Purity Culture and Abstinence Only Sex Education

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In my last column, I discussed the distinctions between abstinence, chastity, and purity, noting that the first of these is a means to an end, the second a virtue as well as an act, and the third a beatitude. In doing so, I cited and even quoted from a few Catholic and secular sources, many of whom were arguing more-or-less against the various forms of abstinence-only sex education (henceforth, “Abstinence”) and the so-called “purity culture” (henceforth, “Purity”) [1]. In light of my earlier column, it should be apparent that both Abstinence and Purity fall well short of chastity and actual purity.

The always interesting Calah Alexander writes in commenting on Elizabeth Smart’s criticism of Abstinence and some of the reaction to this criticism:

What almost no one did was hear what she said. No one was horrified at what she had been taught in her abstinence-only sexual education. No one acknowledged that the direct, logical result of such an education is a sense of shame and unworthiness after having been “used.” No one showed even a hint of sympathy for how she had suffered, not only at the hands of her captors, but at the hands of a degrading philosophy of human sexuality. Such a callous indifference to human suffering is appalling. It shows that too many Christians, too many proponents of abstinence-only education, have put their concern for the welfare of a quasi-political movement above their concern for the welfare of a human being, of human dignity itself….

This does not teach anyone chastity or purity. “Abstinence-only” sex ed is a fundamentally flawed concept, beginning with its very name. It teaches children to negate an act, to deny a fundamental part of human nature until such a time as it’s permissible to indulge. It doesn’t teach children what sex is, what their sexuality means, how to understand it, or how to properly integrate it into a life of chastity both without and within a marriage. It doesn’t teach a boy that sex is primarily about the giving of himself, and that he can’t fully give himself to his wife unless he learns how to master himself first, how to wait, how to have patience, how to love her instead of using her as a vehicle for pleasure. Actually it teaches boys the exact opposite of that; that a woman is a trophy, a prize, that a good one (one worth keeping forever) will be untouched, but that there are plenty of dirty water-glasses walking around that have been ruined for any decent man anyway, and they might as well be used up since they’re not worth saving.

And what does abstinence-only sex ed teach girls? It doesn’t teach girls anything. It conditions girls into conforming with a sick, “religious-ized” chauvinism that masquerades as concern for moral purity but is really just plain old abhorrence of sloppy seconds.

if your view of purity reduces women to this, then you're doing it wrong.
if your view of purity reduces women to this, then you’re doing it wrong.


While Mrs. Alexander is right [2] to criticize this narrowed view of Purity—and of Abstinence—I think that there is another problem which is overlooked. It is bad that Abstinence is so focused on the negatives, on degrading the “sluts” and with them the occasional unfortunate rape victim [3], and to the extent that an Abstinence program uses the water-glass/chewing-gum, etc. analogies, they will indeed have these deleterious effects on the psyche of a lot of innocent girls. To that extent, even the vituperative Miss Lindy West gets it right in her (NSFW) commentary on Purity.

This is not to say that these elements of Purity and Abstinence are utterly devoid of truth in all cases. To the extent that we—boys and girls alike—jump from bed to bed of our own volition, to that extent we slowly begin to lose the ability to make an actually meaningful gift of ourselves. If sex is only for our own pleasure and our own gratification, then it can hardly be an expression of our love for another person. As Professor J Budsiszewski puts it in his On the Meaning of Sex,

“When I say we aren’t designed for this sort of thing, I’m not just speaking for females. A woman may be more likely to cry the next morning; it’s not so easy to sleep with a man who won’t even call you back. But a man pays a price, too. He probably thinks he can instrumentalize his relationships with women in general, yet remain capable of romantic intimacy when the right woman comes along. Sorry, fellow. That’s not how it works. Sex is like applying adhesive tape; promiscuity is like ripping it off again. If you rip it off, rip it off, rip it off, eventually the tape can’t stick any more….”

SONY DSCBut to compare this with a glass of water which has been spat in time and again is a bit excessive, especially when devoid of the context of sex as a gift of self, and especially when the analogy is meant in a merely physical manner.

The problem is not just that it can be damaging to the psyches of the good girls who weren’t able to remain “pure”, whether by their own volition or somebody else’s. To clarify, I mean here those girls who are presently trying to to be Pure, that is, “pure” as meant by purity culture. The problem with Purity is that it raises maidenhood to the highest virtue and conflates maidenhood with being “pure,” so that a woman who has lost her maidenhood [4] cannot ever be “pure” again.

The various Purity analogies not only fail girls who have been raped, but also those who have merely fallen and fornicated but once. According to the logic of Purity, once fallen and dirty, always fallen and dirty, so why bother rising again [5]; there may be forgiveness, but there is no forgetting, and no cleaning of the soiled soul. The water glass analogy lacks a means of filtering and reclaiming the water, of making it “pure” once more.

Virginity, maidenhood--these can be lost. Purity, on the other hand, can be reclaimed.
Virginity, maidenhood–these can be lost. Purity, on the other hand, can be reclaimed.

All of which brings me to my own criticism of Abstinence, and to the fake Purity which is invoked to support it. In light of my previous post, it should be obvious that abstinence is a part and a tool of chastity, and that chastity is in turn a virtue and an action which is ordered to purity. But chastity, being a fruit of the Holy Spirit, also involves the indwelling of God’s grace, to say nothing of full-blown purity. We do not make ourselves pure, and we can but cooperate with God to become chaste.

Both Abstinence and Purity overlook these facts. They apply a technical solution to what is a moral and a spiritual problem. They attempt to achieve by human ingenuity what can only be obtained through God’s grace. Whereas the comprehensive sex-education programs run by the likes of Planned Parenthood objectify men and women into walking sex machines over which are incapable of moderation and temperance, of self-control, Abstinence and Purity reduce the human being into an object which can simply be “reprogrammed” or “conditioned” to override their inclinations, and this this done not through love, not through God’s grace to gain mastery over the self, but through shame.

Even aside from the shame, the problem remains that Abstinence and Purity have reduced purity to maidenhood and chastity to abstinence, and this is done without thought for a culture which actually encourages either chastity or purity. It is true that we can help each other to be chaste, or otherwise virtuous: this is done first and foremost by being joyfully chaste ourselves. Instead, Abstinence says “Just wait until marriage, just hold on until then, and then the fight is over;” and Purity says “If you don’t manage this, then you are less valuable as a human being.”

Our_Wedding_ringsThis ignores that our dignity, our worth as people, is not just something which is tied to our actions, but to our very selves; and it equally ignores that marriage comes with its own set of struggles, including perhaps its fair share of sexual struggles. Chastity is a state which is equally applicable to marriage as to the single life, and there are times in every marriage during which abstinence is necessary [6].

It ignores that many people—including often the parents and teachers of those same boys and girls who are enduring Abstinence—are not themselves particularly chaste, not particularly joyful in taking up their own sexual crosses. When the only witness to chastity that children have is parents who contracept, friends who fornicate, teachers who engage in adultery, and even some priests who break their vows of celibacy in the most shameful manner, is it any wonder that Purity and Abstinence are burdens too great to bear (see Matthew 23:4)?

A commentator by the handle of WSquared wrote an insightful comment about the problems with Abstinence and Purity:

The problem with “Just keep it together until you’re wearing a ring, and then it’ll be a non-stop release of pent-up desire” is that it also suggests that the non-stop release of pent-up desire is okay, “because you’re married.” Making pleasure the highest good of sex is okay, “because you’re married” (I’m wondering if this is why many think that using contraception in marriage is okay, too). That somehow, what marriage is primarily designed to do is to “contain” all that, and make it “respectable,” without any real thought about sanctification, or even what it truly means to love and respect (which is another reason why our culture’s idea that love is primarily an emotion is dangerous). Lust in marriage, as Bl. John Paul II wrote, is still sinful. And he’s right.

Indeed, this is a very succinct summary of the problem posed, and in some sense of the solution. If we Christians would have a more moral culture, we might begin by being ourselves the leaven of that culture (see Luke 13:20-21). We must be light of the world, salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-15)—and in this case, we do this by being not merely outwardly moral, but actually virtuous, and joyfully so. We must rely on God for this not merely a technical program of education—or more accurately of conditioning—which is divorced from the witness of our on lives. Anything less is bound to fail, perhaps in a spectacularly dehumanizing fashion.



[1] How’s that for a reversal? Abstinence and Purity in this case refer to more superficial understandings of the two concepts, rather than to deeper concepts.

[2] It’s worth drawing a distinction between Abstinence/Purity as she is describing it and a broader Purity which is a bit less “chauvinistic,” since my own observations of the purity culture at large do not bear out that girls are told to be pure while boys are told simply to value purity as a “trophy,” but then I grew up in Oregon and saw less of this stuff in the schools to begin with.

[3] If the former need no help in further degradation, the latter even more so need support in knowing that they still have worth and dignity. As Saint Augustine writes,

“Our adversaries certainly think they have a weighty attack to make on Christians, when they make the most of their captivity by adding stories of the violation of wives, of maidens ready for marriage, and even in some cases of women in the religious life. On this point it is not our faith which is in difficulty, nor our devotion, nor is that particular virtue, the term of which is chastity, called in question. But our argument is in a way constrained and hampered, between the claims of modesty and reasoned argument. Here we are not so much concerned to answer the attacks of those outside as to administer consolation to those within our fellowship.

In the first place, it must be firmly established that virtue, the condition of right living, holds command over the parts of the body from her throne in the mind, and that the consecrated body is the instrument of the consecrated will; and if that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body, provided that it cannot be avoided without committing sin, involves no blame to the sufferer. But there can be committed on another’s body not only acts involving pain, but also acts involving lust. And so whenever any act of the latter kind has been committed, although it does not destroy a purity which has been maintained by the utmost resolution, still it does engender a sense of shame, because it may be believed that an act, which perhaps could not have taken place without some physical pleasure, was accompanied also by a consent of the mind” (City of God Book1Chapter16).

This point is lost on those who reduce purity and chastity to Purity and Abstinence, as is the fact that St Augustine was virtuous and pure during the latter part of his life despite his less-than-chaste adolescence and young adulthood. On the side of slut-shaming (that is, shaming of actual sluts), there is this post (and related) by the Zippy Catholic.

[4] In modern parlance, one who has lost her virginity, though of course virginity means something more than maidenhood.

[5] They become little more than whitewashed dung heaps by this bit of logic.

[6] To return again to Prof. J Budzisewski’s On the Meaning of Sex, it’s worth considering what might be meant by the old idea of marriage as a remedy for lust:

“Our wisdom traditions used to call marriage a ‘remedy for lust,’ making a true point that is almost always misconstrued. Lust isn’t sexual desire per se, but disordered sexual desire—the problem isn’t the desire, but the disorder. The idea in the old saying about the ‘remedy for lust’ isn’t that marriage provides a way to blow off steam when the pressure inside the boiler gets too high, but that the sweet disciplines of married life have a tendency to rearrange our emotions and desires, to help them become more orderly. Of course that won’t happen if a man does treat his wife as a steam-pressure vent. But part of the meaning of marital purity is that he learns to treat her as a wife.”

This is precisely what both Abstinence and Purity at their worst fail to do, teaching husbands to treat their wifes as wifes and vice-versa. Rather, Abstinence and Purity at their worst teach boys and girls to treat their future spouses precisely as “steam-pressure vents.”

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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7 thoughts on “Purity Culture and Abstinence Only Sex Education”

  1. Avatar

    This is a complex issue, even for Catholics who have the Theology of the Body for understanding. The problem is, how do you reach the secular culture, especially teens in public school? Not only would all of what you just said not be allowed in any publicly-funded program, not even abstinence-based programs, but the teens wouldn’t understand any of it. The whole purpose of analogies is to make something understandable to the average secular teen. When I worked for an abstinence-based program (federally funded a long time ago under Title XX) we couldn’t get so complex. We went into public high schools and gave our presentation on practical reasons abstinence before marriage would work best for the teens. We promoted something we called “secondary virginity”.which was a way for sexually active teens to change their ways and reap the benefits of their new abstinence life-style. We had analogies also (not the ones mentioned here) which I thought were fairly good but if a Catholic theologian had dissected them, they wouldn’t be perfect. But these were public schools. Even devout Catholic parents like myself are not theologians and we just need something simple and understandable to convince our kids.

    1. Avatar

      indeed it is not as easy as you think, even if you have a TOB background. This is a challenge! in my second seminar/workshop, you had to prepare a talk about Chastity to married couples and give examples on how they could address this theme with their kids in different ages. Each participant had great examples and different ways to explain this topic. As Catholics we are called to be prepared, to form our selves in what is our Church. And we are called to a life of prayer. I’ve done some trials with secular friends and maybe they are not convinced that Chastity and Virginity are better than the over sexualized culture, but a new side has been presented, and what best way to Evangelize than with my own example?

      It is a beautiful challenge, but in God it is possible to take it!

    2. Avatar

      Purity of heart is not complex, but rather it is simple yet difficult. Chastity is likewise simple but difficult, and abstinence too. That is why (for example) chastity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit–we don’t go it alone, but with God.

      Teaching this adequately in a public school setting in which God is denied becomes not merely complex, but actually impossible. For that reason, it needs to be taught all the more thoroughly in the homes and in the churches; and the best way to do that is to model it, to live it. For this reason, we cannot assume that it is being well-taught in any of the state-funded programs (whatever their basis) and especially cannot assume that the lesson will “stick” if we contradict it in the home. The parents are the primary educators of their children, but this education is not only in the words they say.

      My previous column makes the distinctions between abstinence, chastity, and purity (of heart), so you can start there if you haven’t read it already. This post is meant more as a critique of how it is presented, and not only in the schools but also in the homes: it becomes a dull caricature which focuses mostly on the bad to the ignorance or even detriment of the good. Thus, purity is far more and far better than the Purity Culture’s obsession with virginity (first, second, fifth…), and chastity is far more than abstaining until married.

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    Which dictionary are you using? Abstinence only sex ed is fundamentally flawed? Purity damages the psyche of good girls? Purity teaches husbands to treat their wives as steam pressure vents? This piece presents a twisted and stereotypical view of human sexuality.

    1. Avatar

      The concept of abstinence-only sexual education is not fundamentally flawed in and of itself, but rather as it is put into practice. It is treated by as a technical solution to the rather moral problem of rampant teen sex. Speaking broadly, the bad parents openly ridicule the idea of their children’s waiting to have sex until married, all while reducing chastity to the idea of “not fornicating.” The relatively good parents tell their kids not to have sex until married, and then leave it as that. They might enroll their kids in the Silver Ring Thing or some other program run by the purity culture crowd.

      Which means that, speaking broadly, chastity is reduced to “not fornicating or committing adultery;” purity becomes saving oneself for marriage. And that’s it. In some circles, masturbation is even discussed as a legitimate alternative to doing this. So, rather than treating other people as steam pressure vents, we treat ourselves this way–so it is little surprise that we would begin to treat others (specifically, our spouses) in the same manner.

      Meanwhile, those same parents contracept, divorce at a rate approaching 50%, and often follow up this divorce with remarriage. A significant number of those second marriages end in second divorces, and so continues the cycle of serial monogamy. In other words, the model that these kids go home to is itself a model of treating the spouse as a steam pressure vent, complete with the disposal and replacement of an old one with a new one from time to time. And a kid who is told that the only thing that matters is being faithful to his spouse concludes from this–what, exactly?

      And those girls who end up giving up their virginity–whether intentionally, quasi-intentionally (e.g. after a night of drinking), or unintentionally (e.g. through rape) are suppose to shrug and say to themselves, “eh, no big deal” afterwards? By contrast, MM’s “second virginity” analogy has something to it, in that there’s at least that idea of a second chance. What is there for the girl who has been something of a slut before starting one of these programs? What is there for the boy who has already slept around a few times–what reason does he have to change his ways? And when he sees this as just another course presented in theory, what then? What of the parents who look at abstinence-only sex education and see that their sons and daughters are enrolled–and then conclude that they need do nothing further, that they need not therefore ever discuss such things as chastity, or for that matter purity, with their children? Too many of them check that little box next to “give him the talk” and see that somebody else will do that for them, while ignoring that “the talk” is about more than just the bird and the bees; that with “the talk” goes a sort of “walk” which is even more important, and more difficult by far.

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