Do sexual behaviors determine one’s identity?
Readership: Christians, especially those who were involved in the Purity Movement;
Length: 2,300 words;
Reading Time: 8 minutes;
Earlier this year, I wrote a series of posts about the Purity Movement. Recently, I had a few referrals from Patheos, and when I checked out the source, I noticed a few posts about Purity Culture at Patheos, written by Jackson Wu.
In these posts, the author uses words like idolatry, morality, identity, and he refers to “Honor, Guilt, and Fear societies” by which he means Honor vs. Shame, Righteousness vs. Guilt, and Power vs. Fear ethical systems. Because of the vast number of similarities in philosophical frame and vocabulary, I am totally convinced that the author has been reading my posts on Purity Culture and cultural anthropology’s ethical systems.
While I was perusing these articles, I also did a search for “purity” and found a treasure trove of articles about the Purity Movement!
Ever since butting heads with Susan Titkemeyer, who is an author there, I’ve become very critical about anything that comes out of Patheos, so I decided that these articles deserve some critical review.
Because of the sheer volume of articles at Patheos covering the Purity Movement (more than 70, as of September 1, 2020), I’ve decided to start a writing project which will address these articles. As a tentative plan, I intend to cover one article a week, which I will facetiously name, “Patheological Weddingsday”, to be published on Wednesdays.
Now on to the critical critique.
How Purity Culture Undermined Christian Identity
The first article I’ll review at Patheos was written by Jackson Wu and is about How Purity Culture Undermined Christian Identity (2020 August 5).
“I have heard people say that purity culture preached a “sex prosperity gospel.” The basic message went something like this: If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will have wonderful marriages with amazing sex.”
I do agree that purity culture toted a “sex prosperity gospel”, and I believe this heavy emphasis on sex is what drew the crowds in, for one reason or another. The problem is that the average young person who went after this were more interested in maximizing their sex lives than in pursuing sanctification and glorifying God with their bodies. It was clear to everyone that sex belonged in marriage, and a few people (such as myself) recognized that sex should be a part of sanctification, but exactly how that was supposed to happen was not something that anyone knew anything about, much less taught.
There is some truth in this message, “If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will have wonderful marriages with amazing sex.” But it was more or less an empty promise, or at most, one with a low probability of fulfillment, because the social structure necessary to reinforce the blessings of chastity was lost sometime in the early 20th century.
The author quotes Joshua Harris here.
“There are all kinds of categories of sin where we sin and we don’t change our status, like you know, if you lie, you don’t say, “Oh well, I’m no longer, you know, a lying virgin or something….” [laughter] We just don’t think that way. We just say, “You know what? I sinned. I want to repent of that. I want to move forward.”
But with this issue, it’s like, if you have sex, you’re no longer a virgin, you know, it’s like your status has somehow changed.”
Harris was almost right about this point. It isn’t one’s social status that has changed, per se, but the constitution of one’s body, especially the endocrine system, the immune system, the nervous system, and the reproductive system, and this has a significant impact on one’s social life and spiritual life. St. Paul described this phenomenon as follows.
“Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.”1st Corinthians 6:18 (NKJV)
There might be several ways to interpret the meaning of this passage, but to me, it means that illicit sex “programs” the body to respond to sex as a self-serving utility accompanied by guilt and shame, rather than a passionate form of love, marital bonding, and reproduction. And apparently, this programming is permanent.
Continuing Harris’ quote…
“And I think that’s an emphasis on one particular sin out of the millions of ways that we can sin that I think is actually not healthy. It makes the focus not so much “Who am I in relationship to God, who loves and relates to sinners and shows grace to sinners.” It becomes this “Do I have this badge and this identity of being a virgin?”
And if I don’t have that, then I feel like I’ve lost something and I’m no longer as valuable… I think that led a lot of us astray.”
Again, Harris makes the mistake of correlating virginity with holiness and social status, rather than correctly assessing how sexual activity alters one’s body chemistry and decreases one’s MMV, especially for women. In a less perverse society where a majority are pursuing sexual purity, extramarital sex can become a mark of shame. But in this day and age, this kind of social environment has to be artificially created within a small church community. It’s not the same, because instead of encouraging people to face up to their sin and pursue righteousness, it only encouraged those who failed to leave the church. To cite a bit of penal philosophy, “The surety of punishment is a greater motivator than the severity of punishment.”
The author concludes,
“In effect, purity culture conveyed the idea that this one particular sin — sex outside of marriage — would lead a person to perpetually being stained. This link between one sin and an altered identity has led to decades of turmoil for many people who have struggled to untangle sex and shame.”
The author buys into the same false associations that Harris did without seeing the real connection between sin and shame, namely, that outside of Christ’s forgiveness, you cannot untangle illicit sex and shame, no matter how much one might desire to do so. Shame as an emotion is experienced by those who know they failed to meet the behavioral expectations put upon them. There are only two solutions: (1) abandon the social group that imposed those expectations, or (2) repent and accept God’s forgiveness. Purity culture made option (1) an easier and ostensibly better choice than (2). And no matter which path is chosen, one’s identity, body chemistry, and social standing (i.e. MMV) cannot be changed. God may remove a person’s sin and shame, but not the real world consequences of one’s sin.
Isn’t Sin Part of One’s Identity?
Next, the author poses the question,
“How did the purity movement magnify one specific sin such that it seeming changed one’s identity in ways that other sins did not?”
He suggests two answers.
- Purity Language
Let’s take a look at what he says about each of these two points.
Part 1 – Idolatry
“First, the movement subtly reinforced the idolatry it opposed. Harris underscores an irony. In short, the purity movement presents “sex as the most important thing to sell abstinence.” Christine Gardner, the author of Making Chasity Sexy, chronicles various ways that rallies and music were used to get people excited about sex only then to say, “Don’t have sex.” […] In an odd way, “Don’t have sex” acts similarly to the command “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” The heightened attention and exaltation of sex undermine the movement’s own goals.”
This is totally true. One cannot avoid something by continually dwelling on the idea. As long as that idea is in one’s mind, one will always gravitate towards that thing. The reason this doesn’t work is because one is relying on one’s own resolution and will power (AKA “efforts in the flesh”), and not on the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why the renewing of the mind is so important. (Romans 12:2)
“These methods of purity culture infuse kids with idolatrous thinking that isolates one blessing above all others. It never dislodges the idolatry of sex. It isolates one blessing among others.” […] Physical intimacy is no longer seen within the larger plan and promise of God for creation. Such reductionism isolates and then privileges different parts of life. We begin to define ourselves in terms of one sin or social sphere.”
Yes, focusing on one certain blessing — sex, whether it be one’s present sexual purity, or one’s future sexual fulfillment, and trying to make deals with God in the matter – “If I keep my virginity until marriage, then God will grant me a beautiful marriage with lots of mind blowing sex” — all this constitutes a system of works motivated by idolatrous hopes. The author is not being as clear on the issue as I would prefer, but he has the right idea.
However, the last sentence is a bit confusing. “We begin to define ourselves in terms of one sin or social sphere.” This is only true if we redefine sin to be anything that upsets one’s idolatry or social prestige. In fact, our unique sins (according to God’s definition of sin) define our identity, and God in His ineffable grace uses a believer’s sinful identity for His glory.
Part 2 – Purity Language
“Second, the movement exploited purity language without realizing the potent effect of the metaphor. For example, many kids in the 1990s publicly confirmed their decision to remain abstinent by wearing purity rings. Similar rituals continue today. In one documentary, we see families and communities hold galas where the girls wear white dresses to celebrate their virginity.
The author is trying to make the case that festivities and wearing certain attire is a manifestation of idolatry. But in fact, sexual continence and virginity are so rare in this day and age, that it’s truly a big deal! Wearing white is not idolatry in of itself, but because of the rarity, it is perceived to be such by those who can’t do the same. It also arouses envy and s1ut-shaming, which are social no-no’s.
“Richard Beck’s Unclean contains one of the most profound treatments on the relationship between morality and purity language (chapter 3, “Morality and Metaphor”). All metaphors assume a certain logic. Our minds often fail to notice the implicit logic one welcomes when accepting a certain metaphor.”
No, people understood the metaphors and the implicit logic with crystal clarity. It was the moral implications which people found difficult to swallow.
“When a person becomes “unclean” or “impure,” one needs a remedy. Unclean people attempt to regain their purity. However, virginity is not something that can be regained. Just as women cannot be “sort of pregnant,” neither is someone “sort of” a virgin. You are or you are not. There seems to be no remedy.”
Actually, a lot of young people tried to skirt around this technicality by redefining virginity. I dedicated two posts to explore this deceptive strategy.
- Σ Frame: On the Definition of Virginity (2020 April 22)
- Σ Frame: Pseudo-Sex and Technical-Virginity (2020 May 11)
“When “virgin” becomes a fundamental identity claim, what happens? Church kids who have sex before marriage then come to feel they have become moral lepers.”
Well, one’s sexual proclivity is a fundamental facet of one’s identity, and purity culture got this much right. Note that he identifies the feeelz as the main issue of contention. Actually, if an offender feels ashamed of having illicit sex, then he/she can be thankful that he/she has a good conscience. But it seems like the author is saying (to put it bluntly) that young people should be able to do as they d@mn well please, and still be valued as a member in good standing, or (more generously) that it’s not right that Church kids who have sex before marriage should have to face any negative repercussions. But the fact that there are negative consequences is the same reason why God told us not to do such things!
In effect, this kind of argument is trying to get around the conundrum of sin by insinuating that the condemnation of sexual sin is wrong, and that anything that compounds a healthy sense of shame is wrong. I will admit that it might be counterproductive for a church to aggravate one’s feelings of shame and condemnation if one is nearing repentance or has already repented. But if repentance is not on the horizon, then this is the same as telling God, “Butt out of my life and let me sin as I please. I’ll find a way to make others pay for the consequences. And don’t You dare try to discipline me!”
Young Christians (not just those who were involved in the purity movement) are faced with a dichotomous choice in life – to be obedient, or not to be obedient. But people want to taste all the joys and pleasures of disobedience and obtain all the blessings of obedience. People will cook up all kinds of lies and deceptions in their efforts to attain both. This is the fundamental sin of idolatry which the author should have stated more clearly in his discussion of idolatry.
The real problem with the purity movement is that the church did not give young people a true choice of either (1) pioneering their own path in life (outside of the church), or (2) submitting to God. Either choice might find redemption through God’s grace, but instead, the choice was legalistically presented as a dualistic “All or Nothing”, which excluded the possibility of discovering God’s grace. As such, leaving the church (after an infraction) became a punishment (either external or self-imposed), and not a choice.