On Purity Culture

A few weeks back I talked a bit about the role of women in traditional Christianity, along with the general absence of many Christian men from online communities (part of their efforts to avoid sexual temptation).

Since that post, I came across an infuriating article about Maryann White, a Catholic mother of four sons, and her effort to shame female students into not wearing leggings or other revealing clothes, lest they cause the school’s young men to stumble:

“In her letter, titled ‘The legging problem,’ White described the pants as ‘a problem that only girls can solve.’ She claimed that the depiction of women in movies, video games and music videos made it harder for Catholic mothers to ‘teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters’ and should be treated with respect.”

Hoo-boy. Ok, let me set the gas can down, and let’s talk a little bit about purity culture.

White’s letter, in a nutshell, makes the following two main points:

  • It’s important to protect (heterosexual) men from being tempted by their biological urges
  • The ones to blame for this temptation are women

Why would she be taking this stance? A few reasons:

1. Men on Top

Men are placed on a pedestal in traditional Christian culture. Full stop. As I mentioned in my other piece, Christians over time have re-contextualized other Bible verses, but continue to firmly hold their ground on passages relating to male and female power balances.

This is especially infuriating when I see men in online discussions (the few that are actually engaging) talking down or “mansplaining” to outspoken women, or when I see “Leader” and “Leader’s Wife” church role naming conventions (when both roles are equally essential).

None of this is surprising of course, since those in power seldom want to relinquish it. As Upton Sinclair once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

What’s needed (as is always the case) is a focus on the example set by Jesus himself, with a good deal less institutional clinging to existing interpretations of Paul’s writings.

2. Away, Foul Temptress

Walking on eggshells around male sexual desire puts unfair pressure on women, and places a higher value on a man’s struggles than on a woman’s freedom.

Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. – Romans 14:13 (NIV)

I fully agree with the noble goal of not causing others to struggle needlessly, but let’s be honest, only women get thrown under this bus. Not only because there’s a higher value placed on male church roles, but because to discourage men from dressing/acting inappropriately would be to open the door to conversations about female sexual desire and empowerment, which would cause way too many faces to melt.

3. Let’s Talk About Sex

The neverending “woe is me” male sexual temptation conversations tend to suck all the oxygen from the room at many Bible studies or small group conversations.

Is avoiding temptation important? Absolutely. Jesus himself doesn’t pull any punches:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” -Mark 9:43-48 (NIV)

Pretty clear. Get rid of things that cause you to stumble. Christian men are obsessed with applying these verses to sexual temptations that come their way, but tend to ignore two other important body parts:

  • Mouth: You may be thrilled with what you think is noble behavior in the face of ongoing temptations, but are the words coming from your mouth causing women around you to stumble in other ways? Is cutting off your outbound toxic attitude just as important as cutting off inbound sources of temptation? Given that it more directly affects others, is it perhaps more important?
  • Ears: Of all the issues facing the world today, is your inward-facing struggle with purity the most important stumbling block to address? Has your relentless self-focus caused you to close your ears to the struggles of others?

Love Covers All

Let’s look at the verses that appear right before the metaphorical slicing and dicing of body parts:

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. -Mark 9:38-42 (NIV)

We should be deeply ashamed by the legalistic stumbling blocks that purity culture has thrown in front of women, and they’re hardly the only people affected.

At a time in their lives already riddled with confusion, is the relentless emphasis on sexual purity worth the mental anguish and guilt it causes adolescents and teens looking for God while simultaneously riding an intense wave of newly-introduced hormones?

And we haven’t even touched on how this stuff intersects with those in the LGBTQ community, but as you might guess, it’s not a pretty picture. Take a moment to read this lovely piece. It’s totally fine, I’ll wait.

Done? Great.

The fact that the man in the article was taken aback by the couple’s loving attitude should make us rend our garments. We should be welcoming those earnestly seeking God with open arms, not throwing up roadblocks of intolerance and setting limits on their participation.

What’s Next?

I think it’s time for heterosexual Christian men to take even a tiny portion of the energy expended on purity-oriented self-flagellation and channel it into a few positive next steps:

  • Spend more time studying how Jesus treated women, and compare it with what you see in your church
  • Stop blaming women for causing men to struggle (I’m sure you don’t agree with the “she dressed like she was asking for it!” line of logic in rape cases, so why tolerate this?)
  • Engage with the world, including online communities and important books/films/television shows focused on female, LGBTQ and other often-marginalized perspectives (you might stumble across a naughty word or a stray boob, but I assure you that you’ll survive, and the empathy you’ll gain will make you a better, less self-engaged and frankly more compassionate person)
  • Always, always, always err on the side of grace

Go Team Leggings!

Published by

Kyle Ford

Husband. Father of several clowns. Product guy.