How Not To Raise a Daughter in Purity Culture (According to Sarah’s Parents)

One night in high school, my very Baptist boyfriend and I had plans to attend […]

Sarah Condon / 3.8.19

One night in high school, my very Baptist boyfriend and I had plans to attend Black Light Night with the Baptist youth group at the local bowling alley. If you are unfamiliar with this ritual of youth, it involved a dark bowling alley, the neon glow of black lights, and loads of N’Sync. We decided we had a solid five minutes to make out in his car before entering the building. We were teenagers in a Mississippi summer. I don’t make the rules.

As we walked in everyone turned to give us horrified faces. Upon glancing at my boyfriend, I realized that my lip gloss glowed white in the contrast of the black lights. His face was covered in it. My face was covered in it. Our necks and ears even had some white smears. “Oh Lord,” I remember thinking as I gazed upon a wall of glaring angry peers. “They look like they are going to kill me.”

There have been several books published in recent months by women who grew up during the ‘Purity Culture’ movement of the 1980s and 90s. Typically, what they’re referring to involved a “Promise Ring” to be worn as a reminder of their chasteness to God. Also, some ritual of signing or taking a vow, often with your father involved, was standard. If this all sounds like a creepy bat mitzvah gone terrible awry, then you are getting the general gist of the Purity movement.

Even if the adults in the situation meant well, which I imagine a lot of them did, these books call out the pain, confusion, repression, and shame that many women (and some men) experienced in their childhood and teenage years as a result. As a pastor, I regularly meet with women whose lives were irreconcilably damaged by this culture. Women come to me who were sexually assaulted only to have their parents tell them that they were asking for it. Or they come to me to talk about how racked with guilt they always feel around sex, years after getting married. I listen a lot. And I pray with them. But I cannot relate to what they have navigated.

While I grew up in Mississippi in the 1990s, I was in one of the few non-Purity households I knew of. My parents took us to church faithfully every Sunday, but seemed oddly uninterested in where my relationship with Jesus intersected with my sexual awakening. So I do not carry the same guilt and pain (at least about that one issue!) that many of my hometown peers carry. Lately, I have found myself at dinner parties or at a ladies night out, and the subject will come up. And so many of the women (especially those who grew up with promise rings) will anguish over how they are going to raise their daughters. What will they tell her about sex? How will they keep her safe?

I thought I’d lay out a few of the things my parents did to raise me as a young Christian woman who made wise decisions. I’m phrasing them as advice, but they’re really just descriptions of how I now realize my mom and dad acted toward me. Take them or leave them. If you do not find them helpful then they probably were not intended for you.

1. Do not take Jesus away from them.

I know of too many instances where girls have been taught, implicitly or explicitly, that the love of God is somehow contingent on their ability to remain “pure.” Words like “modesty” get thrown around as if God’s main interest in a young woman’s life is in doing a junior high skirt-length check. Girls are told that flirtatious speech or actions could be a “stumbling block” to the young men around them. This line of thinking makes sex creepy and God seem even creepier.

While we laud and magnify what scripture says about virtues like chastity, when we overemphasize out of fear, we run the risk of making sex all about Jesus, guilt, and female modesty. Even scarier, though, is the lack of conversation around earthly consequences that happens when the entire teachable moment is pulled from scripture.

When I was in high school, my Bible Belt state had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country and HIV was (and still is) an epidemic. Conversations around conception and STDs were the lifesaving talks that should have been happening around the kitchen table. But all to often, my peer’s parents would opt out of that less comfortable conversation and instead threaten their daughters with a purity-obsessed Risen Lord.

(As a parent myself now, I get this by the way. It is way easier to use a Jesus THREATDOWN than it is to show them how to put a condom on a banana. But, I digress.)

By contrast, my parents talked about pregnancy constantly. They would not shut up about it. An oft-repeated refrain from my mother was, “Sarah, if you get pregnant then everyone gets pregnant! I get pregnant! Your dad gets pregnant! Even your little brother gets pregnant!” I cannot tell you how many times a vision of my eight-year-old brother with child kept me from making a risky 11pm move. Seriously.

2. Talk about the future—and make it realistic.

I was desperately envious when all of my friends were given Promise Rings in middle school. I am a lover of jewelry and grand gestures, and this seemed like something I needed to get in on. I remember coming home and explaining why I needed a ring to remind me about a promise to not have sex until marriage, and my parents both laughed at me and said, “Let’s shoot for college! Save yourself until college!”

They talked to me often about all of the potential that was in front of me and how stupid all of the boys around me were. Some people might say that this is not the best way to raise a humble daughter. But I am not sure that was ever their goal.

3. Keep your daughter safe.

I know that it is central to purity culture that sexual abstinence will keep girls safe. Again, the intentions here are seldom malicious. But I would suggest that it is your job to keep them safe even after they start being “less pure.”

Once, in 10th grade, I necked with a boy at a party. The next week, a friend of mine told me that he had set up a secret code embedded in the school’s website. You could click a certain space on the homepage, and you would be directed to this young man’s website where he had posted very specific descriptions of all the girl’s he had been intimate with. I was on the list. I was cyberbullied before being cyberbullied was cool.

All I remember is my mom getting on the phone to him and saying something along the lines of “Look, you little asshole, if this does not come down immediately, I am showing up at your house with a lawyer.” This would have been particularly difficult for this young man as he recently won Bible Jeopardy at his church and would not want his parents to find out. Ahhh, morality.

What I do not remember is being at all ashamed to tell my mother what happened. Because when it came to me, I knew she just wanted what was healthiest and safest. And in that particular instance it was threatening a 15-year-old boy within an inch of his life.

None of this TMI advice means that you cannot talk about Jesus and sex with your kids. But here is my final suggestion: Talk about Jesus the way you always talk about Jesus. Call him the Forgiver and the Redeemer, no matter what happens. Because in all likelihood, your daughters (and sons) will make regretful choices around intimacy. And other things. Because all of us do. But knowing that they can turn to you and to Jesus when those things happen is actually the best gift a parent can give a child. Believe me, I would know.