Purity culture: How sex was taught to a generation of Southerners

By |2021-01-14T15:47:50-06:00December 8, 2020|Education, Reckon|Women, Story|

This story is part of a series about purity culture, sex education and the role of family, faith and communities in addressing the lasting impacts of purity culture’s teachings

Rings promising chastity passed from fathers to daughters
. Virginity pledges signed at school assemblies. Flower petals torn from stems to symbolize the irreparable wound caused by a teenagers tryst. All of these evoke memories of purity culture.

If you came of age in the South or a predominantly white evangelical church between the 1990to 2000s, you most likely have a story  from a school gym or a church rec room when lines between church teachings and school lessons blurred, information about sex and sexuality distorted and withheld.  

Some of us found other ways to get the vital information needed to make complicated decisions. Others weren’t so lucky, carrying the weight of the popular 1990s purity culture movement into marriages and partnerships, scarred by shame or hurt by a peer.  

The purity movement was born out of 1990s protestant Christianity, a response to the AIDS epidemic and a rejection of the ‘60s and ‘70s free love movement. Purity culture promoted abstaining from sex until marriage and, in some cases, discouraged dating. In 1993 the Southern Baptist Convention launched its “True Love Waits” campaign, which used youth conferences, books and purity pledges to discourage teens from having sex. 

“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship,” the pledge states. 

Many young adults have spoken out about the harmful effects of the purity movement and how it left them without important information needed to maintain a healthy sexual future, most notably Linda Kay Klein, author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” and Joshua Harris author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” 

Inspired by conversations in the Reckon newsroom about judgement houses where teenagers reenacted unplanned pregnancies and school assemblies where NFL quarterbacks encouraged kids to spit in a cup of water to represent the perpetual filth of virginity gone too soon, 

Reckon reporters decided to dig into how the vilification of sex in schools and churches affected a generation. 

In this examination, Reckon explores the physical ramifications of heralding virginity as the golden marker of morality. We also talked to Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” the adolescent playbook of the purity culture movement, about the generational impact of his book and how he thinks churches today should handle sex education. We spoke with leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention who have helped shape the curriculum around purity teachings in the past few years. We also looked into the consequences of purity culture as it relates to perpetuating harmful views of masculinity.  

But what’s next?  

Reckon has heard from countless young Southerners about how their lack of knowledge about sex and their bodies as teens  left emotional wounds that still loom over their sex lives today.  

There are churches and grassroots groups out there working to make sex education better today. Reckon talked with sex educators, parents and students about what they’re doing to make sure their children and peers are getting more comprehensive sex education, which includes teaching consent and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. 

Some Christian leaders and writers are reexamining the messaging behind programs like True Love Waits. Some acknowledge that many millennials say they were hurt by purity culture. Today’s message in conservative Christian circles is still unapologetically that sex should be reserved for marriage.  

But it’s being retooled for a new generation, dialing back the fear and overpromises of sexual fulfillment, and instead focusing on better understanding God and his plan for sex according to conservative interpretations of Biblical scripture. 

As we explore this topic with you, we’d love to hear from you. How were you taught about sex in school and in church? How has it affected you? How are you teaching your children about sex? Email us at [email protected]. 

Read our full series:

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