Five Failures of Purity Culture

quick tips May 18, 2020


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Today we are talking about Purity Culture, because I believe purity culture is the number one enemy to freedom from porn.


What is purity culture? It's a movement that started in the 1990s when conservatives and Christians became concerned about the negative effects of sex outside of marriage. And they were right. It was a problem. People were dying of AIDS and neglecting God's guidelines for sex and sexuality.


Unfortunately, their solution to that caused more problems. They created what I believe was a war on sex and sexuality, and this became later known as purity culture. Just like the United States government waged a war on drugs with advertising campaigns like “just say no!” in the same way the church waged a war on sexuality.


The culture warriors used weapons like purity rings to "stay pure until you're married." Virginity became a prized possession. Messages like "True Love Waits" and I Kissed Dating Goodbye were the battle cries of this war.


Author Christopher McCluskey summarizes purity culture in one sentence: “Sex is dirty, so save it for someone you love.” That is the essence of purity culture: sex is dirty, sex is gross, sex is bad. Therefore, save it for someone you love. This doesn't make sense.


Yet this is the attitude that many of us grew up with, whether we knew it or not. If you grew up in a home where sex was taboo and the only guidance you got was "what not to do with your body," you grew up in a home influenced by purity culture. And I believe purity culture actually sets us up to struggle with pornography. So here's my list of the five failures of purity culture that set you up to struggle with porn.


Failure #1: Toxic Shame. According to purity culture, you are sexually pure at birth...until you have sex or use pornography, and then you are impure. You are unclean, you are trash, you're damaged goods and this becomes your identity. It's not just something you've done or something that was done to you. It's who you are.


Toxic shame says you're worthless. Are you even a Christian? You are not loved by God or by others. You're not worthy of loving yourself. This is the foundation of so much of the enemy's power in our lives when it comes to pornography.


The toxic shame message of "You are unclean,  you are impure" is actually the opposite of what the Bible says. That's why I end every episode of Husband Material with the same words: You are God's beloved son. In you He is well-pleased. I'm reminding you of your identity in Christ. You are Holy, pure, blameless, clean, righteous in the sight of God.


In John 15:3, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” What is that word? It's the Gospel. It's the Good News. It's the message that Jesus is with us and for us, and he has done everything necessary to bring us back to who we really are: loved by God, worthy of care and dignity and respect. And this is true of all people and especially those who have been adopted by the Father, united with the Son, and filled with the Holy Spirit. So I want you to know this: toxic shame has no place in the life of any person. Toxic shame has no place in the life of your sexuality. And that is the first failure of purity culture. It reinforces toxic shame.


Failure #2: Sexual Anorexia. Some of you are like, "What? I know what anorexia is, but what is sexual anorexia?" Sexual anorexia is a sexual version of anorexia. Anorexia is a pattern of disordered eating in which you avoid food. You perceive food as evil, and it becomes repulsive to you. You can't handle it. Your appetite shuts down. In sexual anorexia, you shut down your sexuality. You see someone beautiful and "bounce your eyes." You can't look at them. You can't even go near them.


When you experience pleasure in your body, especially in your genitals, you think “This is bad, this is wrong, I have to stop this.” So you push away intimacy with other people, you push away the pleasure in your body, and you become anorexic sexually. You can't handle beauty. You either run away from it or you try to overpower it. In any case, you put a wall up between yourself and experiences of beauty, touch, affection, delight and love. Sexual anorexia is not what God wants, and it is the second failure of purity culture.


Failure #3: Military Mindset. I see this all the time in any kind of porn recovery or sexual addiction ministry aimed at sexual purity. They take on a military mindset to "fight the battle for purity" or "be a warrior" or "conquer the enemy." Unfortunately, this puts us in a fight against our sexuality. If I have a military mindset, I  feel like I have to go to war against myself. This is not the biblical view of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is not against sexuality. It's actually for the sake of sexuality. Spiritual warfare is how we fight against the spiritual forces of darkness that are trying to destroy our sexuality.


We need to be very clear that spiritual warfare is a thing, and it's important, and also it's not the most important thing. I believe the most important thing is to discover where our sexual development got stunted and then to learn how to grow up into mature, Christ-like sexual adults. That's why on Husband Material, you're not going to see a lot of content about "fighting the battle" telling you to conquer or overcome or be a warrior because there's enough of that out there.


The military mindset is based on purity culture. It's this idea that I'm sexually impure, so I need to shut down my sexuality and wage war against it. That's the opposite of my approach, which is to join with God's love and experience self-compassion. I believe we need to begin with curiosity about where our sexual desires and attractions are coming from. And you can't do that if you're shutting them down and always fighting against them.


Failure #4: Sin Management. Techniques to manage sexual sin are the natural result of a military mindset. If my sexuality is the enemy, then of course it makes sense to put as many restrictions around it as possible: internet filters, accountability software, anything to limit my access to sexual stimulation. These surface-level strategies often fail because they feel strict and overbearing. In an attempt to get free from pornography, we end up in a new prison cell.


Sin management techniques focus on behavior modification. They're skin deep. For some people, this type of training can work for a while. Maybe you'll get some victories in your quest of warfare against your sexuality. But in the end, all your victories can be lost in a moment of defeat.


In the military mindset and sin management, you're fighting a losing battle because even if you can learn how to manage your stress and overcome temptation, your sexual fantasies will still have a kind of thrilling-yet-forbidden effect on you. And if you let down your guard for a moment, then everything you've worked for and fought for can be gone in a moment.


As long as you're buying into this whole purity culture narrative of:

  1. Toxic Shame (I'm sexually impure)

  2. Sexual Anorexia (I need to shut my sexuality down)

  3. Military Mindset (I need to wage war against myself)

  4. Sin management (I need to put my sexuality in a cage)

It's a recipe for relapse in the end. This is why purity culture cannot lead to deep healing and true freedom from pornography. 


Failure #5: False Promises. On the one hand, I believe there is some truth in the message of purity culture. For example, sex outside of marriage is not God's plan. In this regard, I agree with purity culture. The problems come when, in order to support that truth, people bring in lies.


Here are some examples:

  • One day you will get married. (This may or may not be true)
  • Sex in marriage will be so much more amazing than anything else.
  • Marriage is the finish line that will satisfy your sexual desires.
  • You will no longer have any sexual struggles after you get married.


These false promises set us up to see marriage as the solution. In reality, marriage does not solve sexual struggles (like pornography use). If anything, it accentuates them. This is one of the reasons why divorce rates are so high among Christians and non-Christians: because we bought into the narrative of purity culture. We believed the false promises, like "if I keep myself pure, one day, it'll pay off with some kind of sexual extravaganza once I get married." That just doesn't happen.


The promises of God are different. God does not promise earthly marriage. I hate to break it to you: you might never get married. And even if you do get married, your spouse might die. We are not promised marriage to any particular person, and sex in marriage may or may not be amazing, especially not at first.


Here's what God does promise: He wants to marry us Himself. The Lord wants to be our bridegroom. One day there will be this thing called "The Marriage Supper of the Lamb" (see Revelation 19) where we are all invited. From then on, it will be impossible to sin and sexuality will no longer be a struggle for us. Until that day, we are still recovering from the damage of sin and shame and pornography and purity culture.


Pornography and purity culture have a lot more in common than you think. They both have an incredibly low view of sex. In purity culture, sex is seen as forbidden, nasty, gross, and dirty. In porn, sex is seen as casual, inconsequential, and consumeristic. Both of these views are so puny and pale in comparison to the beauty and glory of God's design to actually enjoy our sexuality in a healthy way.


If you want to learn more about that, download my new free eBook: Sexuality Meets Discipleship.


Always matter what purity culture or pornography might tell you, you are God's beloved son. In you, He is well-pleased.



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