Toxic Purity Culture Does Not Exist

Written by Ann Burns

January 17, 2022

When the Villains are Beautiful

I keep stumbling across conservative-minded articles denouncing the ills of “purity-culture.” And while many of these essays make valid and even necessary points, they all seem to make the mistake of believing that the term “purity-culture” is ultimately a negative one. 

Let me explain:

Most of the time, when individuals talk about the issues of so-called “purity-culture,” they are referring to several things:

  1. Women should feel shame over their bodies by adopting the belief that the female body is a sexual object 
  2. If a woman sinned against the virtue of chastity (or was aware of her sexuality), she is a wantonly cruel creature.
  3. Sex is objectively wicked (which poses a bizarre conundrum for anyone contemplating marriage and family life).
  4. If you save yourself for marriage, God will reward you and give you a worry-free marriage and healthy babies.

These issues are profoundly problematic and even disturbing. It is true— they need to be addressed and handled accordingly because this kind of skewed mindset will most likely lead individuals to reactionary rebellion or other harmful places.

If we raise our children to believe that purity is a deal we make with God, then we forget that the virtue of chastity is not temporary but one that we should strive to grow in our entire life. Purity doesn’t fade after you say, “I do.”  

Even worse, the mentality that “I abstain so God will give me x” reveals not just poor Faith formation but profound ignorance of our Faith. Since when did God become a vending machine?  

“I’ll put in saving myself and get the best reward ever: a life free from suffering.” I am sorry to say that “free-from-suffering” is a Heaven-only perk. 

Furthermore, if we raise our children to believe that only women need to practice virtue, we have failed our sons and daughters. Holiness is not exclusive to one gender. If we think that women need purity more because they are inherent sex objects, we’ve robbed our daughters of an understanding of who they are, stolen their self-worth and dignity, and set them up for failure. 

The concept that women are guardians of purity denotes that God gave women a unique relationship with this virtue. This relationship is honorable and beautiful. It does not mean that this virtue is exclusive to women.  

Moreover, if we instruct others that “purity” is some bizarre gnostic-Manichaeism concept that condemns the body, we are not teaching the virtue of holy purity; we are retelling an ancient heresy.

And because of all the above-twisted beliefs, I object to the term purity-culture. When referring to “purity-culture,” we are not talking about a culture heralding the beauty of holy purity, but instead —by the very term— we mean an anti-purity. 

We mean something unholy and inherently dangerous and oppressive. We mean prudery in the true sense of the word. 

Purity is a Positive Virtue 

“With the pure, you never breathe this oppressive atmosphere.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand

Understanding the union between husband and wife as something shameful or revolting opposes the virtue of holy purity. Why? Because purity is not a virtue that condemns sex but instead sees its very mystery and reverence. In that light, the pure individual sees sex not only as something inherently wonderful but holy and rightly belonging to God. 

For this reason, we can and should object to such content in books and movies. It’s not because it’s something foul, but because sex is so profoundly sacred, and that kind of intimacy is not for us to observe mindlessly with popcorn and cola. In doing so, we deny its value and deny its holiness. 

Prudery, on the other hand, finds sex base and revolting. It fails to see sex in the light God intended, shrouded with reverence and mystery, but instead sees it solely as animalistic and dirty. Prudery cannot experience purity, for the prude can only see impurity. 

Prudery is oppressive. 

Trapped Between Prudery and Impurity

The problem with “purity-culture” is a problem of language. In condemning “purity-culture,” we adopt the sense that purity can be a quasi-dirty and stifling term. But we are speaking of prudery. Prudery views sex as vile and shameful, failing to grasp its sacred quality sanctioned by God. 

Through poor terminology, we start to taint something that is in every way liberating, uplifting, and joyous by conflating it with something that’s inherently disordered. Thus we enter into the problem of mistaking prudery with purity, and in doing so, prudery and promiscuity confine us. 

Prudery will not heal promiscuity

I’d like to share a reflection from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s In Defense of Purity

“The pure man always lives in an attitude of reverence for God and His creation, and therefore reveres sex, its profundity, and its sublime and divinely ordained meaning. . . . The pure man understands that sex belongs in a special manner to God and that he may only make use of it as is explicitly sanctioned by God.”

As von Hildebrand clearly expresses, purity is impossible without reverence. The pure man is inspired by a great attitude of reverence, first and foremost for God and then for his fellow man. This kind of attitude properly informs one of man’s inherent dignity and sacredness. It sees the unspeakable value of each individual. It ultimately clears out the muck and hysteria of a God-less, irreverent life (which is what we do find in both promiscuity and prudery). 

The language we use is insanely crucial. Our words hold weight, and we must speak Truth and speak it well in God’s glory. When we start taking on detrimental verbiage to describe inherently glorious virtues, we will never solve the issues at hand. Instead, we end up adding to the confusion. 

The issue isn’t purity; the problem is that prudery is an inappropriate response for combating impurity. 

It’s time we speak out against the ills of prudery and promiscuity and revere and rejoice in the healing, freeing virtue of purity. 

Prayer for Purity

Jesus, Lover of chastity, Mary, Mother most pure, and Joseph, chaste guardian of the Virgin, to you I come at this hour, begging you to plead with God for me. I earnestly wish to be pure in thought, word, and deed in imitation of your own holy purity.

Obtain for me, then, a deep sense of modesty which will be reflected in my external conduct. Protect my eyes, the windows of my soul, from anything that might dim the luster of a heart that must mirror only Christlike purity.

And when the “Bread of Angels becomes the Bread of me” in my heart at Holy Communion, seal it forever against the suggestions of sinful pleasures.

Heart of Jesus, Fount of all purity, have mercy on us.

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