This week I read an article from Samantha Pugsley in which she bravely recounted her upbringing in the church and how it nearly ruined her sexually.
No, she was not molested by a minister or trusted adult (at least I hope not). She, like nearly all youth in the church, was taught that sex was reserved for marriage and that she should save herself for her husband. She was one of many young girls who took the “true love waits” pledge, stating that they would abstain from sex, sexual thoughts, and anything that would lead to sexual arousal.
This would be all fine and good, except that for Samantha, she was taught from a very young age that her identity in Christ was directly linked to her sexuality and her sex life, so much so that she came to define who she was by it. She was taught, perhaps not intentionally, that conversion equaled sexual abstinence. That was the hallmark of her faith — being a member of the V-Squad. Otherwise, who was she in Christ? And who was she at all?
She’d spent a lifetime being taught that sex was essentially bad, or at least something about it was. So when she finally lost her virginity — on her wedding night — she couldn’t resolve that what she had done was good, natural, and okay. She still felt dirty.
Thankfully, she has a loving, supportive husband, but she still isn’t able to reconcile being a sexual being with being a Christian. While this saddens me deeply, I can’t help but understand it. It’s the story of so many of us who grew up in the church — especially girls. And it’s why I’m leery of so-called “purity culture,” not because I think that abstinence is bad (please, God, let my daughter wait!), but because I know that this is an area in which the church has likely done more harm than good. Much of these notions the church has had about purity, virginity, and girls’ bodies are profoundly (if unintentionally) abusive. It truly is a form of sex abuse in the church that no one talks about — and is, in fact, often sanctioned by the church.
Here are my issues with “purity culture” and the environment in which Ms. Pugsley was raised:
1. Abstinence is presented as a means of justification. Girls are taught to keep themselves “pure” because in doing so they show themselves righteous before God. Speaking from a Reformed perspective, the only thing that justifies us before God is grace. Justification is God’s purview. We can’t earn grace by what we do or don’t do.
We communicate to these girls that if they give it up before marriage, they are somehow ruined or spoiled. Should a person slip up and find themselves outside of the will of God, they need to know they are not ruined. God’s grace and love covers them. I think the church is so afraid of their youth making poor decisions that they go to great lengths to keep them away from certain behaviors and attitudes. But they (and we) cannot afford to live without grace. We will all fall short. Of course, that’s not an excuse to do whatever we want, but we need to remember that we can never “ruin” ourselves so badly that we’re out of God’s redemptive reach. And if we somehow could, then that means God is not omnipotent, Christ is powerless, and there is no reason for us to believe. Abstinence that is done out of a desire to be justified has missed the mark. Abstinence should be practiced as an expression of faith.
2. There’s an inordinate emphasis on sex life. In exercise circles, there’s a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. Otherwise, your upper body is ripped and strong, while you’re lower body is scrawny and weak. Putting this much emphasis on sex is like spiritually skipping “leg day.”
When your identity in Christ is so heavily connected to your sexuality, other areas of life remain untouched. What about in your giving? Your loving? Your service? Your embrace of the outcast and the downtrodden? Discipleship is all-encompassing; it doesn’t stop at what you do with your genitalia. Why the hyper-focus on “lusts of the flesh,” and even then only certain lusts?
3. It’s inequitable. Somewhere in America, a purity ball for girls and their fathers is being planned. Meanwhile, countless sons are being ushered off to football practice, where the locker room will be rife with lewd jokes and sexual innuendo while no one so much as bats an eye. We do not communicate abstinence and sexual responsibility in the same way to boys and girls. Girls are taught to save themselves. Boys, not so much. Girls are taught how not to get raped. Boys are not taught how not to rape. While it doesn’t end at the church, the church bears a lot of responsibility for dissonant messages our boys and girls receive concerning sex.
4. Girls are unfairly promised that their lives will be better for waiting. Waiting to have sex can keep us from a sundry of problems, including having children we can’t support, catching diseases we can’t get rid of, and making poor choices in partners who really want nothing more than to get off. But simply because we do things “God’s way” doesn’t preclude us from difficulties. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, right? Jesus even told his disciples that they would have some troubles. Following God doesn’t mean that life will be all rainbows and butterflies, and we need to stop suggesting this to our kids. We would do better to encourage them in the knowledge that God is near to us especially when we’re brokenhearted.
And to be clear, you can wait until marriage and still marry a jackass. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It means you married a human being who, just like you, is in constant need of God’s grace and mercy.
5. Sex should be private. We look sideways at a person who talks constantly about their many sexual conquests. Why, then, should we parade virginity? Encourage it, yes, but parade it? When we do this, we put the weight of the world on these girls, so in the event that they fall — or even if they wait, as Ms. Pugsley did — the crash hurts a million times more.
Putting girls on these pedestals of purity fails to communicate to them what intimacy means. Intimacy means it’s between you, your partner, and, of course, God. Not your daddy. Not your church. Everyone doesn’t need to know when the proverbial cherry has been popped. Your body does not belong to us. Open conversations about sex are necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to be put on display, whether you’re virginal or wanton. I think if we were more concerned about a true conversion of the heart rather than simply regulating actions, more of our young people would wait — and for the right reasons.
Ultimately, I wish healing for Ms. Pugsley and the legion of people who have been sexually damaged by both church and society. I’m sad that we use sex to bring people — girls and women in particular — into subjection, when it was always meant to be a gift to be enjoyed. But I hold onto hope that we can and will get it right one day.
How do you think we could do a better of job of addressing sexuality in the church?