The mainstreaming of 'purity culture' and its effects on generations

The mainstreaming of 'purity culture' and its effects on generations

The mainstreaming of 'purity culture' and its effects on generations

By Emma McGowan

When Eric,* 40, turned 13, his dad gave him a purity ring. A pastor at their non-denominational Christian church, his dad called everyone around and read a passage about how Eric was now a man, with all of the responsibilities that came with manhood. The ring was a symbol of those responsibilities: to not only stay “pure” by avoiding all sexual activity until he was married, but also to be the spiritual leader for his future wife. “Looking back, it was a lot of pressure to be perfect and not mess up,” Eric tells Ohnut.

The year was 1995 and Eric didn’t know it, but he was coming of age right along with “purity culture,” a movement that encouraged sexual abstinence in teens and spread throughout white Christian churches and into the culture at large during the 1990s and early 2000s. Purity culture started gaining steam in the 1980s, in response to the “free love” ethos of the 1960s and ‘70s and the AIDs epidemic. And at the 1993 Southern Baptist Convention, two years before Eric “became a man,” the movement got a name: True Love Waits.


A silver ring that reads "I will wait for my beloved"

A purity ring made from sterling silver that reads "I will wait for my beloved." | Wikimedia Commons


True Love Waits took the fairly standard Christian ethos of “no sex before marriage,” commodified it, and took it to new extremes. It came with swag; chastity emblems like the purity rings and necklaces and, for Catholics, even POGs with the Pope’s face on them. Children across the country signed pledge cards promising to stay chaste until marriage. And, starting in 1998, some groups had “purity balls” where young girls pledged their virginity to their fathers and future husbands.

“They were telling people not to think about it, don’t focus on it,” Eric says. “But every week or two, it’s the focus: save yourself for marriage, don’t have sex, don’t look at the elephant in the room. For me, it was something I thought about a lot.”

The mainstreaming of purity culture

While there’s nothing unique about religious groups dictating the social mores of their followers, the purity culture ethos spread quickly into mainstream ‘90s culture in the form of abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education. The first bill promoting teaching “chastity” and “self-discipline” to teens was passed in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1996 when the Clinton administration passed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act (colloquially called “welfare reform”) that abstinence-only sex ed became the law of the land. 

“Can you imagine a 17- and a 16-year-old going to their parents and being like, ‘Yeah, we had sex. In your minivan. We were on a date — my bad,” Eric says. “My mom was in her room, crying, for weeks. She traded in the minivan.” 

Title V of the welfare reform act allocated $50 million in federal funding annually, which states could only use to teach “abstinence education.” The federal definition of abstinence education includes teaching “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children” and “that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity,” among six other pro-abstinence messages. There was a little leeway, however: caveats in the bill made it possible for states to be somewhat flexible with how they designed their programs, as long as they didn’t teach anything other than failure rates about contraception.

Three years after the welfare reform bill passed, Eric and his girlfriend were making out in his parent’s minivan when things went further than they’d planned. They’d been walking up to the line of sexual intercourse for a while — despite the fact though their churches taught that any sexual activity was literal cheating on their future spouses — but hadn’t crossed that final threshold. On that evening, though, they had penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. Or — in their words — they lost their virginity. 

The teenage couple felt such guilt and shame about breaking their promise to stay pure that they confessed what they had done to their parents.

“Can you imagine a 17- and a 16-year-old going to their parents and being like, ‘Yeah, we had sex. In your minivan. We were on a date — my bad,” Eric says. “My mom was in her room, crying, for weeks. She traded in the minivan.” 

Purity culture gets Disney-fied

On the pop culture front, purity culture was starting to show up center stage in musical stars like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. Simpson, who was born into an evangelical family in 1980, famously pledged her purity to her father when she was 12 and wore a purity ring until she married singer Nick Lachey in 2002. Meanwhile, Britney Spears, who was born in 1981, exemplified the mixed messages about sexuality that teens like Eric were getting from all sides. The video for her first smash hit, “Baby One More Time,” featured 17-year-old Spears in an overtly sexualized Catholic schoolgirl outfit but, in the media frenzy that followed, she publicly proclaimed her commitment to staying a virgin until marriage. 


Jessica Simpson
Britney Spears 1999
Jessica Simpson live in concert, November 2001 | Wikimedia Commons Britney Spears live in concert, 1999 | Wikimedia Commons


And on the political front, the country was entering the George W. Bush era. Famously born-again himself, Bush identified closely with the American evangelical movement — and his sex education programs reflected that fact. In 2005, the Bush administration moved sex education funding away from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB), which had traditionally controlled it, and into the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). The change was made because ACF was more socially conservative than the MCHB, and the program was given a new name: Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE). 

Abstinence-only sex education kept picking up steam — and federal funding — through the late aughts. In 2006, total funding for the various federal programs was $176 million, which was the highest ever. The CBAE also further tightened up the rules about who could access that money, decreeing that “material must not encourage the use of any type of contraceptive outside of marriage or refer to abstinence as a form of contraception,” and that provided material “teaches how to avoid settings that involve possible interaction with pornography, (e.g. explicit movies, TV, magazines, Internet).” They also changed the definition of “abstinence-only” to include “any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons, including, but not limited to sexual intercourse.”

Meanwhile, Eric and his high school girlfriend were still together. But he wasn’t wearing his purity ring anymore: He lost it after that night in the minivan.

“I couldn’t put it on, you know,” Eric says. “I made a promise and I couldn’t keep it. So I had a lot of guilt, a lot of shame.”

Eric and his girlfriend spent six years trying to stay “pure,” even though they’d already had sex. They would go six months or a year without before “falling” again and the pattern repeated until they married in 2005. “We thought, ‘We messed up but we can make this right. We can be married; be a couple,’” Eric says.

But the messages they’d been given about sex for the previous decade stuck, even after they pledged “I do.” Plus, they felt guilty about all of the times they’d slipped up before they married. It felt impossible to switch from “sex equals sin” to “sex is okay” in their heads and hearts. She wasn’t comfortable doing anything beyond missionary PIV, while he wanted to explore more. The entire issue of sex became weighted and the couple split just one year later, in 2006. 


The Jonas BrothersThe Jonas Brothers sporting purity rings, February 2009 | Wikimedia Commons


While the experiences of the first generation of purity culture kids was illustrating how unrealistic the entire project was, another generation of young stars was jumping on the purity bandwagon. Perhaps in response to Britney’s very public meltdown in 2007 — the quintessential Disney girl shaved her head and was consequently placed into a conservatorship that would last until 2022 — and almost certainly in response to the “moral majority” ethos of the evangelical-Bush era, Disney started using the virginity of their young stars as a marketing ploy. The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez all wore purity rings and spoke publicly about their “choice” to stay abstinent until marriage.  

The damage is done

Looking back now, that crop of Disney kids may have been the last gasp of purity culture in the mainstream. In 2007, almost half of the states didn’t apply for the abstinence-only sex education funding and in 2009, newly-elected president Barack Obama slashed funding to abstinence-only sex education programs and redirected it to evidence-based sex ed instead. And the next batch of Disney stars not only didn’t feel pressured to stay abstinent but were even able to be open about their sexualities.

But the prevalence of purity culture in the ‘90s and early 2000s had already done its damage by the time Obama started turning the tide away from abstinence-only sex education. In the years since his divorce, Eric’s attitude toward sex has swung between extremes. He remarried a few years after his first marriage ended, had two children with his second wife, and eventually divorced again. In the times between marriages, he pursued sex and relationships with multiple women, only to swing back into the guilt from his childhood. 

“I was taught that when you mess up — because people are imperfect and people sin and have faults — the problem is that you’re not seeking God hard enough,” Eric says. “It’s on me — that’s why the relationship failed. I’m damaged; I’ve been divorced before. All of that guilt that you carry just from being a teenager who has sex, it was with me a long time.”

*name changed to protect those involved

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