I recently finished a series of books where the protagonist falls in love with two different men. At the beginning, the readers are as in love with the first man as the protagonist herself—we are swept along in the love story: his handsome face, talents, protectiveness, gifts, and grand gestures.
Through the book’s conflict, she is separated from him and introduced to a new character. This new relationship moves from enemies to friends to lovers and something curious happens: We, as readers, realize that the initial love story was not as amazing—or even healthy—as we were led to believe.
The first lover is controlling, isolates the protagonist to “protect” her, doesn’t allow her to develop her gifts and talents, dismisses her feelings, refuses to talk about their issues, and eventually imprisons her in their house, all in the name of “love.”
In contrast, the second man teaches her to read, helps her develop her gifts, gives her space, affirms her independence, supports her ability to heal at her own pace, communicates openly, and shares his personal struggles, creating emotional intimacy. The protagonist marries this man (and many more adventures ensue!)
The main character has sex with both men but the sex had no bearing on whether the relationships were healthy or not.
As I finished this series, I was struck by the idea of “healthy” and “unhealthy” relationships and how this contrasts with my experiences in Purity Culture.
Growing up in the American Evangelicalism of the 90s and early 00s, I was saturated in Purity Culture, a movement that produced True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, purity rings, and commitments to remain “pure” (not have sex) until marriage.
I’ve had two serious boyfriends in my life and the only question I was asked (with rare exception) by older siblings, parents, mentors, pastors, teachers, resident directors, deans, or accountability partners when I was dating these guys was a variety of “Are you staying pure?”
This was THE LITMUS TEST for if you were in a healthy relationship. If you were having sex, or even struggling with sexual temptation or “going a little too far”, you should probably break up.
But there is so much we miss in helping the people we love create good relationships if we only focus on the criteria of “are you staying pure?” We heap damaging shame on people when we make sexual purity the litmus test for a healthy relationship.
My own relationship was subjected to this damning shame when, six weeks before my husband and I got married, we were accused of having sex by my RA partner. She was struggling with some personal issues and, because she was angry at me, she “turned us in” to the resident directors at our university. We were not having sex but because of the incredibly strict rules at our school, we were forced to confess everything we had “done” in our relationship and, after all was said and done, we were both were fired from our respective positions as RAs.
Because our relationship went “beyond hand holding” and we had shared a room (not a bed) during Spring Break as his mom’s house (with the door open), we had “spent the night with a member of the opposite sex” and punished accordingly.
We lost our scholarships, were forced to move to new dorms right before finals, and were fined. Monetarily, this resulted in thousands of dollars (we had to take a loan to pay the fines).
At discipline meeting after discipline meeting, we sat across from directors and deans and were required to “confess” the most intimate parts of our relationship as an engaged couple in an atmosphere of shame, judgement, and punishment.
A dean told me, even though I was experiencing normal sexual desire for the man I was going to marry, that “sometimes we need a break from our men to get right with God.”
This was probably the most humiliating experience of my life and colored the end of my engagement and early marriage.
The only thing that mattered, the only question on the table was, “are you pure?”
In Purity Culture, sexual abstinence is put on such a high pedestal that everything else that makes up a healthy relationship fades to miniscule dots, like specks on the ground from the window an airplane.
But those specks are actual people living out the real life love, respect, conflict resolution, empathetic communication, and boundaries of healthy relationships.
During my dating relationships, I was never asked by all those well-meaning people:
Do you feel respected? Does he treat you as his equal in all facets? Do you treat each other with kindness? Are you able to speak your mind without fear as a full partner in the relationship? Can you come and go at will? Do you feel safe?
Do you feel treasured?
Are your dreams and goals valued as much as his? Do you solve problems and resolve stress together?
When you set boundaries, are they respected? Does he help you become the best version of yourself? Never.
Only “Are you staying pure?”
Is sexual purity important for Christians? It was for me when I was dating, though it has borne some really rotten fruit and continues to be a confusing issue for me.
Is sexual purity THE most important thing in determining the health of a relationship? Not by a long shot.
The book series I read was fictional (full stop) but the sexual intimacy shared by the characters was not the litmus that determined the health of the relationship. There’s so much more that goes into having a healthy dating relationship than the myopia of “are you staying pure?”
We need to embrace better questions when we try to help relationships thrive, rejecting shame and judgement, and instead focusing on love, respect, and boundaries that encompass the entire expression of what it means to be human and healthy. This article, written by our guest this week, Brittany Meng of the Bam Blog, is the "jumping off" place for an incredible chat on our podcast about the toxic nature of purity culture. Brittany is a mom of five, military wife, fellow sojourner in "curious faith" land, crafter and Etsy shop owner, brilliant and brave author of Unexpected and the hostess extraordinaire of the Motherhood Metamorphosis podcast. She has a heart for special needs, self-care, spiritual growth and raising kids without losing your mind! Brittany's gentle, but very firm spirit brings both grace and truth to a subject that is tricky at best and horrific at worst. You don't want to miss the out on hearing why she believes there is something so much better than the question, "Are you pure?" You can find Brittany at the following places: Website: The Bam Blog Podcast: Motherhood Metamorphosis
Facebook: Brittany Meng the Bam Blog
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