We are still facing the harmful repercussions of purity culture

Younger generations are still navigating sexual morality in a culture of shame.

Addison Freiheit, Staff Writer

Everyone enters conversations about sex with a different framework—the church you grew up in, your dating history, and even your parents’ marriage influences your perspective on love and physical intimacy. The same can be said of “purity culture,” which can be defined in our modern context by the Evangelical Christian sexual abstinence movement of the 1990s. Purity culture overemphasized premarital abstinence and underemphasized grace and the Holy Spirit. Although Generation Z has seemed to escape the worst of “purity culture,” we are still experiencing the repercussions of a movement that unfortunately encouraged legalism and shame surrounding sex. 


Purity culture began with good intentions. Following the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the AIDS epidemic of the early 1990s, the American Christian church was desperate to regain some semblance of God’s design for sex. Books like Joshua Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and the “True Love Waits” program encouraged young Christians to dedicate themselves to premarital abstinence. Celebrities even began to hop on the purity train by wearing purity rings, a public display of their intentions to remain chaste. But over 20 years later, those celebrities have now shed their purity rings and Joshua Harris has renounced his strict dating policies. The adamant shift toward rejecting purity culture is a reflection of the detrimental impact it had on the body of Christ.


Although the dedication to remain abstinent until marriage is biblical, the legalism surrounding sexual immorality during the 1990s bred shame in Christians everywhere. Women have been incredibly hurt by purity culture, which often communicated—whether intentionally or not—that women’s bodies were the primary source of lust and temptation. It told women that it was their responsibility for making her brother in Christ sin if she did not dress modestly. Instead of encouraging men to respectfully value a woman’s God-given beauty, purity culture encouraged men to view women as objects

As purity culture did not actually stop people from having premarital sex, those who broke their vow of abstinence were forced to hide their sin out of fear of being rejected by the church. Purity culture preached that purity was primarily rooted in your sexual conduct, and anyone who strayed from that was inherently impure. Many Christians who ascribed to this message had no choice other than to secretly wrestle with their own value and redemption, perpetuating a cycle of guilt and shame. 


The shame surrounding sex and the objectification of women perpetuated by the legalism in purity culture masked an alarming number of sexual assault cases within the church. The #ChurchToo movement has followed the #MeToo movement by giving voice to women who have been sexually assaulted by church leaders. It is devastating to see the church cover up sin after advocating for purity culture. Sexual assault survivors have been silenced in the name of purity, reinforcing the perception that many non-believers already have about Christians: that we hypocritically extend grace only to those in positions of power. 


Although the purity culture movement is largely a thing of the past, we are still experiencing its repercussions. In an attempt to stand against what many consider to be sexual repression, the pendulum has swung in the other direction and many Christians have forgotten the value of sexual purity. The church is continuing to learn how to navigate hookup culture, dating and homosexuality with grace and wisdom. As with all things, the conversation around purity must start with the root of the gospel. 

At its worst, purity culture disregards the truth of the gospel. Purity is not only a physical or sexual state—It is a state of wholeness that extends to our heart, mind, body and soul. Reducing purity to something physical and hinging it on our own ability to maintain it is the same thing as earning our way to heaven. This is the most destructive part of purity culture: it placed the pressure of perfection on our shoulders. 

The gospel tells us that we are saved by grace and grace alone. Our wholeness is not a matter of sexual purity, but a product of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. How we live that grace out is the result of a heart change and the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we need to reject sexual morality— only that we need to rethink the conversation surrounding it. 

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