A Christian camp, a place where I worked in my younger years, is hosting a purity retreat.
When I read this news, I groaned.
“What are they going to teach those students?” I said to myself, “And how long will it take them to undo it?”
As someone who was on the early edge of the big evangelical push to churn out curriculum, trinkets, marketing and events surrounding purity and abstinence, I speak as an observer a few steps removed from the hard-core movement. But I remember accountability partners, vague discussion of boundaries, the concern about being a stumbling block for the males of the world, the guilt over “going too far”, and the way it was stressed that sex should be confined to marriage.
At a purity retreat, there will most likely be a challenge to use your mind over your emotions (although I’m sure they’re not above drawing on emotions to motivate the participants), pledges of future behavior, repentance over past thoughts or behavior, and they might even give out some small purity token — a souvenir of significance to mark the weekend and the new commitments people made.
If you are not familiar with the purity/modesty rules philosophy, it goes like this:
Sex before marriage is wrong for lots of reasons.
Foremost of those reasons is that the Bible says you are supposed to reserve sex for marriage.
If you do not reserve sex for marriage, you are messing up God’s plan.
When you mess up God’s plan (a.k.a. ‘the two shall become one’,’ a woman shall leave her mother and a man shall leave his home’, etc.) you give away parts of your heart to each partner until you have but a tiny scrap of a heart left. You are unable to give yourself fully to your eventual spouse (because everyone gets married, you see), you end up with lots of baggage and assumed regrets, and you mess up your spouse’s life because your spouse was a good person and saved sex for marriage.
If you have sex before marriage, you are guilty, blemished, and broken in God’s eyes. Sure, you can be forgiven — there’s even discussion of having your virginity reclaimed — but you’re still going to have to sort out the consequences of your sin, which may play out for the rest of your life.
This also goes for other sexual expression, because the Bible says to stay away from sexual immorality. In some circles it includes kissing and holding hands. Yes. Some people reserve kissing and/or holding hands until they are engaged or married.
I’m serious, and it is a deeply held conviction for them, one they are willing to stick with and in doing so frequently feel misunderstood and judged.
And superior, don’t forget superior.
So if you think Christian culture is quiet about sex, you’d be wrong…except that the thing students hear while they are growing up is that if you wait until marriage it will automatically be blessed, fantastic, fun and natural. You’ll take to it like a fish in water, even if you haven’t ever kissed a person and have, up to that point, convinced yourself that all sexual expression is negative and ridden with guilt and shame.
Good luck with that.
Alongside the purity culture of evangelicalism is the modesty culture.
During her time at a Christian college, a close friend of mine was brought in to have a long talk with her resident assistant. The reason? It was because she wore a sports bra without a t-shirt while playing volleyball outside on a hot autumn day.
This is pretty common.
Girls are told what kind of swim suits they can wear to church events that involve beaches or water, and shirts and skirts are monitored for length and coverage.
Modesty can be subtly damaging because it is the preamble to sexual purity. If you are immodest, it follows that you are also impure. And if you’re not the one who is impure, you’re making a bunch of other people impure, because you’re causing them to stumble.
So make sure you cover up those mazongas because you shouldn’t “think of yourself more highly than you ought but consider others better than yourselves.” (This is an often-used morphing of Romans 12:3 and Philippians 2:3, both letters from the Apostle Paul.) First of all, who are you to think you look that good anyway, and plus, when you choose clothing you should be thinking of the ways you could be causing your Christian brothers into sin by wearing that spaghetti strap tank top.
(I’m 99% sure that boys are not taught to cover up for their Christian sisters.)
The damage to our young men and women in this is profound.
It makes our young men into mindless primates with little will of their own, held captive by their urges, which they cannot control.
It makes our young women into temptresses who, by nature of their female-ness, lead all men into impure thoughts and impure actions for which they cannot be held accountable. It’s the whole virgin vs. vixen idea of a bygone era when women were presumed to be either wholly sterile in their total lack of sexual desire or appeal, or they were women of low moral character who were ultimately subhuman, meant to be used and tossed aside like an old tissue.
There is something amiss with the evangelical obsession with sex, either having it or not having it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a good idea for unmarried people to sleep around. I’m all about self-respect and I’m a big fan of modesty because sometimes the reason for the lack of it is to gain self-worth from our boobies (or other parts…and yes, I just wrote “boobies.” Focus, people, focus. Stay with me.) When I consider this concern for modesty and the purity culture it spawned, it’s a huge sweater of interlocking stitches. When you pick at one, it turns out that it’s connected to the stitches around it.
Consider: The burden of modesty is set on girls, since boys’ urges are somehow too uncontrollable and they can’t reasonably be asked to take much responsibility in it. Heck, they can’t even look at a bikini without lusting, much less a girl wearing that bikini. Therefore, the responsibility lies with females. But females, by nature of being female, are lesser, the argument goes. And since they are lesser, they can’t be asked to handle such a potentially dangerous mission. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is to enact a no-touch, no-look policy…Or enlist the “leadership” of the girl’s father, and return to the days of dowries and arranged marriages, when the girl was a commodity to be traded.
It follows that since a female form, simply by existing, causes sin in the males who observe the female-ness. The curve of a breast is inherently sexual, rather than just being an added bit of skin over the pectoral muscles. The female body, it follows, must be sinful, otherwise why would it raise such chemical, physiological reactions? Plus, it was Eve who corrupted Adam by offering him the apple so it follows that it is in the nature of women to lead others into sin.
See what I mean about the stitches being interlocked? You can’t pick one stitch without it unravelling the ones around it.
There are people having conversations about these assumptions, these categorical dismissals of the individuality of each person, the choices placed before us and the attitudes about the worthiness of women. They are talking about a woman’s ownership over her own body, and the dastardly connection between purity culture and it’s potential to tumble down the rabbit hole of making a woman responsible for her own sexual harassment, or worse. There’s a discussion about men NOT being hormone-driven maniacs who have no control over their impulses (for an interesting perspective, read Micah Murray’s piece, http://bit.ly/1dzk1BV ) , and who will do almost anything for sex.
This is too big for one post. And we’re only skimming the surface here. I’m certainly not the only one writing about it, not by far, but we need more people talking and writing about it.
It’s something I take very seriously, as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a human.
What I wear should not single me out for harassment, regardless of how much skin I show.
My sons should be responsible for their own actions, their own choices when it comes to purity, attitudes of the heart and physical expression.
My daughter should be free to respect herself and not draw her self-worth from how much attention she garners with her bra straps or short-shorts. And she should be safe from other people treating her as an inanimate object or something inherently sinful.
I’m going to look into this advertised purity retreat at that camp. I want to find out who is organizing it, what its goals are, and how they are treating this topic. I have a feeling it is probably representative of the whole purity/modesty culture that is so intrinsically interwoven in evangelical culture.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re doing something different with this retreat, bringing in fresh perspectives and voices that offer another way.
I know that, as a woman, I am created in the image of God. And men are as well. And we can all pursue a deeper relationship with Jesus, and that can include all parts of ourselves, even our sexuality. And that is something our students and young people need to hear.