Purity culture is the term used to describe the evangelical movement that promotes a biblical view of sexual purity as outlined in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8. The movement discourages dating in favor of “courting” and heavily promotes chastity before marriage. Tokens of purity culture include signed purity pledges, purity rings, and events like purity balls (dances for fathers and daughters during which fathers pledge to be examples of purity and integrity for their daughters).
The purity culture movement began in the early 1990s. Christians who grew up in the sexual revolution began to have kids and teenagers of their own at a time when teen pregnancy was at an all-time high, and AIDS was wreaking havoc (www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-know-purity-culture/, accessed 3/13/23). Many evangelicals reacted to the consequences of sex outside of marriage and sought to ground ideas about sex in biblical teaching. In 1992 Lifeway Christian Resources developed the idea of “True Love Waits” as a theme for a Christian sex education campaign. A year later, the Southern Baptists adopted the program, and at the 1994 True Love Waits rally in Washington D.C., the campaign displayed 210,000 commitment cards (purity pledges). In 1997 Josh Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye popularized the concept of courting rather than dating. The book sold over a million copies, becoming a primary text for the purity culture movement.
Some would argue that purity culture has been successful in its mission. There was a significant decline in sexual activity for both teenage boys and girls between 1995 and 2002. The number of sexually active girls ages 15—17 dropped from 38 percent to 30 percent in that time, and for boys in the same age group over the same time, the numbers went from 43 percent to 31 percent (www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nsfg/Ser2_Example6_FINAL.pdf, accessed 3/13/23). Teen pregnancies also dropped considerably.
However, it is unclear how much credit purity culture and the True Love Waits movement deserve for these numbers. A 2009 study showed no significant difference between the sexual behavior of teens who had taken purity pledges and teens who had not (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19117832/, accessed 3/13/23). Not only that, but well-known teen celebrities who had openly worn purity rings—e.g., Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers—failed to maintain their purity, some even going to the opposite extreme and embracing overt sexualization.
Critics of purity culture have also highlighted some other glaring problems. Josh Harris apologized for his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye and asked publishers to stop its publication, and in 2019 Harris divorced his wife and declared he was no longer a Christian (www.cnn.com/2019/07/29/us/joshua-harris-divorce-apology-scli-intl/index.html, accessed 3/15/23). Others have claimed that purity culture instills a dread of mistakes and becoming “damaged goods” while falsely promising a happily-ever-after marriage to those who follow the program.
What purity culture gets right is that chastity is important in the Christian life (1 Corinthians 6:18–20). Our sexual purity matters to God. But when the focus of purity becomes maintaining chastity in order to have a good life, problems arise. Richard Ross, who was involved in the early days of the purity movement, explains: “In the past, True Love Waits young people have often made promises thinking, ‘Jesus wants me to do this because it will make my life better, so bad things will not happen to me, so I will not be a disobedient Christian. Now, there is an element of truth in each of those statements, but I detect a shift [toward] ‘Not that I do this so that my life will be better, but I choose purity for Christ’s glory. I am doing this for his sake, not my sake. I am doing this because he deserves adoration, and the purity of my life is a way to show him that adoration.’ The focus comes off of ‘me,’ and the focus goes to ‘him.’ There is no moralism. If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship” (cited in www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/faqs-know-purity-culture, accessed 3/15/23).
Purity culture should be about worship, about honoring God with our bodies, which are living sacrifices to the Father and temples for the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1).