more is understood, or because it's just interesting.

Ideally the two disciplines are always in conversation with each other, but they have very different focuses and goals.

There's also a higher proportion of atheists among theology students than Divinity students -- although there are certainly atheists pursuing Divinity degrees; I had a friend who enrolled as an atheist, he'd been a nurse and become deeply interested in helping people die good deaths, and thought a Divinity degree would give him a lot of the tools he wanted. (He eventually became a hospital chaplain, and his business cards say "Big City General, Hospital Chaplain, atheist.") And so many Divinity students who start as believers and become atheists from learning deeply about their faith that there are lots of jokes about how Divinity school is where you send devout Christian kids to turn them into atheists. But theology as an academic discipline doesn't require belief (or honestly even respect for believers). I feel like atheists are a big more common in the areas that are a little more cross-disciplinary -- they're rife in Biblical theology (lit crit, archaeology, history) and in various history-of-religion-related theology areas. More rare in, like, systematics (how do all the doctrines of this faith fit together in a coherent fashion?) or sacramental theology, which have more straight-up theology, but they're absolutely there. If that's the thing that catches your intellectual interest, that's what catches it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:46 PM on April 10 [11 favorites]


Just wanted to chime in that purity culture definitely had an impact on my life too.

Thanks for being here friends.
posted by freethefeet at 10:04 AM on April 11 [8 favorites]


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