Purity Culture & Respectability

           Today, I continue my Respectability Politics series. As I named in my original post on this topic, respectability politics demands of socially marginalized people that we behave in ways that provide evidence to the dominant culture that we are not the stereotypes they have of us. Respectability politics doubly and triply calls upon those who might have multiple intersecting identities that place them at the margins of society to find ways to conform.

               Women of all races experience the politics of respectability in the confines of any culture that regulates our sexual behavior because of our gender. In dominant American society, and in Christian culture, women are often shamed for our sexuality. In a culture where sexual assault runs rampant when assaults involve women, women are often blamed for their own assaults. Even in the most loving and affirming Christian communities, I have heard women and girls told that if only we carried ourselves in the modest way a Christian woman ought, we would not be the targets of unwanted sexual attention. While there is a strong Biblical argument for modesty (with people of all genders), conversations about modesty and sexual assault ought to be kept separate from one another. Most Christians would not argue, for example, that it is acceptable for one child to injure another at school because of a thoughtless comment in the hallway. In other words, most Christians would say that we are responsible for our sins regardless of the actions of another. Yet, when it comes to sexual assault, we are eager to forgive male assailants and to condemn female survivors because they look attractive in short skirts.

               As both a response to Biblical teachings and a reaction against negative perceptions of female sexuality in society, many more evangelical traditions have taken to something that has been labeled “Purity Culture.” Purity Culture as I understand it is about abstinence from anything that might distract its adherent from their relationship with God. Primarily, it advises abstinence from sex, drugs, and alcohol. However, in my experience, I have most often heard teachers of purity culture focus on sexual purity. Leaders in Purity Culture like Heather Lindsey have ministries that help (according to Lindsey’s site) “teens, young adults and women” honor God with their bodies whether single or married.

             Except that her work excludes adult men from this discussion, I am on board with all churches including this teaching in their ministry. Indeed, our bodies are sacred. That said, the focus on the sexual purity of Christian women with reckless disregard for the lived experiences of women, and especially women of color, in this country reeks of a respectability that is unacceptable to me. I am troubled that Christian culture inadequately addresses the toxic teachings young men receive about masculinity that lead them to disrespect the bodies of women. Furthermore, I am disturbed that despite all our theologizing, our perspective on human sexuality remains so heteronormative. Purity culture is predicated on the idea that by living all out for God, women will find loving husbands. How does such a culture helpfully respond to people with more complicated sexualities? And yes, it is time to be honest. Even those who have publicly opted into heteronormativity engage in dangerous extramarital activities. Something has got to give.

           The video of a TEDx talk (below) features Yvonne Orji, a comedic thirty-three-year-old Nigerian-American actress who is best known for her work on the HBO show Insecure. TEDx is a sub-program of TED Talks. Like the larger TED Talk franchise, the local TEDx programs invite speakers to come give speeches about ideas that are “worth sharing.” Orji gave her talk at a conference in Wilmington, Delaware. She entitled it “The Wait is Sexy.”

               Although she does not state it explicitly, I assume she borrowed the phrase “The Wait” from the 2016 book The Wait by movie producer and pastor Devon Franklin and his actress wife, Meagan Good. In the book, Franklin and Good give readers a glimpse into their relationship, and they teach readers how waiting until marriage to have sex can help them find the love of their life and achieve their best life. Orji has consolidated that thesis into one phrase, “The wait is sexy.” I am left wondering what in the world that means. The dictionary gives me three definitions of sexy. One of the definitions tells me that the word sexy means “concerned predominantly or excessively with sex.” The second definition tells me that the word means “sexually interesting or exciting. The third definition says that sexy means “excitingly appealing.” The Wait is indeed overly concerned with sex. However, the only thing that is excitingly appealing about purity culture these days is that many of the people who promote are well-paid, gorgeous, famous, and successful.

               To be fair, Orji is honest about her conversion to the wait. She also explains that she understands that waiting until marriage is not for everyone and presents five things she believes everyone can wait for in a relationship. The five items she lists are:

1.      The person who sees you for you and loves you regardless.

2.      The one who shares your core values.

3.      Wait on purpose and not in fear.

4.      Wait on the one who makes you a priority.

5.      Wait on the one who meets your standards.

           Ultimately, Orji uses a minister whom she had met as a teenager as her evidence that the wait works. That minister, who was twenty-five when Orji met her, had taught Orji about the wait. She explains at the end of her talk that she is sure the wait works because this same minister is now (at age forty) married with three children. Orji also expresses confidence that if she meets all seven billion of the people on the planet today, she will find her husband too. I appreciate her comedic take and honor her for her ability to have faith and a compelling sense of humor, but she fails to underscore in her attempt to entertain that waiting, as worthwhile as it might turn out to be, is often a lonely and painful journey for the waiter. She humorously tells the story of a young man who did not make her a priority and says off-handedly that all of her relationships start off well. We must understand that for women who are single well into their twenties, thirties, and forties, the constant rejection of our values and standards is deeply hurtful and at times demeaning. How does Purity Culture provide healing for women who are dealing with the harsh realities of being profoundly alone in a society made for partnerships?

               Purity Culture, like many other aspects of Respectability Politics, has its strengths. Namely, it encourages women to understand that we have control over our bodies and that our bodies are sacred. Regardless of whether a woman chooses to wait until marriage to have sex, the idea of honoring our bodies as sacred is one that cannot be under-emphasized. Scripture teaches us that humans are made in the Image of God, that means that we must honor these bodies and spirits! That reality is part of the message of Purity Culture.

               But then, like other aspects of Respectability Politics, Purity Culture veers into dangerous territory. Abstinence is understood to be a way for women to find husbands. There are four problems with that concept. First, it indicates that a Christian woman is only complete if she is in a committed monogamous relationship with a man. If an unmarried Christian woman chooses abstinence, it ought to be because she feels that it makes her a whole version of herself. Second, it is heteronormative. Even for ministers who want to condemn same-sex interactions, it is necessary to broaden our theology to contend with the reality that not everyone seeks an opposite sex partner. Third, it does not respond to the fact that the most women living in America today (and abroad) are survivors of some form of sexual abuse. Is a woman impure if she has had a sexual encounter against her will? Finally, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word “virgin” in Scripture. One of my favorite Bible scholars is Rev. Dr. Renita Weems. In her incredible devotional book Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom, and the Blessings of God, Weems problematizes the way that we have understood the Virgin Mary throughout the centuries because it has made her virginity, rather than her courageous life, the key way of identifying her. Weems explains that in the ancient world, the word “virgin” referred not only to a woman’s sexual experience or lack thereof but also to her character. “A virgin was a woman who still had her own inner strength. She was a woman who remained unconquered . . . A virgin . . . was still in touch with her own inner values and acting according to what she believed was true and did not allow herself to be swayed by others’ approval.” You see, purity must be about more than sex, it must be about more than gaining male or societal approval for our virtues, it must be about God and us. It must be about claiming our freedom in a world bent on stealing it!

               So, yes, maybe I do agree with Yvonne Orji at least in part! Being a virgin (in the revelatory Renita Weems definition sort of way) is pretty sexy (read: excitingly appealing)! A virgin is a free agent. Virgins are poised to bring about a radical change in our world. What this world needs now is people who are untouched, unused, and unbothered by any attempts at human manipulation. Let’s get free. See you next week.