Purity Culture Doesn’t Prepare Teens for Healthy Sexual Exploration

Many self-identified evangelicals have ceremonially promised to stay virgins until marriage. But there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the purity vows they made as teenagers.

Many self-identified evangelicals have ceremonially promised to stay virgins until marriage. But there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the purity vows they made as teenagers. Shutterstock

When I was 13 years old, I pledged my virginity to God and my future husband. I remember walking into my eighth-grade homeroom and proudly showing my teacher my new ring. “This is nicer than my wedding ring!” she exclaimed, holding her left hand up for comparison. My tiny gold ring with diamond chips in it shone like a prism in the morning light. Throughout the next week, I consciously tilted my hand to make my ring more obvious as I spoke, with all the subtlety possible for an eighth-grader. When someone would ask about it, I’d point out that I was saving myself. For marriage!

Ten years later, a friend in graduate school asked me if I was engaged. I shook my head, looked down at the ring that had been my companion for a decade, and explained that it was a marker of a promise from when I was 13. “I don’t even really know why I wear it anymore,” I said. “Habit, I guess.” While I hadn’t “lost” my virginity by that point, the realization that I was still beholden to a vow made under social and religious pressure was becoming uncomfortable.

In my church, young men and women pledged to remain abstinent until they married a heterosexual spouse. And my experience was far from uncommon: The recent Ethics and Religious Liberty Conference on behalf of the Southern Baptist church indicates that saving oneself until marriage is a major tenet of evangelical belief. Many self-identified evangelicals, who comprise about one-third of the population, have ceremonially promised to stay “pure,” often receiving a ring, a necklace, or some kind of token to remind them of their resolution. Although young teenagers may be eager to show off their new pledge, like I was, there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the declarations they made—and the ramifications those oaths have had on their lives.

Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken to hundreds of evangelicals and former evangelicals about their perspectives on these vows. Many of them point out how young they had been when they made their promises. Sally, 23, told me, “I suppose the most concrete age I [made] a pledge was about 13, which is when I wrote down ‘Save my virginity for marriage’ as number two in the list of 100 things I wanted to do … in the back of my Teen’s Study Bible.” (Sally’s name, like the others in this story, has been changed to protect her privacy.)

Lucy, a now-married mother of 35, says she made a pledge at 16. Avery, another woman, said she doesn’t recall her exact age, but “it was definitely high school.”

These promises frequently act as the only education about sexuality and sexual activity that young evangelicals receive. Even at school, abstinence-only education initiatives often simply reinforce the purity narrative or have pledge programs of their own. Many of these educators have ties to explicitly religious foundations, despite receiving federal funding.

Overall, the pledges tend to be ineffective in actually assuring that people remain abstinent. According to a comprehensive analysis conducted by John Santelli and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2006, abstinence-only education does not delay the age of first sexual activity. Statistically, those who make purity vows at a young age are just as likely to engage in sexual activity as those who don’t make a pledge. Additionally, pledgers who break their promises are actually more likely to have unprotected sex and contract sexually transmitted infections.

This disproportionate rate of STI contraction may be, in part, a result of the fact that in the evangelical community, a purity pledge is not an isolated event between a participant, their future spouse, and God. It also holds the teenagers accountable to their social groups, including their families. Adults in the church will remind the adolescents, both directly and through sermons, youth group meetings, and church events, about how much they owe their virginity to their future spouses, how their spouses will be disappointed if they don’t keep their promises, and how losing their purity before marriage will make their relationship more likely to end in divorce. And those who break the pledge early face ostracization from their religious community—especially if they are not repentant. This can mean that if teens do have questions about their sexuality, sexual health, or consent, they can feel as if they have no one to turn to.

This was the case with Kyle, a 26-year-old man who took the pledge as a teenager. He commented, “Highlighting premarital sex above all other sins makes it that much harder for teenagers, or adults, who struggle with sexuality to ask for help.”

Kyle’s point is a good one: Because purity hinges solely on whether or not someone is keeping their promise, any questions about sexuality are perceived as questioning the very holiness behind a virginity pledge. Asking questions, in of itself, is seen as a sin in this culture, where the only ethic is “no.”

This early equation of sexuality with moral transgressions means that many adult evangelicals still believe that remaining a virgin until marriage is a central mark of holiness. Their pledge has entwined this tenet into their lives—and making the decision to break it would be, in the eyes of the church, throwing away a gift from God.

When I asked these former pledgers why they are still saving themselves, their answers were almost always the same—because “these are my values.” Amelia, a 35-year-old straight woman, told me that her hope for finding someone who shares her purity values is dwindling, but that she doesn’t question them at all.

However, I also noticed that the people holding on to those principles were all straight and white. People of color and queer people were much more ambivalent about their vows and what they meant for them—perhaps because evangelicalism in America is particularly geared toward white, heterosexual, cisgender individuals. It is easier to notice the cracks in the system when you already exist outside of it.

One woman, Chloe, pledged to save herself in eighth grade, married at 22, and divorced her spouse a year and a half later when she came out as a lesbian. She told me that she now finds the entire concept of “saving herself” ridiculous.

“I hadn’t even developed an interest in sex; I had barely started my period; I didn’t even know what sex was. How can you ask a child in those circumstances to make a huge decision that’s going to impact the rest of their lives?” she wrote to me.

Because Chloe felt the pressure to marry a man without exploring her sexuality further, she had never truly considered the possibility that she might not be attracted to men at all. However, she realized a short time into a marriage that lacked physical intimacy that she was, indeed, gay.

Chloe has since returned to the faith and now works to educate young women about healthy sexual boundaries and sexual orientation. She doesn’t want young women to go through what she went through with the pressure to get involved in heterosexual marriage at a young age.

“It really upsets me that I lost so much time to such an unhappy marriage,” she wrote in an email. “A lot of pain could have been avoided if we had just slept together, and then decided that it hadn’t worked.”

Meanwhile, Sally, a woman who is beginning to question her sexual orientation, told me that she feels “ambivalent at best” about her promise. She no longer knows what a heterosexual marriage would mean for her now that she is grown. “It seems I share very little with my 13-year-old self. I’ve changed so much, as people do, and probably wouldn’t recognize the girl who wrote that pledge,” she said.

The testimonies of those who pledged their purity at a young age demonstrate a need for a deeper understanding of sexual ethics beyond just “stay away from sex.” Many critics of the purity movement, including myself, have pointed out that the purity movement’s “sexual ethic” is really the absence of one.

Such emphasis only on keeping an agreement, with no other expectations of fidelity, consent, or healthy sexual boundaries, fosters a dynamic in which the promise is the only guiding principle. This, in turn, creates a world where young, emotionally manipulated teenagers grow up and have no idea how to approach sex in a healthy, consensual, caring manner. They end up not knowing themselves or each other, because the pledge, for many, creates a barrier to comprehending sexuality on a basic human level.

Virginity itself isn’t shameful—and neither is an active sexual life. But the total lack of understanding these virginity pledges create in their participants is.