Why Some Evangelicals Are Trying to Stop Obsessing Over Pre-Marital Sex

"I'm done splitting my sexuality into pieces."
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Flickr / Swami Stream

In a recent summit on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University, kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart made some surprising remarks about why victims of rape may not try to escape their captors. Her conclusion? They, like she, may have been raised in a culture that says a woman's worth in rooted in her sexual purity. Recounting an anecdote from a childhood teacher who compared having sex to being chewed like a piece of gum, Smart, a Mormon, tells her audience that she "felt crushed" after being raped: "Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand, so easily, all too well, why someone wouldn't run."

Smart might be the most famous figure to speak out against her conservative religious culture's sexual ethos, but she's not alone. Increasingly in recent weeks, prominent evangelical writers and bloggers have also decried the emphasis placed on sexual purity in conservative Christianity. While exposés of evangelical purity culture are hardly new (see, for one, Andy Kopsa's recent article in The Atlantic), what is noteworthy is that these criticisms are beginning to emerge from within conservative religious circles themselves.

The central thrust of these evangelical critiques is a rejection of the "damaged goods" metaphor. On her high-profile website, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans calls out the "horrific object lessons," like the one described by Smart, which aim to convince young people that "premarital sex ruins a person for good." Sarah Bessey, author of the forthcoming book Jesus Feminist, shares her own story of feeling condemned by the "true love waits" rhetoric of her church, which conveyed the message that she, as a non-virgin, was now "disqualified from true love."

Prodigal Magazine, an up-and-coming online publication that caters to twenty-something evangelicals, recently featured a candid piece on abandoning the concept of virginity. While deliberately keeping her own sexual history private, Emily Maynard, the author of the article, proclaims that she is no longer going to think of herself as a virgin or a non-virgin. "I'm done splitting my sexuality into pieces," Maynard writes, "I'm done with conversations about 'technical virginity' and couples who 'win the race to the altar.'... I'm done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity."

Maynard's piece, as well as Bessey's account of feeling personally targeted and shamed by a "well-intentioned" preacher's sex talk, reveal another problem with the evangelical purity narrative: the assumption that its young Christian audience is a fresh crop of virgins. Research shows otherwise. A 2009 study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that nearly 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals have sex before marriage. Not only, then, is the purity-focused Christian message sometimes harmful; it also appears to be ineffective.

Denunciations of purity culture are beginning to emerge from the evangelical ivory tower as well. Richard Beck, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Abilene Christian University, an evangelical school, expounds on the deeper implications of purity obsession both on his website and in his book Unclean, taking particular issue with the words and metaphors Christians use to frame sexual sin, especially for women. Beck argues that using the metaphor of purity imports a "psychology of contamination into our moral and spiritual lives," and this contamination is viewed as a permanent state, one beyond restoration.

Moreover, while women are subjected to the language of purity and seen as irreparably contaminated after having sex, the same is not true for men. According to Beck, a boy losing his virginity is seen as a "mistake, a stumbling," a mode of behavior that can be changed and rehabilitated. This, he argues, exposes a double standard at work in the language of sexual purity: women who have sex are seen as "damaged goods," but men who have sex are not.

Beck's analysis reveals how evangelical critiques of purity are increasing in nuance and complexity, but what remains all but absent in these accounts is a fleshed-out alternative. While these writers clearly advocate abandoning the language of purity, they seem reluctant to relinquish the abstinence ideal entirely—which creates an interesting tension. What, exactly, does a post-purity sexual ethic look like for evangelicals?

In response to this question, some evangelical writers, such as Anna Broadway and Rachel Held Evans, affirmed the traditional idea of saving sex for marriage. Broadway, author of Sexless in the City, hopes to reframe rather than reject the abstinence ideal. In her writing, she advocates a shift from a boundaries-focused sexual ethos to one that promotes and articulates positive practices, such as unmarried individuals living in community, rather than alone. When asked to describe a post-purity evangelical perspective, Broadway responded, "It's got to be way more holistic. ... We've done a very bad job of connecting single sexuality to married sexuality," despite that fact "both groups of people are called to sexual self-control." Broadway proposes emphasizing an overarching ideal of "self-giving love" rather than abstinence, which would put a positive spin on premarital chastity, as well as cultivate deeper awareness of "unhealthy sexual dynamics within marriage," from sexual selfishness to "outright abuse."

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Abigail Rine teaches literature and gender studies at George Fox University. She is the author of the forthcoming book Irigaray, Incarnation and Contemporary Women’s Fiction. She writes regularly at Mama Unabridged.

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