How Purity Culture Ruins Sex for Everyone

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.”

Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne

St. Augustine ponders purity, by Philippe de Champaigne, 1650.

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.

Sexual Health

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.

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What if the True Meaning of Christmas is about Self-Worth?

In our hyper-programmed culture of productivity and accomplishment, it can be a relief to reach the Christmas season: those precious few days when there is finally a cultural pressure to just be nice. Time for Christmas, time for Love.

But we also receive very specific messages what that Love should look like. These messages are everywhere, but most powerfully in the inescapable holiday soundtrack that somehow penetrates every public and private event.

In church, it’s often said that faith is defined by music: our truest beliefs are not from the Bible but from the songs we sing each week, whether it’s lofty hymns battling the organ or the not-so-affectionately titled genre of “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs. There’s nowhere in American culture that music more deeply shapes us than at Christmas. Our experience and expectations of the holiday is based on the songs we’ve committed to play in public spaces, whether out of cultural consensus or media manipulation.

The radio-dominating carols of snow and good cheer shape our subconscious holiday landscape, with their parties and presents and mistletoe and food and family and friends. These songs point us toward an elusive sense of comfort and love, but it’s a love wrapped up in a prescribed set of practices, ie., walking in a winter wonderland, getting the turkey and the mistletoe, letting it snow, and rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

The musical consensus tells us Christmas is about more than presents and lights. But only to the degree that the  #1 Billboard Holiday song by Mariah Carey tells it: we believe we can transcend the materialism of the season and access the true spirit of Christmas only by attaching ourselves to a romantic partner. “All I want for Christmas is You.” True Christmas is about falling in love, because the only thing worse than being in an unhappy relationship at Christmas is to be single at Christmas, as if singleness is evidence of unloveability.

Mariah Carey All I Want for Christmas is You

Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit was almost titled, “All I Want for Christmas is to Stake my Self-Worth on Someone Else in order to Cover my Crippling Fear of Unloveability.”

The classic (can we say classic about 1994 yet?) gives voice to one of the deepest American anxieties. If we make the leap to eschew materialism in favor of love, but can’t even master the connection of romantic love, it must mean we are not be loveable.

At Christmas, as at Valentine’s Day, we perform acts of conspicuous love without these displays, we would be unworthy of love.

To hear the Christmas songs tell it, Loving means giving as much of yourself away as you can—to buy presents; to send cards; to attend obligatory gatherings in an endless blur of warm and mildly intoxicating beverages; to socialize in specific and highly programmed ways; to make the season as perfect, as the song says, “as a picture print by Currier and Ives.” But somehow that Currier and Ives print becomes a month lived in a frenzied generosity and accommodation and giving more love than you receive until it all culminates in a sugary crash and a coma of introversion. The American Christmas is about giving away love, even when you have no more love to give. It’s the idea if you don’t give it away, you’ll never be worthy of receiving it.

Christmas can bring out crippling feelings of perfectionism and inadequacy as we race to give away “enough” love to become worthy of receiving it.

From this perspective, Jesus becomes a magic “Love Your Neighbor” card that gives you the energy to give away more love. But the real mystery and challenge of God Incarnate is that your own flesh is worthy of love. In that small baby in the manager, you face the reality that you—you, with your flaws and shame—are deeply loveable.

The Birth of Jesus is the antithesis of the Christmas carols’ message. It’s realizing that love doesn’t keep a scorecard, that no amount of presents or cards will make you more or less deserving. Christmas is about an encounter with a God who challenges you to say, “I am loved.”

This is exactly what the Virgin Mary does, in spite of theological attempts to reduce her to a humble saint who has somehow transcended the need for self-love. In carrying God inside of herself, she names her own self-worth and identifies herself as not only someone who gives love, but someone who receives love.

Annunciation El Greco

“Annunciation,” by El Greco; or, “The Terrifying Possibility of Self-Love.”

Immediately after the angel announces her pregnancy, in Luke 1:39, “Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country.” She learns she is pregnant and… She’s out. She’s on the road to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Bible says nothing about talking to her parents or consulting with Joseph, she just packs her bags and walks across Roman-occupied Judea by herself. Mary meets the angel and she realizes, “God has a plan for me and I have to get my s*** together.”

And so she creates more space to be herself. As she contemplates engagement, pregnancy, and marriage, as she comes into adulthood with the massive task of forming her own family unit, and as she thinks of how she wants to create a family where she gives love but also receives love, she takes time to be a single woman. She puts her obligations to others on pause in order to reflect on her own patterns of loving.

And she’s gone for 3 months. That’s one-third of her pregnancy devoted to reflecting on love with a trusted woman friend.

Her visit is about adult women making space together to be adult women. Mary and Elizabeth spend three months together. Of course, Elizabeth’s husband is around, Zechariah, but Zechariah got into an argument with an angel and the angel struck him mute. So while Zechariah is around, these three month aren’t about him. It’s truly just a time for the women be together understanding themselves and their capacities to love. To love a child, but also to love themselves.

When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!” (This is the part where John the Baptist leaps in her womb, but let’s de-center the male experience and look at the women beyond their fetus-carrying capacity.)

And Mary responds,

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary responds to Elizabeth’s blessing by blessing herself. Elizabeth says, “You’re so great!” And Mary replies, “Yes, I am great! And God loves me that way.”

Her song is full of my’s and me’s. It’s about her as an individual. Maybe coming from someone else’s mouth, it would sound self-centered, but here, it is Mary’s understanding that as a woman, she is deeply loved and worthy of all the love she has received.

Only from that place of belovedness does she launch into this vision of dismantling the political system and creating a more equitable world, the lowly lifted up and the powerful pulled down from their thrones, which is what the Magnificat is so well-known for.

Christmas is a season of love and loving. But it’s also a season of belovedness.

Among the pressure of cultural Christmas to perform acts of other-centered love, there is also space and theological precedent to shower yourself in love. To bask in the love of God.

Because you are loved and you are worthy of love. When God takes on flesh and walks among us, God gifts us the stunning truth that we are worthy of love.

 

This post was adapted from a sermon given Dec. 23, 2018.

Keeping the ‘Baptism’ in Anabaptism

 When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the Search Committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, and is only made once, for life. During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word choice, an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to decide, to have control over what and how they consume. Choice is one of the highest cultural values—evident in the many advertisements appealing to customizable products that give you what you want, when you want it.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Continue reading

A Prayer during Hearings for Supreme Court Nominees Accused of Sexual Assault

The Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony and the public re-traumatizing of all survivors of sexual assault in the U.S., my congregation, like many others, was hurting, confused, struggling, trying, wondering, searching for words. We spent some time in prayer, and this is the prayer I offered (as best I remember it):

 

Please join me in a time of silence for victims and survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

 

 

God we give thanks for the silence-breakers.
God we give thanks for the women who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the men who are survivors of sexual assault.
God we give thanks for the trans and gender-nonconforming people who are survivors, in so many ways.

Make our churches instruments of healing and recovery.
Teach us to lament. To listen to the laments of survivors.

We pray that we will have softer ears,
that we will become better listeners to survivors,
that we will learn to center the stories of survivors
and in doing so to create a more just world.

May we enter the public dialogue
practicing support and advocating for survivors.
May we speak healing and, when we make mistakes,
as we inevitably will in our attempts to learn justice, give us
the courage to learn from them and become better allies and better disciples.

And all God’s people said: I believe women.

Congregation: I believe women.

And all God’s people said: I believe survivors.

Congregation: I believe survivors.

Amen.

Four Things the Church should be Saying about Adultery

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The same is true of every instance of adultery. The church tends to preach that there is one formula for dealing with adultery (or, in some traditions, one formula if you’re a woman and another formula if you’re a man). But adultery can’t be “solved” by applying the right formula. It’s a more complicated and emotional conversation. Nearly all of us have firsthand or secondhand experience with adultery—in a present or previous relationship; between parents or siblings or close friends. But we rarely talk about the frameworks that allow us to move through and beyond the pain of adultery.

Here are four guideposts the church should raise on the impact and consequences of adultery.

1. Adultery is a choice. Continue reading

Anabaptists, Abortions, and Moral Ambivalence

Even before Brett Kavanaugh was officially nominated as the new Supreme Court justice nominee, the media buzzed with questions about what might happen to Roe v. Wade. Most legal experts and activists anticipate that the decision that legalized abortion nationwide will be overturned—and the legality of abortion will revert to a state-by-state decision—within a handful of years.

Abortion is an emotional issue, no matter what one believes. The word immediately puts us on the defensive. It’s easy to jump to go-to arguments about why the other side is wrong.

There are two questions Anabaptists need to ask: Who are we in the abortion debate? Who do we want to be in the abortion debate?

However, Anabaptists cannot ask the second question because they are afraid to ask the first question. For years, Anabaptist traditions have quietly avoided public conversation about abortion, sidestepping the pacifist stance that suggests a pro-life ethic and the low church polity and strong tradition of empowering impoverished neighbors that suggests a respect for pro-choice views. Continue reading