Even if you’ve never had the misfortune of being invited to a purity ball, it’s likely purity culture still has an outsized impact on the way you think about sexuality. Think of Coach Carr’s awkward speech, “Don’t have sex—‘cause you will get pregnant. And die”: it’s unforgettable because it’s familiar. Evangelicals get the most flak for purity ethics, but from Disney Princesses and Hollywood romcoms, the purity myth flourishes beyond church walls. From an early age, we eat, sleep, and breathe subtle messages that the best way to evaluate ourselves and our relationships—the best way to determine if they’re good or bad—is to rank them on a scale of dirty to clean. Or mostly just dirty.
From Saint Augustine’s proclamation that sex was the literal act where humans transferred sin to Juice WRLD’s sincere but cringeworthy rhyme about the girl “made out of plastic—fake,” we receive thousands of messages that sexuality runs on a scale of “pure” to “fatally impure.”
These messages encourage us to evaluate ourselves—and our partner—based on perceived purity (whether it be physical, emotional, sexual, aesthetic, or relational purity).
The purity view suggests sexuality is on a dirty/clean spectrum and the goal is to stay as pure as possible, by physical fitness or youthfulness or innocence. Every decision must be separated into categories of “laudable/transgressive,” “worthy/unworthy,” “success/fail.” There’s no room for gray areas or mixed feelings about sexuality or sexual experiences. It makes for a great movie–and a completely unrealistic actual experience of having actual feelings about sexuality in the real world.
The attitude is so dominant and so close to a functional sexual ethic that it’s hard to escape. The purity mindset creates constant pressure. Impurity (from infidelity to wearing unsexy underwear during sex) causes shame. And that shame can never quite be absolved. Even if you can return to a state of purity, purity is necessarily evasive. Purity (from celibacy to staying waxed in bikini season), is an inherently unstable state. One must be vigilant and defensive in order to preserve it.
The problem? Healthy relationships are not rooted in defensiveness.
The purity spectrum fails to equip people with basic skills for healthy sexuality and relationships. It’s a way of looking at the self, relationships, bodies, sexuality, from the perspective of how much shame they can cause.
Purity extends beyond the shame of self. Many of us also internalize a need to protect the purity of a partner. That protection might look like the woman who shaves her legs every three days, even in the winter, so her boyfriend doesn’t have to see the shame of her body hair. Or the man who can’t admit when he lost a job. (These are heteronormative examples, because purity is often conflated with heteronormativity, but queer relationships are also plagued by the need to conceal or protect the purity/innocence of a partner, purportedly for their own good).
The plot of most romantic comedies turns on some purity premise, some reason a protagonist can’t possibly communicate a shameful secret, either because it would make them impure or it would make a partner impure. Viewing romantic partners on a purity scale is an investment in an impossible-to-maintain image. It’s an investment in a relationship where neither party can admit vulnerability or dissonance with the picture-perfect image of the relationship.
When purity is the primary lens for evaluating sexuality, it takes precedent over other values like truth-telling, vulnerability, intimacy, care, and basic communication skills. Sexuality becomes a potent force whose power to separate and disconnect will always outweigh the power to uplift and nurture. In short, sexuality becomes a liability.
Recently, mass media has begun to tell a story of reveling in that dirtiness (think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” the whole “50 Shades of Grey” franchise, or Ariana Grande’s recent “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”), but that dirtiness still confines sex to a transgressive, deviant aberration. (Being attracted to deviance isn’t an inherently bad thing. But if patterns of physiological stimulus are rooted in unnamed pathologies of shame, that shame can carry into relationships in unexpected ways.) It’s difficult to cultivate healthy sexuality when everything must be a risk or a power struggle.
What is the alternative? Imagine a culture where sex is not viewed on a clean-to-dirty scale, but a scale from intimate-to-callous. Or a scale of affirmation-to-negation. If, in sexual decision making, the first question was not, “Will this make me dirty or clean?” but “Will this action cultivate intimacy or callousness?” or “Does this affirm me or negate me?”
Purity creates a strong incentive for avoiding the behaviors we identify as unethical (ie., affairs, sexual violence, divorce). But it also creates guilt and pressure. It glorifies a partner on a pedestal more than a partner who demonstrates intimacy and love-in-unloveable-moments. For that reason, purity will always sabotage sexuality. Purity is a binary in which unworthiness is always threatening self-worth and loveability. It’s a scarcity model of sexuality—there will never be enough love to go around, so you must always defend your relationship from the qualities that make you unloveable.
We need a culture that privileges intimacy, tenderness, honesty, and love above purity. An image of sexuality that moves beyond dirtiness and cleanliness, but that celebrates moments of intimacy, both dirty and clean, and rejects moments of manipulation, both dirty and clean.
The difference in this shift is at times subtle. Plenty of traditionally pure things can be intimate and tender things. But purity only, or purity first, obscures intimacy and tenderness. The current conversation around sexuality has a malnourished vocabulary of generosity, intimacy, sharing, collaboration, and vulnerability. And a malnourished vocabulary creates malnourished relationships.
Purity culture is more than an evangelical Christian problem. It’s the bread-and-butter of Hollywood plot lines and glossy Valentine’s Day ads. It’s deeply embedded in the way North Americans sell and celebrate, package and present, sex. The more we can acknowledge the limits of purity, the more we can root deep in relationships grounded in intimacy, care, and love.