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."