By Katie McCoy
“There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality and it’s been breathing new life into a very old idea.” So says Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Dubbed the “poster-girl for third-wave feminism,” Valenti claims the abstinence-only movement tells young women that their value is based solely on what they do (or rather don’t do) with her sexuality rather than their character, intelligence, and integrity. These “purity-pushers” are harming a generation of young women, making them even more sexualized due to their emphasis on virginity as “the measure of a woman’s character.” The book became a documentary targeting educational institutions and aiming to inform young women about “the virginity movement’s war against women.” Her thought-provoking work raises some valid questions and challenges Christians to reevaluate how we discuss issues like purity and virginity.
The Purity Myth
According to Valenti, upholding virginity isn’t about women’s health or well-being. Instead, it’s about a regressive, socio-political agenda from conservatives and evangelicals to restore “traditional” gender stereotypes. “What the virginity movement really wants from women is submissiveness. There’s a reason why their goal for women is only marriage and motherhood. The movement believes that that’s the only thing women are meant for.” The Purity Myth claims that the abstinence-only movement, within both government-funded education and Christian-based organizations, is a grand conspiracy – a programmatic means to a social end.
The philosophy has a direct effect on the current birth control debate. Valenti claims that conservatives and evangelicals have impeded the use and accessibility of emergency contraception like Plan B or the HPV vaccine for fear that birth control will “promote promiscuity,” causing women to throw off the conventions of “the purity police,” and society losing control of women’s roles. On-demand birth control is not only considered a woman’s right; it’s considered a self-declaration.
So how do we engage young women who have bought into the “purity myth?”
Surprisingly, both Valenti and secular abstinence education share a common paradigm: Sexuality exists for the individual. On Anderson Cooper’s talk show, Valenti stated, “I think if we want to teach our daughters to be good people, let’s teach them to be good people. Their sexuality has nothing to do with that.” Within abstinence education material, common reasons for sexual abstinence include steering clear from STD’s or unplanned pregnancies, avoiding emotional baggage, and promoting a healthier self-esteem. All of these are worthy and true concerns, yet, like The Purity Myth, primarily focus on the individual. If a woman’s sexuality is chiefly about her happiness and well-being, then the decision of whether to wait will be a constant tug-of-war between her cultural influences and the potential consequences.
Sexuality and Scripture
Scripture paints a very different picture of sexuality and the reason for purity: Sexuality exists for the sake of knowing the Creator. As John Piper states in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, “Sexuality is designed by God as a way to know God in Christ more fully…God created us with sexual passion so that there would be language to describe what it means to cleave to him in love and what it means to turn away from him to others.” Ultimately, God’s purpose for sexual purity is as foundational as his purpose for creating us – to know, love, glorify and worship God.
Contrary to cultural myths, purity isn’t about conforming to social standards, pleasing parents, avoiding adverse physical consequences or the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Purity isn’t even primarily about our own emotional wholeness and psychological well-being. Purity is about worship.
Our colleges and churches are filled with young women who need to hear that their sexuality is not primarily about themselves; That the expression of their sexuality apart from its created purpose is a self-destructive distortion of what the creator gave to communicate himself to his creation; that while their value is not in their virginity, their virginity was given to reflect something valuable.
So how can we counter the cultural messages like The Purity Myth? Consider some of the ways that we may be miscommunicating purity in our churches and families:
Have we presented a woman’s virginity as an indispensable aspect of her worth? While many have rightly taught that one’s virginity is a gift to one’s spouse, a reverse message often accompanies it, which denies the power of God’s grace to heal, forgive and transform. The result is the false message that a woman’s worth depends upon her virginity. We heard this in Elizabeth Smart’s tragic explanation of how she felt like a worthless piece of chewed gum after being raped, a feeling she attributes to her religious background and abstinence education. She, like many young women, believed that the loss of virginity made her “damaged goods.” Every woman needs to hear that there’s not a person alive who isn’t “damaged goods” needing God’s forgiveness and grace and that her purity, wholeness, and identity can be restored in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5: 21, Col. 1:14).
Have we equated virginity with purity? Do we emphasize refraining from sexual activity at the expense of communicating a lifestyle of purity that is created, guarded and decided in the heart? Do our high school and college students know that, while they may be abstinent virgins, they may not be pure (Matt. 5:27-28)?
Have we established our perspective of sexuality in the gospel? Is our new identity in Jesus Christ the foundation for understanding the purpose of sexuality, for having the power to live out its purpose as God designed it, and for walking in the peace of a redeemed past?
Countering the myths of our hyper-sexualized, “hook-up” culture won’t happen with trendier marketing of abstinence, greater government funding for abstinence education, or more alarming accounts of the dangers of pre-marital sex. Only when we see and deeply know the Lord for whom every aspect of our lives – especially our sexuality – was designed to worship, will the myth of moralistic virginity be replaced by the truth of Christ-exalting purity.
Katie McCoy is a Ph.D. resident in systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she serves as the editor of BiblicalWoman.org and Assistant to the Dean of Women’s Programs. Katie has taught in Southwestern’s Seminary Studies for Student Wives Program contributed to the upcoming Women’s Evangelical Study Bible. She loves learning obscure words, watching BBC miniseries with her mom, and thinks sushi is a staple food group.
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