A Mistake in the Ethics of Purity Culture

For those unaware or not involved, Purity Culture is a movement largely (though not exclusively) found in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities. It strongly emphasizes an emotional purity between women and men and holds that the only morally acceptable sex is sex between a married, heterosexual couple. This manifests in purity conferences, purity balls, purity rings, church and pastoral teaching, and so on.

While I think there are many problems with Purity Culture, I will only talk of a problem I find either explicitly in their ethical teachings or in how they teach their ethics. This problem might best be put as failing to see degrees of badness in sexual relationships.

The problem arises from the interpretation of the following principle: it is wrong to engage in any sexual relations that are not between a man and a woman married to one another. I will assume (for the sake of discussion) that this principle is true. It is easy now to distinguish between moral and immoral sexual acts: simply check three conditions: (1) is the act monogamous, (2) is the act heterosexual, and (3) are the participants married to one another.

The mistake follows closely behind. One might conclude, given the previous paragraph, that any sex that does not fulfill (1) – (3) is of the same perceived immoral status. If this mistake is made, one falls into the trap of teaching only that one should strive for the conglomerate made of and only of (1) – (3). This is wrong.

A principle that garners almost universal acceptance is “One should do what is morally right.” Another that would garner just as much is “One should do that which is morally less worse.” In fact, the second principle follows straightforwardly from the first, since what is right is better (less worse) than all the “wrong” options. If I fail to do what is right, then I should at least try to do something better than the worst option available. If I see that I am about to hurt someone because of my earlier carelessness, I shouldn’t try to make the situation worse even though I have done something wrong. I should try and mitigate the harm.

This applies just as much to sexual ethics as any other category. Because Purity Culture does not recognize that there are forms of sex that are better or worse (or by not making this clear in their teaching of sexual ethics), they do at least two things. First, they lead their disciples into the morally dangerous territory of not knowing how to mitigate their sexual wrongs. Second, they lead their disciples into more moral despair than need be via blanket condemnation of all those who engage in supposed sexual misconduct. If premarital sex is as bad as rape, then there is no moral difference between one who engages in the first over the second, and the disciple of Purity Culture will experience that guilt.

Those last two examples show why I think the mistake might be merely pedagogical, a mistake of how they teach sexual ethics. No one in Purity Culture (hopefully) thinks premarital sex is as bad as rape, but they rarely teach the principles that would distinguish between the two. This leads me to the second section: what Purity Culture should change.

Once again, let us assume that (1) – (3) is the only morally licit sex (presumably the basis will be revelation of some kind, either biblical or traditional). The first thing to say is that if there are three requirements of sex, it seems that fulfilling one of them is better than none and fulfilling two is better than one. This alone should give us reason to recognize degrees of morality in sexual relations.

In addition to the revealed moral requirements of sexual ethics, there are still other principles that are available to everyone that should still be taught. They can come in two forms: (i) as a principle that is needed to be added to the earlier three principles, and (ii) as a principle that might be outweighed but is still worthy of moral consideration.

The first is consent. Widely thought of as the primary reason that rape is morally wrong, consent is the assent of all participants in an activity. Especially in something as intimate and intensely personal as sex, consent is paramount. This is also why most people think pedophilia is wrong: kids under a certain age simply cannot give consent, especially in such important matters. It is rape visited upon a particularly vulnerable and impressionable person, making it one of the worst crimes.

Consent is usually thought of as a principle that needs to be added to (1) – (3). Even if a heterosexual couple is married, if the wife doesn’t consent to sex, it is still rape. This is controversial in Purity Culture circles, but is widely accepted outside of it. This attitude within Purity Culture is encouraged by theology and teachings that insist that men are essentially sexual animals, that men must have sex or they will lust after other women, or that men can’t control themselves if they see a woman who isn’t modestly clothed. Controversy within the Culture aside, strong integration of consent is probably the number one thing that Purity Culture should change about their teachings. Without consent, churches that accept Purity Culture are destined to become places where sexual misconduct arises and is dismissed. If there is no concept of consent, then there is no concept of rape. Marriage is not consent.

It is important to add consent to the list even if most of those teaching sexual ethics at these institutions think consent is important. The language of sexual ethics allows sexual misconduct victims the ability to represent their experiences, to understand what exactly is going wrong. If someone only ever hears of (1) – (3), then they may not know how to represent when their spouse has sex with them despite their protestations. They may have to fall back on misinterpretations of submitting to their husband in order to describe it even to themselves; but submitting in to one’s husband does not carry nearly as much moral weight as rape does.

The second might merely be part of the first, but I think of it as its own principle: responsibility and foresight. This has to do with things like using protection against pregnancy or STD’s, or about the emotional effects of careless sex. It is much worse to have otherwise moral sex and not take measures against unwanted pregnancy. It is similar for protection against STD’s or the effects of this sexual act on oneself or their partner(s).

There are more, of course. There are always strange situations that come up, but these are the major two principles that the Purity Culture must incorporate in order to stop just some of the harm they inflict on young generations. I think there are even greater problems within it (their view of men and particularly women, for one), but this is one aspect that they can and should change, one that can be done instantly.

In summary, I argued that even assuming Purity Culture’s main thesis that the only morally licit sex can be found within a married heterosexual couple, it must add at least two principles or change its pedagogy to reflect its acceptance of those two principles as well as recognize degrees of morality within sex. The new definition of morally licit sex is going to be consensual, responsible married, heterosexual sex. As it stands, Purity Culture’s teachings seem to ignore principles that would identify what is wrong with rape, irresponsible sex, and that any immoral sex is different from the worst immoral sex.


Luke Golemon


Comments by Howd:

Anyone who knows me personally is well aware that I would not consider theology my cup of tea. But I would like to point out an obvious tension between Mr. Golemon’s recommended revisions to Purity Culture and how Purity Culture aggregates its moral principles.

Mr. Golemon’s recommended revisions are (at the very least) twofold. He first recommends that “consensual” be added to the conditions “married to your partner” and “heterosexual.” Second, he recommends that better care be taken to inform students of the degree of badness committed, relative to other immoral actions, if one doesn’t comply with one or more principles of Purity Culture.

The reason given for these revisions is simple: actions performed abiding merely by the principles inherent in Purity Culture do not guarantee mitigation of harm. This is clear when Mr. Golemon talks about emotional and physical damage associated with rape, and emotional damage and overall worse moral situations possible if one is unaware of the degrees of badness of their actions.

But when one looks at the principles inherent in Purity Culture—married to your sexual partner and heterosexual—one may notice that it would be very difficult to defend that these principles ensure, or even encourage, mitigation of harm. Or, if you prefer, not performing heterosexual, marital sex doesn’t seem to be intrinsically harmful to anyone.

Given my limited understanding of the topic, I can foresee a couple of responses. Perhaps they would simply accept that mitigation of harm is still appropriate, but the three principles are extraneous biblical interpretations that ought to be followed. Second, perhaps biblical interpretation is paramount and mitigation of harm is unnecessary if not required by biblical interpretations. Thirdly, perhaps mitigation of harm is paramount and, either the principles do exactly that, or they do not and are therefore unimportant.

I will not delve into these questions here. Suffice to say, I think the advocates of Purity Culture and theists as a whole must think carefully about the ramifications of the propositions above. But it seems to me that the processes by which Mr. Golemon makes moral judgments are quite different than those used in Purity Culture. How shall these two belief-forming mechanisms coexist, if at all?


Curtis Howd

2 thoughts on “A Mistake in the Ethics of Purity Culture

  1. I think they would almost certainly choose your first option:

    “…[T]hey would simply accept that mitigation of harm is still appropriate, but the three principles are extraneous biblical interpretations that ought to be followed.”

    If they accept that consent is necessary for moral sex, they have two options: justify (1) – (3) via moral reasoning or via biblical statues. Some brave individuals (Ed Feser being one of the most recent and prominent) will argue for some or all via moral reasoning, but especially evangelicals will justify them as unable to be apprehended by normal reasoning, requiring divine revelation (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; they’ll point to 1 Timothy 1:10 or Leviticus for support of the principles).

    I can also see someone scripturally defending that all sins really are on the same level. Take James 2:11, which states

    “For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”

    Anyway, the most charitable interpretation seems to me to be that sexual morality can be constrained by moral reasoning and further constrained by the scriptural points for the believer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. True enough, but I think the same epistemological mechanism that allows one to view biblical interpretations as extraneous, true moral facts, that is to say, reasons which are beyond our comprehension, can be used in a negative way as well. Something like the following could be claimed:

    “Mitigating harm (in at least some cases) is not important, as it is not clarified in the biblical interpretations. We’re not sure why this is the case because it is beyond our current comprehension. Comprehension of such would require divine revelation (or whatever the justification mechanism may be).”

    As a clear example, we may turn our attention to the treatment of animals. Many vegetarians and vegans consider the treatment of animals in the factory farming system abhorrent due to the amount of harm and suffering it causes. Thus, to mitigate this harm, they have decided not to contribute money to the companies who inflict this harm. But nothing is mentioned in the biblical scriptures about animal suffering (correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure another example could be shown). This has convinced at least some people that the factory farm system must be permissible.

    My question to Mr. Golemon is not merely “How do we convince the person with this kind of belief-forming mechanism?” I acknowledge that this is nearly impossible, though I commend Ed Feser for trying. My question is instead, “How do the participants of purity culture, and in some ways theists as a whole, choose when to apply to principle of divine-lack-of-understanding?”

    It is not enough to simply insist that we should use it in addition to other belief-forming mechanisms, as the principle can defeat other belief-forming mechanisms handily. Thus, I believe theists need to think very hard about when to apply the principle, and perhaps even adjust this principle if necessary. After all, I don’t think many of those this article concerns would approve of changing the biblical interpretations to match our moral intuitions, nor do I think they would consent to eliminating the principle of divine-lack-of-understanding.


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