Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer ascribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?
The effects of purity culture are well documented, in books like Linda Kay Klein’s “Pure” and in #exvangelical online communities. Rather than emphasize the gift of sex within marriage, purity culture typically led with the shame of having sex outside of it. One piece of youth-group folklore was a “game” in which a cup would be passed around a circle. At each turn, someone would spit in the cup, until the last person had a cup full of spit. “Would you want to drink this?” the youth pastor intoned. “No. And that’s how others will see you if you sleep around.” Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.
In light of its damaging effects, several Christian leaders have recently suggested a more gracious sexual ethic. Joshua Harris, best known for his 1997 manifesto, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in which he argued for a model of “courtship” supervised by parents, with no kissing before the wedding day, publicly apologized to people who were “misdirected or unhelpfully influenced by” his teachings. His thinking on sex and dating “has changed significantly in the past 20 years,” he wrote. He admitted that much of what he taught was not actually scriptural.